According to one reading of the atomic hypothesis it is parts that are fundamental and they tell us what wholes are, and in fact, what wholes are possible. For example:

  • A tree is made up of roots, trunk and branches.

  • A house is made up of floors, walls and roofs.

  • A sentence is made up of words, and words are made up of letters.

What about a theory? Is a theory a whole or a part? What is the relationship between facts/observations and theory? A good theory places the facts of the world in a web of relationships and by this we see how they all hang together and point to each other, and also by this we can predict which facts are missing or predict new facts.

This suggests, that in a sense, facts/observations are parts of theories and that a theory is a whole. But in a sense only. There is a great deal of difference between actual wholes, like trees and houses and conceptual wholes like theories, and likewise with their parts. Though there is a family resemblence.

Now, Einstein in later life told Heisenberg, in opposition to what he first believed as a young man and a young physicist, that it was the theory that tells us what we can observe.

Does this suggest that Einstein is saying it is the whole that comes before the part in opposition to the presuppositions of atomism?


It might be fruitful to ponder the following remark in relation to the above by the German philologist, Friedrich Ast

The foundational law of all understanding and knowledge is to find the spirit of the whole through the individual and through the whole to grasp the individual

This is a remark that ancestrally informed the notion of the Hermeneutic Circle, and this seems to be apposite, at least to me, to Einsteins concerns.

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    The genius and the lost opportunity here was Max Wertheimer. Wertheimer ended up at The New School in New York. After his brother, who could write very, very well, died young, Max developed writer's block. He also developed health problems. Max would have figured out the "all at once" solution. Why do solutions sometimes come all at once (after taking in the whole). If anyone could have told use how Gauss etc thought, it would have been Wertheimer. – Gordon Jan 17 '18 at 21:46
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    @Gordan: solutions come all at once or never at all...! Actually, there a story that Poincare tells about himself about Fuschian functions. How he struggled with them week after week. And then how when he was stepping off a bus the solution came to him all at once. Except he described it as different pieces falling in harmoniously with each other to make a whole. Then, in an afternoon, he had the solution all written out. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 21:50
  • Lol. I am probably not doing Wertheimer justice. He himself was a very good mathematician. He did write a book, late in life. I have never seen it. But it would not have been his best work. He was known for his lectures (his field was psychology). – Gordon Jan 17 '18 at 21:55
  • @Gordan: I'll keep an eye out for him. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 21:57
  • His ideas on "Productive Thinking" are at his Wikipedia page. That is also the title of his book. – Gordon Jan 17 '18 at 22:02

I'm not familiar with Einstein's views on this topic, nor am I sure that we have enough of it in writing to definitively state what they are. So the best I can give you is a partial answer concerning the view that "the whole is prior to the parts".

I'm interpreting this question in the context of mereology, which studies the relationship between parts and wholes ("composition"). The "orthodox view" in contemporary analytic philosophy is the "bottom-up" approach you mention and associate with (one reading of) the atomists. (Typically the "orthodox view" would also be atomistic, but within the fairly mainstream discussion is "gunky mereology" -- where mereological "gunk" is an infinitely divisible whole.)

However, there is a competing view that is commonly traced back to Parmenides and goes by the name of Priority Monism. The major modern proponent of the view is Jonathan Schaffer who frames it in explicitly mereological terms. On his view, priority monism holds that the whole is prior to its parts, in the sense that the whole is "more fundamental".

He gives a few arguments for this view. One of them, the one that connects the most with your interests in philosophy of physics, is the argument from Quantum emergence. Here is how the SEP presents it:

  1. The whole possesses emergent properties (due to quantum entanglement).
  2. If the whole possesses emergent properties, then whole is prior to part.
  3. Whole is prior to part.

Connecting this to entanglement phenomena, Toraldo di Francia writes:

Since any particle has certainly interacted with other particles in the past, the world turns out to be nonseparable into individual and independent objects. The world is in some way a single object.

A good start would be Schaffer's "On what grounds what" (2009), "Monism: the priority of the whole" (2010), and "On the internal relatedness of all things" (2010). The linked SEP article on priority monism contains many other references, but those would be my three "first pass" recommendations.


I'm not familiar with that quote or its context, but I'd be pretty sure Einstein didn't say that, per se. What he might have said (or have meant when expanded in more detail) is that the theory tells you what kind of preparation and test apparatus you can construct corresponding to the axiomatic elements of the theory, how to operate those apparatus, and then how to interpret the measurement outcomes resulting from their observed behavior.

But not simply that the theory tells what you can observe, period. Heck, you can throw a tennis ball into the Large Hadron Collider and observe it bouncing around. But a theory's going to instead suggest you operate it by ionizing a puff of hydrogen, (pre-)accelerating the protons to a few MeV, injecting that beam into the LHC rather than some tennis balls, etc.

So, no, I don't think you can interpret whatever it is Einstein actually said/meant the way you're trying to. But more generally, whether the world is compositional (whole made from parts) or decompositional (vice versa) might be an open question.

  • Isn't that's the Machian interpretation that Einstein was in later life working against. The quote comes from Shimon Malins book, Nature Loves to Hide, pg.23 and he is referencing Heisenbergs book, Physics and Beyond, pg.62. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 9:39
  • The full quote is: 'Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning. But it's nonsense all the same ... In principle, it is quite wrong to found a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the opposite happens. It is the theory that tells us what we can observe'. I didn't bother quoting it in full above. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 9:42
  • I might have been too hasty as characterising what you said as Machian. What Einstein said to Heisenberg must have made an impact because he refers to it in a note (Malin, pg.31): 'It must have been one evening after midnight when I suddenly remembered the conversation with Einstein and particularly his statement - it is the theory which decides what we can observe. I was immediately convinced that the key to the gate which had been closed for so long must be sought here...we had always said so glibly that the path of the electron could be observed. But perhaps ... – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 10:16
  • what we really observed was much less. Perhaps we merely saw a discrete and ill-defined spots through which the electron had passed. In fact, all we see in a cloud chamber are the individual droplets which must be certainly larger than the electron... – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 10:18
  • (a) Certainly not Machian as in "Mach's Principle", which (I'm pretty certain) wouldn't be relevant here. Is there some other "Machian"? (b) I'm more familiar with Heisenberg's microscope thought experiment rather than cloud chamber, but note that both refer to observations performed using particular apparatus operated in particular ways, in line with the elements of the theory. And then the theory lets you interpret those particular outcomes. It doesn't constrain the class of "all possible observations" in any way. Just the class of observations it can interpret. – John Forkosh Jan 17 '18 at 12:11

No, unless you have a unique definition of "whole" Ten thousand years ago, a man could behold a rock. And know not that it consisted of atoms. Even today there may be sub-atomic particles we know nothing of, but can still comprehend the existence of physical objects. I can say and understand "there is a whole apple on my table" - without knowing all the parts of that apple. If you define knowing the "whole" as knowing all about all that its comprised of, then this would not hold. But I think thats a language problem.

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    I think its a fallacy that people work with complete definitions, mostly they make progress with incomplete ones, definitions are a usually a work in progress. Look at string theory, people are working there with an ill-defined theory, yet they are still making progress. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 18 '18 at 17:44

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