Tag Archives: Einstein

Effectiveness

Preface

First published May 17, 2018, this essay concerns Eugene Wigner’s 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I wrote a lot, which I now propose to summarize by section. (The meditations also continue in the next article.)

  • Some things are miraculous. Among Wigner’s examples are
    • that mathematics is possible at all, and
    • that “regularities” in the physical world can be discovered, as by Galileo and Newton.

    For Wigner, we should be grateful for the undeserved gift of a mathematial formulation of the laws of physics. This makes no sense theologically—and here I agree with the character Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. Wigner’s idea that our mathematical reasoning power has been brought to perfection makes no sense to me either.

  • Everything is miraculous. Here I agree with Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy. A miracle cannot be the breaking of a natural law, since such a thing cannot be broken. A great artist like Beethoven follows no rules in the first place, or makes them up as he goes along; and he is like God in this way.
  • Natural law. That it cannot be broken is part of the very concept of natural law. Quantum phenomena and the theory of relativity have not in fact been brought under a single law; for Wigner, it may not be possible.
  • Mystery. Not only can we not define miracles, but (as we should have observed in the first place) we cannot even say when they happen. If like Wigner we call something miraculous, this means it cleanses our own doors of perception, in the sense of William Blake.
  • Definitions. In his treatment of miracle in Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood shows the futility of trying to define a term when you are not sure how to use it. He makes this futility explicit in The Principles of Art. If we are going to think about the use of mathematics in natural science, this means we ought to be mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher; and not just “natural scientist,” but physicist and biologist, since if mathematics is effective in physics, it would seem to be ineffective in biology.
  • Being a philosopher. We are all philosophers, in the sense that Maugham describes in the story “Appearance and Reality,” if only we think. All thought is for the sake of action. This does not mean that thought occurs separately from an action and is to be judged by the action. We may value “pure” thought, such as doing mathematics or making music or living the contemplative life of a monk. This however moves me to a give a thought to the disaster of contemporary politics.
  • Philosophizing about science. For present purposes, compart­ment­al­ization of knowledge is a problem. So is the dominance of analytic philosophy, for suggesting (as one cited person seems to think) that big problems can be broken into little ones and solved independently. In mathematics, students should learn their right to question somebody else’s solutions to problems. In philosophy, the problems themselves will be our own. Philosophy as such cannot decide what the problems of physics or biology are, though it may help to understand the “absolute presuppositions” that underlie the problems. Philosophers quâ metaphysicians cannot determine once for all what the general structure of the universe is. This does not mean they should do “experimental philosophy,” taking opinion polls about supposedly philosophical questions. What matters is not what people say, but what they mean and are trying to mean. As Collingwood observes, metaphysics is an historical science.

For more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, 2018.)


I am writing from the Math Village, and here I happen to have read that Abraham Lincoln kept no known diary as such, but noted his thoughts on loose slips of paper. Admired because he “could simply sit down and write another of his eloquent public letters,”

Lincoln demurred. “I had it nearly all in there,” he said, pointing to an open desk drawer. “It was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.” This was how he worked, the president explained. It was on such scraps of paper, accumulating over the years into a diaristic density, that Lincoln saved and assembled what he described to the visitor as his “best thoughts on the subject.”

Thus Ronald C. White, “Notes to Self,” Harper’s, February 2018. My own notes to self are normally in bound notebooks, and perhaps later in blog articles such as the present one, which is inspired by the 1960 article called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” by Eugene Wigner.
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NL XXV: The Three Laws of Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 11, 2018): The the three laws of politics are that (1) within the body politic, there is a ruling class, which is a society proper; (2) the ruling class can take in members from the ruled class; (3) the ruled and ruling classes will resemble one another, so that e.g. rulers of slaves will become slavish themselves. I compare such laws with physical laws, as discussed by Einstein; but on this subject, a look ahead to Chapter XXXI, “Classical Physics and Classical Politics,” would be in order. Meanwhile, by the Second Law, the body politic, or its ruling class, can be a permanent society; Nazi claims about the youth or senility of different states are bogus. There are further gradations within the ruling and ruled classes, according to strength of will; a weak will can be strengthened by another person’s stronger will through induction.


A pervading theme of the New Leviathan is freedom of will. Whether we actually have it is only a pseudo-problem (13. 17). Some persons have been fooled into thinking it a problem, perhaps by the misleading myth that free will is a divine gift, like life itself, breathed into our nostrils when, in Genesis 2:7, God forms us of the dust of the ground. As Collingwood observes at the end of Chapter XXIII, “The Family As a Society,” we are born neither free nor in chains. We have to grow up. Growing up is becoming free.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb (New York: Norton, 2009)

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NL XIX: Two Senses of the Word “Society”

Executive summary (below) | Index to this series

After a break of half a year, I return to reading Collingwood’s New Leviathan. Being on holiday at an Aegean beach gives me the opportunity. While here, I may also return to Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad. Last winter I finished Part I of the New Leviathan, the part called “Man.” Here I continue with the first chapter of “Society.” I have reason to look at what Mary Midgley and Albert Einstein say about science. Collingwood’s investigation suggests a way of thinking about prejudice and discrimination.

Part II of the New Leviathan is “Society,” and the first two chapters of this, XIX and XX, concern the distinction between society proper and two more general notions. In Chapter XX, the more general notion will be community. In Chapter XIX, the more general notion has not got its own proper name, and so Collingwood denotes it by writing “society,” in quotation marks.

A “society” of chairs at the beach (Altınova 2017.08.31)

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NL XVIII: Theoretical Reason

Index to this series

Reason is primarily practical: it explains why we do what we do. Secondarily, reason explains why others do what they do (18. 1): this makes reason theoretical, though not entirely so, since questions about others arise from, and are answered by, our relations with those others (18. 11). The experimental method involves such relations: we do something to the world, to see how it will respond (18. 12). Continue reading

One & Many

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This essay—these notes for an essay, this draft of an essay—is inspired by Robert Pirsig’s first book. I have made sectional divisions where they seemed to occur naturally.

zen

While we who work at universities may be employed by the state, our true work is to serve not the state as such, but what may be called knowledge, or science, or reason. This is a theme of Pirsig, which I take up here. Continue reading

Logic (notes on the finger-wagging Cratylus)

The senior essay that I wrote at St John’s College was called something like ‘An account based in Aristotle of the Law of Contradiction’. I do not know now what the point was. I had read the Metaphysics in a preceptorial, so I decided to spend even more time with this book in writing my essay. I remember noting ultimately that humans could indeed be self-contradictory. Hector was an example. To Andromache he described two incompatible expectations: that their son would win renown, and that the boy would die as an infant when the Greeks took Troy. Continue reading