Physics as a substitute for science

No small part of Newton’s scientific success consisted in putting off the demands of science (that is, of knowing nature) – his last verdict on his Principia is that he will feign no hypotheses about what gravity is  but will stick to describing its activity in mathematical terms. This is a subtle but dramatic reformulation of the claim running from Plato to Galileo that numbers and geometrical quantities themselves were at work in nature, for in admitting that his mathematical descriptions do not get within the phenomena he is describing, Newton is making mathematics an extrinsic to the physical world. Mathematics is seen as substituting for nature and is not to be mistaken with knowing what is really happening in it i.e. it is at best a prologue to science and not science itself.

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3 Comments

  1. whitefrozen said,

    December 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Interesting.

  2. Benoît said,

    January 5, 2013 at 2:05 am

    The physicist Feynman: “You have to understand what you’re permitted to understand and what you’re not” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36GT2zI8lVA

    • January 5, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Feynman is a very precise resource. As a (a.) popularizer and giver of introductions to science (b.) a theoretician of QED and (c.) a lecturer on how to teach science he is a figure of world-historical importance. As (d.) a scholar of controversies, even in his own field, or (e.) a mind attuned to the philosophical implications of his ideas, he is not a helpful resource.


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