Philosophy and science

«The doctrine of relativity affects every branch of natural science, not excluding the biological sciences. In general, however, this impact of the new doctrine on the older sciences lies in the future and will disclose itself in ways not yet apparent. Relativity, in the form of novel formulae relating time and space, first developed in connection with electromagnetism, including light phenomena. Einstein* then proceeded to show its bearing on the formulae for gravitation. It so happens therefore that owing to the circumstances of its origin a very general doctrine is linked with two special applications. In this procedure science is evolving according to its usual mode. In that atmosphere of thought doctrines are valued for their utility as instruments of research. Only one question is asked: Has the doctrine a precise application to a variety of particular circumstances so as to determine the exact phenomena which should be then observed? In the comparative absence of these applications, beauty, generality, or even truth, will not save a doctrine from neglect in scientific thought. With them, it will be absorbed. Accordingly a new scientific outlook clings to those fields where its first applications are to be found. They are its title deeds for consideration. But in testing its truth, if the theory have the width and depth which marks a fundamental reorganisation, we cannot wisely confine ourselves solely to the consideration of a few happy applications. The history of science is strewn with the happy applications of discarded theories.

There are two gauges through which every theory must pass. There is the broad gauge which tests its consonance with the general character of our direct experience, and there is the narrow gauge which is that mentioned above as being the habitual working gauge of science.

These reflections have been suggested by the advice received from two distinguished persons to whom at different times I had explained the scheme of this book. The philosopher advised me to omit the mathematics, and the mathematician urged the cutting out of the philosophy. At the moment I was persuaded: it certainly is a nuisance for philosophers to be worried with applied mathematics, and for mathematicians to be saddled with philosophy. But further reflection has made me retain my original plan. The difficulty is inherent in the subject matter. To expect to reorganise our ideas of Time, Space, and Measurement without some discussion which must be ranked as philosophical is to neglect the teaching of history and the inherent probabilities of the subject. On the other hand no reorganisation of these ideas can command confidence unless it supplies science with added power in the analysis of phenomena.

The evidence is two-fold, and is fatally weakened if the two parts are disjoined.

At the same time it is well to understand the limitations to the meaning of ‘philosophy’ in this connection. It has nothing to do with ethics or theology or the theory of aesthetics. It is solely engaged in determining the most general conceptions which apply to things observed by the senses. Accordingly it is not even metaphysics: it should be called pan-physics. Its task is to formulate those principles of science which are employed equally in every branch of natural science. Sir J. J. Thomson, reviewing in Nature* Poynting’s Collected Papers, has quoted a statement taken from one of Poynting’s addresses: ‘I have no doubt whatever that our ultimate aim must be to describe the sensible in terms of the sensible.’ Adherence to this aphorism, sanctioned by the authority of two great English physicists, is the keynote of everything in the following chapters. The philosophy of science is the endeavour to formulate the most general characters of things observed. These sought-for characters are to be no fancy characters of a fairy tale enacted behind the scenes. They must be observed characters of things observed. Nature is what is observed, and the ether is an observed character of things observed.

Thus the philosophy of science only differs from any of the special natural sciences by the fact that it is natural science at the stage before it is convenient to split it up into its various branches. This philosophy exists because there is something to be said before we commence the process of differentiation.

It is true that in human thought the particular precedes the general. Accordingly the philosophy will not advance until the branches of science have made independent progress. Philosophy then appears as a criticism and a corrective, and what is now to the purpose as an additional source of evidence in times of fundamental reorganisation. This assignment of the role of philosophy is borne out by history.

It is not true that science has advanced in disregard of any general discussion of the character of the universe. The scientists of the Renaissance and their immediate successors of the seventeenth century, to whom we owe our traditional concepts, inherited from Plato, Aristotle and the medieval scholastics. It is true that the New Learning reacted violently against the schoolmen who were their immediate predecessors; but, like the Israelites when they fled from Egypt, they borrowed their valuables and in this case the valuables were certain root-presuppositions respecting space, time, matter, predicate and subject, and logic in general.

It is legitimate (as a practical counsel in the management of a short life) to abstain from the criticism of scientific foundations so long as the superstructure ‘works.’ But to neglect philosophy when engaged in the re-formation of ideas is to assume the absolute correctness of the chance philosophic prejudices imbibed from a nurse or a schoolmaster or current modes of expression. It is to enact the part of those who thank Providence that they have been saved from the perplexities of religious enquiry by the happiness of birth in the true faith.

The truth is that your available concepts depend upon your philosophy.

An examination of the writings of John Stuart Mill and his immediate successors on the procedure of science, writings of the highest excellence within their limitations, will show that they are exclusively considering the procedure of science in the framing of laws with the employment of given concepts. If this limitation be admitted, the conclusion at once follows that philosophy is useless in the progress of science. But when once you tamper with your basic concepts, philosophy is merely the marshalling of one main source of evidence, and cannot be neglected. But when all has been said respecting the importance of philosophy for the discovery of scientific truth, the narrow-gauged pragmatic test will remain the final arbiter

– Whitehead, Prefatory Explanations in “The principle of relativity with applications to physical science“.

* Whitehead’s second chapter:

«The uniform significance of events thus becomes the uniform spatio-temporal structure of events. In this respect we have to dissent from Einstein who assumes for this structure casual heterogeneity arising from contingent relations. Our consciousness also discloses to us this structure as uniformly stratified into durations which are complete nature during our specious presents. These stratifications exhibit the patience of fact for finite consciousness, but then they are in truth characters of nature and not illusions of consciousness. Returning to the significance of events, we see that there is no such thing as an isolated event. Each event essentially signifies the whole structure. But furthermore, there is no such entity as a bare event. Each event also signifies objects, other than events which are in essential relation to it. In other words the passage of an event exhibits objects which do not pass. (…) Thus an event signifies objects in mutual relations. The particular objects and their particular relations belong to the sphere of contingence; but the event is essentially a ‘field,‘ in the sense that without related objects there can be no event. On the other hand related objects signify events, and without such events there are no such objects. (…) Under the obsession of the logical theory of universals and concrete particulars the percipient event was suppressed (…) Mere deductive logic, whether you clothe it in mathematical symbols and phraseology or whether you enlarge its scope into a more general symbolic technique, can never take the place of clear relevant initial concepts of the meaning of your symbols, and among symbols I include words. If you are dealing with nature, your meanings must directly relate to the immediate facts of observation. We have to analyse first the most general characteristics of things observed, and then the more casual contingent occurrences. There can be no true physical science which looks first to mathematics for the provision of a conceptual model. Such a procedure is to repeat the errors of the logicians of the middle-ages. (…)

Nature is a continuum of events so that any two events are both parts of some larger event. »


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