Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Because they are useful...

I ran into an interesting paragraph today. It stated the equation F = ma is used because... it's the fundamental equation in classical mechanics, and it helps to describe a lot of physical phenomena. Essentially, because it is useful. This was described in conjunction with a correlative equation in quantum mechanics that I can't begin to explain, so I'm not typing it out. There was a similar statement made in my Heat and Thermodynamics class that I'm taking: It claimed that Energy was THE fundamental concept of all of physics, and as such, evaded definition. This all brought home to me how much the philosophy of science is seriously influenced by Descartes and all the early modern philosophers: I've personally read that fundamental things escape definition being propagated by Descartes, Locke, and Hume. This shouldn't come up as much of a surprise, seeing as Descartes laid down fundamental work for calculus, and Hume is credited with seriously developing the philosophy behind the scientific method (Taking empiricism to its logical conclusions and inadvertently making a reductio ad absurdum argument for the existence of induction as a separate logical system, in my humble opinion). But this still surprises me.

The process of first principles in logical systems is arational, granted. But the idea that we use concepts in science simply because they are useful for describing the physical world seems, to me, to be a bit off from the idea that we are, indeed, understanding the physical world. I'm fine with stating that science only describes things in useful ways, and that is why we use them, but this description really gives little reason why we would choose one scientific explanation over another, or why even differing disciplines would, indeed, come to the same conclusions. I mean, by this, I could essentially adopt Aristotelian teleology in my description, claim that it's useful for understanding, and stand back satisfied with that use. However, just try and publish a scientific paper today where you ascribe purpose to your explanation, and I sincerely doubt it'll fly. To me, it seems that the "use" approach for validating the logical beginnings of scientific descriptions falls flat. I think the reason for this statement is to cut down the number of assumptions one has to make in making scientific pronouncements (which I would claim is a good thing) -- but unless there is some other validation method, I'm thinking that we are indeed still assuming that our minds are interpreting truth about the physical universe, but we're post hoc attempting to erase the fact that we're making this assumption.

So, sure, they're useful, and that's great. Maybe I'll change my mind when I realize there are other criteria that can be applied to first principles. However, I think it's a far more elegant solution to just admit that we're making something up that sounds like it might be right, then validating it empirically, and assuming all the while that our minds have some connection to the truth of the universe.


  1. This article was a very interesting article your points and logic are well thought out. I have developed a theory that uses logic and philosphy which is based on realism and determinism. Therefore I am in harmony with your ideas. Therefore as an alternative to Quantum Theory there is a new theory that describes and explains the mysteries of physical reality. While not disrespecting the value of Quantum Mechanics as a tool to explain the role of quanta in our universe. This theory states that there is also a classical explanation for the paradoxes such as EPR and the Wave-Particle Duality. The Theory is called the Theory of Super Relativity and is located at: Super Relativity
    This theory is a philosophical attempt to reconnect the physical universe to realism and deterministic concepts. It explains the mysterious.

  2. I think maybe we disagree about what it means for an assumption to be useful. I think that it means that it helps us to make reasonably accurate approximations of reality, rather than some kind of utilitarian definition, which is the impression I got of what you mean.


  3. Ahhh... actually, that may be what my text-book meant by "useful". Which would make more sense, now that I think about it -- the end of science is to accurately describe, and so what is of use to science would be that which helps us accurately describe.

    Though... that's really tautologous. Maybe there was a salient point in the text that I just missed.