Southend Philosophy Group Message Board › Something to think about...

Something to think about...

Alan
T.E.A.
Westcliff-on-Sea, GB
Post #: 8
Can we really explain?

Professor Brian Cox (A.K.A. The thinking woman's toy boy) is currently enjoying considerable exposure on our television screens. In his various programmes he offers explanations for all manner of things up to and including life itself. Now that's all very well for him and no doubt he is enjoying spending all the money he is making.

But.
All of his (and other scientists) explanations are based on things like; Quantum physics, Nuclear physics, chaos theory, etc.
He often refers to things as 'Laws' as if they are irrefutable and indisputably correct. Rules that cannot be broken. However, it seems that there is a fundamental flaw in all of his explanations.

Which is that, they are all based upon mathematics .


Mathematics has been described as an immutable language free from the passions of man. However numbers are not, nor have they ever been, pre-existing ideas in reality.

Numbers are man made.

Ask yourself, which came first, the universe or mathematics?
Many people have argued that the essence of nature is mathematical, and that there is a hidden meaning beneath reality. They believe if we can decipher the secret meaning of numbers we will be able uncover the secret meaning of reality.

They say that things are organised following a model, a scheme, a logical series often citing that even the humble snowflake is based on mathematics. The logic of mathematics exists only in mathematics and cannot be simply reassigned to the world outside mathematics.


The use of numbers to provide an explanation is fatally flawed because it consists only of equations and calculations that have been manipulated and re-arranged to fit a specific argument or series of problems.

The trouble is that whatever the desired numerical answer is required or desirable there are always going to be a vast array of possible solutions depending on the variables involved and how they are made to interact.

It seems that because of our inability to be able to truly explain things we tend to confer undeserved importance on mathematically constructed arguments. As a species it seems that we need to think that life has meaning, that everything is governed by logic and not by mere chance.

If we write 2 then four then six, then we feel good because we know that eight comes next. We can foresee it, we are not in the hands of destiny, fate or chance.

However if the two times table does not form the rule we need we can apply other mathematical rules. We have assigned special significance or powers to certain number sets; Prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, etc.

In analysing results we can use either Mode, Median, Mean or Range numerical fudges to ensure we get the desired statistical result regardless of the data we started with. Unfortunately however, this has nothing to do with truth. This is only man's refusal to leave his comfort zone.

In truth there are many opposing mathematical equations and calculations that would fit equally well in any problem. Mathematical explanations are nothing more than demonstrations of man's ability to manipulate and arrange numbers to fit any given circumstance.

The question is:

If mathematics is not the answer -

What is?


(Answers on a postcard please)


Alan
John E
user 73585932
Benfleet, GB
Post #: 1
Hi Alan,
Thanks for the post.

Scientific thought is all about probabilities, rather than certainties but it is generally accepted that mathematics is one of the 'purest' branches of scientific study.

I wouldn't accept that "numbers are man made"- we have different languages and tools to work with them (decimal system, binary system etc.) but the underlying mathematical principles do not change. Did 2 + 2 not equal 4 before humans existed? Was a triangle, or a sphere not a reality before we were? I would suggest that mankind 'discovered' mathematics in the same sense that we discovered Neptune or discovered radioactivity.

Scientific 'laws' are not immutable and are more accurately described as theories. The scientific philosopher Karl Popper wrote that scientific knowledge "consists in the search for truth" but it "is not the search for certainty.....all human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain"

The laws (or theories) of physics are the best models of understanding that we currently have, and they have enabled us to successfully build skyscrapers and to put vehicles on Mars.

Philosophers are wise to retain a healthy scepticism. How we interpret information can be notoriously inconsistent. You rightly point out that statistical results can be used in various ways to fit an agenda. Mark Twain referred to "Lies, damned lies and statistics".

One of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain is this one:

"In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact".

Carry on thinking everyone!

John E.
Alan
T.E.A.
Westcliff-on-Sea, GB
Post #: 9
John,

Thank you for your critique/rebuttal. However I am confused as to whether you are attempting to support or attack me as it seems that your arguments are either supportive or flawed.

Your statement that scientific thought is about probabilities, rather than certainties but it is a pure form of study, is self contradictory. Probabilities are precisely that and not pure certainty, and therefore must contain flaws. Anything which contains flaws cannot be pure.

Unfortunately the statement that you cannot accept that numbers are man made because they were 'discovered' by man, immediately negates the rest of that part of your argument.

The history of numbers has been well documented by many men and it is an indisputable and undeniable fact that the history of numbers has not been proven to pre-date man.

We know that today's numbers (Hindu-Arabic numerals), are a combination of just 10 symbols or digits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0. Introduced in Europe during the XII century by Leonardo Pisano (aka Fibonacci), an Italian mathematician educated in North Africa.

We also know that before adopting the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, people used the Roman figures instead, which actually are a legacy of the Etruscan period. The Roman numeration is based on a biquinary (5) system. (Reported in the 5th century by Beothius.)

We can even demonstrate that the history of numbers can be traced back through the Arab nations to the Indian sub-continent in around 400 BC – 400 AD. Furthermore it has been established that the Maya civilization was also using numbers during the period 300 – 1000 AD. In fact, it is known that numerical history extends back as far as Mesopotamia in 200 BC – 100 BC.

But Not Before!

Numbers came about because human beings wanted to solve problems and created numbers in an attempt to solve these problems.

You propose that 2 + 2 equalled 4 before the existence of human kind. This of course cannot be true as neither the number 2 or 4 existed before man.

You ask “Was a triangle, or a sphere not a reality before we were?” Unfortunately as I nor you for that matter, were not around at the time I cannot say. What I can say is if they were in existence they were not referred to as such.

If scientific 'laws' are more accurately described as theories. Why then do so many scientists, academics and books (and even you in your response) call them laws?

I thank you for the quotations you cite as they serve excellently in reinforcing my original question. Indeed I had considered them when writing the original question.

Might I suggest that rather than relying upon Karl Popper for a quotation of the common sense obvious statement that 'all human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain'. In support of my original argument. It would perhaps be more appropriate to quote from the The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In which he says:

“What we cannot think we cannot think, therefore we also cannot say what we cannot think. What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

The question still stands:
If mathematics is not the answer - What is?

Regards,
Alan

Sherry
user 55426002
Westcliff-on-Sea, GB
Post #: 3
Hi folks, I think this is an interesting premise to discuss. And I think it's good to keep exploring it.

However, I'm interested Alan that you seem to think responses must be either one thing or the other - supportive or an attack (a word with confrontational connotations). I don't view John's response as either; nor would I expect they ought to be exclusively one thing or t'other. I read a response that builds on your thoughts - and adds his own perspective; drawing on his own knowledge which may be different from your own.

A disagreement with a premise, and the presentation of a different view, does not constitute an attack. However, your response Alan, includes attack; there's clear sarcasm and condescension, which isn't playing nice, and adds nothing to your original premise.

I ask everyone to please be respectful in how you challenge different views. Not everyone has vast amounts of confidence about sharing what they think. And, it can be even more difficult for people to challenge others' ideas with ideas of their own. I don't want anyone to get a battering for being sufficiently bold to converse on here. If we knock people down we may never hear from them again! I wish to nurture the quieter voices as well as celebrating the loud voices - everyone has a contibution to the futherance of philosophical discourse.

To add my thoughts re the content of the discussion; John talks about the discovery of mathematics, not the discovery of numbers. I would agree with you Alan that numbers are a construct. A "language" that we have constructed in order better to understand and manipulate mathematics. In this respect I view mathematics as something measurable (although we use maths to measure maths, so that's a little mind-bending); something that apparently affects the way the universe is. More akin to "gravity" than to any system of writing. ie something we endeavour to make sense of - but that does exist with or without us.

In terms of rational philosophy, I think statements are sometimes easier to work with - as people can then set out logical arguments (of the non-combative kind!) for and against. So in this case one might start with:

Mathematics is an illusion
Mathematics is inconstant
Mathematics is false

And I would indeed love to see what mathematicians say about that!

Of the question as it stands - if mathematics is not the answer - what is? - then my first question to that is - answer to what..?

Best wishes,

Sherry


John E
user 73585932
Benfleet, GB
Post #: 3
Hi all,

To try to clarify some of my earlier statements:

The known Universe is governed by laws, these are commonly referred to as the Laws of Nature which, as far as we know, are universal, immutable and govern the behaviour of everything from electrons to galaxies including light, gravity, time and space.

However, our own (human) models of these laws are subject to change as our knowledge increases (as Karl Popper suggests). Our model of the universe, and the laws which govern it as described by Newton, was modified later by Einstein and continues to change with new discoveries, such as from the studies of subatomic particles and quantum mechanics.

Debate over whether numbers existed before humans may be down to semantics. I would explain my own perspective like this:

The speed of light, the number of moons orbiting Jupiter and the gravitational pull of the sun. These all exist now and existed before humans were present to describe them using their own mathematical languages.

I see mathematics as a tool used by scientists to explore and describe the most fundamental processes in the Universe, including the properties of the smallest particles and those of the most distant galaxies.

Best wishes,

John E.
Alan
T.E.A.
Westcliff-on-Sea, GB
Post #: 10
Sherry,

on the subject of your comments about this topic.

You say that John talks about the discovery of mathematics and not the discovery of numbers.

To which I must respond;

Without numbers (including algebraic notation, etc.) there would be no maths.
I would also point out that my response and evidence was aimed at the statement he made saying that he 'wouldn't accept that "numbers are man made".'

If you read my original argument you will see that it focuses on the question if numbers are a man made construct then it is not possible to prove that they are correct or that anything supposedly 'proven' by their use is also correct.

It seems to me that you then go on to claim that mathematics is 'something that apparently affects the way the universe is. More akin to "gravity" than to any system of writing.'

I must therefore ask how something that is not natural and was not developed until many millions of years after the creation of the universe, can be a force that has always affected the universe. I would also beg to suggest that numbers written on a piece of paper do not constitute a force.

I kind of agree that mathematics is something we endeavour to make sense of but only in terms of how we manipulate it. However, I must strongly disagree that it does exist with or without us. As it didn't exist before man invented it, this is impossible.

In terms of rational philosophy, I agree statements are sometimes easier to work with. However a single statement with no supporting evidence or conclusions is often meaningless and easily ignored, destroyed or even laughed at as it has no substance.

Aren't statements used to set out logical arguments usually based on mathematics?

Your suggestion that I should have perhaps my argument/proposal/proposition/premise with either:

Mathematics is an illusion
Mathematics is inconstant
Mathematics is false

Is not one I can subscribe to as none of those three statements are descriptive of my argument. (And, for what it's worth – I dare say that most mathematicians would have you hung drawn and quartered for even suggesting such)

Your final comment: “Of the question as it stands - if mathematics is not the answer - what is? - then my first question to that is - answer to what..?”

I thought it was obvious!

If mathematics cannot be used to explain; Life, The Universe and Everything else...
Then what can we use?

(And the answer is not 42)

Regards,
Alan
Alan
T.E.A.
Westcliff-on-Sea, GB
Post #: 11
Hello again,

It's getting deeper.

Wait a minute – there are some big assumptions going on here

The known Universe is governed by laws – Who says so?
These laws are commonly referred to as the Laws of Nature – By who?
Which, as far as we know, are universal, immutable and govern the behaviour of everything from electrons to galaxies including light, gravity, time and space.

Precisely. “As Far As We Know”.
And this is based on knowledge arrived at by the use of; Mathematics.

Human models of these laws are subject to change as our knowledge increases.
Or maybe it's because we simply got it wrong in the first place.
History is littered with examples of mistakes made by great scientists and mathematicians.
Is this because they were not very bright or because the tools they were using (mathematics) were flawed?

It is impossible for something created by man to have existed before man was there to create it. This is not semantics.

I should like to make a small change to your observations about the speed of light etc.
I agree that the speed of light, the number of moons orbiting Jupiter, the gravitational pull of the sun and a great many more things. All exist now and existed before humans were present to describe them using their own languages and to define them using mathematics.

Whilst mathematics may be the tool used by scientists to explore, define and explain everything. The original question still remains unanswered;

If numbers are a man made construct then it is not possible to prove that they are correct or that anything supposedly 'proven' by their use is also correct.

Therefore;

If the man made tools of mathematics are not reliable enough to explain the meaning of life, the universe and everything...

What is?

Or to put it another way;

Can it be proved that the use of mathematics has never lead to an erroneous conclusion?

Can it be proved beyond all doubt that mathematics is infallible?

If the answer to both those statements is negative – Then surely mathematics and the conclusions arrived at by its use cannot be simply relied upon or assumed to be right.

This being the case – What alternative is there?

Regards,
Alan
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