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RECENT POSTS IN THIS TOPIC

**John Merryman**: *on* 1/19/15 at 12:27pm UTC, wrote And maybe if the cosmologists were to concede the whole Big Bang to...

**John Merryman**: *on* 1/19/15 at 3:11am UTC, wrote Here is a topical link. My own position is similar to Wigner, that math is...

**John Cox**: *on* 1/18/15 at 17:00pm UTC, wrote Tom, Thanks for the comments, I was not aware of Mach treating space as...

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**John Cox**: *on* 1/17/15 at 21:49pm UTC, wrote Tom, I read Smolin's Trouble With Physics when I returned to reading...

**Thomas Ray**: *on* 1/17/15 at 20:54pm UTC, wrote Smolin is abusing language. What he means, is that could the first...

**Pentcho Valev**: *on* 1/17/15 at 18:01pm UTC, wrote Thomas Howard Ray wrote: "Theere is no such thing as a "false postulate." ...

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FQXi BLOGS

May 26, 2019

Here's Eugene Wigner, from "Unreasonable Effectiveness":

"The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it."

I want to make a casual suggestion here, but one about which I am serious. What follows, in other words, is not meant to sound flippant.

Might the famous unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics—its spectacular success in quantifying, model-building and predicting future states of natural systems—be simply a matter of coincidence?

We tend to be amazed that math works again and again. Wigner compares the situation to a man with a bunch of keys finding that the first one or two he chooses always open the door. This would indeed be surprising, but the analogy can be read another way: how many ways are there to get into the house? The keys don't open windows; they don't open walls; they don't open the ceiling, or the yard, driveways or bushes or clouds. Keys fit those things that, well, fit keys. To note that one of your keys can do any task at all would be one thing. To keep being amazed that keys unlock doors is quite different.

Let's say a single key turns out to open a huge number of doors in Eugene's house—perhaps even an infinite number. That is surely an awesome thing, especially to a human mind: What a powerful key! Look at how many tasks it can handle—door upon door upon door!

But it still tells us nothing about what we aren't able to do with it (paint the house, grow the garden). Opening yet another door, excellent as that achievement may be—from the first discoveries in fluid mechanics to the latest in quantum chemistry—is, from the point of view of math's mysterious utility, essentially the same feat as it was the last time around. Look at that! Quantifiable things are still able to be quantified. Who knew?

But even if endless discoveries are made using the abstraction of mathematical tools, we are not justified in assuming that we are, in this manner, making all possible discoveries. Something can be infinite (say, the set of all mathematical expressions that correspond, in some suitable defined way, to nature) without being all-encompassing (say, if that set we just described turns out to be a subset of another, also infinite set, "the set of all truths about nature").

Let's take a different approach. Part of logical positivist epistemology—the "logical" part—regarded mathematical statements as truths that can be known precisely because they are, ultimately, tautological. The whole intimidating edifice (Russell's phrase for Hegel) of modern mathematics is, in this view, simply a restating, or at best a following out, of axioms. Seen in this way, the complexities of any branch of mathematics could, by a sufficiently comprehensive mind, be immediately surmised from its axioms. If you understand that A is B and B is C, you already understand that A is C; you may not have stopped to draw out the steps, but when presented with the claim A = C, no new calculation was required*per se*. You already "got" that.

Positivism took it on the chin, and nobody much credits it any more. I am one of the few holdouts. But just grant for the moment their claim that math is an exercise in symbolic logic, and that any mathematical formalism is a tautology whose conclusions are, in a real sense, implicit in its axioms. Imagine, now, an "axiom bundle" as the sharp tip of an enormous glacier of implications. If the premise embedded in the tip is true of anything at all in the real world—any recurrent pattern, any stable quantity—then so is the glacier.

Wigner looks at the glacier and says: Wow! Look at all the things in nature that are mathematical! I'm saying: What you actually mean is that the axiom tip happened to correspond to at least one kind of natural thing.

Is that such a wonder?

To return to our first metaphor, if we poke Wigner's key all over the house, eventually we may find a lock, then be amazed that we have a key and nature has a lock. If all the locks in the house are versions of the first lock, of course, we shouldn't be surprised when the key keeps working; in a sense, we keep repeating the same procedure. But it doesn't follow that we are understanding all that much about the house.

I'm not suggesting—I hasten to clarify, here, at the end—that there are *supernatural* truths we may be missing with the key of naturalism. I'm suggesting that there may be *non-mathematically accessible natural truths.* And no, I don't know what such truths would look like, though I note that some other folks harbor similar suspicions. Stephen Wolfram, in A New Kind of Science, suggests that traditional formulae are inadequate to the task of understanding nature, and that something else is needed (in his view, it's the empirical study of cellular automata). Thomas Nagel, whom I took to task here for his Mind and Cosmos, thinks consciousness itself cannot be explained using the default of materialism, which means there is at least one thing to nature that isn't reducible to mathematics (following the reductionist arrows from consciousness to neuroscience to biology to chemistry to physics to math, which is where, if you agree with Max, reality stops. By the way, Max, you owe me an email.).

I don't know how convinced I am by my own line of reasoning. (Here's a possible counterargument: Since all truths are logical—that is, even if Mother Nature throws dice, she does not act incoherently—then, if math really is symbolic logic, all truths are mathematical. QED.)

At least, though, what I've sketched out here is a logical possibility—and one that would explain that seemingly "unreasonable effectiveness" of Wigner's key as a tool for uncovering nature's secrets. It may just be a sampling error.

this post has been edited by the author since its original submission

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"The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it."

JoaoTrindale |

I want to make a casual suggestion here, but one about which I am serious. What follows, in other words, is not meant to sound flippant.

Might the famous unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics—its spectacular success in quantifying, model-building and predicting future states of natural systems—be simply a matter of coincidence?

We tend to be amazed that math works again and again. Wigner compares the situation to a man with a bunch of keys finding that the first one or two he chooses always open the door. This would indeed be surprising, but the analogy can be read another way: how many ways are there to get into the house? The keys don't open windows; they don't open walls; they don't open the ceiling, or the yard, driveways or bushes or clouds. Keys fit those things that, well, fit keys. To note that one of your keys can do any task at all would be one thing. To keep being amazed that keys unlock doors is quite different.

Let's say a single key turns out to open a huge number of doors in Eugene's house—perhaps even an infinite number. That is surely an awesome thing, especially to a human mind: What a powerful key! Look at how many tasks it can handle—door upon door upon door!

But it still tells us nothing about what we aren't able to do with it (paint the house, grow the garden). Opening yet another door, excellent as that achievement may be—from the first discoveries in fluid mechanics to the latest in quantum chemistry—is, from the point of view of math's mysterious utility, essentially the same feat as it was the last time around. Look at that! Quantifiable things are still able to be quantified. Who knew?

WorldBankPhotoCollective |

But even if endless discoveries are made using the abstraction of mathematical tools, we are not justified in assuming that we are, in this manner, making all possible discoveries. Something can be infinite (say, the set of all mathematical expressions that correspond, in some suitable defined way, to nature) without being all-encompassing (say, if that set we just described turns out to be a subset of another, also infinite set, "the set of all truths about nature").

Let's take a different approach. Part of logical positivist epistemology—the "logical" part—regarded mathematical statements as truths that can be known precisely because they are, ultimately, tautological. The whole intimidating edifice (Russell's phrase for Hegel) of modern mathematics is, in this view, simply a restating, or at best a following out, of axioms. Seen in this way, the complexities of any branch of mathematics could, by a sufficiently comprehensive mind, be immediately surmised from its axioms. If you understand that A is B and B is C, you already understand that A is C; you may not have stopped to draw out the steps, but when presented with the claim A = C, no new calculation was required

Positivism took it on the chin, and nobody much credits it any more. I am one of the few holdouts. But just grant for the moment their claim that math is an exercise in symbolic logic, and that any mathematical formalism is a tautology whose conclusions are, in a real sense, implicit in its axioms. Imagine, now, an "axiom bundle" as the sharp tip of an enormous glacier of implications. If the premise embedded in the tip is true of anything at all in the real world—any recurrent pattern, any stable quantity—then so is the glacier.

Wigner looks at the glacier and says: Wow! Look at all the things in nature that are mathematical! I'm saying: What you actually mean is that the axiom tip happened to correspond to at least one kind of natural thing.

Is that such a wonder?

FredHasselman |

To return to our first metaphor, if we poke Wigner's key all over the house, eventually we may find a lock, then be amazed that we have a key and nature has a lock. If all the locks in the house are versions of the first lock, of course, we shouldn't be surprised when the key keeps working; in a sense, we keep repeating the same procedure. But it doesn't follow that we are understanding all that much about the house.

I'm not suggesting—I hasten to clarify, here, at the end—that there are *supernatural* truths we may be missing with the key of naturalism. I'm suggesting that there may be *non-mathematically accessible natural truths.* And no, I don't know what such truths would look like, though I note that some other folks harbor similar suspicions. Stephen Wolfram, in A New Kind of Science, suggests that traditional formulae are inadequate to the task of understanding nature, and that something else is needed (in his view, it's the empirical study of cellular automata). Thomas Nagel, whom I took to task here for his Mind and Cosmos, thinks consciousness itself cannot be explained using the default of materialism, which means there is at least one thing to nature that isn't reducible to mathematics (following the reductionist arrows from consciousness to neuroscience to biology to chemistry to physics to math, which is where, if you agree with Max, reality stops. By the way, Max, you owe me an email.).

I don't know how convinced I am by my own line of reasoning. (Here's a possible counterargument: Since all truths are logical—that is, even if Mother Nature throws dice, she does not act incoherently—then, if math really is symbolic logic, all truths are mathematical. QED.)

At least, though, what I've sketched out here is a logical possibility—and one that would explain that seemingly "unreasonable effectiveness" of Wigner's key as a tool for uncovering nature's secrets. It may just be a sampling error.

Torley |

this post has been edited by the author since its original submission

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Thank you William, interesting thoughts. There are certainly qualitative aspects of life, mostly output reality experiences, that are not easily *objectively* quantifiable. Pain or emotional distress are examples. Subjective self reporting on a scale is often used. Direct measurement of brain activity could be used for objective rather than subjective *measurements*. However is the size of a particular brain signal accurate evidence of output intensity? Can the subjective be made objective? Or not, as the output experience is modulated by various other factors such as, for example, previous experiences, co existent stressors, present environment.

I recently came across a comment, can't remember the exact words, or who by, but it was about newborns, something like no wonder they cry because each negative experience is one of the worst experiences of their life. There are also chemical effects. The effect of adrenalin (for example on the Rugby field or in the boxing ring) numbs pain at the time of injury so the subjective experience of pain is much less than would be expected for the severity of injury. Which prevents direct objective correlation of pain intensity with severity of injury. Taking your analogy, perhaps subjective experience is a wall and not a door.

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I recently came across a comment, can't remember the exact words, or who by, but it was about newborns, something like no wonder they cry because each negative experience is one of the worst experiences of their life. There are also chemical effects. The effect of adrenalin (for example on the Rugby field or in the boxing ring) numbs pain at the time of injury so the subjective experience of pain is much less than would be expected for the severity of injury. Which prevents direct objective correlation of pain intensity with severity of injury. Taking your analogy, perhaps subjective experience is a wall and not a door.

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"If a single postulate is false ..."

Theere is no such thing as a "false postulate." I find it egregious that you and a few others are allowed to run on, unchallenged, on this forum, with irrational comments. How could anyone learn anything in this environment?

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Theere is no such thing as a "false postulate." I find it egregious that you and a few others are allowed to run on, unchallenged, on this forum, with irrational comments. How could anyone learn anything in this environment?

report post as inappropriate

Thomas Howard Ray wrote: "Theere is no such thing as a "false postulate."

Lee Smolin, The Trouble With Physics, p. 226: "Einstein's special theory of relativity is based on two postulates: One is the relativity of motion, and the second is the constancy and universality of the speed of light. Could the first postulate be true and the other false? If that was not possible, Einstein would not have had to make two postulates. But I don't think many people realized until recently that you could have a consistent theory in which you changed only the second postulate."

Pentcho Valev

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Lee Smolin, The Trouble With Physics, p. 226: "Einstein's special theory of relativity is based on two postulates: One is the relativity of motion, and the second is the constancy and universality of the speed of light. Could the first postulate be true and the other false? If that was not possible, Einstein would not have had to make two postulates. But I don't think many people realized until recently that you could have a consistent theory in which you changed only the second postulate."

Pentcho Valev

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Smolin is abusing language. What he means, is that could the first postulate stand, and the second postulate be eliminated. Fact is, only the first postulate is required to have a mathematically consistent theory of mechanics (as Mach demonstrated). You would like to eliminate both postulates (which would of course eliminate special relativity). My point is, Valev, is that if you knew anything about relativity in the first place, it would be obvious to you that if all motion is relative, all your ridiculous cut and paste quoting is mindless prattle. You would not only deny Einstein relativity, but Galilean relativity and all classical mechanics as well.

Smolin's speculation is mathematically consistent though physically falsified, and he knows it. The speed of light is an empirical measure.

Tom

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Smolin's speculation is mathematically consistent though physically falsified, and he knows it. The speed of light is an empirical measure.

Tom

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Tom,

I read Smolin's Trouble With Physics when I returned to reading nearly ten years ago, so I'm a bit foggy about the context of the clip art Pentcho posted. And I don't see his point that the second postulate can be eliminated.

As you stated; "Fact is, only the first postulate is required to have a mathematically consistent theory of mechanics (as Mach demonstrated)." ...but would not that consistency be incomplete (?) in that it would require a chaotic translational speed of light permitting instantaneity in an absolute space/time paradigm, and thus contradict Maxwell.

So, yes! "Smolin's speculation is mathematically consistent though physically falsified, and he knows it. The speed of light is an empirical measure." But then, Lee got immigrated to Canada (and so did Alfonso Caruana [1968] while I got pushed out into the cold), so he can write speculatively and drum up support for PI, because at least it creates a little public interest among the otherwise market-values oriented modern populace of 'Ford Nation'. Hello, the Horsemen.

Happy New Year, Friend. jrc

this post has been edited by the author since its original submission

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I read Smolin's Trouble With Physics when I returned to reading nearly ten years ago, so I'm a bit foggy about the context of the clip art Pentcho posted. And I don't see his point that the second postulate can be eliminated.

As you stated; "Fact is, only the first postulate is required to have a mathematically consistent theory of mechanics (as Mach demonstrated)." ...but would not that consistency be incomplete (?) in that it would require a chaotic translational speed of light permitting instantaneity in an absolute space/time paradigm, and thus contradict Maxwell.

So, yes! "Smolin's speculation is mathematically consistent though physically falsified, and he knows it. The speed of light is an empirical measure." But then, Lee got immigrated to Canada (and so did Alfonso Caruana [1968] while I got pushed out into the cold), so he can write speculatively and drum up support for PI, because at least it creates a little public interest among the otherwise market-values oriented modern populace of 'Ford Nation'. Hello, the Horsemen.

Happy New Year, Friend. jrc

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William, you wrote, "Positivism took it on the chin, and nobody much credits it any more. I am one of the few holdouts. "

There's a very good reason that LP fell to the critical rationalist model of Karl Popper. Because science is a rationalist enterprise, the only objective correspondence of math to physics is in the independence of mathematical model and physical observation.

If science is not a rationalist enterprise, OTOH, then Feyerabend was right -- "anything goes."

From the point of view of rational science, if anything goes, there is no objective world and theory (including mathematical physics) is pointless. Nothing goes.

Tom

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There's a very good reason that LP fell to the critical rationalist model of Karl Popper. Because science is a rationalist enterprise, the only objective correspondence of math to physics is in the independence of mathematical model and physical observation.

If science is not a rationalist enterprise, OTOH, then Feyerabend was right -- "anything goes."

From the point of view of rational science, if anything goes, there is no objective world and theory (including mathematical physics) is pointless. Nothing goes.

Tom

report post as inappropriate

Here is a topical link.

My own position is similar to Wigner, that math is the proverbial map of the territory and not the process by which it came to be. Description, not explanation.

I think the tendency to see too much into the specific pattern, rather than putting them into a larger context of how that specific pattern is reflective of similar ones, from which lessons can then be drawn, inhibits potential knowledge.

For example, the premise of black holes is this vortex pattern collapses to infinity, when other vortices we know about, are one side of convective cycles. Einstein described gravity as collapsing space and consequently felt required to add the cosmological constant to balance it, when, quite obviously, enormous amounts of radiation expand away and escape from these contractions of mass.

This then would ask us to reflect on whether there is some form of cycle going on here and that radiation, once it expanded and cooled sufficiently, could start to coalesce back into elemental forms of mass, say neutrinos and complete the cycle, rather than feuding over the firewall issue.

Regards,

John M

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My own position is similar to Wigner, that math is the proverbial map of the territory and not the process by which it came to be. Description, not explanation.

I think the tendency to see too much into the specific pattern, rather than putting them into a larger context of how that specific pattern is reflective of similar ones, from which lessons can then be drawn, inhibits potential knowledge.

For example, the premise of black holes is this vortex pattern collapses to infinity, when other vortices we know about, are one side of convective cycles. Einstein described gravity as collapsing space and consequently felt required to add the cosmological constant to balance it, when, quite obviously, enormous amounts of radiation expand away and escape from these contractions of mass.

This then would ask us to reflect on whether there is some form of cycle going on here and that radiation, once it expanded and cooled sufficiently, could start to coalesce back into elemental forms of mass, say neutrinos and complete the cycle, rather than feuding over the firewall issue.

Regards,

John M

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And maybe if the cosmologists were to concede the whole Big Bang to multiverses vector was the science community's version of marching off a cliff, it might serve as a small object lesson to the larger world that there are feedback loops working through everything and moremoremore wealth,growth,population, progress, etc. will come with its own blowback and if we ignore the other side of the pattern, while we might create a humongous wave, the resulting trough is just that much deeper.

Reading too much economic news lately.

Regards,

John M

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Reading too much economic news lately.

Regards,

John M

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