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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index A > Category: A Priori

A Priori Quotes (26 quotes)

Among all the occurrences possible in the universe the a priori probability of any particular one of them verges upon zero. Yet the universe exists; particular events must take place in it, the probability of which (before the event) was infinitesimal. At the present time we have no legitimate grounds for either asserting or denying that life got off to but a single start on earth, and that, as a consequence, before it appeared its chances of occurring were next to nil. ... Destiny is written concurrently with the event, not prior to it.
In Jacques Monod and Austryn Wainhouse (trans.), Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (1971), 145.
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As a graduate student at Columbia University, I remember the a priori derision of my distinguished stratigraphy professor toward a visiting Australian drifter ... Today my own students would dismiss with even more derision anyone who denied the evident truth of continental drift–a prophetic madman is at least amusing; a superannuated fuddy-duddy is merely pitiful.
…...
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Behold the mighty dinosaur,
Famous in prehistoric lore,
Not only for his power and strength
But for his intellectual length.
You will observe by these remains
The creature had two sets of brains—
One in his head (the usual place),
The other at his spinal base.
Thus he could reason 'A priori'
As well as 'A posteriori'.
No problem bothered him a bit
He made both head and tail of it.
So wise was he, so wise and solemn,
Each thought filled just a spinal column.
If one brain found the pressure strong
It passed a few ideas along.
If something slipped his forward mind
'Twas rescued by the one behind.
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought.
As he thought twice before he spoke
He had no judgment to revoke.
Thus he could think without congestion
Upon both sides of every question.
Oh, gaze upon this model beast
Defunct ten million years at least.
'The Dinosaur: A Poem' (1912). In E. H. Colbert (ed.), The Dinosaur Book (1951), 78.
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Evolution advances, not by a priori design, but by the selection of what works best out of whatever choices offer. We are the products of editing, rather than of authorship.
In 'The Origin of Optical Activity', Annals of the New York Academy of Science (1957), 69, 367.
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First of all, we ought to observe, that mathematical propositions, properly so called, are always judgments a priori, and not empirical, because they carry along with them necessity, which can never be deduced from experience. If people should object to this, I am quite willing to confine my statements to pure mathematics, the very concept of which implies that it does not contain empirical, but only pure knowledge a priori.
In Critique of Pure Reason (1900), 720.
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Geometrical axioms are neither synthetic a priori conclusions nor experimental facts. They are conventions: our choice, amongst all possible conventions, is guided by experimental facts; but it remains free, and is only limited by the necessity of avoiding all contradiction. ... In other words, axioms of geometry are only definitions in disguise.
That being so what ought one to think of this question: Is the Euclidean Geometry true?
The question is nonsense. One might as well ask whether the metric system is true and the old measures false; whether Cartesian co-ordinates are true and polar co-ordinates false.
In George Edward Martin, The Foundations of Geometry and the Non-Euclidean Plane (1982), 110.
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I am coming more and more to the conviction that the necessity of our geometry cannot be proved, at least neither by, nor for, the human intelligence … One would have to rank geometry not with arithmetic, which stands a priori, but approximately with mechanics.
From Letter (28 Apr 1817) to Olbers, as quoted in Guy Waldo Dunnington, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Titan of Science: A Study of His Life and Work (1955), 180.
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I maintain that in every special natural doctrine only so much science proper is to be met with as mathematics; for… science proper, especially [science] of nature, requires a pure portion, lying at the foundation of the empirical, and based upon a priori knowledge of natural things. … To the possibility of a determinate natural thing, and therefore to cognise it à priori, is further requisite that the intuition corresponding à priori to the conception should be given; in other words, that the conception should be constructed. But the cognition of the reason through construction of conceptions is mathematical. A pure philosophy of nature in general, namely, one that only investigates what constitutes a nature in general, may thus be possible without mathematics; but a pure doctrine of nature respecting determinate natural things (corporeal doctrine and mental doctrine), is only possible by means of mathematics; and as in every natural doctrine only so much science proper is to be met with therein as there is cognition à priori, a doctrine of nature can only contain so much science proper as there is in it of applied mathematics.
From Preface to The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), as translated by Ernest Belford Boax, in Kant’s Prolegomena: And The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1883), 140.
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If time is treated in modern physics as a dimension on a par with the dimensions of space, why should we a priori exclude the possibility that we are pulled as well as pushed along its axis? The future has, after all, as much or as little reality as the past, and there is nothing logically inconceivable in introducing, as a working hypothesis, an element of finality, supplementary to the element of causality, into our equations. It betrays a great lack of imagination to believe that the concept of “purpose” must necessarily be associated with some anthropomorphic deity.
In 'Epilogue', The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959, 1968), 537.
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It is not surprising, in view of the polydynamic constitution of the genuinely mathematical mind, that many of the major heros of the science, men like Desargues and Pascal, Descartes and Leibnitz, Newton, Gauss and Bolzano, Helmholtz and Clifford, Riemann and Salmon and Plücker and Poincaré, have attained to high distinction in other fields not only of science but of philosophy and letters too. And when we reflect that the very greatest mathematical achievements have been due, not alone to the peering, microscopic, histologic vision of men like Weierstrass, illuminating the hidden recesses, the minute and intimate structure of logical reality, but to the larger vision also of men like Klein who survey the kingdoms of geometry and analysis for the endless variety of things that flourish there, as the eye of Darwin ranged over the flora and fauna of the world, or as a commercial monarch contemplates its industry, or as a statesman beholds an empire; when we reflect not only that the Calculus of Probability is a creation of mathematics but that the master mathematician is constantly required to exercise judgment—judgment, that is, in matters not admitting of certainty—balancing probabilities not yet reduced nor even reducible perhaps to calculation; when we reflect that he is called upon to exercise a function analogous to that of the comparative anatomist like Cuvier, comparing theories and doctrines of every degree of similarity and dissimilarity of structure; when, finally, we reflect that he seldom deals with a single idea at a tune, but is for the most part engaged in wielding organized hosts of them, as a general wields at once the division of an army or as a great civil administrator directs from his central office diverse and scattered but related groups of interests and operations; then, I say, the current opinion that devotion to mathematics unfits the devotee for practical affairs should be known for false on a priori grounds. And one should be thus prepared to find that as a fact Gaspard Monge, creator of descriptive geometry, author of the classic Applications de l’analyse à la géométrie; Lazare Carnot, author of the celebrated works, Géométrie de position, and Réflections sur la Métaphysique du Calcul infinitesimal; Fourier, immortal creator of the Théorie analytique de la chaleur; Arago, rightful inheritor of Monge’s chair of geometry; Poncelet, creator of pure projective geometry; one should not be surprised, I say, to find that these and other mathematicians in a land sagacious enough to invoke their aid, rendered, alike in peace and in war, eminent public service.
In Lectures on Science, Philosophy and Art (1908), 32-33.
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It was Darwin’s chief contribution, not only to Biology but to the whole of natural science, to have brought to light a process by which contingencies a priori improbable are given, in the process of time, an increasing probability, until it is their non-occurrence, rather than their occurrence, which becomes highly improbable.
From essay 'Retrospect of the Criticisms of the Theory of Natural Selection', reproduced in Julian Huxley, A.C. Hardy, and E.B. Ford (eds.), Evolution as a Process (1954), 91, as cited in Elizabeth Knowles, What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations (2006), 79-80. “Natural selection is a mechanism for generating an exceedingly high degree of improbability,” which is seen more often, is a summary form of Fisher’s idea (not a verbatim quote) written by Julian Huxley, ibid, 5.
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Mathematics, from the earliest times to which the history of human reason can reach, has followed, among that wonderful people of the Greeks, the safe way of science. But it must not be supposed that it was as easy for mathematics as for logic, in which reason is concerned with itself alone, to find, or rather to make for itself that royal road. I believe, on the contrary, that there was a long period of tentative work (chiefly still among the Egyptians), and that the change is to be ascribed to a revolution, produced by the happy thought of a single man, whose experiments pointed unmistakably to the path that had to be followed, and opened and traced out for the most distant times the safe way of a science. The history of that intellectual revolution, which was far more important than the passage round the celebrated Cape of Good Hope, and the name of its fortunate author, have not been preserved to us. … A new light flashed on the first man who demonstrated the properties of the isosceles triangle (whether his name was Thales or any other name), for he found that he had not to investigate what he saw in the figure, or the mere concepts of that figure, and thus to learn its properties; but that he had to produce (by construction) what he had himself, according to concepts a priori, placed into that figure and represented in it, so that, in order to know anything with certainty a priori, he must not attribute to that figure anything beyond what necessarily follows from what he has himself placed into it, in accordance with the concept.
In Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition, (1900), 690.
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My position is a naturalistic one; I see philosophy not as an a priori propaedeutic or groundwork for science, but as continuous with science. I see philosophy and science as in the same boat—a boat which, to revert to Neurath’s figure as I so often do, we can rebuild only at sea while staying afloat in it. There is no external vantage point, no first philosophy.
Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, pp. 126-127, Columbia University Press (1969).
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Nor need you doubt that Pythagoras, a long time before he found the demonstration for the Hecatomb, had been certain that the square of the side subtending the right angle in a rectangular triangle was equal to the square of the other two sides; the certainty of the conclusion helped not a little in the search for a demonstration. But whatever was the method of Aristotle, and whether his arguing a priori preceded sense a posteriori, or the contrary, it is sufficient that the same Aristotle (as has often been said) put sensible experiences before all discourses. As to the arguments a priori, their force has already been examined.
Dialogue on the Great World Systems (1632). Revised and Annotated by Giorgio De Santillana (1953), 60.
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Philosophy stands in need of a science which shall determine the possibility, principles, and extent of human knowledge à priori.
Critique of Pure Reason, translated by John Miller Dow Meiklejohn (1899), 4.
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Quantum mechanics and relativity, taken together, are extraordinarily restrictive, and they therefore provide us with a great logical machine. We can explore with our minds any number of possible universes consisting of all kinds of mythical particles and interactions, but all except a very few can be rejected on a priori grounds because they are not simultaneously consistent with special relativity and quantum mechanics. Hopefully in the end we will find that only one theory is consistent with both and that theory will determine the nature of our particular universe.
…...
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Science asks no questions about the ontological pedigree or a priori character of a theory, but is content to judge it by its performance; and it is thus that a knowledge of nature, having all the certainty which the senses are competent to inspire, has been attained—a knowledge which maintains a strict neutrality toward all philosophical systems and concerns itself not with the genesis or a priori grounds of ideas.
Originally published in North American Review (1865). 'The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer,' repr. In Philosophical Writings of Chauncey Wright (1963), p. 8.
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Science has taught us to think the unthinkable. Because when nature is the guide—rather than a priori prejudices, hopes, fears or desires—we are forced out of our comfort zone. One by one, pillars of classical logic have fallen by the wayside as science progressed in the 20th century, from Einstein's realization that measurements of space and time were not absolute but observer-dependent, to quantum mechanics, which not only put fundamental limits on what we can empirically know but also demonstrated that elementary particles and the atoms they form are doing a million seemingly impossible things at once.
In op-ed, 'A Universe Without Purpose', Los Angeles Times (1 Apr 2012).
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The functional validity of a working hypothesis is not a priori certain, because often it is initially based on intuition. However, logical deductions from such a hypothesis provide expectations (so-called prognoses) as to the circumstances under which certain phenomena will appear in nature. Such a postulate or working hypothesis can then be substantiated by additional observations ... The author calls such expectations and additional observations the prognosis-diagnosis method of research. Prognosis in science may be termed the prediction of the future finding of corroborative evidence of certain features or phenomena (diagnostic facts). This method of scientific research builds up and extends the relations between the subject and the object by means of a circuit of inductions and deductions.
In 'The Scientific Character of Geology', The Journal of Geology (Jul 1961), 69, No. 4, 454-5.
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The mathematical intellectualism is henceforth a positive doctrine, but one that inverts the usual doctrines of positivism: in place of originating progress in order, dynamics in statics, its goal is to make logical order the product of intellectual progress. The science of the future is not enwombed, as Comte would have had it, as Kant had wished it, in the forms of the science already existing; the structure of these forms reveals an original dynamism whose onward sweep is prolonged by the synthetic generation of more and more complicated forms. No speculation on number considered as a category a priori enables one to account for the questions set by modern mathematics … space affirms only the possibility of applying to a multiplicity of any elements whatever, relations whose type the intellect does not undertake to determine in advance, but, on the contrary, it asserts their existence and nourishes their unlimited development.
As translated in James Byrnie Shaw, Lectures on the Philosophy of Mathematics (1918), 193. From Léon Brunschvicg, Les Étapes de La Philosophie Mathématique (1912), 567-568, “L’intellectualisme mathématique est désormais une doctrine positive, mais qui intervertira les formules habituelles du positivisme: au lieu de faire sortir le progrès de l’ordre, ou le dynamique du statique, il tend à faire de l'ordre logique le produit du progrès intellectuel. La science à venir n'est pas enfermée, comme l’aurait voulu Comte, comme le voulait déjà Kant, dans les formes de la science déjà faite; la constitution de ces formes révèle un dynamisme originel dont l’élan se prolonge par la génération synthétique de notions de plus en plus compliquées. Aucune spéculation sur le nombre, considéré comme catégorie a priori, ne permet de rendre compte des questions qui se sont posées pour la mathématique moderne … … l’espace ne fait qu'affirmer la possibilité d'appliquer sur une multiplicité d’éléments quelconques des relations dont l’intelligence ne cherche pas à déterminer d’avance le type, dont elle constate, au contraire, dont elle suscite le développement illimité.”
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The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science, because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate.
Reflections on the Revolution in France, p. 53, ed. Pocock (1790).
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The test of a theory is its ability to cope with all the relevant phenomena, not its a priori 'reasonableness'. The latter would have proved a poor guide in the development of science, which often makes progress by its encounter with the totally unexpected and initially extremely puzzling.
'From DAMTP [Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics] to Westcott House', Cambridge Review (1981), 103, 61.
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We come now to the question: what is a priori certain or necessary, respectively in geometry (doctrine of space) or its foundations? Formerly we thought everything; nowadays we think nothing. Already the distance-concept is logically arbitrary; there need be no things that correspond to it, even approximately.
In article he wrote, 'Space-Time', for Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed., 1929), Vol. 21, 106.
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We must admit with humility that, while number is purely a product of our minds, space has a reality outside our minds, so that we cannot completely prescribe its properties a priori.
Letter to Friedrich Bessel (1830).
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What the scientists have always found by physical experiment was an a priori orderliness of nature, or Universe always operating at an elegance level that made the discovering scientist’s working hypotheses seem crude by comparison. The discovered reality made the scientists’ exploratory work seem relatively disorderly.
As quoted by L.L. Larison Cudmore in The Center of Life: A Natural History of the Cell (1977), xi.
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Yes, gentlemen, give me the map of any country, its configuration, its climate, its waters, its winds, and the whole of its physical geography; give me its natural productions, its flora, its zoology, &c., and I pledge myself to tell you, a priori, what will be the quality of man in history:—not accidentally, but necessarily; not at any particular epoch, but in all; in short, —what idea he is called to represent.
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1832), trans. by Henning Gotfried Linberg, 240.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 90 -
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- 80 -
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- 70 -
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Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton



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