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Who said: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, ... finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell ... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index A > Category: Arbitrary

Arbitrary Quotes (26 quotes)

“Pieces” almost always appear 'as parts' in whole processes. ... To sever a “'part” from the organized whole in which it occurs—whether it itself be a subsidiary whole or an “element”—is a very real process usually involving alterations in that “part”. Modifications of a part frequently involve changes elsewhere in the whole itself. Nor is the nature of these alterations arbitrary, for they too are determined by whole-conditions.
From 'Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt, I', Psychol. Forsch. (1922), 1, 47-58. As translated in 'The General Theoretical Situation' (1922), collected in W. D. Ellis (ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology (1938, 1967), Vol. 2, 14.
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A government, at bottom, is nothing more than a gang of men, and as a practical matter most of them are inferior men ... Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, cruel, grasping and unintelligent. Indeed, it would not be far wrong to describe the best as the common enemy of all decent citizens.
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A principle of induction would be a statement with the help of which we could put inductive inferences into a logically acceptable form. In the eyes of the upholders of inductive logic, a principle of induction is of supreme importance for scientific method: “... this principle”, says Reichenbach, “determines the truth of scientific theories. To eliminate it from science would mean nothing less than to deprive science of the power to decide the truth or falsity of its theories. Without it, clearly, science would no longer have the right to distinguish its theories from the fanciful and arbitrary creations of the poet’s mind.” Now this principle of induction cannot be a purely logical truth like a tautology or an analytic statement. Indeed, if there were such a thing as a purely logical principle of induction, there would be no problem of induction; for in this case, all inductive inferences would have to be regarded as purely logical or tautological transformations, just like inferences in inductive logic. Thus the principle of induction must be a synthetic statement; that is, a statement whose negation is not self-contradictory but logically possible. So the question arises why such a principle should be accepted at all, and how we can justify its acceptance on rational grounds.
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But in the present century, thanks in good part to the influence of Hilbert, we have come to see that the unproved postulates with which we start are purely arbitrary. They must be consistent, they had better lead to something interesting.
In A History of Geometrical Methods (1940, reprint 2003), 423.
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Extremely hazardous is the desire to explain everything, and to supply whatever appears a gap in history—for in this propensity lies the first cause and germ of all those violent and arbitrary hypotheses which perplex and pervert the science of history far more than the open avowal of our ignorance, or the uncertainty of our knowledge: hypotheses which give an oblique direction, or an exaggerated and false extension, to a view of the subject originally not incorrect.
In Friedrich von Schlegel and James Burton Robertson (trans.), The Philosophy of History (1835), 12.
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However far the mathematician’s calculating senses seem to be separated from the audacious flight of the artist’s imagination, these manifestations refer to mere instantaneous images, which have been arbitrarily torn from the operation of both. In designing new theories, the mathematician needs an equally bold and inspired imagination as creative as the artist, and in carrying out the details of a work the artist must unemotionally reckon all the resources necessary for the success of the parts. Common to both is the fabrication, the creation of the structure from the intellect.
From Die Entwickelung der Mathematik im Zusammenhange mit der Ausbreitung der Kultur (1893), 4. Translated by Webmaster using online resources. From the original German, “Wie weit auch der rechnende Verstand des Mathematikers von dem kühnen Fluge der Phantasie des Künstlers getrennt zu sein scheint, so bezeichnen diese Ausdrücke doch blosse Augenblicksbilder, die willkürlich aus der Thätigkeit Beider herausgerissen sind. Bei dem Entwurfe neuer Theorieen bedarf der Mathematiker einer ebenso kühnen und schöpferischen Phantasie wie der schaffende Künstler, und bei der Ausführung der Einzelheiten eines Werkes muss auch der Künstler kühl alle Mittel berechnen, welche zum Gelingen der Theile erforderlich sind. Gemeinsam ist Beiden die Hervorbringung, die Erzeugung der Gebilde aus dem Geiste.”
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I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, “How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?" I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, “Four." He said, “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” With that, the conversation was over.
As given in 'A Meeting with Enrico Fermi', Nature (22 Jan 2004), 427, 297. As quoted in Steven A. Frank, Dynamics of Cancer: Incidence, Inheritance, and Evolution (2007), 87. Von Neumann meant nobody need be impressed when a complex model fits a data set well, because if manipulated with enough flexible parameters, any data set can be fitted to an incorrect model, even one that plots a curve on a graph shaped like an elephant!
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In general the actions which we see ever taking place around us are complex, or due to the simultaneous action of many causes. When, as in astronomy, we endeavour to ascertain these causes by simply watching their effects, we observe; when, as in our laboratories, we interfere arbitrarily with the causes or circumstances of a phenomenon, we are said to experiment.
In William Thomson and Peter Guthrie Tait, Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867), Vol. 1, 305.
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In speaking of cause and effect we arbitrarily give relief to those elements to whose connection we have to attend … in the respect in which it is important to us. [But t]here is no cause nor effect in nature; nature has but an individual existence; nature simply is. .
In The Science of Mechanics (1893), 483.
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In the modern interpretation of Mendelism, facts are being transformed into factors at a rapid rate. If one factor will not explain the facts, then two are involved; if two prove insufficient, three will sometimes work out. The superior jugglery sometimes necessary to account for the results may blind us, if taken too naively, to the common-place that the results are often so excellently 'explained' because the explanation was invented to explain them. We work backwards from the facts to the factors, and then, presto! explain the facts by the very factors that we invented to account for them. I am not unappreciative of the distinct advantages that this method has in handling the facts. I realize how valuable it has been to us to be able to marshal our results under a few simple assumptions, yet I cannot but fear that we are rapidly developing a sort of Mendelian ritual by which to explain the extraordinary facts of alternative inheritance. So long as we do not lose sight of the purely arbitrary and formal nature of our formulae, little harm will be done; and it is only fair to state that those who are doing the actual work of progress along Mendelian lines are aware of the hypothetical nature of the factor-assumption.
'What are 'Factors' in Mendelian Explanations?', American Breeders Association (1909), 5, 365.
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It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.
Quoted, without citation, as a column filler, in New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, Mental Hygiene News (1949), Volumes 20-26, 20. Webmaster has so far been unable to find a primary source, so please contact if you know the primary source.
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Let us make an arbitrary decision (by a show of hands if necessary) to define the base of every stratigraphical unit in a selected section. This may be called the Principle of the Golden Spike. Then stratigraphical nomenclature can be forgotten and we can get on with the real work of stratigraphy, which is correlation and interpretation.
In The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (1973), 73.
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Metaphorical language is a species of natural language which we construct out of arbitrary but concrete words. That is why it is so pleasing.
Aphorism 78 in Notebook D (1773-1775), as translated by R.J. Hollingdale in Aphorisms (1990). Reprinted as The Waste Books (2000), 56.
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Our most successful theories in physics are those that explicitly leave room for the unknown, while confining this room sufficiently to make the theory empirically disprovable. It does not matter whether this room is created by allowing for arbitrary forces as Newtonian dynamics does, or by allowing for arbitrary equations of state for matter, as General Relativity does, or for arbitrary motions of charges and dipoles, as Maxwell's electrodynamics does. To exclude the unknown wholly as a “unified field theory” or a “world equation” purports to do is pointless and of no scientific significance.
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Psychology appeared to be a jungle of confusing, conflicting, and arbitrary concepts. These pre-scientific theories doubtless contained insights which still surpass in refinement those depended upon by psychiatrists or psychologists today. But who knows, among the many brilliant ideas offered, which are the true ones? Some will claim that the statements of one theorist are correct, but others will favour the views of another. Then there is no objective way of sorting out the truth except through scientific research.
From The Scientific Analysis of Personality (1965), 14.
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The axioms of geometry are—according to my way of thinking—not arbitrary, but sensible. statements, which are, in general, induced by space perception and are determined as to their precise content by expediency.
In George Edward Martin, The Foundations of Geometry and the Non-Euclidean Plane (1982), 142.
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The greatest human evils are not those that individuals perform in private, the tiny transgressions against some arbitrary social standard we call sins. The ultimate evils are the mass murders that occur in revolution and war, the large-scale savageries that arise when one agglomeration of humans tries to dominate another: the deeds of the social group. … only group efforts can save us from the sporadic insanities of the group.
In 'The Clint Eastwood Conundrum', The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (1997), 7.
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The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths. There is nothing optional or arbitrary in them ... It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with them as they like.
Principles of Political Economy (1848), Book 2, 199.
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The material world begins to seem so trivial, so arbitrary, so ephemeral when contrasted with the timeless beauty of mathematics.
In The Mathematical Universe: An Alphabetical Journey Through the Great Proofs, Problems, and Personalities (1994), 160.
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The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.
A Brief History of Time (1998), 127.
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There are several kinds of truths, and it is customary to place in the first order mathematical truths, which are, however, only truths of definition. These definitions rest upon simple, but abstract, suppositions, and all truths in this category are only constructed, but abstract, consequences of these definitions ... Physical truths, to the contrary, are in no way arbitrary, and do not depend on us.
'Premier Discours: De la Manière d'Étudier et de Traiter l'Histoire naturelle', Histoire Naturelle, Generale et Particulière, Avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi (1749), Vol. I, 53-4. Trans. Phillip R. Sloan.
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There was yet another disadvantage attaching to the whole of Newton’s physical inquiries, ... the want of an appropriate notation for expressing the conditions of a dynamical problem, and the general principles by which its solution must be obtained. By the labours of LaGrange, the motions of a disturbed planet are reduced with all their complication and variety to a purely mathematical question. It then ceases to be a physical problem; the disturbed and disturbing planet are alike vanished: the ideas of time and force are at an end; the very elements of the orbit have disappeared, or only exist as arbitrary characters in a mathematical formula
Address to the Mechanics Institute, 'An Address on the Genius and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton' (1835), excerpted in paper by Luis M. Laita, Luis de Ledesma, Eugenio Roanes-Lozano and Alberto Brunori, 'George Boole, a Forerunner of Symbolic Computation', collected in John A. Campbell and Eugenio Roanes-Lozano (eds.), Artificial Intelligence and Symbolic Computation: International Conference AISC 2000 (2001), 3.
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Though genius isn't something that can be produced arbitrarily, it is freely willed—like wit, love, and faith, which one day will have to become arts and sciences. You should demand genius from everyone, but not expect it. A Kantian would call this the categorical imperative of genius.
Critical Fragment 16 in Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde and the Fragments (1971), 144.
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Truth can only be found by the human intellect, exercised in perfect freedom, and trained to submit itself to the facts of nature. This is the essence of the Scientific Method, which is the exact opposite of the Theological Method. Science teaches men to think with absolute independence of all arbitrary authority, but to submit all their thoughts to the test of actual experiences of Nature. Christianity teaches them to think only according to its own foregone dogmatic conclusions, and to stick to these dogmatic conclusion in defiance of all possible experience.
Leading article in Francis Ellingwood Abbot (ed.), The Index (1 Jan 1880), Volume 11, No. 523, 1.
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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 may consequently regard it as certain that, neither by natural agencies of inanimate matter, nor by the operations arbitrarily effected by animated Creatures, can there be any change produced in the amount of mechanical energy in the Universe.
In Draft of 'On a Universal Tendency … ', PA 137, Kelvin Collection, Cambridge Univ Library. As cited in Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (1998), 139.
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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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