Empirical Quotes (27 quotes)

A great surgeon performs operations for stone by a single method; later he makes a statistical summary of deaths and recoveries, and he concludes from these statistics that the mortality law for this operation is two out of five. Well, I say that this ratio means literally nothing scientifically and gives us no certainty in performing the next operation; for we do not know whether the next case will be among the recoveries or the deaths. What really should be done, instead of gathering facts empirically, is to study them more accurately, each in its special determinism. We must study cases of death with great care and try to discover in them the cause of mortal accidents so as to master the cause and avoid the accidents.

Edison was by far the most successful and, probably, the last exponent of the purely empirical method of investigation. Everything he achieved was the result of persistent trials and experiments often performed at random but always attesting extraordinary vigor and resource. Starting from a few known elements, he would make their combinations and permutations, tabulate them and run through the whole list, completing test after test with incredible rapidity until he obtained a clue. His mind was dominated by one idea, to leave no stone unturned, to exhaust every possibility.

Empirical sciences prosecuted purely for their own sake, and without philosophic tendency are like a face without eyes.

Every science begins by accumulating observations, and presently generalizes these empirically; but only when it reaches the stage at which its empirical generalizations are included in a rational generalization does it become developed science.

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*.
I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth—which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations—that mathematical ideas originate in empirics.

It has been asserted … that the power of observation is not developed by mathematical studies; while the truth is, that; from the most elementary mathematical notion that arises in the mind of a child to the farthest verge to which mathematical investigation has been pushed and applied, this power is in constant exercise. By observation, as here used, can only be meant the fixing of the attention upon objects (physical or mental) so as to note distinctive peculiarities—to recognize resemblances, differences, and other relations. Now the first mental act of the child recognizing the distinction between one and more than one, between one and two, two and three, etc., is exactly this. So, again, the first geometrical notions are as pure an exercise of this power as can be given. To know a straight line, to distinguish it from a curve; to recognize a triangle and distinguish the several forms—what are these, and all perception of form, but a series of observations? Nor is it alone in securing these fundamental conceptions of number and form that observation plays so important a part. The very genius of the common geometry as a method of reasoning—a system of investigation—is, that it is but a series of observations. The figure being before the eye in actual representation, or before the mind in conception, is so closely scrutinized, that all its distinctive features are perceived; auxiliary lines are drawn (the imagination leading in this), and a new series of inspections is made; and thus, by means of direct, simple observations, the investigation proceeds. So characteristic of common geometry is this method of investigation, that Comte, perhaps the ablest of all writers upon the philosophy of mathematics, is disposed to class geometry, as to its method, with the natural sciences, being based upon observation. Moreover, when we consider applied mathematics, we need only to notice that the exercise of this faculty is so essential, that the basis of all such reasoning, the very material with which we build, have received the name observations. Thus we might proceed to consider the whole range of the human faculties, and find for the most of them ample scope for exercise in mathematical studies. Certainly, the memory will not be found to be neglected. The very first steps in number—counting, the multiplication table, etc., make heavy demands on this power; while the higher branches require the memorizing of formulas which are simply appalling to the uninitiated. So the imagination, the creative faculty of the mind, has constant exercise in all original mathematical investigations, from the solution of the simplest problems to the discovery of the most recondite principle; for it is not by sure, consecutive steps, as many suppose, that we advance from the known to the unknown. The imagination, not the logical faculty, leads in this advance. In fact, practical observation is often in advance of logical exposition. Thus, in the discovery of truth, the imagination habitually presents hypotheses, and observation supplies facts, which it may require ages for the tardy reason to connect logically with the known. Of this truth, mathematics, as well as all other sciences, affords abundant illustrations. So remarkably true is this, that today it is seriously questioned by the majority of thinkers, whether the sublimest branch of mathematics,—the

*infinitesimal calculus*—has anything more than an empirical foundation, mathematicians themselves not being agreed as to its logical basis. That the imagination, and not the logical faculty, leads in all original investigation, no one who has ever succeeded in producing an original demonstration of one of the simpler propositions of geometry, can have any doubt. Nor are*induction*,*analogy*, the*scrutinization*of*premises*or the*search*for them, or the*balancing*of*probabilities*, spheres of mental operations foreign to mathematics. No one, indeed, can claim preeminence for mathematical studies in all these departments of intellectual culture, but it may, perhaps, be claimed that scarcely any department of science affords discipline to so great a number of faculties, and that none presents so complete a gradation in the exercise of these faculties, from the first principles of the science to the farthest extent of its applications, as mathematics.
It is a peculiar feature in the fortune of principles of such high elementary generality and simplicity as characterise the laws of motion, that when they are once firmly established, or supposed to be so, men turn with weariness and impatience from all questionings of the grounds and nature of their authority. We often feel disposed to believe that truths so clear and comprehensive are necessary conditions, rather than empirical attributes of their subjects: that they are legible by their own axiomatic light, like the first truths of geometry, rather than discovered by the blind gropings of experience.

It is exceptional that one should be able to acquire the understanding of a process without having previously acquired a deep familiarity with running it, with using it, before one has assimilated it in an instinctive and empirical way. Thus any discussion of the nature of intellectual effort in any field is difficult, unless it presupposes an easy, routine familiarity with that field. In mathematics this limitation becomes very severe.

It is not

*Cayley’s*way to analyze concepts into their ultimate elements. … But he is master of the*empirical*utilization of the material: in the way he combines it to form a single abstract concept which he generalizes and then subjects to computative tests, in the way the newly acquired data are made to yield at a single stroke the general comprehensive idea to the subsequent numerical verification of which years of labor are devoted.*Cayley*is thus the*natural philosopher*among mathematicians.
Mathematical proofs are essentially of three different types: pre-formal; formal; post-formal. Roughly the first and third prove something about that sometimes clear and empirical, sometimes vague and ‘quasi-empirical’ stuff, which is the real though rather evasive subject of mathematics.

My Lord said that he who knew men only in this way [from history] was like one who had got the theory of anatomy perfectly, but who in practice would find himself very awkward and liable to mistakes. That he again who knew men by observation was like one who picked up anatomy by practice, but who like all empirics would for a long time be liable to gross errors.

Natural historians tend to avoid tendentious preaching in this philosophical mode (although I often fall victim to such temptations in these essays). Our favored style of doubting is empirical: if I wish to question your proposed generality, I will search for a counterexample in flesh and blood. Such counterexamples exist in abundance, for the form a staple in a standard genre of writing in natural history–the “wonderment of oddity” or “strange ways of the beaver” tradition.

Only he who finds empiricism irksome is driven to method.

Our most trustworthy safeguard in making general statements on this question is imagination. If we can imagine the breaking of a law of physics then… it is in some degree an empirical law. With a purely rational law we could not conceive an alternative… This ultimate criterion serves as an anchor to keep us from drifting unduly in a perilous sea of thought.

Pure mathematics … reveals itself as nothing but symbolic or formal logic. It is concerned with implications, not applications. On the other hand, natural science, which is empirical and ultimately dependent upon observation and experiment, and therefore incapable of absolute exactness, cannot become strictly mathematical. The certainty of geometry is thus merely the certainty with which conclusions follow from non-contradictory premises. As to whether these conclusions are true of the material world or not, pure mathematics is indifferent.

Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing. This failed to happen, partly because of the impoverishment caused by a long series of wars and revolutions, partly because scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society.

Superstrings are totally lacking in empirical support, yet they offer an elegant theory with great explanatory power. I wish I could be around fifty years from now to know whether superstrings turn out to be a fruitful theory or whether they are just another blind alley in the search for a “theory of everything.”

The belief in the immortality of the human soul is a dogma which is in hopeless contradiction with the most solid empirical truths of modern science.

The empirical domain of objective contemplation, and the delineation of our planet in its present condition, do not include a consideration of the mysterious and insoluble problems of origin and
existence.

The explorations of space end on a note of uncertainty. And necessarily so. … We know our immediate neighborhood rather intimately. With increasing distance our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly. Eventually, we reach the dim boundary—the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. Not until the empirical resources are exhausted, need we pass on to the dreamy realms of speculation.

The propositions of mathematics have, therefore, the same unquestionable certainty which is typical of such propositions as “All bachelors are unmarried,” but they also share the complete lack of empirical content which is associated with that certainty: The propositions of mathematics are devoid of all factual content; they convey no information whatever on any empirical subject matter.

Theories rarely arise as patient inferences forced by accumulated facts. Theories are mental constructs potentiated by complex external prods (including, in idealized cases, a commanding push from empirical reality) . But the prods often in clude dreams, quirks, and errors–just as we may obtain crucial bursts of energy from foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals of no objective or enduring value. Great truth can emerge from small error. Evolution is thrilling, liberating, and correct. And Macrauchenia is a litoptern.

There are, as we have seen, a number of different modes of technological innovation. Before the seventeenth century inventions (empirical or scientific) were diffused by imitation and adaption while improvement was established by the survival of the fittest. Now, technology has become a complex but consciously directed group of social activities involving a wide range of skills, exemplified by scientific research, managerial expertise, and practical and inventive abilities. The powers of technology appear to be unlimited. If some of the dangers may be great, the potential rewards are greater still. This is not simply a matter of material benefits for, as we have seen, major changes in thought have, in the past, occurred as consequences of technological advances.

This is the reason why all attempts to obtain a deeper knowledge of the foundations of physics seem doomed to me unless the basic concepts are in accordance with general relativity from the beginning. This situation makes it difficult to use our empirical knowledge, however comprehensive, in looking for the fundamental concepts and relations of physics, and it forces us to apply free speculation to a much greater extent than is presently assumed by most physicists.

Through purely logical thinking we can attain no knowledge whatsoever of the empirical world.

[An outsider views a scientist] as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as a

*realist*, insofar as he seeks to describe the world independent of the act of perception; as*idealist*insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as the free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from that which is empirically given); as*positivist*insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of relations among sense experiences. He may even appear as*Platonist*or*Pythagorean*insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research.