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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index P > Category: Philosophical

Philosophical Quotes (23 quotes)

But I believe that there is no philosophical high-road in science, with epistemological signposts. No, we are in a jungle and find our way by trial and error, building our road behind us as we proceed. We do not find signposts at cross-roads, but our own scouts erect them, to help the rest.
Max Born
In Experiment and Theory in Physics (1943), 44.
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Dalton transformed the atomic concept from a philosophical speculation into a scientific theory—framed to explain quantitative observations, suggesting new tests and experiments, and capable of being given quantitative form through the establishment of relative masses of atomic particles.
Development of Concepts of Physics. In Clifford A. Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them (2008), 175.
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Darwin grasped the philosophical bleakness with his characteristic courage. He argued that hope and morality cannot, and should not, be passively read in the construction of nature. Aesthetic and moral truths, as human concepts, must be shaped in human terms, not ‘discovered’ in nature. We must formulate these answers for ourselves and then approach nature as a partner who can answer other kinds of questions for us–questions about the factual state of the universe, not about the meaning of human life. If we grant nature the independence of her own domain–her answers unframed in human terms–then we can grasp her exquisite beauty in a free and humble way. For then we become liberated to approach nature without the burden of an inappropriate and impossible quest for moral messages to assuage our hopes and fears. We can pay our proper respect to nature’s independence and read her own ways as beauty or inspiration in our different terms.
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I am of the decided opinion, that mathematical instruction must have for its first aim a deep penetration and complete command of abstract mathematical theory together with a clear insight into the structure of the system, and doubt not that the instruction which accomplishes this is valuable and interesting even if it neglects practical applications. If the instruction sharpens the understanding, if it arouses the scientific interest, whether mathematical or philosophical, if finally it calls into life an esthetic feeling for the beauty of a scientific edifice, the instruction will take on an ethical value as well, provided that with the interest it awakens also the impulse toward scientific activity. I contend, therefore, that even without reference to its applications mathematics in the high schools has a value equal to that of the other subjects of instruction.
In 'Ueber das Lehrziel im mathemalischen Unterricht der höheren Realanstalten', Jahresbericht der Deutschen Mathematiker Vereinigung, 2, 192. (The Annual Report of the German Mathematical Association. As translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-Book (1914), 73.
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I believe that certain erroneous developments in particle theory ... are caused by a misconception by some physicists that it is possible to avoid philosophical arguments altogether. Starting with poor philosophy, they pose the wrong questions. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that good physics has at times been spoiled by poor philosophy.
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If you defend a behavior by arguing that people are programmed directly for it, then how do you continue to defend it if your speculation is wrong, for the behavior then becomes unnatural and worthy of condemnation. Better to stick resolutely to a philosophical position on human liberty: what free adults do with each other in their own private lives is their business alone. It need not be vindicated–and must not be condemned–by genetic speculation.
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In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer’s saying, that ‘a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,’ has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others’. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralysing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place.
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In the whole history of the world there was never a race with less liking for abstract reasoning than the Anglo-Saxon. … Common-sense and compromise are believed in, logical deductions from philosophical principles are looked upon with suspicion, not only by legislators, but by all our most learned professional men.
In Teaching of Mathematics (1902), 20-21.
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It was his [Leibnitz’s] love of method and order, and the conviction that such order and harmony existed in the real world, and that our success in understanding it depended upon the degree and order which we could attain in our own thoughts, that originally was probably nothing more than a habit which by degrees grew into a formal rule.* This habit was acquired by early occupation with legal and mathematical questions. We have seen how the theory of combinations and arrangements of elements had a special interest for him. We also saw how mathematical calculations served him as a type and model of clear and orderly reasoning, and how he tried to introduce method and system into logical discussions, by reducing to a small number of terms the multitude of compound notions he had to deal with. This tendency increased in strength, and even in those early years he elaborated the idea of a general arithmetic, with a universal language of symbols, or a characteristic which would be applicable to all reasoning processes, and reduce philosophical investigations to that simplicity and certainty which the use of algebraic symbols had introduced into mathematics.
A mental attitude such as this is always highly favorable for mathematical as well as for philosophical investigations. Wherever progress depends upon precision and clearness of thought, and wherever such can be gained by reducing a variety of investigations to a general method, by bringing a multitude of notions under a common term or symbol, it proves inestimable. It necessarily imports the special qualities of number—viz., their continuity, infinity and infinite divisibility—like mathematical quantities—and destroys the notion that irreconcilable contrasts exist in nature, or gaps which cannot be bridged over. Thus, in his letter to Arnaud, Leibnitz expresses it as his opinion that geometry, or the philosophy of space, forms a step to the philosophy of motion—i.e., of corporeal things—and the philosophy of motion a step to the philosophy of mind.
[* This sentence has been reworded for the purpose of this quotation.]
In Leibnitz (1884), 44-45.
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Mere poets are sottish as mere drunkards are, who live in a continual mist, without seeing or judging anything clearly. A man should be learned in several sciences, and should have a reasonable, philosophical and in some measure a mathematical head, to be a complete and excellent poet.
In Notes and Observations on The Empress of Morocco (1674), 70.
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Mr. Bertrand Russell tells us that it can be shown that a mathematical web of some kind can be woven about any universe containing several objects. If this be so, then the fact that our universe lends itself to mathematical treatment is not a fact of any great philosophical significance.
In The Limitations of Science (1933), 229. [Notice that there are no quotation marks in the narrative statement by Sullivan. Therefore, Webmaster believes they are not necessarily, and likely not, the verbatim words from Russell. The first sentence is more likely to be Sullivan expressing in his own words an idea from Russell, and most likely the second sentence is Sullivan’s comment on that idea. (Be cautioned that quotation marks, perhaps spurious, have appeared when re-stated in later publications by other authors.) Webmaster has so far been unable to identify a primary source for these words in a text by Russell. If you know the primary source, please contact Webmaster.]
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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.
In 'Reversing Established Orders', Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (2011), 394.
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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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Sign language is the equal of speech, lending itself equally to the rigorous and the poetic, to philosophical analysis or to making love.
In The Times (16 Jun 1994).
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Sir Isaac Newton and Dr. Bentley met accidentally in London, and on Sir Isaac’s inquiring what philosophical pursuits were carrying on at Cambridge, the doctor replied—None—for when you go a hunting Sir Isaac, you kill all the game; you have left us nothing to pursue.—Not so, said the philosopher, you may start a variety of game in every bush if you will but take the trouble to beat for it.
From Richard Watson, Chemical Essays (1786, 1806), Vol. 4, 257-258. No citation given, so—assuming it is more or less authentic—Webmaster offers this outright guess. Watson was the source of another anecdote about Newton (see “I find more sure marks…”). Thus, one might by pure speculation wonder if this quote was passed along in the same way. Was this another anecdote relayed to Watson by his former teacher, Dr. Robert Smith (Master of Trinity House), who might have been told this by Newton himself? Perhaps we’ll never know, but if you know a primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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So many people today–and even professional scientists–seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest . A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is–in my opinion–the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.
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The ancients devoted a lifetime to the study of arithmetic; it required days to extract a square root or to multiply two numbers together. Is there any harm in skipping all that, in letting the school boy learn multiplication sums, and in starting his more abstract reasoning at a more advanced point? Where would be the harm in letting the boy assume the truth of many propositions of the first four books of Euclid, letting him assume their truth partly by faith, partly by trial? Giving him the whole fifth book of Euclid by simple algebra? Letting him assume the sixth as axiomatic? Letting him, in fact, begin his severer studies where he is now in the habit of leaving off? We do much less orthodox things. Every here and there in one’s mathematical studies one makes exceedingly large assumptions, because the methodical study would be ridiculous even in the eyes of the most pedantic of teachers. I can imagine a whole year devoted to the philosophical study of many things that a student now takes in his stride without trouble. The present method of training the mind of a mathematical teacher causes it to strain at gnats and to swallow camels. Such gnats are most of the propositions of the sixth book of Euclid; propositions generally about incommensurables; the use of arithmetic in geometry; the parallelogram of forces, etc., decimals.
In Teaching of Mathematics (1904), 12.
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The great artifice of regarding small deviations from the truth as being the truth itself is at the same time the foundation of wit, where the whole thing would often collapse if we were to regard these deviations in a spirit of philosophical rigor.
Aphorism from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and R.J. Hollingdale (trans.) 'Notebook A: 1765-1770', The Waste Books (1990), 4. Also seen translated as, “The great trick of regarding small departures from the truth as the truth itself—on which is founded the entire integral calculus—is also the basis of our witty speculations, where the whole thing would often collapse if we considered the departures with philosophical rigour,” for example, as quoted in FractalVision: Put Fractals to Work For You (1992), 5, citing Aphorisms: 1764-1799.
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The universe is a philosophical abyss.
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There is no inductive method which could lead to the fundamental concepts of physics. Failure to understand this fact constituted the basic philosophical error of so many investigators of the nineteenth century.
Opening of section 4, 'The Theory of Relativity', in Physics and Reality (1936), collected in Essays in Physics (1950), 34.
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There’s Nature and she’s going to come out the way She is. So therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t predecide what it is we’re looking for only to find out more about it. Now you ask: “Why do you try to find out more about it?” If you began your investigation to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question just by finding out more about the character of Nature. But that’s not my interest in science; my interest in science is to simply find out about the world and the more I find out the better it is, I like to find out...
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To say that mind is a product or function of protoplasm, or of its molecular changes, is to use words to which we can attach no clear conception. You cannot have, in the whole, what does not exist in any of the parts; and those who argue thus should put forth a definite conception of matter, with clearly enunciated properties, and show, that the necessary result of a certain complex arrangement of the elements or atoms of that matter, will be the production of self-consciousness. There is no escape from this dilemma—either all matter is conscious, or consciousness is something distinct from matter, and in the latter case, its presence in material forms is a proof of the existence of conscious beings, outside of, and independent of, what we term matter. The foregoing considerations lead us to the very important conclusion, that matter is essentially force, and nothing but force; that matter, as popularly understood, does not exist, and is, in fact, philosophically inconceivable. When we touch matter, we only really experience sensations of resistance, implying repulsive force; and no other sense can give us such apparently solid proofs of the reality of matter, as touch does. This conclusion, if kept constantly present in the mind, will be found to have a most important bearing on almost every high scientific and philosophical problem, and especially on such as relate to our own conscious existence.
In 'The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man', last chapter of Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), 365-366.
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We have one of his [Newton’s] college memorandum-books, which is highly interesting. The following are some of the entries: “Drills, gravers, a hone, a hammer, and a mandril, 5s.;” “a magnet, 16s.;” “compasses, 2s.;” “glass bubbles, 4s.;” “at the tavern several other times, £1;” “spent on my cousin, 12s.;” “on other acquaintances, 10s.;” “Philosophical Intelligences, 9s. 6d.;” “lost at cards twice, 15s.;” “at the tavern twice, 3s. 6d.;” “to three prisms, £3;” “four ounces of putty, 1s. 4d.;” “Bacon’s Miscellanies, 1s. 6d.;” “a bible binding, 3s.;” “for oranges to my sister, 4s. 2d.;” “for aquafortis, sublimate, oyle pink, fine silver, antimony, vinegar, spirit of wine, white lead, salt of tartar, £2;” “Theatrum chemicum, £1 8s.”
In 'Sir Isaac Newton', People’s Book of Biography: Or, Short Lives of the Most Interesting Persons of All Ages and Countries (1868), 255.
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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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