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Who said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
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William Whewell
(24 May 1794 - 6 Mar 1866)

English scholar and philosopher known for his survey of the scientific method and for creating scientific words, including the word “scientist.”


William Whewell Quotes on Nature (17 quotes)

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By science, then, I understand the consideration of all subjects, whether of a pure or mixed nature, capable of being reduced to measurement and calculation. All things comprehended under the categories of space, time and number properly belong to our investigations; and all phenomena capable of being brought under the semblance of a law are legitimate objects of our inquiries.
— William Whewell
In Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1833), xxviii.
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I am persuaded that there is not in the nature of science anything unfavourable to religious feelings, and if I were not so persuaded I should be much puzzled to account for our being invested, as we so amply are, with the facilities that lead us to the discovery of scientific truth. It would be strange if our Creator should be found to be urging us on in a career which tended to be a forgetfulness of him.
— William Whewell
Letter to H. J. Rose (19 Nov 1826). Quoted in I. Todhunter (ed.), William Whewell: An Account of His Writings with Selections From His Literary and Scientific Correspondence (1876), Vol. 2, 76.
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In truth, we know causes only by their effects; and in order to learn the nature of the causes which modify the earth, we must study them through all ages of their action, and not select arbitrarily the period in which we live as the standard for all other epochs.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1857), Vol. 3, 514.
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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.
— William Whewell
In An Introduction to Dynamics (1832), x.
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Man is the Interpreter of Nature, Science the right interpretation.
— William Whewell
Aphorism 1, 'Aphorisms Concerning Ideas', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xvii.
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The Greeks in the first vigour of their pursuit of mathematical truth, at the time of Plato and soon after, had by no means confined themselves to those propositions which had a visible bearing on the phenomena of nature; but had followed out many beautiful trains of research concerning various kinds of figures, for the sake of their beauty alone; as for instance in their doctrine of Conic Sections, of which curves they had discovered all the principal properties. But it is curious to remark, that these investigations, thus pursued at first as mere matters of curiosity and intellectual gratification, were destined, two thousand years later, to play a very important part in establishing that system of celestial motions which succeeded the Platonic scheme of cycles and epicycles. If the properties of conic sections had not been demonstrated by the Greeks and thus rendered familiar to the mathematicians of succeeding ages, Kepler would probably not have been able to discover those laws respecting the orbits and motions of planets which were the occasion of the greatest revolution that ever happened in the history of science.
— William Whewell
In History of Scientific Ideas, Bk. 9, chap. 14, sect. 3.
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The ideas which these sciences, Geometry, Theoretical Arithmetic and Algebra involve extend to all objects and changes which we observe in the external world; and hence the consideration of mathematical relations forms a large portion of many of the sciences which treat of the phenomena and laws of external nature, as Astronomy, Optics, and Mechanics. Such sciences are hence often termed Mixed Mathematics, the relations of space and number being, in these branches of knowledge, combined with principles collected from special observation; while Geometry, Algebra, and the like subjects, which involve no result of experience, are called Pure Mathematics.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1868), Part 1, Bk. 2, chap. 1, sect. 4.
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The law of gravitation is indisputably and incomparably the greatest scientific discovery ever made, whether we look at the advance which it involved, the extent of truth disclosed, or the fundamental and satisfactory nature of this truth.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences, Bk. 7, chap. 8, sect. 6.
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The mystery of creation is not within the range of [Nature’s] legitimate territory; [Nature] says nothing, but she points upwards.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1837), Vol. 3, 588.
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The results of systematic symbolical reasoning must always express general truths, by their nature; and do not, for their justification, require each of the steps of the process to represent some definite operation upon quantity. The absolute universality of the interpretation of symbols is the fundamental principle of their use.
— William Whewell
In 'The Foundations of Higher Mathematics', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847), Part I, Bk. 2, 149.
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The Senses place before us the Characters of the Book of Nature; but these convey no knowledge to us, till we have discovered the Alphabet by which they are to be read.
— William Whewell
In 'Aphorisms Concerning Ideas', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xvii.
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There is a mask of theory over the whole face of nature, if it be theory to infer more than we see.
— William Whewell
The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences: Founded Upon Their History (1840), Vol. 1, 24.
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This science, Geometry, is one of indispensable use and constant reference, for every student of the laws of nature; for the relations of space and number are the alphabet in which those laws are written. But besides the interest and importance of this kind which geometry possesses, it has a great and peculiar value for all who wish to understand the foundations of human knowledge, and the methods by which it is acquired. For the student of geometry acquires, with a degree of insight and clearness which the unmathematical reader can but feebly imagine, a conviction that there are necessary truths, many of them of a very complex and striking character; and that a few of the most simple and self-evident truths which it is possible for the mind of man to apprehend, may, by systematic deduction, lead to the most remote and unexpected results.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Part 1, Bk. 2, chap. 4, sect. 8 (1868).
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Time, inexhaustible and ever accumulating his efficacy, can undoubtedly do much for the theorist in geology; but Force, whose limits we cannot measure, and whose nature we cannot fathom, is also a power never to be slighted: and to call in the one to protect us from the other, is equally presumptuous, to whichever of the two our superstition leans. To invoke Time, with ten thousand earthquakes, to overturn and set on edge a mountain-chain, should the phenomena indicate the change to have been sudden and not successive, would be ill excused by pleading the obligation of first appealing to known causes.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1857), Vol. 3, 513-514.
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To discover a Conception of the mind which will justly represent a train of observed facts is, in some measure, a process of conjecture, ... and the business of conjecture is commonly conducted by calling up before our minds several suppositions, selecting that one which most agrees with what we know of the observed facts. Hence he who has to discover the laws of nature may have to invent many suppositions before he hits upon the right one; and among the endowments which lead to his success, we must reckon that fertility of invention which ministers to him such imaginary schemes, till at last he finds the one which conforms to the true order of nature.
— William Whewell
Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847), Vol. 2, 54.
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To discover the laws of operative power in material productions, whether formed by man or brought into being by Nature herself, is the work of a science, and is indeed what we more especially term Science.
— William Whewell
Lecture (26 Nov 1851), to the London Society of Arts, 'The General Bearing of the Great Exhibition on the Progress of Art and Science', collected in Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851' (1852), 7.
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We may best hope to understand the nature and conditions of real knowledge, by studying the nature and conditions of the most certain and stable portions of knowledge which we already possess: and we are most likely to learn the best methods of discovering truth, by examining how truths, now universally recognised, have really been discovered.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. I, 3-4.
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See also:
  • 24 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Whewell's birth.
  • William Whewell - context of quote “Gold and iron…are the rulers of the world” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • William Whewell - context of quote “Gold and iron…are the rulers of the world” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • William Whewell: Theory of Scientific Method, by William Whewell. - book suggestion.

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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Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton


by Ian Ellis
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