, ,

As another quick entry, as part of my highlighting the 2015 International Whitehead Conference in Claremont, CA this coming June, here is the abstract of the paper I will be presenting (the full outline may be found below.)

The Argument:

It is now fifty-five years since Eugene Wigner explicitly stated his famous concern regarding “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in The Natural Sciences.” Wigner’s concern, which many continue to share, is this: Why is mathematical reasoning such a spectacularly useful tool in advancing natural science? Indeed, why is it effective at all, given that there are infinitely many ways in which the natural world might be modeled, yet only vanishingly few ways that are close enough to the truth to have any predictive value at all? It seems miraculous that scientific investigators should “zero in” upon workable and testable hypotheses. Wigner’s argument was widely read, but largely dismissed as a merely academic puzzle. Since science, with its mathematical basis, was successful, questions of how or why it was successful seemed to be matters of no substantive import.

In this paper, I will re-engage Wigner’s concerns from within the thought of the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s approach was always sympathetic to (and later, directly influenced by) William James’s “radical empiricism,” which argued that the world is composed not only of things, but of the real relations amongst these things, and these relations were part of the immediate contents of experience. On this view, the effectiveness of mathematics in modeling these relations is less of a mystery because the relations themselves are there in experience to be conceptually distilled and analyzed. Because the relations are already in experience, and express objectively real facts about the world, then the effectiveness of mathematics in modeling these relations is no longer a miracle per se, as the connections between the relations and the models can now be seen as rooted in human experience, rather than mysteriously connected in a purely and accidentally external manner.

The failure to appreciate the need for such an account has embedded numerous difficulties within contemporary physical science. The particular example that will be used in this paper is Whitehead’s own detailed criticisms of the logical failures underlying the assumptions regarding measurement that are inherent in Einstein’s general theory of relativity. By showing how Whitehead’s criticisms go much further than the merely recondite proposal of a formally adequate alternative to Einstein’s theory, and involves a profoundly fresh vision of both the “nature of Nature” and, via Whitehead’s own version of radical empiricism, human contact with that Nature, I will show how the catastrophic difficulties currently undermining the empirical content of contemporary physical cosmology stem from the assumed, and altogether failed, philosophy of nature that currently stands at the foundation of that discipline.

Rather than merely reading a paper for the entire time frame of the presentation, sections of the paper will be read with pauses in between for more informal discussion, questions and answers, and simple demonstrations. For example, issues that easily can be made vivid include such things as passing a ruler around the room and asking ourselves, “what must remain true in order for the ruler to mean/measure the same things at one side of the room as another?” Such illustrative activities tie-in directly with the issues raised by Wigner, and Whitehead’s Jamesian response.

The presentation naturally divides itself into three sections:

  1. Intuition and Radical Empiricism,
  2. The Measurement Problem of Cosmology,
  3. Intuitions, Models, and Explanations.

So the reading portions will be twenty minutes each, followed by a ten minute discussion and demonstration period.