BOOK REVIEW: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural SciencesThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Paul Wigner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available online here

This brief essay asks why math proves so effective for describing / codifying physical laws, and whether our physical theories — built on (phenomenally successful) mathematics — offer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

There’s a popular story in which a drunk man is found on his hands and knees under a lamppost at night when a police officer comes along. The cops says, “What-cha doin’?” To which the drunk replies, “I dropped my keys, and I’m looking for them?” So, the cop says, “Well, they’re clearly not where you’re looking, why not look elsewhere?” And the drunk says, “Cuz this is where the light is.” I think this story can help us understand what Wigner is getting on about, if only we replace the drunk’s “light” with the scientist’s “elegant mathematics.” Wigner reflects upon why it should be that so many laws of nature seem to be independent from all but a few variables (which is the only way scientists could have discovered them –historically, mathematically, and realistically speaking.) On the other hand, could it be that Physics has led itself into epistemological cul-de-sacs by chasing elegant mathematics?

There’s no doubt that (for whatever the reason turns out to be) mathematics has been tremendously successful in facilitating the construction of theories that make predictions that can be tested with high levels of accuracy. However, that doesn’t mean that some of those theories won’t prove to be mirages.

A few of the examples used in this paper are somewhat esoteric and won’t be readily understood by the average (non-expert) reader. That said, Wigner puts his basic arguments and questions in reasonably clear (if academic) language. The essay is definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking insights.

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy for Gardeners by Kate Collyns

Philosophy for Gardeners: Ideas and paradoxes to ponder in the gardenPhilosophy for Gardeners: Ideas and paradoxes to ponder in the garden by Kate Collyns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: March 1, 2022

This book can benefit not only gardeners interested in philosophy, but also philosophers interested in gardening. [If you’re in the intersect of people expert in both philosophy and gardening, the book probably won’t hold a great deal of intrigue as it’s written for a more general audience.] The gist is examples and analogies from gardening applied to elucidating philosophical concepts. In a few cases, these examples feel a bit forced. In most cases, they work just fine. But in a few other cases, the gardening analogies offer a powerful and unique insight that one would be unlikely to take away from a single-axis philosophy guide. For example, I found the relating of utilitarianism to the gardener’s dilemma of whether to start with a wildly overgrown bed or a relatively clean one offered a fresh perspective on the topic.

The book’s twenty chapters are divided into four parts. The parts are labeled “Soil,” “Growth,” “Harvest,” and “Cycles;” which I took to apply to fundamentals, change, outcomes, and the cycle of life and death. Part I, “Soil,” investigates topics in metaphysics, governance, and taxonomy. The second part, “Growth,” explores evolutionary adaptation, altruism / cooperation, the blank slate (and its critique,) and Zeno’s paradoxes. The penultimate section, “Harvest,” delves into topics such as forms, aesthetics, the reliability of senses, epistemology, and economic philosophy. Finally, “Cycles” discusses identity, logic and linguistic limitations, ethics, and pragmatism.

The book uses retro illustrations that look like the plates one might see in a book from the 19th century. There’s a brief bibliography, primarily of philosophical classics.

I’m always on the lookout for books that consider the perspective that humans exist within nature and our ways can’t be understood divorced from our place in the natural world. In that sense, I believe the book has much to offer.

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BOOK REVIEW: Euthydemus by Plato

EuthydemusEuthydemus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

In this Socratic dialogue, Socrates is pitted against two brothers, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, who are Pankrationists turned Sophist. [Pankration is an ancient Greek martial art, but Socrates is verbally sparring with the men in their role as roving philosophy teachers and not as wrestlers.] We don’t hear the interaction firsthand, but rather as Socrates describes events to his friend Crito after the fact.

Socrates seeks to get the two sophists to answer his favorite question, whether virtue is a form of knowledge and can be taught. The brothers take a tag-team approach against a youth named Cleinias to “teach.” Soon, Socrates attempts to reign in the conversation, which has devolved into nonsense because the brothers use a go-to approach that involves logical fallacies that turn on false dichotomies, semantic manipulation, and the imposition of all-or-none conditions on propositions that aren’t all-or-none.

This moves to the brothers proposing that the crowd wants Cleinias to perish because they seek to make him become something he isn’t (i.e. wise.) This brings Ctessippus angrily into the debate (he is fond of Cleinias and sharp-witted, but more emotionally ruled than Socrates.) While a Buddhist would destroy the brothers’ fallacious reasoning with ease, it takes a second for Socrates to undermine the argument by pointing out that if that version of Cleinias perished only to be seamlessly replaced by a new and improved version, it would – indeed – be a great thing.

The rest of the dialogue is the brothers using faulty logic to “prove” such things as that a person knows nothing or everything, and side-stepping questions about why individuals who already know everything would benefit from paying a Sophist. I’d call this a better than average dialogue, well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson

Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This is a concise guide to the philosophy of Plato. Its numerous short (page-length) sections are logically arranged: beginning with background context – e.g. life in ancient Athens and the ways of Plato’s teacher, Socrates — and ending with discussion of the post-Platonic world of Aristotle and later philosophers influenced by Plato’s work. Through the heart of this book, it explores the various dimensions of Plato’s philosophy: his epistemology, his take on virtue ethics, his political philosophy, his form-based conception of metaphysics, his thoughts on rhetoric, and his surprising rejection of art and poetry. Along the way, the book discusses about ten of the Socratic dialogues, specifically (others are mentioned in passing as they relate to topics under consideration,) as well as many of the well-known ideas that came from these works (e.g. Plato’s Cave from “Republic.”)

The book uses graphics to help convey ideas, mostly drawings that emphasize key points. There is also a “Further Reading” that lists some works that elaborate on Plato’s philosophy and life from various perspectives, as well as listing a number of the Socratic dialogues and whether they fall into the early, middle, or late phases of Plato’s career. (Note: There isn’t complete agreement on how many Socratic Dialogues were written by Plato – 35 is a disputed number, but one often cited. The importance of the period is that Plato appears to increasingly present his own ideas, rather than those of Socrates, who continues to serve as the central character in Plato’s writings.)

This book is highly readable, but skims the surface. Whether it will serve one’s purpose depends upon what one knows about Plato and his canon to begin with. I would recommend it for a neophyte who doesn’t want to get bogged down in a lot of obscure ideas or complex explanations.

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ESSAY: This I Believe [Including My Views on Unicorns]

Occasionally, I’m asked whether I BELIEVE some idea or BELIEVE in X [i.e. fill in the person, place, thing, or concept.]

If I were to answer these questions honestly, that answer would almost invariably be, “No.”

But, because that can seem overly contrarian — not to mention insane — I often try to guess the sense in which the questioner is using the words “BELIEVE” and “BELIEF,” and then answer accordingly.

Like many words, BELIEVE is one whose meaning meanders, and shadows fall across it in different ways, creating different hues [and impressions thereof,] depending upon one’s vantage point.

Often, people seem to use the phrase, “I BELIEVE X ” synonymously with “I understand X to be true.” “I BELIEVE it” can mean: I behave as though X is true, [but am not necessarily commenting on the degree to which X is supported by evidence or reason.] I, on the other hand, try to use BELIEVE in the sense of: “I accept the truth of X and behave accordingly, but I don’t really have any solid basis on which to rest this conclusion.” I like to draw as few such conclusions as possible, though sometimes it’s hard not to. For example, like most people, I live my life as if we are living in base reality — as opposed to being in some “Matrix”-like computer simulated world, but — if pressed — I’d have to admit that I can’t really support this belief convincingly.

If I were to be asked whether I BELIEVE there is a force that inexorably pulls me toward the Earth’s center, using my own interpretation of the word “BELIEVE,” I would reply in the negative. Before you ask how I can be so anti-gravity [pun not intended, but acknowledged,] let me say that I firmly understand there to be such a force as gravity. This is not to say that I fully understand the mechanism by which gravity works — which I certainly do not — but rather to say that I recognize the truth of such a force’s existence. I can experience gravity in my pathetic vertical leap, and even note it in the very impressive vertical leap of skilled athletes. I see it in the red leaf, twirling as it falls to the ground. I feel it upon takeoff as an airplane’s seat raises against my butt. Furthermore, I recognize that there are many scientists who’ve come to understand a great deal more about gravity than I, but also that none of what they’ve learned through their vast number of controlled observations contradicts my basic idea that I’m being pulled toward the planet (and it toward me.)

At the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, I was once asked whether I BELIEVED in astronomy and astrology? The questioner clearly thought this was a closed-ended, yes or no, question — as if the two fields dealt in identical content. Of course, from my perspective, it was a question similar to: “Do you BELIEVE in Zebras and Magical Unicorns?” — which is to say, not at all a straightforward and closed-ended yes or no question. [Incidentally, the reason I used the modifier “magical” is because I do “believe” in unicorns. I just call them “Indian Rhinoceroses” [Latin name: Rhinoceros Unicornis.]]

A Unicorn — i.e. the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis

The long and short of the matter is this: I strive to BELIEVE as little as I can, and to hold even those BELIEFs only so tightly that they might fall away in the face of learning. Otherwise, what’s learning for [or is it even possible?]