Archive for September 13th, 2021

September 13, 2021

Against mechanism

by Neil Rickert

The title might be a tad misleading, so I will need to clarify. But perhaps I should start by pointing out that we really don’t have a good definition of mechanism. So people might disagree about what the word means.

I have a car, clocks, a wrist watch, a cell phone, and many other such things. I am not against that kind of mechanism. I will note, however, that all of those kinds of mechanisms eventually fail. Mechanical things break.

And then there are our scientific laws. Newton’s laws were often described as “Newtonian mechanics”, and Einsteins newer theory is often described as relativistic mechanics. We normally do not expect scientific laws to fail. Of course, these days we normally see relativistic mechanics as having superseded Newtonian mechanics. But that wasn’t because Newton’s laws failed in the way that real mechanisms fail. Rather, it was because relativistic mechanics was better than Newtonian mechanics. And, of course, Newtonian mechanics is still very much in use, because it is easier to use than relativistic mechanics, and in most cases it works well enough.

Ideal mechanisms

Because scientific laws are not expected to fail, we might consider them to be ideal mechanisms. They are abstract, rather than composed of physical gears and levers such as we see with physical mechanisms.

Again, to be clear, I am not in any way opposed to the kind of ideal mechanisms that we see in science. They not what I am against. After all, I am a mathematician, and much of mathematics is about such ideal mechanisms.

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