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Ernst Mach (1838 – 1916) was an Austrian physicist and the precursor of the general theory of relativity. Where neither confirmation nor refutation is possible, science is not concerned.

Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach, scientist and philosopher of being

Sources of quotes: WikiQuote, EGS, GoodReads, BrainyQuotes, SpaceAndMotion,


Quotations from Ernst Mach

I know of nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much. Instead of the sound powerful judgement which would probably have grown up if they had learned nothing, their thoughts creep timidly and hypnotically after words, principles and formula, constantly by the same paths. What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure supports, but complicated enough to provide confusion.

The sensations are no “symbols of things”. On the contrary the “thing” is a mental symbol for a sensation-complex of relative stability. Not the things, the bodies, but colours, sounds, pressures, times (what we usually call sensations) are the true elements of the world.

Nature consists of the elements given by the senses. Primitive man first takes out of them certain complexes of these elements that present themselves with a certain stability and are most important to him. The first and oldest words are names for “things”. … The sensations are no “symbols of things”. On the contrary the “thing” is a mental symbol for a sensation-complex of relative stability. Not the things, the bodies, but colors, sounds, pressures, times (what we usually call sensations) are the true elements of the world.

It seemed to me a simple and natural, nay, an almost self-evident supposition, that similarity must be founded on a partial likeness or identity, and that consequently, where sensations were similar, we had to look for their common identical constituents and for the corresponding common physiological processes.

In reality, the law always contains less than the fact itself, because it does not reproduce the fact as a whole but only in that aspect of it which is important for us, the rest being intentionally or from necessity omitted.

I see the expression of… economy clearly in the gradual reduction of the statical laws of machines to a single one, viz. , the principle of virtual work: in the replacement of Kepler’s laws by Newton’s single law… and in the [subsequent] reduction, simplification and clarification of the laws of dynamics. I see clearly the biological-economical adaptation of ideas, which takes place by the principles of continuity (permanence) and of adequate definition and splits the concept ‘heat’ into the two concepts of ‘temperature’ and ‘quantity of heat’; and I see how the concept ‘quantity of heat’ leads on to ‘latent heat’, and to the concepts of ‘energy’ and ‘entropy’.

All this, the positive and physical essence of mechanics, which makes its chief and highest interest for a student of nature, is in existing treatises completely buried and concealed beneath a mass of technical considerations.

The function of science, as we take it, is to replace experience. Thus, on the one hand, science must remain in the province of experience, but, on the other, must hasten beyond it, constantly expecting confirmation, constantly expecting the reverse. Where neither confirmation nor refutation is possible, science is not concerned.

Science always has its origin in the adaptation of thought to some definite field of experience.

Science itself, therefore, may be regarded as a minimal problem, consisting of the completest possible presentment of facts with the least possible expenditure of thought.

The biological task of science is to provide the fully developed human individual with as perfect a means of orienting himself as possible. No other scientific ideal can be realized, and any other must be meaningless.

Not bodies produce sensations, but element-complexes (sensation-complexes) constitute the bodies. When the physicist considers the bodies as the permanent reality, the `elements’ as the transient appearance, he does not realize that all `bodies’ are only mental symbols for element-complexes (sensation-complexes)

Physics is experience, arranged in economical order.

The plain man is familiar with blindness and deafness, and knows from his everyday experience that the look of things is influenced by his senses; but it never occurs to him to regard the whole world as the creation of his senses.

My table is now brightly, now dimly lighted. Its temperature varies. It may receive an ink stain. One of its legs may be broken. It may be repaired, polished, and replaced part by part. But, for me, it remains the table at which I daily write.

The fact is, every thinker, every philosopher, the moment he is forced to abandon his one-sided intellectual occupation by practical necessity, immediately returns to the general point of view of mankind.

If our dreams were more regular, more connected, more stable, they would also have more practical importance for us.

Man is pre-eminently endowed with the power of voluntarily and consciously determining his own point of view.

Many an article that I myself penned twenty years ago impresses me now as something quite foreign to myself.

The task which we have set ourselves is simply to show why and for what purpose we hold that standpoint during most of our lives, and why and for what purpose we are provisionally obliged to abandon it.

When I recall today my early youth, I should take the boy that I then was, with the exception of a few individual features, for a different person, were it not for the existence of the chain of memories.

The apparent permanency of the ego consists chiefly in the single fact of its continuity, in the slowness of its changes

It seemed to me a simple and natural, nay, an almost self-evident supposition, that similarity founded on a partial likeness or identity, and that consequently, where sensations were similar, we had to look for their common identical constituents and for the corresponding common physiological processes. [Convergent ideas is like convergent evolution]

A piece of knowledge is never false or true – but only more or less biologically and evolutionary useful. All dogmatic creeds are approximations: these approximations form a humus from which better approximations grow.

A conceptual system is better if it is simple, comprehensive and free from internal contradictions; such a system is more useful to us and more fruitful. But we must not be misled into saying that nature itself is simple, economical and the like; the difference between economical and cumbersome conceptual systems is one of utility, not truth.


COMMENTS on the Quotations from Ernst Mach

Many an article that I myself penned twenty years ago impresses me now as something quite foreign to myself. This is a strange statement, which directly contradicts my personal experience. I don’t remember things I wrote many years ago but when reading them there is a feeling of affinity. This would be an interesting thing to test, by finding paragraphs in various people’s diaries from years ago, and asking them if they knew who wrote the material and how they feel about it.

Man is pre-eminently endowed with the power of voluntarily and consciously determining his own point of view. There seems to be a movement afoot at the moment to deny that humans have free will. There are experiments pointing out the decisions on some things being made before the person has consciously made a decision, but that doesn’t mean the individual didn’t make the decision. It’s like the thoughts in a sentence develop as a sentence is spoken, but the person doesn’t know the words that will be used at the end of the sentence. What they are thinking about is the ideas they want to express, and that is where free will resides. I don’t think this is a turtles-all-the-way down problem, or a first-cause one either.

It seemed to me a simple and natural, nay, an almost self-evident supposition, that similarity must be founded on a partial likeness or identity, and that consequently, where sensations were similar, we had to look for their common identical constituents and for the corresponding common physiological processes. This seems to be moving toward the convergent-ideas, moving toward a more fundamental and statable theory, that I have been dancing around the last few days. It is like convergent-evolution in living species, when confronted with similar problems sometimes finding similar solutions.

In reality, the law always contains less than the fact itself, because it does not reproduce the fact as a whole but only in that aspect of it which is important for us, the rest being intentionally or from necessity omitted. The abstract law cannot cover all of the details of a system, but it can forecast the way the system will probably evolve.


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