Mach On The “Very Essence” Of Science


As I have said, Mach teaches not merely physics but a philosophy of physics, and he, as much as any physicist I’ve read, truly gets the BIG picture.  “The true endeavor of philosophy,” says Mach, is that of “guiding into one common stream the many rills of knowledge.”

Considering science from a philosophical perspective leads Mach to observe that “we regard a phenomenon as explained when we discover in it known, simpler phenomenon.”  In other words, we seek to explain complex phenomena by simpler and more familiar phenomena.  That is basically all that science does.  It is also why there can never be an end to science.

We’ve been receiving, all of us, an education in science since the earliest moments of life.  Most of what we know about physics and chemistry comes from everyday experience.  To take for example just one of the uncountable tutorial moments of life:  when as a child we drop a glass of water, we receive all sorts of scientific insights:  insights about cause and effect (broken glass brings upset parent), about the nature of solids (can shatter), about liquids (spreads soppiness), about gravity (sometimes solids filled with liquid don’t float where you leave them), about sound waves (glass shattering; mommy yelling), et cetera.  Moment by clumsy moment, this is how we learn our world (and hopefully grow more graceful).

However, Mach warns us, this sort of experiential knowledge can prove “insufficient when some new region of experience is suddenly opened up,” especially one that contradicts what we think we knew.  However, if we possess a deeper understanding of the physics of our world beyond just a basket full of miscellaneous experiences, then new and incredible phenomena may prove to be quite mundane and explainable once the light of science is shone upon it.

Mach contends that the best way to learn about the general is to study the specific.  Even a great scientist cannot embrace the whole mountain at once.  The universe is a very big place, and the human brain, I hate to tell ya, not all that gigantic.  Therefore, we have little choice but to study small slivers of reality in succession, and then from those try to piece together something meaningful.

All of our scientific experiments and ideas, says Mach, “single out, more or less arbitrarily, now this aspect, now that aspect of the same facts” and our thoughts about the physical world “never reproduce the facts in full, but only that side of them which is important to us.”  From these perceived and partial facts, we make generalizations about life, but no matter how detailed our studies, our theories “are invariably abstractions,” not reality, itself.

The job of the scientist, according to Mach, is done “by isolating and emphasizing what is deemed of importance” and “neglecting what is subsidiary.”  Thus the work of science is done by ignoring all but the tips of the specific icebergs being explored.

Mach adds, lest we forget, that no one –not even a scientist– approaches his world in complete objectivity.  The very experiments we choose, the specific processes and objects we isolate, the methodology and instruments we employ– all this colors our approach to the Truth.

Even the most finely tuned experiment, Mach tells us, “cannot possibly embrace the entire fact in all its infinite wealth, in all its inexhaustible manifoldness.”  Nevertheless, “there is always opportunity for the discovery of new aspects of the fact.”

Even the things we are examining are merely bundles of our subjective perceptions.  “A ‘thing’,” says Mach, “is a thought-symbol for a compound sensation of relative fixedness.” […]  “The thing is an abstraction” Mach tells us, and “the name is symbol.”

In other words, even the most intellectual and penetrating scientific paper is merely speaking in terms of symbols of abstractions of portions of reality.

And the names themselves, observes Mach, “only acquire meanings when applied to elements that constantly reappear.  Descriptions of our world are “made up of component parts that constantly recur.”

In fact, I would go farther than Mach and contend that a world without repeating patterns, a world in which nothing could be named, is inconceivable to the human mind… how could we even maintain our own identity if the pattern of us did not “constantly recur” in each succeeding instant?

For Mach, then, the fundamental activity of science is the seeking out of “those elements that are the same, and that amid all multiplicity are ever present.”  A science-minded person is one who “has acquired the skill of recognizing these permanent elements.”  

These “constant features alone have the power to satisfy us either intellectually or practically,” says Mach, “which is the reason we are constantly seeking them.”

Mach believes that the object of science to replace the isolated and myriad experiences of life with underlying principles which we can store in our individual and species memory.  We can then pass-on these acquired principles to future generations in the efficient forms of mathematics and scientific laws.

“Within the short span of a human life and with man’s limited powers of memory,” says Mach, “any stock of knowledge worthy of the name is unattainable except by the greatest mental economy.”  This “economy of communication and apprehension is the very essence of science.”


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