Mach Goes Deep: Cause, Effect, and “Economy” In Theory-Making


As my other posts on Ernst Mach have indicated, he was a man who did not accept the math-justifying, theory-hole-filling flights of fancy some theoretical physicists take when overleaping the experimental evidence and proposing “explanations” for WHY the data fits this or that pattern.  This might lead some to think that we are dealing with a conservative thinker in Mach, or even a non-imaginative one… perhaps someone like that curmudgeony grandfather whose view of the world is entirely practical and will have none of your philosophical nonsense, thank you very much.

This view of Mach would be untrue and unfair.  Mach was one of those men whose genius was so colossal that he could gracefully straddle both ends of a polarity.  He was both a hands-on experimenter and a philosopher (as his book, The Science Of Mechanics makes abundantly clear).

Scientists deal largely in cause and effect… their experiments often come down to exploring how the change in one thing affects other things.  The scientist Mach fully supported the scientific method.  However and simultaneously, the philosopher Mach could also reject the entire idea of “cause and effect.”  Mach, instead, saw all phenomena– past, present, and future– as being equally dependent upon each other like three sides of a triangle.

“There is no cause and effect,” he says.  In nature… “the individual parts reciprocally determine one another.”  Reading between the lines in The Science Of Mechanics, I came away with the feeling that Mach saw “effect” as merely a PROPERTY of “cause”– and probably vice-versa.

Relatedly, though Mach describes Nature as behaving “like a machine,” he does not think this means that we could simply predict the future by knowing all the starting positions of all the masses along with their initial velocities– a view held by some at the height of the exuberance for the Newtonian Clockwork Universe.  However, straddling polarities like the old giant was wont to do, he also does not believe in accepting mythological or magical explanations for events, stating that “both views contain undue and fantastical exaggerations of an incomplete perception.”

Echoing Ockham, Mach states that when two contending theories are capable of explaining the same event, we should favor the simpler conception.  He agreed with Hertz that our theories about Nature should have the least possible “superfluous features.”  The two previous sentences taken together basically describe what Mach has in mind when he speaks of the “economy” that is characteristic of a good theory.


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