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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Mathematics and Physics

I am afraid my senior colleague and friend Prof. Carlo Fonseka has not answered my question. The question I posed in my letter to the editor on 6th February 2012 was "why western mathematics ‘the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true’ has been so effective in western physics" Without answering the question Prof. Fonseka make certain statements (The Island - 9th February 2012) , which are not that relevant. However, I will deal with them with pleasure.

Prof. Fonseka says to “seek comfort” he has “to understand what is happening” in his “environment in terms of cause and effect relationships i.e. gain knowledge about how nature works”. The comfort referred to by Prof. Fonseka may not be the same as what some others may mean by “comfort”. For example a Bodhsathva would have a different objective in life and there are many others who see “dukkha” in “comfort”. There are different attitudes to life in different cultures but unfortunately we are now dominated by western idea of “seeking comfort”. The knowledge systems created by people differ due to these differences among others, and it has to mentioned that Medieval Europe with attitudes based in Catholic culture was not able to create western science. It needed a revolution in Chinthanaya as I call it, in the sixteenth century.

Even if we forget these differences and go with Prof. Fonseka’s idea of “understanding” what is happening in the environment and gaining “knowledge about how nature works”, and assuming that western Physics tries to gain knowledge about how nature works, the question is how could it be done with Mathematics ‘the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true’ in the words of Bertrand Russell. In Mathematics one is not bothered to “know” whether the axioms of the particular branch one studies is “true”, and all that one is interested is in obtaining some other propositions from those axioms using formal logic. My question is if western Physics tries to “gain knowledge about how nature works” how can it do the same with western Mathematics.

Prof. Fonseka says: “ I have gradually realised that the most reliable knowledge available to me has come from the collective experience of human beings living in the east or west, north or south who have observed aspects of the world with their five senses, used their reason to figure out causal explanations for their observations and then checking the validity of their explanations by putting them to the test of experience. Experience has shown humankind that in formulating causal explanations (hypotheses) the use of formal systems of reasoning has greatly contributed to the reliability and usefulness of the final outcomes. One such formal system is mathematics,” Now this is nothing but what was called scientific method before Popper and much water has flown under the Kelani Bridge as well as the Tower Bridge in London since then. As I am discussing these under my series of articles “on so called scientific knowledge I do not want to delve into it now. However I would like to ask how one knows that A = A as assumed in formal logic, in a world of “anicca”. With A = A there is no change (motion), and I have dealt with this problem in an article on “The logic of change”, published in “Kalyani” the journal of the University of Kelaniya.

Incidentally what Gödel proved was that any formal system that incorporates Arithmetic contains statements that are “Mathematically true” which cannot be deduced from its axioms. Prof. Fonseka may think that western Mathematics is “reliable” but then there were so many other systems that could be considered as reliable. It is true that I went to the UK many moons ago in an Air Ceylon airplane to write a thesis on “Relativistic gravitational effects in Astrophysics”. I had been interested in western Physics and Mathematics as a young person and situation demanded that I gain postgraduate qualifications to continue as a lecturer and I had to make that trip to the UK. However, I am much younger now and air travel is not a necessity at present. I seek no employment in any capacity nor any qualifications in western Science. In any event the motion of airplanes was based also on Newtonian Gravitation, which had been discarded as a “Theory of Gravitation” and shown that there was no gravitation as such by Einstein more than fifty years before I got into that airplane. However, the western scientists have still not discarded it and it is continued to be taught in schools and universities. So much for the “scientific method” and “reliable knowledge”.

People invent, construct instruments, concepts, theories etc., depending on their needs and it is needless to say that needs differ from culture to culture. After coming back from the UK to Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon in another Air Ceylon airplane (could have been the same airplane) I have realized that the westerners have imposed their needs on us through colonialism. I do not want to say there was the “dandumaonara” of Ravana constructed most probably due to some need of that society as an alternative to the airplane, but I can assure Prof. Fonseka who hold a very high position in an institution of the western medical profession, that there are hundreds of western medical doctors who have more faith in Sinhala Nila Vedakama than in western Medicine, probably because the former is more “reliable’, and moreover that some of them practise it.

Now since Prof. Fonseka has not answered my question I give my answer to the same. Western Mathematics is very abstract and western Physics is the most abstract among the western Sciences. Western Mathematics has not been very successful in western Physiology or western Biology for that matter, and the main reason for the effectiveness of western Mathematics in western Physics is this abstractness. Of course there is another reason for the effectiveness. Even in western Physics “we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true”, gravitation on which I worked for my thesis being the best example. However, that does not imply that “we know what we are talking about, and what we are saying is true” in other western sciences or for that matter in any “knowledge constructed by human beings due to Avidya. (Avijja paccaya sankara).(12/02/10)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva