Zeno Against Mathematical Physics

Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (2):193-210 (2001)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Ideas 62.2 (2001) 193-210 [Access article in PDF] Zeno Against Mathematical Physics Trish Glazebrook Galileo wrote in The Assayer that the universe "is written in the language of mathematics," and therein both established and articulated a foundational belief for the modern physicist. 1 That physical reality can be interpreted mathematically is an assumption so fundamental to modern physics that chaos and super-strings are examples of physical theories developed on the basis of success in mathematics. The mathematics came first, then the physical theory. Quantum theory is an awkward and similar case in point. Despite the fact that there is much agreement among physicists about the mathematical theory, its physical interpretation remains a matter of controversy. There are several interpretations, all of which challenge our everyday assumptions about reality. This led Bohr in 1935 to call for "a radical revision of our attitude towards the problem of physical reality." 2 Arthur Fine, originally a staunch defender of realist interpretations of quantum theory, saw the success of Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation as the end of Einsteinian realism, and subsequently Fine declared that "realism is well and truly dead." 3 Mathematical operators simply do not correspond with real entities in any conceivable way.Ilkka Niiniluoto has argued convincingly, however, that realism is alive and well in quantum theory. 4 The problem is that Bohr is right: quantum theory can be considered to concern the real only upon radical revision of ordinary conceptions of reality. Quantum theory does not describe the real in any meaningful sense of "the real." Rather, it is mathematical projection: ideal rather than real. [End Page 193]Aristotle did not hold that the physicist deciphers nature mathematically. He distinguished the physicist from the mathematician at Physics 2.2 by analogy to the definitions of "snub nose" and "curved." 5 The definition of "snub nose" requires the mention of a nose, that is, of matter which is inseparable from motion, whereas "curved" and other mathematical concepts like " 'odd' and 'even', 'straight'... 'number,' 'line,' and 'figure,' " which are separable from matter and from motion, are investigated by the mathematician. 6 Aristotle claims that physics is different from mathematics because the mathematician investigates physical lines, but not qua physical, and the physicist investigates mathematical lines "but qua physical, not qua mathematical." 7A peculiar consequence of my argument is that it establishes a common principle between two thinkers whose beliefs are otherwise so fundamentally in opposition. Zeno's paradoxes are commonly read as a denial of motion. For Aristotle, that move is axiomatic to the physicist. At 185a15 he considers arguments against this assumption outside the realm of objections to which the physicist must reply. If I am right that Zeno's paradoxes of motion challenge the very notion of mathematical physics, then he and Aristotle agree, contra Galileo, that the universe is not written in the language of mathematics. They simply come to this point from opposite directions, Zeno from an Eleatic thesis that physical reality is illusion, Aristotle from the natural scientist's pragmatic commitment to a truth about nature.I intend to use Zeno's paradoxes of motion to argue that the application of mathematical concepts to the physical world results in paradox. Zeno's arguments are limited within mathematics to geometry. This paper is accordingly a beginning from which I hope more work can be done later. Furthermore, Zeno's paradoxes are standardly read as directed against anyone who disagrees with Parmenides' thesis that there is but one thing which is motionless and indivisible. The paradoxes achieve this end by means of a reductio against the possibility of dividing space and time. That there are four paradoxes is accordingly explicable by the fact that there are four possibilities for the divisibility of space and time. The Achilles argues against the possibility that space and time are both infinitely divisible; the Dichotomy, against the infinite divisibility of space and finite divisibility of time; the Arrow, against the infinite divisibility of time and the finite divisibility of space; and finally, the Stadium shows that time and space cannot both...



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Patricia Glazebrook
Washington State University

Citations of this work

Zeno of elea.John Palmer - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
El testimonio de Aristóteles sobre Zenòn de Elea como un detractor de "lo uno".Mariana Gardella - 2015 - Eidos: Revista de Filosofía de la Universidad Del Norte 23:157-181.
Eleatic Metaphysics in Plato's Parmenides: Zeno's Puzzle of Plurality.Eric C. Sanday - 2009 - Journal of Speculative Philosophy 23 (3):pp. 208-226.
The Virtual Philosophy of Parmenides, Zeno, and Melissus a glance to the upcoming eleatic lectures.Livio Rossetti - 2017 - Archai: Revista de Estudos Sobre as Origens Do Pensamento Ocidental 21:297-333.

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