Posted in Science & Nature

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

If an irresistible force was to act on an immovable object, what would happen?

A mathematician named Mike Alder decided to approach this philosophical paradox from a scientific perspective. He proposed a simple answer to the paradox – it is not worth discussing.

Alder argued that for an object to be immovable, all known forces must be acted upon it with no effect. Similarly, an irresistible force can only be called that if literally no object could ignore its effects. Therefore, the two cannot possibly exist in the same universe, meaning that the paradox is pointless. As Alder would put it – “Language is bigger than the universe”, as it allows us to formulate impossible scenarios that ignore the rules of science.

The implication of this line of thought is that if you cannot tangibly test an idea, then there is no point in arguing it as it would not add to scientific knowledge. This is a purist view of the fundamental principle of science that is falsifiability.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the earliest pioneers of this philosophy. He wrote: “hypotheses non fingo”, or “I do not engage in untestable speculation”. Newton challenged the classical school of philosophy, where one would challenge and develop an idea through thought, discussion and argument. When faced with philosophical questions such as whether animals had rights, he would ask: “What set of observations do you consider would establish the truth of your claim?”.

Alder named his principle – that one should only discuss matters that can be tested and verified – Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (as he believed all good principles should have sexy names). This is a play on Occam’s razor, the philosophical principle that once you shave away the complexities, the simplest truth remains. Alder believed that Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword was a much sharper and more dangerous tool than Occam’s Razor, meaning that as useful as it is, it should be used with care.

Of course, this is an extreme school of philosophy that is only upheld by a group of philosophers who we now call “scientists”. There are still many intangible issues that could only be solved through thinking, such as ethics. Thus, the battle between scientists and philosophers continue.


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