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Mike Alder is an Australian mathematician and philosopher who was an assistant professor at the University of Western Australia. Alder is known for his popular writing, such as sardonic articles about the lack of basic arithmetic skills in young adults.
Newton's flaming laser sword
Newton's flaming laser sword is a philosophical razor devised by Alder in an essay (Newton's Flaming Laser Sword or: Why mathematicians and scientists don't like philosophy but do it anyway) on the conflicting positions of scientists and philosophers on epistemology and knowledge. It can be summarized as "what cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating". It was published in Philosophy Now in May/June 2004. The razor is humorously named after Isaac Newton, as it is inspired by Newtonian thought, and is "much sharper and more dangerous than Occam's Razor".
Alder writes that the average scientist does not hold philosophy in high regard, "somewhere between sociology and literary criticism". He strongly criticized what he sees as the disproportionate influence of Greek philosophy—especially Platonism—in modern philosophy. He contrasts the scientist's Popperian approach to the philosopher's Platonic approach, which he describes as pure reason. He illustrates this with the example of the irresistible force paradox, amongst others. According to Alder, the scientist's answer to the paradox "What happens when an irresistible force is exerted on an immovable object" is that the premises of the questions are flawed; either the object is moved (and thus the object is movable), or isn't (thus the force is resistible):
Eventually I concluded that language was bigger than the universe, that it was possible to talk about things in the same sentence which could not both be found in the real world. The real world might conceivably contain some object which had never so far been moved, and it might contain a force that had never successfully been resisted, but the question of whether the object was really immovable could only be known if all possible forces had been tried on it and left it unmoved. So the matter could be resolved by trying out the hitherto irresistible force on the hitherto immovable object to see what happened. Either the object would move or it wouldn't, which would tell us only that either the hitherto immovable object was not in fact immovable, or that the hitherto irresistible force was in fact resistible.
That is, to the scientist, the question can be solved by experiment. The razor can be summarized as "what cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating". Alder admits however, that "[w]hile the [N]ewtonian insistence on ensuring that any statement is testable by observation [...] undoubtedly cuts out the crap, it also seems to cut out almost everything else as well", as it prevents taking position on several topics such as politics or religion.
- "Mike Alder Staff Profile: The University of Western Australia". Retrieved 22 July 2010.
- Clive James (20 July 2007). "New dogs and old tricks". BBC news. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
- Mike Alder (2004). "Newton's Flaming Laser Sword". Philosophy Now 46: 29–33.