Mike Alder

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Mike Alder (born Michael D. Alder[1]) is an Australian mathematician who was an assistant professor at the University of Western Australia.[2] Alder is known for his popular writing, such as sardonic articles about the lack of basic arithmetic skills in young adults.[3]

Newton's flaming laser sword[edit]

"Newton's flaming laser sword", also known as "Alder's razor", is a philosophical razor devised by Alder in an essay entitled "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 called a "flaming laser sword" because it is "much sharper and more dangerous than Occam's Razor".[4]

Alder writes that the average scientist does not hold philosophy in high regard, "somewhere between sociology and literary criticism".[4] He has 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 premise of the question is flawed; either the object is moved (and thus the object is movable), or it is not (thus the force is resistible):[4]

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. Alder admits, however, that "While the Newtonian 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 one from taking a position on topics such as politics or religion.[4]


Alder received a B.Sc. in physics from Imperial College, then a PhD in algebraic topology from the University of Liverpool and an M. Eng. Sc. from the University of Western Australia.[5] Alder was an assistant professor at the University of Western Australia until 2011.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alder, Michael D. (2001). An Introduction to Mathematical Modelling. HeavenForBooks.com.
  2. ^ "Mike Alder Staff Profile: The University of Western Australia". Archived from the original on 16 April 2011. Retrieved 22 July 2010.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  3. ^ Clive James (20 July 2007). "New dogs and old tricks". BBC news. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d Mike Alder (2004). "Newton's Flaming Laser Sword". Philosophy Now. 46: 29–33. Also available as Mike Alder (2004). "Newton's Flaming Laser Sword" (PDF). Mike Alder's Home Page. University of Western Australia. Archived from the original on 14 November 2011.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  5. ^ Alder, Mike (November 2006). "Lie Group Transformations of Objects in Video Images". Journal of Mathematical Imaging and Vision. 26 (1–2): 73–84. doi:10.1007/s10851-006-6864-8.
  6. ^ "General News" (PDF). Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society. May 2011.

External links[edit]