Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The abbreviation of experience

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One of the reasons why we state laws is that they are simple; they serve as an abbreviation of experience, as Mach pointed out. For the sake of simplicity of laws we are even prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of accuracy. A law that is very simple and easy to use for purposes of calculation will often be preferred to one that is more accurate if that accuracy involves complexity. Thus in almost all calculations the simple form of the [ideal gas law] is used, although it is known not to be exact, in preference to the more complex but exact Van der Waal’s equation. This illustrates another characteristic of laws that their function in a system of knowledge is to summarize experience and we are always willing to sacrifice accuracy to convenience up to a certain point. In particular if you know that a law is inaccurate there is no harm in using it. The only danger in its use would be if it was thought to be exact. One might almost state it as a general rule of method that errors do not matter if you are aware of them.

Arthur David Ritchie, Scientific Method

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2018 at 7:30 am

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