A N Whitehead addresses the British Association in 1916, Part 2

Alfred North Whitehead was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1916. The Association met in Newcastle-on-Tyne in September and Whitehead addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the second part of his lecture.

To read the first part of Whitehead's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1916, Part 1

Alfred North Whitehead, the President, continued his Address:-

It will be necessary to sketch in broad outline some relevant features of modern logic. In doing so I shall try to avoid the profound general discussions and the minute technical classifications which occupy the main part of traditional logic. It is characteristic of a science in its earlier stages - and logic has become fossilised in such a stage - to be both ambitiously profound in its aims and trivial in its handling of details. We can discern four departments of logical theory. By an analogy which is not so very remote I will call these departments or sections the arithmetic section, the algebraic section, the section of general-function theory, the analytic section. I do not mean that arithmetic arises in the first section, algebra in the second section, and so on; but the names are suggestive of certain qualities of thought in each section which are reminiscent of analogous qualities in arithmetic, in algebra, in the general theory of a mathematical function, and in the analysis of the properties of particular functions.

The first section - namely, the arithmetic stage - deals with the relations of definite propositions to each other, just as arithmetic deals with definite numbers. Consider any definite proposition; call it "p". We conceive that there is always another proposition which is the direct contradictory to p; call it "not-p". When we have got two propositions, p and q, we can form derivative propositions from them and from their contradictories. We can say, At least one of p or q is true, and perhaps both. Let us call this proposition "p or q". I may mention as an aside that one of the greatest living philosophers has stated that this use of the word "or" -- namely, "p or q" in the sense that either or both may be true -- makes him despair of exact expression. We must brave his wrath, which is unintelligible to me.

We have thus got hold of four new propositions, namely, "p or q", and "not-p or q", and "p or not-q", and "not-p or not-q". Call these the set of disjunctive derivatives. There are, so far, in all eight propositions, p, not-p, q, not-q, and the four disjunctive derivatives. Any pair of these eight propositions can be taken, and substituted for p and q in the foregoing treatment. Thus each pair yields eight propositions, some of which may have been obtained before. By proceeding in this way we arrive at an unending set of propositions of growing complexity, ultimately derived from the two original propositions p or q. Of course, only a few are important. Similarly we can start from three propositions, p, q, r, or from four propositions, p, q, r, s, and so on. Any one of the propositions of these aggregates may be true or false. It has no other alternative. Whichever it is, true or false, call it the "truth-value" of the proposition.

The first section of logical inquiry is to settle what we know of the truth-values of these propositions, when we know the truth-values of some of them. The inquiry, so far as it is worth while carrying it, is not very abstruse, and the best way of expressing its results is a detail which I will not now consider. This inquiry forms the arithmetic stage.

The next section of logic is the algebraic stage. Now, the difference between arithmetic and algebra is that in arithmetic definite numbers are considered, and in algebra symbols -- namely, letters -- are introduced which stand for any numbers. The idea of a number is also enlarged. These letters, standing for any numbers, are called sometimes variables and sometimes parameters. Their essential characteristic is that they are undetermined, unless, indeed, the algebraic conditions which they satisfy implicitly determine them. Then they are sometimes called unknowns. An algebraic formula with letters is a blank form. It becomes a determinate arithmetic statement when definite numbers are substituted for the letters. The importance of algebra is a tribute to the study of form. Consider now the following proposition,

The specific heat of mercury is 0.033.

This is a definite proposition which, with certain limitations, is true. But the truth-value of the proposition does not immediately concern us. Instead of mercury put a mere letter which is the name of some undetermined thing: we get,

The specific heat of x is 0.033.

This is not a proposition; it has been called by Russell a propositional function. It is the logical analogy of an algebraic expression. Let us write f(x) for any propositional function.

We could also generalise still further, and say,

The specific heat of x is y.

We thus get another propositional function, F(x, y) of two arguments x and y, and so on for any number of arguments.

Now, consider f(x). There is the range of values of x, for which f(x) is a proposition, true or false. For values of x outside this range, f(x) is not a proposition at all, and is neither true nor false. It may have vague suggestions for us, but it has no unit meaning of definite assertion. For example,

The specific heat of water is 0.033

is a proposition which is false; and

The specific heat of virtue is 0.033

is, I should imagine, not a proposition at all; so that it is neither true nor false, though its component parts raise various associations in our minds. This range of values, for which (x) has sense, is called the 'type' of the argument x.

But there is also a range of values of x for which f(x) is a true proposition. This is the class of those values of the argument which satisfy f(x). This class may have no members, or, in the other extreme, the class may be the whole type of the arguments.

We thus conceive two general propositions respecting the indefinite number of propositions which share in the same logical form, that is, which are values of the same propositional function. One of these propositions is,

f(x) yields a true proposition for each value of x of the proper type;

the other proposition is,

There is a value of x for which f(x) is true.

Given two, or more, propositional functions f(x) and phi(x) with the same argument x, we form derivative propositional functions, namely,

f(x) or phi(x), f(x) or not-phi(x),

and so on with the contradictories, obtaining, as in the arithmetical stage, an unending aggregate of propositional functions. Also each propositional function yields two general propositions. The theory of the interconnection between the truth-values of the general propositions arising from any such aggregate of propositional functions forms a simple and elegant chapter of mathematical logic.

In this algebraic section of logic the theory of types crops up, as we have already noted. It cannot be neglected without the introduction of error. Its theory has to be settled at least by some safe hypothesis, even if it does not go to the philosophic basis of the question. This part of the subject is obscure and difficult, and has not been finally elucidated, though Russell's brilliant work has opened out the subject.

The final impulse to modern logic comes from the independent discovery of the importance of the logical variable by Frege and Peano. Frege went further than Peano, but by an unfortunate symbolism rendered his work so obscure that no one fully recognised his meaning who had not found it out for himself. But the movement has a large history reaching back to Leibniz and even to Aristotle. Among English contributors are De Morgan, Boole, and Sir Alfred Kempe; their work is of the first rank.

The third logical section is the stage of general function theory. In logical language, we perform in this stage the transition from intension to extension, and investigate the theory of denotation. Take the propositional function f(x). There is the class, or range of values for x, whose members satisfy f(x). But the same range may be the class whose members satisfy another propositional function f(x). It is necessary to investigate how to indicate the class by a way which is indifferent as between the various propositional functions which are satisfied by any member of it, and of it only. What has to be done is to analyse the nature of propositions about a class - namely, those propositions whose truth-values depend on the class itself and not on the particular meaning by which the class is indicated.

Furthermore, there are propositions about alleged individuals indicated by descriptive phrases: for example, propositions about 'the present King of England,' who does exist, and 'the present Emperor of Brazil,' who does not exist. More complicated, but analogous, questions involving propositional functions of two variables involve the notion of 'correlation,' just as functions of one argument involve classes. Similarly functions of three arguments yield three-cornered correlations, and so on. This logical section is one which Russell has made peculiarly his own by work which must always remain fundamental. I have called this the section of functional theory, because its ideas are essential to the construction of logical denoting functions which include as a special case ordinary mathematical functions such as sine, logarithm, etc. In each of these three stages it will be necessary gradually to introduce an appropriate symbolism, if we are to pass on to the fourth stage.

The fourth logical section, the analytic stage, is concerned with the investigation of the properties of special logical constructions, that is, of classes and correlations of special sorts. The whole of mathematics is included here. So the section is a large one. In fact, it is mathematics, neither more nor less. But it includes an analysis of mathematical ideas not hitherto included in the scope of that science, nor, indeed, contemplated at all. The essence of this stage is construction. It is by means of suitable constructions that the great framework of applied mathematics comprising the theories of number, quantity, time, and space, is elaborated.

It is impossible even in brief outline to explain how mathematics is developed from the concepts of class and correlation, including many-cornered correlations, which are established in the third section. I can only allude to the headings of the process which is fully developed in the work, Mathematica Principia, by Mr Russell and myself. There are in this process of development seven special sorts of correlations which are of peculiar interest. The first sort comprises one-to-many, many-to-one, and one-to-one correlations. The second sort comprises serial relations, that is, correlations by which the members of some field are arranged in a serial order, so that, in the sense defined by the relation, any member of the field is either before or after any other member. The third class comprises inductive relations, that is, correlations on which the theory of mathematical induction depends. The fourth class comprises selective relations, which are required for the general theory of arithmetic operations, and elsewhere. It is in connection with such relations that the famous multiplicative axiom arises for consideration. The fifth class comprises vector relations, from which the theory of quantity arises. The sixth class comprises ratio relations, which interconnect number and quantity. The seventh class comprises three-cornered and four-cornered relations which occur in Geometry.

A bare enumeration of technical names, such as the above, is not very illuminating, though it may help to a comprehension of the demarcations of the subject. Please remember that the names are technical names, meant, no doubt, to be suggestive, but used in strictly defined senses. We have suffered much from critics who consider it sufficient to criticise our procedure on the slender basis of a knowledge of the dictionary meanings of such terms. For example, a one-to-one correlation depends on the notion of a class with only one member, and this notion is defined without appeal to the concept of the number one. The notion of diversity is all that is wanted. Thus the class a has only one member, if:

  1. the class of values of x which satisfies the propositional function, x is not a member of a, is not the whole type of relevant values of x, and
  2. the propositional function, x and y are members of a, and x is diverse from y, is false, whatever be the values of x and y in the relevant type.
Analogous procedures are obviously possible for higher finite cardinal members. Thus, step by step, the whole cycle of current mathematical ideas is capable of logical definition. The process is detailed and laborious, and, like all science, knows nothing of a royal road of airy phrases. The essence of the process is, first to construct the notion in terms of the forms of propositions, that is, in terms of the relevant propositional functions, and secondly to prove the fundamental truths which hold about the notion by reference to the results obtained in the algebraic section of logic.

It will be seen that in this process the whole apparatus of special indefinable mathematical concepts, and special a priori mathematical premises, respecting number, quantity, and space, has vanished. Mathematics is merely an apparatus for analysing the deductions which can be drawn from any particular premises, supplied by common sense, or by more refined scientific observation, so far as these deductions depend on the forms of the propositions. Propositions of certain forms are continually occurring in thought. Our existing mathematics is the analysis of deductions, which concern those forms and in some way are important, either from practical utility or theoretical interest. Here I am speaking of the science as it in fact exists. A theoretical definition of mathematics must include in its scope any deductions depending on the mere forms of propositions. But, of course, no one would wish to develop that part of mathematics which in no sense is of importance.

This hasty summary of logical ideas suggests some reflections. The question arises, How many forms of propositions are there? The answer is, an unending number. The reason for the supposed sterility of logical science can thus be discerned. Aristotle founded the science by conceiving the idea of the form of a proposition, and by conceiving deduction as taking place in virtue of the forms. But he confined propositions to four forms, now named A, I, E, O. So long as logicians were obsessed by this unfortunate restriction, real progress was impossible. Again, in their theory of form, both Aristotle and subsequent logicians came very near to the theory of the logical variable. But to come very near to a true theory, and to grasp its precise application, are two very different things, as the history of science teaches us. Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.

Again, one reason why logical deductions are not obvious is that logical form is not a subject which ordinarily enters into thought. Common-sense deduction probably moves by blind instinct from concrete proposition to concrete proposition, guided by some habitual association of ideas. Thus common sense fails in the presence of a wealth of material.

A more important question is the relation of induction, based on observation, to deductive logic. There is a tradition of opposition between adherents of induction and of deduction. In my view it would be just as sensible for the two ends of a worm to quarrel. Both observation and deduction are necessary for any knowledge worth having. We cannot get at an inductive law without having recourse to a propositional function. For example, take the statement of observed fact,

This body is mercury, and its specific heat is 0.033.

The propositional function is formed,

Either x is not mercury, or its specific heat is 0.033.

The inductive law is the assumption of the truth of the general proposition, that the above propositional function is true for every value of x in the relevant type.

But it is objected that this process and its consequences are so simple that an elaborate science is out of place. In the same way, a British sailor knows the salt sea when he sails over it. What, then, is the use of an elaborate chemical analysis of sea-water? There is the general answer, that you cannot know too much of methods which you always employ; and there is the special answer, that logical forms and logical implications are not so very simple, and that the whole of mathematics is evidence to this effect.

One great use of the study of logical method is not in the region of elaborate deduction, but to guide us in the study of the formation of the main concepts of science. Consider Geometry, for example. What are the points which compose space? Euclid tells us that they are without parts and without magnitude. But how is the notion of a point derived from the sense-perceptions from which science starts? Certainly points are not direct deliverances of the senses. Here and there we may see or unpleasantly feel something suggestive of a point. But this is a rare phenomenon, and certainly does not warrant the conception of space as composed of points. Our knowledge of space properties is not based on any observations of relations between points. It arises from experience of relations between bodies. Now a fundamental space relation between bodies is that one body may be part of another. We are tempted to define the 'whole and part' relation by saying that the points occupied by the part are some of the points occupied by the whole. But 'whole and part' being more fundamental than the notion of 'point,' this definition is really circular and vicious.

We accordingly ask whether any other definition of 'spatial whole and part' can be given. I think that it can be done in this way, though, if I be mistaken, it is unessential to my general argument. We have come to the conclusion that an extended body is nothing else than the class of perceptions of it by all its percipients, actual or ideal. Of course, it is not any class of perceptions, but a certain definite sort of class which I have not defined here, except by the vicious method of saying that they are perceptions of a body. Now, the perceptions of a part of a body are among the perceptions which compose the whole body. Thus two bodies a and b are both classes of perceptions; and b is part of a when the class which is b is contained in the class which is a. It immediately follows from the logical form of this definition that if b is part of a, and c is part of b, then c is part of a. Thus the relation 'whole to part' is transitive. Again, it will be convenient to allow that a body is part of itself. This is a mere question of how you draw the definition. With this understanding, the relation is reflexive. Finally, if a is part of b, and b is part of a, then a and b must be identical. These properties of ' whole and part' are not fresh assumptions, they follow from the logical form of our definition.

One assumption has to be made if we assume the ideal infinite divisibility of space. Namely, we assume that every class of perceptions which is an extended body contains other classes of perceptions which are extended bodies diverse from itself. This assumption makes rather a large draft on the theory of ideal perceptions. Geometry vanishes unless in some form you make it. The assumption is not peculiar to my exposition.

It is then possible to define what we mean by a point. A point is the class of extended objects which, in ordinary language, contain that point. The definition, without presupposing the idea of a point, is rather elaborate, and I have not now time for its statement.

The advantage of introducing points into Geometry is the simplicity of the logical expression of their mutual relations. For science, simplicity of definition is of slight importance, but simplicity of mutual relations is essential. Another example of this law is the way physicists and chemists have dissolved the simple idea of an extended body, say of a chair, which a child understands, into a bewildering notion of a complex dance of molecules and atoms and electrons and waves of light. They have thereby gained notions with simpler logical relations.

Space as thus conceived is the exact formulation of the properties of the apparent space of the common-sense world of experience. It is not necessarily the best mode of conceiving the space of the physicist. The one essential requisite is that the correspondence between the common-sense world in its space and the physicists' world in its space should be definite and reciprocal.

I will now break off the exposition of the function of logic in connection with the science of natural phenomena. I have endeavoured to exhibit it as the organising principle, analysing the derivation of the concepts from the immediate phenomena, examining the structure of the general propositions which are the assumed laws of nature, establishing their relations to each other in respect to reciprocal implications, deducing the phenomena we may expect under given circumstances.

Logic, properly used, does not shackle thought. It gives freedom and, above all, boldness. Illogical thought hesitates to draw conclusions, because it never knows either what it means, or what it assumes, or how far it trusts its own assumptions, or what will be the effect of any modification of assumptions. Also the mind untrained in that part of constructive logic which is relevant to the subject in hand will be ignorant of the sort of conclusions which follow from various sorts of assumptions, and will be correspondingly dull in divining the inductive laws. The fundamental training in this relevant logic is, undoubtedly, to ponder with an active mind over the known facts of the case, directly observed. But where elaborate deductions are possible, this mental activity requires for its full exercise the direct study of the abstract logical relations. This is applied mathematics.

Neither logic without observation, nor observation without logic, can move one step in the formation of science. We may conceive humanity as engaged in an internecine conflict between youth and age. Youth is not defined by years, but by the creative impulse to make something. The aged are those who, before all things, desire not to make a mistake. Logic is the olive branch from the old to the young, the wand which in the hands of youth has the magic property of creating science.


JOC/EFR April 2007

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