Grounds For Thinking

Friedrich Engels, in “Anti Dürhing”, claims alongside many others including me, that all thoughts, no matter how abstract, are ultimately based in reality.

I say this quite often, and one reason is to strongly object to the possibility of an atheist claim that the idea of deity is made up. In fact, it isn’t. Something about humanity and our circumstances makes the idea of deity necessary, necessarily. This doesn’t prove there are deity, but only that deity can be an empirical, sound argument.

Hear Engles take maths, as perhaps one of our most abstract thoughts, and pin it down to reality in the end:

That mathematics has a validity which is independent of the  particular  experience of each individual is, for that matter, correct, and this is true of all established facts in every science, and indeed of all facts whatsoever. The magnetic poles, the fact that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, the fact that Hegel is dead and Herr Dühring alive, hold good independently of my own experience or that of any other individual, and even independently of Herr Dühring’s experience, when he begins to sleep the sleep of the just. But it is not at all true that in pure mathematics the mind deals only with its own creations and imaginations. The concepts of number and figure have not been derived from any source other than the world of reality. The ten fingers on which men learnt to count, that is, to perform the first arithmetical operation, are anything but a free creation of the mind. Counting requires not only objects that can be counted, but also the ability to exclude all properties of the objects considered except their number — and this ability is the product of a long historical development based on experience. Like the idea of number, so the idea of figure is borrowed exclusively from the external world, and does not arise in the mind out of pure thought. There must have been things which had shape and whose shapes were compared before anyone could arrive at the idea of figure. Pure mathematics deals with the space forms and quantity relations of the real world — that is, with material which is very real indeed. The fact that this material appears in an extremely abstract form can only superficially conceal its origin from the external world. But in order to make it possible to investigate these forms and relations in their pure state, it is necessary to separate them entirely from their content, to put the content aside as irrelevant; thus we get points without dimensions, lines without breadth and thickness,  a  and b and  x  and y, constants and variables; and only at the very end do we reach the free creations and imaginations of the mind itself, that is to say, imaginary magnitudes. Even the apparent derivation of mathematical magnitudes from each other does not prove their  a priori  origin, but only their rational connection. Before one came upon the idea of deducing the  form  of a cylinder from the rotation of a rectangle about one of its sides, a number of real rectangles and cylinders, however imperfect in form, must have been examined. Like all other sciences, mathematics arose out of the  needs  of men: from the measurement of land and the content of vessels, from the computation of time and from mechanics. But, as in every department of thought, at a certain stage of development the laws, which were abstracted from the real world, become divorced from the real world, and are set up against it as something independent, as-laws coming from outside, to which the world has to conform. That is how things happened in society and in the state, and in this way, and not otherwise,  pure  mathematics was subsequently  applied  to the world, although it is borrowed from this same world and represents only one part of its forms of interconnection — and it is only  just because of this that it can be applied at all.

Ibid, 1878, pg. 15

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