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Tag Archives: Max Jammer

The Myth of Matter, p. 9

Matter as Metaphor

We begin this section where we ended the last one. Quoting Prof. Max Jammer–

Since the end of the nineteenth century physicists and philosophers have been cherishing the hope that all of the problems related to mass could be resolved if a theory could be constructed that reveals what they called “the nature of mass,” that is, a theory that explains the origin, existence and phenomenological properties of mass. Of course … any talk about “the nature of mass” would be scientifically meaningless or metaphysical rigmarole. [Yet] the quest for a theory of the nature of mass arises from a profound epistemological motivation. It is no exaggeration to say that all experiments and certainly all measurements in physics are in the last analysis … ultimately based on observations of the position of a particle or of a pointer on a scale as a function of time. … Hence, the term ‘mass’, thus defined, has no absolute meaning since it always implies a relation to an object chosen to serve as the unit of mass.[1]

Unless I am mistaken, Prof. Jammer is saying that the whole of physics is one great circular argument, and that the idea of “the nature of matter”, simply and not self-referentially defined, is mythical. Since “all measurements” are based on matter, and since matter itself is only defined in an axiomatic sense, one might see physics as a belief system, albeit a very powerful and constructive one.


[1] Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, pages 139–140

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