Reductionism and the Universal Calculus
Abstract: In the seminal essay, “On the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences,” physicist Eugene Wigner poses a fundamental philosophical question concerning the relationship between a physical system and our capacity to model its behavior with the symbolic language of mathematics. In this essay, I examine an ambitious 16th and 17th-century intellectual agenda from the perspective of Wigner’s question, namely, what historian Paolo Rossi calls “the quest to create a universal language.” While many elite thinkers pursued related ideas, the most inspiring and forceful was Gottfried Leibniz’s effort to create a “universal calculus,” a pictorial language which would transparently represent the entirety of human knowledge, as well as an associated symbolic calculus with which to model the behavior of physical systems and derive new truths. I suggest that a deeper understanding of why the efforts of Leibniz and others failed could shed light on Wigner’s original question. I argue that the notion of reductionism is crucial to characterizing the failure of Leibniz’s agenda, but that a decisive argument for the why the promises of this effort did not materialize is still lacking.
- Gopal Sarma, “Reductionism and the Universal Calculus”, submitted (2016). [Preprint]