And how awkward is the human mind in divining the nature of things, when forsaken by the analogy of what we see and touch directly?
—Ludwig Boltzmann, in a letter to Nature, 28 February, 1895 
Last week, in describing the observed invariances associated with each of the three energy laws, I phrased these as tendencies associated with systems. Presenting the laws in this way involved a deliberate effort to avoid the default approach of privileging real entities. What I mean by this is that it was very tempting to simply write “Energy law 1 recognises that some thing is conserved” instead of writing this as I actually did: “Energy law 1 recognises a conserving tendency”. I did this in order to make clear that I was not assuming prior existence of a thing or entity that is conserved.
To continue in this way would make everyday discourse pretty awkward. Proposing an entity-like thing to stand for the observed tendency provides a very practical way of proceeding as we communicate about our experiences with one another. More importantly though, proposing such a conceptual entity—in the case of law 1, this is in fact the system’s total or internal energy—allows for the formalisation of the observed tendency, and in particular, its quantification. It would be difficult to overemphasise the significance of this enablement of quantification. With quantification comes the ability to reduce our descriptions of situations in which we’re interested to a relatively small number of parameters. This in turn allows us to divert our attention from most of what we experience—it gives us a structured basis on which to organise our thinking about any situation, allowing us to deal with much more ‘experiential territory’ at one time than would otherwise be the case. As a consequence of this, we’re afforded increased instrumental power to manage and control the situations in which we’re interested. The formalisation aspect of this is very important: when a concept is formalised, we establish an agreed common basis on which to compare our understanding with one another, and hence to know what each other means when we talk about something. This enables highly effective coordination of actions amongst and across social groups—provided that those whose actions are so coordinated give sufficient attention to maintaining the structures supporting the formal status of their coordinated understandings. In contemporary societies, the default responsibility for this tends to be assigned to specific groups of knowledge experts, and the typical means for managing this is via formal educational institutions, such as the social infrastructure of schools, universities and the government bureaucracies that regulate them. Continue reading