The Professor Who Taught Us the Philosophy of Bean Counting
ANY lecturer who starts off by confessing to his students that he suffers from an ailment that inhibits him from recognising people, though he didn't have it as badly as the man who mistook his wife for a hat, has my attention.
That's what Robert Segall did at UCT summer school this week. He earned his first doctorate in physics at Cambridge in 1960, is currently working on his second doctorate, in philosophy, at UCT, and between times was professor of physics in Brisbane, Australia, among other things.
I thought I would let him do something about my scientific illiteracy by attending his five-day course on the "Philosophy of Science". By the second lecture he was already referring to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states the more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known. Especially when it comes to very small objects.
Well, no one in the lecture theatre was more uncertain than I was at that precise moment, but fortunately Dr Segall got down to brass tacks, or, even more precisely, white beans. It was another scientific philosopher, Charles Sanders Pierce, an irascible and philandering academic, who used a bag of white beans to illustrate the difference between deduction ("these beans are white"), induction ("all these beans are white") and abduction ("these beans are from the bag").
All of which appeared ridiculously self-evident, but then, as the professor insisted, many seemingly simple statements of fact have turned out not to be statements of fact at all. …