Archive for August, 2011

Terms of Ontological Endearment

25 August 2011

Mosaic of Reality

Material Witness
In chapter twelve of his On Physics and Philosophy Bernard d’Espagnat tackles three kinds of materialism: dialectical materialism (briefly), “scientific” materialism, and what he calls “neomaterialism.”

Ultimately… ultimate reality isn’t the same as “empirical” or “epistemological” reality, something materialists just don’t get.

At least that’s what he says, and I largely agree.

Here’s my summary of the chapter.

Dialectical Materialism vs Bohr
D’Espagnat says he’s not going to do a detailed analysis of dialectical materialism. He says it’s been sufficiently dismantled elsewhere. However, he warns against seeing too many parallels between Neils Bohr’s approach and this form of materialism.

Bohr’s thought and dialectics may share some general features, but that’s different from dialectical materialism. Bohr had a “human-centred” approach, which could be called materialism only if you radically changed the meaning of the word.

Scientific Materialism vs Atomism
D’Espagnat says “materialism” or “mechanism” doesn’t automatically refer to atomism. Descartes didn’t believe in atoms, and even in the 19th century ether and fields lay outside the realm of the atom.

Macroman on the Street vs the Microworld
The man on the street and even many scientists (particularly in the softer sciences such as biology) think of nature as composed of smaller and smaller grains or specks, eventually leading to atoms. This microworld has (roughly) the same nature as the macroscopic world we experience.

The problem with that idea is that standard quantum theory and the experimental results used to test it show conclusively that atoms, particles, and the forces emanating from them just aren’t like the world at large (as we experience it). This material reductionism doesn’t work.

Standard vs Non-standard Interpretations
Penrose (calling himself a physicalist) adds gravitational effects to the Schrödinger equation. Sokal and Bricmont rely on Broglie–Bohm. However, the first choice is more a research program than a fully fledged theory, and the second choice runs into some trouble with relativity.

The Sokal and Bricmont approach combines corpuscles with nonlocal entities or forces that have the same strength whatever the distance. This isn’t your grandmother’s materialism.

Empirical Reality vs Materialist Reality
Standard quantum mechanics rejects both approaches. At best these materialist approaches describe some “empirical” or “epistemological” reality, a product of how our “mind structure” divides and categorizes reality.

Positivism vs Materialism
Some materialist apologists say quantum mechanics is a product of its times: the 1920s, when positivism (and its emphasis on observation rather than underlying reality) reigned.

D’Espagnat rejects that objection. He says that whatever the origins of quantum theory, rival interpretations still need to be bolstered by evidence.

Research vs Traditions of Research
Michel Bibol and Larry Laudan offer subtler challenges by examining the higher-level assumptions that scientists use. Laudan calls them “traditions of research,” which Bitbol calls “values.” They’re what imparts meaning to a scientific quest.

Observations vs “Ampliative” Arguments
D’Espagnat acknowledges that when mainstream physicists reject Broglie–Bohm because its concepts are unnecessarily complicated or because “action at a distance” messes with relativity they are using “ampliative” arguments.

These are arguments that go beyond what the observations are telling us. After all, physicists could reject the relativity principle as long as they come up with some theory that uses other principles, but acts as if the relativity principle still works.

Bohm vs Materialism
However, even David Bohm rejected materialism. He first spoke of a wave function then later a quantum potential. Neither is localized, hardly what a conventional materialist would call real.

Although Bohm found a way to explain physics without specifying consciousness, he also noted that quantum physics suggests a “mental pole” exists.

Sophistication vs Atomic Materialism
Adding sophistication to atomic materialism doesn’t rescue it. Rather, its “atomism” disappears and its materialism looks increasingly doubtful.

Neomaterialism vs Matter
A third approach to materialism comes from André Comte-Sponville.

He acknowledges nonseparability, a concept that other materialists ignore. D’Espagnat calls this approach “neomaterialism.”

Comte-Sponville gets himself into definitional circles trying to define “matter.” It’s supposed to be everything (but a vacuum), yet also produces the mind. However, if thoughts are real then they’d already be part of “matter.”

Neutral vs Suggestive Terms
D’Espagnat also criticizes Comte-Sponville for using “image-carrying words” such as “matter.” D’Espagnat notes that he himself doesn’t use “matter,” “God,” or “spirit.” Rather he tries to use neutral terms such as “mind-independent reality.”

Nonseparability vs Neomaterialism
Comte-Sponville says the primary question is whether matter is idealist or spiritualist on the one side, or of a physical nature similar to what we experience on the macroscopic level. He’s not an idealist or spiritualist, so he clearly believes in a physical reality.

But as with scientific materialism the idea that reality bears any resemblance to our macroscopic experiences is blown out of the water by quantum physics.

Nonseparability—which Comte-Sponville says is a “mystery”—is an issue whatever theory you choose. It ensures that “ultimate reality” is nothing like our everyday experiences.

Utility vs Evidence
Comte-Sponville eventually acknowledges that if matter includes thought then matter can’t be defined as everything except thought.

However, he says that ultimately what the “natural sciences” say is less important than neomaterialism’s purpose: to explain mind from concepts other than mind, and to do all this to “defeat religion, superstition and illusion.”

D’Espagnat says this argument about the usefulness of neomaterialism just ends up being a circular argument. Deeply held convictions are not themselves an argument.

Empirical vs Ultimate Reality
Ontologically interpretable theories are not consistent with experiment. D’Espagnat says particles and their attributes have a well-defined existence only in relation to knowledge, hence the mind.

Our knowledge of particles and other micro-objects are just that: a kind of knowledge, hence pointing to elements of an empirical, not ultimate, reality.

D’Espagnat says that he and Comte-Sponville both agree that “existence” comes before “knowledge.” But d’Espagnat says mind comes from an “independent reality” not “empirical reality.”

This a materialism does not make.

Convenient Ontologies vs Creeds
Back to materialism in general, d’Espagnat agrees it’s a “tradition of research” as Laudan might put it.

These traditions use values that neither explain nor predict. They are not testable.

These research traditions may include contradictory theories under their umbrella. But some scientists attach a lot of meaning to this identity, and aren’t likely to give up on the term “materialism.”

On a day-to-day basis physicists are using and abusing terms from classical physics such as “particles.” Since physicists would find it hard to move ahead just pondering observations and equations, these concepts are convenient components of a “fabricated ontology.”

D’Espagnat warns these scientists that relying on this ontology to support their rationality may be useful from a practical point of view. Just don’t convert that choice into “an illegitimate doctrinal creed.”


Knowledge of Good and Banal

10 August 2011

Knowledge of Good and Banal

Philosopher’s Walk
A little past the halfway point in Bernard d’Espagnat’s On Physics and Philosophy he switches from a look at the relevance of physics to philosophy to the relevance of philosophy to physics.

If the first chapter of part two, chapter eleven, is any indication, the last half of the book should be a much easier read than the first, though perhaps less satisfying.

It was a huge challenge to wade through d’Espagnat’s descriptions of quantum theory and interpretation, hence I felt the need to write (and post) lots of notes to help me out. At least I felt a sense of reward whenever I finally grasped something of the physics.

But as far as I can tell I agree with d’Espgant’s philosophy anyway. Part two may make easier reading, but I already felt a lot of the modern philosophy, soft sciences, and cultural studies he critiques was just plain hokum. I don’t need more convincing.

In any event, I will trudge on, and I expect I’ll be posting updates to my dualistic summary much more often now.

Science vs Philosophy
Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz were brilliant scientists and philosophers, but by the eighteenth century a huge breach developed.

Nature of Things vs Behaviour
Fourier refused to speculate on the nature of heat. Instead his heat propagation equation quantitatively predicted heat’s behaviour.

Intuitive vs Unintuitive Notions
Specialization works when concepts such as (in Fourier’s time) “hotter” and “colder” seem obvious, so don’t need to be defined by a theory.

But what’s a quantum field or space-time metrics? Then we do need to consider the nature of such concepts.

Ontology vs Operationalism
The physicist can give up his exclusive interest in behaviours, or can decide that “behaviour” is just a series of recorded observations.

The first option sounds like philosophy, while the second gets close to operationalism.

Physics-Aware Philosophy vs Philosophy-Aware Physics
In first part of his book d’Espagnat called on philosophers to pay attention to the physics. In this second part he calls on physicists to pay attention to the philosophy.

Epistemology vs Scientific Knowledge
D’Espagnat says epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, is particularly important when considering scientific knowledge.

Logical Positivists vs Modern Sceptics
Epistemology forty years ago was dominated by logical positivists. Nowadays there’s more diversity.

Present-day epistemologists often combine extreme scepticism toward science with an “everything goes” attitude to knowledge in general.

They also talk of “paradigms” in a way that suggests an underlying belief in objectivist realism.

Stubborn Epistemologists vs Blasé Physicists
Physics has moved far, far away from realist attitudes to experimental data. Epistemologists generally ignore two points physicists find obvious.

The first is that equations, such as Maxwell’s, show remarkable power and longevity, even if interpretations of those equations have changed.

The second is that with the help of these equations physical science gets better and better at predicting phenomena.

Paradigm Change vs Continuous Change
D’Espagnat finds fault with much of contemporary epistemology, but he says Thomas Kuhn and others usefully pointed out that science doesn’t always change slowly but surely.

Kuhn sees a strong sociological basis in “paradigm changes”: it’s easier to cast doubt on the present “received” theory than to prove its replacement.

Therefore advocates of change must use more tools of persuasion than just the data.

Experimental Choice vs Outcome
D’Espagnat appreciates that funding and fashion might influence choice of experiment, but he strongly doubts that they affect the results of those experiments.

Short-Term Chaos vs Long-Term Progress
D’Espagnat says epistemologists probably act like historians, seeing short-term upheaval during science’s most productive periods.

But in the long term d’Espagnat strongly believes the “winner” theory will explain not just new facts, but the old ones the previous theory took care of.

Huygens’ Waves vs Newton’s Corpuscles
D’Espagnat acknowledges how Newton’s corpuscular theory of light replaced Huygens’ wave theory even though Huygens’ explained double refraction a lot better.

Does that mean explanatory power is sometimes lost as science “progresses”?

D’Espagnat emphasizes that today’s theory of light is quantum electrodynamics, which improves upon both Newton’s and Huygens’ theories.

Universal Physics vs The Rest of Science
D’Espagnat says epistemologists might dispute the universality of this argument. Instead of physics maybe their claims apply to some other sciences.

He believes in the universality of science in principle, but he admits maybe sciences less dependent on technology may suffer a loss of craft as one theory replaces another.

However, d’Espagnat still believes such a loss would be temporary. Epistemologists again confuse loss of predictive power and a (temporary) lack of interest in some field.

Paradigms vs Reality
Kuhn-like epistemologists are so fixed on objectivist or constructivist realism that they see a change in concepts as a radical change in physics’ view of reality.

As a result some epistemologists speak of the “noncumulative” nature of physics.

Allegory vs Equations
D’Espagnat points to the remarkable stability of equations despite changes in “wordings and outward interpretations.”

A change in concepts doesn’t destroy the old theory, it just generalizes it and provides a new allegorical picture.

Kuhnian vs Other Viewpoints
D’Espagnat notes that in the past fifty years other approaches to scientific knowledge have developed that don’t rely on Kuhn.

Professional Language vs Sloppy Thinking
D’Espagnat says most professional languages help prevent misleading shifts in meaning, but philosophical language actually encourages it.

If you apply critical thinking to philosophical texts you’ll often discover ambiguous meaning and mannered style replacing sound arguments.

Context vs Scientific Purpose
D’Espagnat says some epistemologists delve deeply into the psychology or sociology of scientific discovery, yet remain near silent about what science is really concerned with.

Ideas vs Evidence
Jean-Jacques Rousseau decided humans are good by nature, but forgot this was an idea of his not a piece of evidence.

D’Espagnat says many philosophers of science act the same way, clinging to an idea that is ultimately just part of their dogma.

Empiricists decided a priori that evidence comes from the senses, while positivists have their verification principle.

Relativity vs Quantum Theory
Epistemologists have started taking into account relativity theory but don’t realize how damaging quantum theory is to some of their views.

Positivists vs Realists
Some realist epistemologists speak of entities as having an unconditional individual existence, or naturally assume that particles travel on continuous trajectories.

Realists point to positivism’s failings on philosophical grounds, but the physics points to the failings of realism.

Science vs Cultural Fashion
Some epistemologists think the positivism of the 1920s led to the “weak” objectivity of standard quantum theory, while today’s attitudes are friendlier towards realism.

D’Espagnat calls this argument “valueless.”

If it were just an issue of social psychology and today’s fashion then physicists should now have solved the quantum interpretation problem.

However, as he’s already explained in detail, other quantum interpretations that make the right predictions cannot be interpreted ontologically, and vice versa.

Language vs Thought
Throughout the twentieth century many philosophers paid attention to language, thinking it had to mirror—even mould—the logic of thought.

The problem is various languages have very different structures. Do we think if a group speaks a different language it thinks differently?

D’Espagnat believes “language creates thought” is a Rousseau-like assumption. Aristotle came up with the concept of potentia not so he could think in a new way, but to accommodate new data.

New language is convenient and helpful, but springs from a need to explain new evidence.

Quantum vs Classic Logic
Quantum theory muddies the distinction between concepts of objects and predicates.

Some people have put forward a quantum logic to remedy that situation, but this new logic isn’t a necessary part of quantum theory.

Metalogic vs Specific Rules
D’Espagnat believes that the metalogic used to speak about logic is a universal logic, while specific thinking rules might apply to specific situations.

He notes with approval Bohr’s “basic truth” that everyday language is the only clear means of communication that we have.

Sociologism vs Science
D’Espagnat condemns the idea that “anthropological situations” determine scientific results.

He asks, for instance, if the Heisenberg uncertainty principle would have failed had German and Danish culture been different.

He says this is sheer absurdity and calls the attitude “sociologism.”

Sokal the Anti-Sociologist vs Sokal the Realist
D’Espagnat applauds physicist Alan Sokal’s exposé of sociologists’ fuzzy thinking (by submitting an incoherent, jargon-filled paper to a humanities journal).

However, d’Espagnat regrets how Sokal “drifted to the other extreme” by clinging to physical realism.

Certainties vs The End of Certainties
D’Espagnat disagrees with the phrase “the end of certainties,” which is often used to describe the loss of certain knowledge in modern times.

He rejects this idea, whether it refers to challenges to determinism or physical realism.

Predictive rules, whether of events or probabilities of events, do work. Once experimentally verified they keep on working.

D’Espagnat thinks this is “certain” knowledge, though he agrees that “illusively simple” certainties may prove deceptive and short-lived.