Knowledge of Good and Banal

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.

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