Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Twa Cultures

How could I have missed this?

Are [the laws of the universe] merely fancy bookkeeping, a way of organizing facts about the world? Do they govern nature or just describe it? And does it matter that we don’t know and that most scientists don’t seem to know or care where they come from?
Judging from the rest of the article, of course, one can understand why scientists would simply want to stick to science:

The ultimate Platonist these days is Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In talks and papers recently he has speculated that mathematics does not describe the universe — it is the universe.
“Everything in our world is purely mathematical — including you,” he wrote in New Scientist.
It is here we should pause a moment and remember that the word for "everything" is "Universe." So for Dr. Tegmark, even love, passion, beauty, art, war, politics, faith, and even belief, are mathematics. Hmmmm....I know Godel was a committed Platonist, too, but somehow the idea of mathematics (itself a formal system) not producing questions it cannot answer just runs afoul of Godel's theorem of incompleteness in ways that makes me wonder how useful it is to reduce the universe to math.

What's funny, of course, is that none of this is news in philosophical circles, anymore than what Terry Eagleton has to say about the Gospels is news in Biblical scholarship circles. But we like our knowledge hermetically sealed today, so when a scientist (who is, after all, "serious," in left blogistan parlance, and must be a source of truth, whereas we know all philosophers are either Continental metaphysicians building imaginary systems of being in the air, or dry Anglo-Americans trailing along behind physicists, picking up the crumbs that fall from their lips) says this:

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
Then the compartment walls are breached and all the systems of thought start to flow together and scientists who disdain religion suddenly realize they, too, are standing on unsolid ground, and fundamentalism suddenly doesn't look quite so untenable. The Universe is all mathematics, after all.

Or information; but only the right kind of information. Take that blanket statement "knowledge about the world." What does science have to say about being, for example? Not the profoundly difficult concepts of Heidegger; not Dasein and "being-in-the-world," but merely, well...being. Watch a child be born and ask yourself: where did that life come from? Watch a person die and ask yourself: where did life go? The difference between a sleeping person and a corpse is animation: one is animate, one isn't. But what is that difference, and what creates it, or destroys it, or removes it, or changes it, or...? How do we even talk about this, except in metaphor? Think about it for even a moment and you begin to realize why metaphysics is so complicated, why Heidegger can get you so lost in such a cloud of concepts. Is my daughter simply the product of a sperm fertilizing an egg? Whence, then, her personality, her joie de vivre, her talents, skills, intelligences? Mathematics? Wittgenstein would eat this guy for breakfast.

Don't make me laugh.

How does science explain love, except as a reductio ad absurdum? How does science explain human personalities except as a product of this; but also that; but also another thing; but also... Until it finally throws its hands up in the air and says it can't answer the question and it isn't interested anyway and, Oh! just go away! As Overbye asks: "... does it matter that we don’t know and that most scientists don’t seem to know or care where they come from?" And the ones who do, either retreat to Platonism cum Pythagoras, or offer Samuel Johnson's rebuttal of David Hume:

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate from the University of Texas, Austin, described himself in an e-mail message as “pretty Platonist,” saying he thinks the laws of nature are as real as “the rocks in the field.” The laws seem to persist, he wrote, “whatever the circumstance of how I look at them, and they are things about which it is possible to be wrong, as when I stub my toe on a rock I had not noticed.”
Which may have impressed Boswell, but isn't entirely the summation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

A roundabout way of saying scientists make poor philosophers. But another way of noticing C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures." And noting that perhaps there are really more than two, or that they aren't quite the two Snow thought they were.

Actually, I think Paul Davies makes a pretty good point:

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
Either science answers all the questions religion was supposed to have answered (that's a caricature of religious belief, but let it lie for now), or it doesn't. It really is something of an either/or.

I'm rather surprised then, that no one in the article reached for Godel's theorem. Or even Kuhn's philosophy of science. Or Quine's empiricism. Still, it's amusing to watch the scientists flail about like religious conservatives and fundamentalists, the only two groups in Christian theology who even attempt to provide an alternative Grand Unified Theory which explains the Universe, right down to your fingernails and the reason you fall in love or like chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla.

Really, all that's being done here is that science is catching up with philosophy. Davies writes:

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.
Wittgenstein was a better mathematician than Davies' critics, and a better empiricist, too. He argued that mathematics simply reflects the reality we perceive, the question of perception being a "hot topic" for Kuhn as well as for Rorty, to name two more contemporary philosophers. In a world of different physical laws, Wittgenstein pointed out, mathematics would change, too. The "permanence" of mathematics, in other words, is no such thing: it is simply a reflection of our perceptions, nothing more (which locks us back into the world David Hume left us in, and from which Kant did not exactly extract us). The argument is a subtle but exacting one, so its no surprise it doesn't get made in the pages of the New York Times. But neither has it yet trickled down to the level of "general knowledge," as string theory has:

In this case there is meta law — one law or equation, perhaps printable on a T-shirt — to rule them all. This prospective lord of the laws would be string theory, the alleged theory of everything, which apparently has 10500 solutions. Call it Einstein’s nightmare.
I understand some physicist's would call string theory "physic's nightmare," on the grounds there is, as yet, no empirical proof to support the claims made in its name. As to that, I cannot say, but I suspect many more people toss about the ideas of string theory ("Multiverses" and "alternate realities") with about as much understanding as actors repeating lines in "Star Trek." Sounds good, even if it doesn't quite mean anything.

In the end, I suppose this is right, after all:

These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet. “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.
They are more than fun, of course, if only because Kuhn's explanation of paradigms helps explain what scientists actually know; or if only because Hume's designation of synthetic and analytical knowledge helps organize what we can really assert about the universe (for Hume it was either false knowledge, or useless knowledge. "Useless," too, has its categories, doesn't it?) Most of the time scientists are merely examining the material world in order to either explain some portion of it, or to manipulate for human gain or profit. Sometimes those manipulations are very, very good (who can deny the virtues of antibiotics?). Sometimes they are merely more efficient ways of dealing death to one another (read Swift's "A Voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms" to despair of the 'advances' science and its handmaid, technology, have brought us. Or just review a history of the 20th century). Changing hearts and minds; that's where the real action is.

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