Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’
I touch on some of the points mentioned in the film, but the film has quite a bit more in terms of the alternatives.
Update: See also this review in the NY Review of Books.
Take a look at—or, more accurately, a listen to (the visual images don’t amount to much)—this brief exposition. Certain one can see the relevance of Kierkegaard’s analysis if not his solution to the problems of today. And if he’s smart enough to figure out the situation, maybe he’s also smart enough to figure out the solution—or at least a solution schema. Via Open Culture, of course.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is perhaps best known for his systematic philosophical ethics, conceived of as a post-religious framework for secular morality. His primary ethical mandate, which he called the “categorical imperative,” enables us—Alain de Botton tells us in his short School of Life video above—to “shift our perspective, to get us to see our own behavior in less immediately personal terms.” It’s a philosophical version, de Botton says, of the Golden Rule. “Act only according to that maxim,” Kant famously wrote of the imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
This guide to moral behavior seems on its face a simple one. It asks us to imagine the consequences of behavior should everyone act in the same way. However, “almost every conceivable analysis of the Groundwork has been tried out over the past two centuries,” writes Harvard professor Michael Rosen, “yet all have been found wanting in some way or other.” Friedrich Nietzsche alluded to a serious problem with what Rosen calls Kant’s “rule-utilitarianism.” How, Nietzsche asks in On the Genealogy of Morals, are we to determine whether an action will have good or bad consequences unless we have “learned to separate necessary events from chance events, to think in terms of cause and effect, to see distant events as if they were present, to anticipate them….”
Can we ever have that kind of foresight? Can we formulate rules such that everyone who acts on them will predict the same positive or negative outcomes in every situation? The questions
It occurs to me that Kant’s approach is somewhat similar to John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” that we assume as we define the roles, responsibilities, and rights of the various social groups without knowing beforehand which role we shall assume. It’s more or less the idea of fair sharing between two people: one cuts the portions, the other gets first choice: both are satisfied because the procedure ensures fairness.
UPDATE: See this good short video:
Natalie Wolchover reports in Quanta:
Physicists typically think they “need philosophers and historians of science like birds need ornithologists,” the Nobel laureate David Gross told a roomful of philosophers, historians and physicists last week in Munich, Germany, paraphrasing Richard Feynman.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Fundamental physics faces a problem, Gross explained — one dire enough to call for outsiders’ perspectives. “I’m not sure that we don’t need each other at this point in time,” he said.
It was the opening session of a three-day workshop, held in a Romanesque-style lecture hall at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU Munich) one year after George Ellis and Joe Silk, two white-haired physicists now sitting in the front row, called for such a conference in an incendiary opinion piece in Nature. One hundred attendees had descended on a land with a celebrated tradition in both physics and the philosophy of science to wage what Ellis and Silk declared a “battle for the heart and soul of physics.”
The crisis, as Ellis and Silk tell it, is the wildly speculative nature of modern physics theories, which they say reflects a dangerous departure from the scientific method. Many of today’s theorists — chief among them the proponents of string theory and the multiverse hypothesis — appear convinced of their ideas on the grounds that they are beautiful or logically compelling, despite the impossibility of testing them. Ellis and Silk accused these theorists of “moving the goalposts” of science and blurring the line between physics and pseudoscience. “The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable,” Ellis and Silk wrote, thereby disqualifying most of theleading theories of the past 40 years. “Only then can we defend science from attack.”
They were reacting, in part, to the controversial ideas of Richard Dawid, an Austrian philosopher whose 2013 book String Theory and the Scientific Method identified three kinds of “non-empirical” evidence that Dawid says can help build trust in scientific theories absent empirical data. Dawid, a researcher at LMU Munich, answered Ellis and Silk’s battle cry and assembled far-flung scholars anchoring all sides of the argument for the high-profile event last week.
Gross, a supporter of string theory who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the force that glues atoms together, kicked off the workshop by asserting that the problem lies not with physicists but with a “fact of nature” — one that we have been approaching inevitably for four centuries.
The dogged pursuit of a fundamental theory governing all forces of nature requires physicists to inspect the universe more and more closely — to examine, for instance, the atoms within matter, the protons and neutrons within those atoms, and the quarks within those protons and neutrons. But this zooming in demands evermore energy, and the difficulty and cost of building new machines increases exponentially relative to the energy requirement, Gross said. “It hasn’t been a problem so much for the last 400 years, where we’ve gone from centimeters to millionths of a millionth of a millionth of a centimeter” — the current resolving power of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, he said. “We’ve gone very far, but this energy-squared is killing us.”
As we approach the practical limits of our ability to probe nature’s underlying principles, the minds of theorists have wandered far beyond the tiniest observable distances and highest possible energies. Strong clues indicate that the truly fundamental constituents of the universe lie at a distance scale 10 million billion times smaller than the resolving power of the LHC. This is the domain of nature that string theory, a candidate “theory of everything,” attempts to describe. But it’s a domain that no one has the faintest idea how to access.
The problem also hampers physicists’ quest to understand the universe on a cosmic scale: No telescope will ever manage to peer past our universe’s cosmic horizon and glimpse the other universes posited by the multiverse hypothesis. Yet modern theories of cosmology lead logically to the possibility that our universe is just one of many.
Whether the fault lies with theorists for getting carried away, or with nature, for burying its best secrets, the conclusion is the same: Theory has detached itself from experiment. The objects of theoretical speculation are now too far away, too small, too energetic or too far in the past to reach or rule out with our earthly instruments. So, what is to be done? As Ellis and Silk wrote, “Physicists, philosophers and other scientists should hammer out a new narrative for the scientific method that can deal with the scope of modern physics.”
“The issue in confronting the next step,” said Gross, “is not one of ideology but strategy: What is the most useful way of doing science?”
Over three mild winter days, scholars grappled with the meaning of theory,confirmation and truth; how science works; and whether, in this day and age, philosophy should guide research in physics or the other way around. Over the course of these pressing yet timeless discussions, a degree of consensus took shape. . .
Some very interesting books. I read The Evolution of Cooperation years ago, and it’s a terrific book. I was pleased that the winner of both competitions in the book was a program created by Anatol Rappoport, author of Operational Philosophy, a book that I read in high school and is still quite intriguing. The person interviewed is Vlatko Vedral:
Vlatko Vedral is Professor of Quantum Information Theory at the Universities of Oxford and Singapore. He has published over 100 research papers in quantum mechanics and quantum information and was awarded the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award in 2007. He has held a Professorship at Leeds, visiting professorships in Vienna and Singapore (NUS) and at Perimeter Institute in Canada. He is the author of Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information.
The interview begins:
Your first book is Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality? by Alastair Rae.
This is a completely popular book about quantum physics: there is not a single equation in there, I think. What he does is to go through all the major ways in which we try to understand quantum physics, all the major interpretations. It’s extremely good in that he writes in a very objective way and it’s very difficult to tell which one he supports. It’s very passionately argued as well, and it’s a beautiful exposition, very philosophical. I think it’s the best, probably my favourite, popular account of all the things we argue about on the fundamental side of quantum physics.
There are all kinds of strange views on what quantum physics actually is.
Right. There are connections with religion, then there are extremes saying it’s all in the mind: basically that nothing becomes real until we measure it and look at it and consciously record it. On the other side there is a point of view that it’s as real as anything else, out there independently of us and so on. He talks about these two extreme views and what quantum physics tells us about this very old question: whether the world is ideal or real.
Does he resolve it?
He really leaves it open because, to be completely honest about these issues, I don’t think we have something that’s universally accepted as the view: each has lots of positive points but also something that makes it a not completely plausible view to hold. That’s a really nice book.
Your second book?
The Ghost in the Atom. This was actually a sequence of radio interviews recorded by Paul Davies, who’s probably the best populariser of physics we have.
He’s the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence guy?
Right. He’s written a book about that as well. I think in the 70s/80s he conducted a set of radio interviews with about 10 of the leading physicists of the time. And the spirit is similar to the previous book in that it’s all to do with how we understand the unusual phenomena in quantum physics. The book is written as a dialogue – Davies asks a question and then the interviewee answers – and I would say this format is a much more exciting read than typical prose where someone exposes something. It also goes into personal issues, which you usually don’t get in these books, in that he asks each person about how they got engaged, when did they first learn about quantum mechanics, how did they learn it? It’s really fantastic, an amazing read.
To whom does he speak?
People like John Bell, who came up with Bell’s Inequality, which was one way of quantifying the weirdness in quantum mechanics; then David Bond who has one of those interpretations that tries to retain, I would say, some kind of reality in quantum mechanics, arguing that the world is still as real as it was in a Newtonian kind of framework. Davies chose a person to represent each of these points of view, and it’s really interesting how the interview is conducted and then where it leads – how different people end up in completely different parts of quantum physics, and what they find exciting, and so on.
Does it lead you to believe that maybe people go into quantum physics to prove an idea that they’ve already had?
That’s an interesting point. It’s difficult to tell what comes prior to what, right? In a way we do have these inner feelings, all of us, as to what we think the world should be like. And we usually carry this prejudice with us into our research as well, so it’s not clear whether you come with a prejudice and then you’re trying to use this theory to confirm what you already thought the world was like prior to that. In this kind of interview it’s easy to expose these kinds of things: you can see that people started with some ideas and then maybe changed them or didn’t change them as they did research.
All these unifying theories that quantum mechanics proves, seem to have already been posited in literature or religion or whatever.
Yes, I don’t think there is anything really distinctly novel that was brought there philosophically by quantum mechanics. The key tenet I would say is this randomness that is at the core of our interaction with the world: there is an element that you can never make more deterministic. And, of course, randomness as a way of looking at the world existed for a long time. If you go back to the ancient Greeks I think you will see a spectrum of all of these world views already present there.
Your next book? . . .
I’ve found some new books about process philosophy, and I’m very excited. Truly, process philosophy seems to have a sounder basis in—or approach to—reality than some other approaches. From Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues, by Nicholas Rescher:
… It seems sensible to understand “process philosophy” as a doctrine committed to, or at any rate inclined toward, certain basic propositions:
- Time and change are among the principal categories of metaphysical understanding.
- Process is a principal category of ontological description.
- Processes are more fundamental, or at any rate not less fundamental, than things for the purposes of ontological theory.
- Several, if not all, of the major elements of the ontological repertoire (God, Nature as a whole, persons, material substances) are best understood in process terms.
- Contingency, emergence, novelty, and creativity are among the fundamental categories of metaphysical understanding.
A process philosopher, then, is someone for whom temporality, activity, and change—of alteration,striving, passage, and novelty-emergence—are the cardinal factors for our understanding of the real. Ultimately, it is a question of priority—of viewing the time-bound aspects of the real as constituting its most characteristic and significant features. For the process philosopher, process has priority over product—both ontologically and epistemically. This process-oriented approach is thus historically too pervasive and systematically too significant to be restricted in its bearing to one particular philosopher [he’s thinking here of Alfred North Whitehead, whose book Process and Reality, was quite influential – LG] and his school. Indeed, one cardinal task for the partisans of process at this particular juncture of philosophical history is to prevent the idea of “process philosophy” from being marginalized by limiting its bearing to the work and influence of any single individual or group.
In addition to the book mentioned, above, I have Process Metaphysics: An Introduction to Process Philosophy, also by Nicholas Rescher (and, I think, a better introduction than the book above, which has a certain focus on unsolved problems and unfinished tasks in process philosophy: suggestions for research and thought, in other words), and Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead, by C. Robert Mesle. Although one shouldn’t overemphasize Whitehead in a general discussion of process philosophy, he’s nonetheless a major figure in its develop—though in fact, one can trace it back to Heraclitus as the earliest exponent, and certainly Leibniz was a major figure as well.
I have three books by Henri Bergson on order as well—he, too, is a proponent of process philosophy.
I find this fascinating, though others may not.