3:AM magazine has a nice interview of the physicist Sean Carroll by Richard Marshall that's part of an ongoing series interviews, generally of philosophers, being done by the magazine. Carroll is an theoretical astrophysicist who has managed to avoid the pratfalls of physicists like Stephen Hawking who recently declared the death of philosophy. Carroll considers himself sympathetic to philosophers/ philosophical inquiry in general, mainly out of a shared desired to understand the world.
The public spat between physics and philosophy is just silly, more a matter of selling books or being lazy than any principled intellectual position. Most physicists know very little about philosophy, which is hardly surprising; most experts in any one academic field don’t know very much about many other fields. This ignorance manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a lot of scientists are quite comfortable with simplistic philosophy of science. This usually doesn’t matter, but there are cases where good philosophy has something to offer, and scientists rarely put in the work necessary to understand what that good philosophy has to say. Second, scientists tend to think of philosophy as a service discipline – what good does it do for my practice of science? The answer is almost always “no good at all,” which they then translate into thinking that philosophy has no real purpose. The truth is that almost all scientific work can proceed quite happily without philosophy – you can be very good at driving a car without knowing how an engine works. But when it’s important, philosophy very important indeed.
Very few philosophers, by contrast, are going to accuse science of being worthless. Nevertheless, it’s no surprise that there are problems of appreciation and understanding flowing in that direction as well. The only remedy, if one is interested in finding one, is constant interaction and communication.
My own default position is that respectable people in other academic fields probably have something interesting to say, even if I don’t immediately understand it. Not always true, of course – there are pockets of nonsense within every discipline. But the less I understand about the basics of some field, the less likely I am to start declaring it to be useless and antiquated.
Probably even more interesting for PEL listeners/readers, Carroll was the motive force behind last fall's Moving Naturalism Forward interdisciplinary workshop, which included a pretty wide range of scientists, philosophers, and other academics discussing "how to construct meaningful human lives in a world governed by the laws of nature." The entire conference was really a roundtable discussion with each session dedicated to a specific topic -- what is real?, emergence and reduction, morality, meaning, free will/determinism -- all of which were recorded and are available free on the web.
that was a fantastic conference that featured another 3am interviewee:
Wayne Schroeder says
Sean Carroll’s Particle at the End of the Universe is a fascinating read. It starts off with pretty common knowledge and then becomes a mystery story with characters and a solid explanation of the physics of the Higgs Boson without having to do the math.
Wayne Schroeder says
Carroll advocates a naturalist position, such as “the world really is just a quantum state evolving in Hilbert space,” (only the natural world exists) and physicalism–the natural world is no more than the physical world. Naturalism for Carroll, is in contrast to David Chalmers position of strong emergence or “the idea that there are behaviors of macroscopic objects that cannot (even in principle) be understood in terms of their component parts.”
He advocates weak emergence, in that the “emergent” higher-level theory [i.e, thermodynamics] can exhibit features that you might naively think are ruled out by the lower-level rules [kinetic theory], perhaps parallel to the particle/wave theory of how photons can be described.
This appears to be his mechanism to account for the apparent human unpredictable freedom in the universe (free will, morality, meaning, values) in the face of the determinism of naturalism. He uses this additional category of weak emergence to allow for philosophy and avoid the reductionism of Hawking. (However this still raises the issues of dualism.)
I think Metzinger does a better job here using phenomenology to address the divide.
why do you equate ‘weak’ emergence with dualism?
Wayne Schroeder says
Thanks dmf, that was vague: weak emergence as raising the issue of dualism is not the same as claiming that it must be. In fact weak emergence has the possibility of being non-dualistic in the right hands and would like to see if Carroll et al can develop this without typical scientific dualism. As your excellent referrence indicates, emergence and complexity theories are ways beyond dualism.
Wayne Schroeder says
Carroll states: ” I think we both agree that physics should be the basis for metaphysics, and that what the world “really is” comes down to what we learn from our best physical description of it. But I am quite happy with accepting the current view that the world is fundamentally a quantum state, and he [Tim Maudlin] feels this is too far removed from the reality of everyday experience So yeah – I think the world is nothing but a wave function. (Until we come up with something better.)”
This concept of “nothing but” tends to lead to reductionism. This is actually the trap even Metzinger falls into (see my comments under NFS Philosophy of Mind). Where it shows up is when the scientist goes beyond science and tries to make statements about free will, morality, causality, etc.
Carroll does well to bring these paradoxes to the surface using the following vocabulary/metaphysics:
The Real: Manifest Image (derived from scientific ontology)/Scientific Image (scientific ontology)
Ontology of science based on “perfectly reversible and deterministic differential equations”
1) Free Will not consistent with ontology of the Laws of Physics
2) Morality(value) not derivable from the ontology of science
3) Causality not consistent with scientific ontology
4) Economics or evolutionary biology are subsets of the ontology of physics
Defining science as ontology, leads to privileging of the scientific. Separating science from philosophical issues (free will, morality, causality, economics) helps to give space to philosophy, but makes it subservient to science if science is the basis of ontology.
By and large, Carroll’s objective thinking appears to minimize reductionism as far as the interview indicates.
Kevin Grizzard says
Fascinating stuff! Seeing a respected and accomplished physicist say these (entirely reasonable) things publicly and emphatically gives me (a slight glimmer of) hope. (I say this as a physicist.) The spat is indeed silly… though philosophers are not entirely free of blame either (especially Contintentals, and I say that as a fan of many Contintentals. If anyone hasn’t read Sokal’s “Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” it is hilarious. Would actually love to hear a discussion of it on PEL/the blog/Not School, if it hasn’t been done.)
meh, it’s a bit like asking serious physicists to take a stand on the public reception of the Dancing Wu Li Masters.
I would be more interested in a critique on your part of uses of physics by actual continental philosophers like Zizek:
Dylan Casey says
Sokal seems much more like Hawking to me than even Carroll in this respect — he doesn’t understand that criticisms of philosophy from “a scientific perspective” implies philosophical position that ought to be explicated. In the end, he’s kvetching about some form of academic integrity/intellectual honesty rather than actually arguing about ideas — really an ad hominem cultural criticism more than a philosophical one.
yes there was that and I think some equally uninformed push back against the sociology of science done by Latour, Shapin&Schaffer, and others working after Kuhn.
Wayne Schroeder says
Sokal’s article is a great parody not only of Continental philosophy, but the process that allowed this parody to be printed. Here is a footnote from the article quoting Deleuze and Guattari:
“Unfortunately, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has frequently been misinterpreted by amateur philosophers. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1994, 129-130) lucidly point out,
‘in quantum physics, Heisenberg’s demon does not express the impossibility of measuring both the speed and the position of a particle on the grounds of a subjective interference of the measure with the measured, but it measures exactly an objective state of affairs that leaves the respective position of two of its particles outside of the field of its actualization, the number of independent variables being reduced and the values of the coordinates having the same probability. …Perspectivism, or scientific relativism, is never relative to a subject: it constitutes not a relativity of truth but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative, that is to say, of variables whose cases it orders according to the values it extracts from them in its system of coordinates …'”
As anyone who carefully scrutinizes this quote can see, this not only not a quote, but a sophisticated simulation of both scientific understanding (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) mixed with seeming philosophical “reasoning” signifying nothing. Sokal deserves a Saturday Night Live award, and shame on the Continental philosophy process that allowed the publication.
However, to dismiss the philosophical issue of dualism which was brought to a head by Descartes versus claims of reductionism as silly stuff would be to dismiss a good deal of the history of philosophy, which is perhaps how a physicist might regard philosophy.
“At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.”
Wayne Schroeder says
Apologies. The quote by Sokal above is real and from “What is Philosophy” (p. 129-130). Therefore the article is a lot more serious and less humorous than I thought. Back to the drawing board for me on this article–perhaps more later.
Wayne Schroeder says
Your Parody was not just a hoax but a brilliant tour de force exposing the vulnerability of the scientific journal, Social Text by publishing “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text.
He published this theoretical article, based entirely on meticulously footnoted academic articles. He embedded scientific and mathematical concepts throughout the article.
In his own post-published words:
“I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.”
“Next, I assemble a pastiche — Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity — held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” (See http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html.
In the article he presented a tour de force of “citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.”
Sokal’s purpose was to challenge “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists for forms of epistemic relativism and obscurantism, rejecting notions of truth and falsity, which betray “fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social). . . [as] incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right.”
I commend Sokal for hacking the publishing system of Social Text and exposing its publishing vulnerabilities, including lack of peer review and well known desire to publish the controversial.
However, his academic hoax still avoids having dealt with the substantive issues philosophically, concept by concept–one of the by-products of ridicule without content. I suspect that a respected authority who knows his scientific language could turn the hoax on him using the same procedure. It was a nevertheless a brilliant and fascinating exercise.
Frtiz Donaro says
Timely. Just before this interview came out and Dylan here gave a heads-up I was actually thinking to myself Sean Carroll is one uber-chllin cool cat daddy-o physicist. Bringing it to the masses and makin’ peace with philosophy. And for real yo, props to Richard Marshall for his pippin interview series which is bookmarked and dutifully read and partially understood by me. Been checkin’ out loads of u-tube vids on astrophysics, cosmology, quantum mechanics and so forth. Hardly understand a damn thing to be honest, but not certain how much they know either relatively speaking… 4% of the Universe apparently? Or Multiverse.