Sunday, May 16, 2010
Law and . . . Cosmology?
I don't want to gloat but I just finished submitting the grades for my second class (102 exams total in both classes), so other than two, count 'em, two, make-up exams, I'm done. I'm sitting here with a class of Sancerre, and just fished out of my backpack the copy of Discover magazine I "borrowed" from the gym the other day. Is Discover the equivalent of People for nerds like me? (People can't get me through thirty minutes on the StairMaster. I don't recognize anybody any more. Who are Jon and Kate and why should I care?)
The April 2010 issue of Discover has an article that posing the question whether the supposedly immutable physical laws of the universe themselves "evolve." According to the article, one physicist critic of "timeless laws" is Lee Smolin (left), of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, who "rejects hidden dimensions in physics and multiverse approaches in cosmology for technical reasons. . . . These technical objections have given Smolin the uneasy feeling that there is something rotten at the core of physics." All fine and dandy, but the next paragraph describes Smolin's collaboration with Harvard Law School professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger (right) on a new book The Reality of Time and the Nature of Cosmological Laws. The gist of the Smolin-Unger argument (again, according to this article) is "to shift the emphasis in physics away from these possible [multiverse] worlds and back to the real one - our world, which is saturated with time. They urge their colleagues to abandon the search for timeless truths like string theory."
This sounds like an unholy alliance that follows on the uncomfortable
metaphors post-modernists have previously proposed from so-called
"quantum indeterminacy." The book has not, as far as I can tell, been
published, but materials on the Smolin-Unger thesis are available from
the Perimeter Institute here and here. [UPDATE: Patrick O'Donnell has rightly taken me to task in the comments for referring to this as an "unholy alliance." That was the Sancerre, I'm sure. I think the idea of the collaboration is fascinating, which is why I posted about it. It does, however, highlight the longstanding relationship between science and philosophy out past the cutting edge. As areas of "natural philosophy" became systematized, they spun off into their own scientific disciplines. The unknowabilities that are built into quantum and particle physics, however, do encourage a re-incorporation of philosophy as a means of making sense of those very fundamental aspects of the physical world that seem to be beyond empirical confirmation or falsification.]
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Several preliminary and perhaps largely impressionistic observations:
1. I suggest we withhold judgment as to whether or not this is an "unholy alliance" until we taste the results of their collaborative enterprise, at which time we'll be better suited to assessing it. A preliminary assessment would suggest there's nothing to be too alarmed about here, however odd this collobaration appears on its face.
2. My dispositional response to the urging of others to abandon their theories, at least at this moment in time, is that it is premature and contrary to a well-known maxim from Mao Zedong (which, alas, he failed to put into practice), namely, "Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences," a principle that we might at least apply to "basic research" (yes, there is still such a thing albeit increasingly rare). We can refer to this, with others, as the "inevitability of pluralism," at least as an availing heuristic or methodological injunction.
3. The endeavor to (so to speak) "let time [and change] back in" is, in one sense, to accord a bit more weight to the "subjective" dimension of physics (or science generally), indeed, and arguably, consciousness itself. Some will instinctively react against such an endeavor but I find nothing inherently wrong in the attempt. Relatedly, as this has bearing on the discussion of "laws" in science, I've yet to read anything in the papers above that is truly novel, as folks like Nancy Cartwright, Bas van Fraasen and Ronald Giere (among others and in different ways) have long argued for a more modest understanding of the operation of "laws" than that found in the more robust forms of scientific realism (i.e., one more localized and time-bound as it were; cf.: 'internal realism,' a 'natural ontological attitude' and agnosticism), in other words, a commitment to metaphysical realism is not necessary even if a methodological naturalism or realism of sorts IS necessary. I'm assuming here that the rejection mind-independent entities is not tantamount to its apparent converse: complete mind-dependence. Therefore, in Michael Lynch's words, "the conditions in which a proposition are true are partly determined by the conceptual scheme in which the proposition is expressed. But what makes a proposition true is not its relation to the scheme but whether or not the conditions in question obtain" (Nicholas Rescher and Lenn Goodman have also done work on what we might term a 'pluralist yet minimally realist approach to truth').
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 16, 2010 9:17:46 PM
erratum: "...rejection of mind-independent entities...."
I might have mentioned that "Mao's maxim" resonates particularly strongly in the Chinese civilizational context in light of the Hundred Schools of Thought period in ancient China (ca. 770 to 221 BCE), hence its inclusion in what Karl Jaspers christened the "axial age." [See the late A.C. Graham's Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (1989) for an excellent introduction to the most prominent "schools." The late Hector Neri-Castañeda relied on this metaphor in his argument for "first-order" "methodological theoretical pluralism:" "Philosophy as a Science and as a Worldview" in Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (1989): 35-60.]
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 16, 2010 10:44:28 PM
You called me on that one, Patrick. I now regret using the term "unholy alliance."
Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 16, 2010 11:16:16 PM
Re: "As areas of 'natural philosophy' became systematized, they spun off into their own scientific disciplines."
Historically, that is true, yet I wonder if today it's any longer reasonable to imagine areas of philosophy becoming scientific disciplines, despite the fact that it seems not a few folks working on topics in philosophy of mind would be happy (or at least not be surprised) to see their field eventually colonized by neuroscience. Similarly, there may be some working in "philosophy of language" imagining their field one day bearing fruit as (the science of) linguistics.
And I suspect we'll always have philosophy of science, even among those who see their philosophical projects as somehow an extension of science or as "underlaboring" for science. Of course when such things as evolutionary theory are under attack by small-minded Christian evangelical fundamentalists one hesitates to raise the myriad issues associated with the pitfalls and temptations of "scientism" (as, say, Avrum Stroll has characterized it or as Mary Midgley sees it) among philosophers or "imperialist scientism" (John Dupre) among social scientists (e.g., those enamored with rational choice theory or evolutionary psychology). While "cutting edge" science does indeed perk up the philosophical senses, whenever scientists engage in metaphysics, as in trying to provide a "theory of everything" (TOE) or, relatedly, pronouncing on the plausibility of non-naturalistic or non-materialistic worldviews, philosophers rightly remind them that they are no longer doing science but philosophy (and more often than not, rather poor philosophy at that).
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 17, 2010 1:06:11 PM
I should have noted immediately above that I understand those "who see their philosophical projects as somehow an extension of science or as 'underlaboring' for science" are doing philosophy FOR science rather than OF science, a distinction, by my lights, with a meaningful difference.
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 17, 2010 2:53:45 PM
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