Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Philosophy Isn't Dead Yet?

This is a rather strange article. The author is arguing that the problems that physicists are dealing with right now shows that philosophers are still needed. He presented several different major questions being dealt with in physics, including QM/GR unification, the measurement problem in QM, and the question of what is "time"?

But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

And then there is the mishandling of time. The physicist Lee Smolin's recent book, Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive. This worried Einstein: in a famous conversation, he mourned the fact that the present tense, "now", lay "just outside of the realm of science".

I'm scratching my head here because these are all physics issues. I do not see how philosophy could SOLVE any of those, because inevitably, what will resolve these issues are accurate physical theories AND experimental verification. Last time I checked, none of those are done in philosophy. In fact, I would even put it to you that the reason why some parts of physics are in "such a mess" IS because they have neglected a major aspect of physics, which is the experimental part. To paraphrase Brian Greene in his "Elegant Universe" TV series, if String theory cannot provide a way to produce an experimentally measurable effect, it isn't physics, but rather a philosophy! So I can easily turn this around and say that this mess is caused by a "philosophy" rather than by physics.

And this is generally the case in physics when there isn't a sufficient body of experimental evidence YET. Lacking a set of decisive experiments, many different scenarios can fit into the same set of observations. So you end up with competing but different ideas, all claiming equal validity. That is why experiments are so important, and why continued refinement of existing experiments and continued performance of new experiments are needed to weed out which idea is valid. That is how physics and science in general have worked. It is just that it is taking long and longer now for that to occur because the problems are getting to be more and more difficult to solve.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed, but I think philosophy has one contribution to make that is often overlooked.
That contribution is for physicist's to be aware of the philosophical assumptions we are making, and to be able to articulate those assumptions. This is not a trivial issue - unexamined, underlying philosophical assumptions have often blocked progress in physics, from Einatein's assumption of a static universe to the up-to-recent assumption of a steady Hubble constant .