Monday, April 15, 2013

John Horgan on scientific materialism / scientific debate on "nothing"

Is Scientific Materialism “Almost Certainly False”? By John Horgan. Scientific American blogs: Cross-Check; January 30, 2013.

I have decidedly contrary feelings about this article. Towards the beginning, Horgan states:
. . . science’s limits have never been more glaringly apparent. In their desperation for a “theory of everything”—which unifies quantum mechanics and relativity and explains the origin and structure of our cosmos—physicists have embraced pseudo-scientific speculation such as multi-universe theories and the anthropic principle (which says that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). Fields such as neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and complexity have fallen far short of their hype.
I begin sympathetically. Horgan then cites Thomas Nagel's objections to evolutionary theory (the origin of life itself) and evolutionary psychology, which Horgan shares. Horgan becomes rather confused in his assertions and arguments, thus vitiating his thesis. He should have been more specific in targeting the ideological dimension of science popularization. His discrediting of "scientific materialism" tout court as if it equates with positivism and reductionism discredits his argument.

Horgan concludes:
These qualms asides, I recommend Nagel’s book, which serves as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists. Hawking and Krauss both claim that science has rendered philosophy obsolete. Actually, now more than ever we need philosophers, especially skeptics like Socrates, Descartes, Thomas Kuhn and Nagel, who seek to prevent us from becoming trapped in the cave of our beliefs.
Horgan is on the right track regarding the philosophical popularizing of Hawking and Krauss, but otherwise he messes up.

I am now reminded that I need to finish and publish my essay "Can science render philosophy obsolete?". Here is a passage:
Only in the case where our intuitions are completely defeated by scientific knowledge, as in the case of quantum mechanics, could scientific knowledge be viewed as uninterpreted mathematically organized experimentally organized data sets. And yet the notorious history of popularization and mystical appropriations of physics over the past century reveal that no one in practice appropriates physics—the alleged master science—purely as uninterpreted mathematically organized data sets, though that is one ideology of science among others. And in the apprenticeship of physics, students surely create or appropriate some intuitions that allow their models to be graspable, however elusive they may be or inexpressible in ordinary language.
My larger argument is that philosophy has not been rendered obsolete, and such an assertion betrays the naivete of even the greatest of scientists who blithely promulgate such ideological piffle. Horgan, unfortunately, wastes his opportunity to make a meaningful correction. Readers' comments are also uninspiring.

A revealing case study of the issue can be found in a forum moderated by Neil de Grasse Tyson:

2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Existence of Nothing (March 20, 2013)

Here is the YouTube video itself:

Here is some of my running commentary in real time:
Physical, not philosophical question? Understand something, then absence . . . Let's see what develops. Space & time --> create universes? Problem with words indeed. (Krauss)

Objection: vacuum isn't nothing. Krauss perturbed. How, not why? Our universe didn't exist -- gravity with zero energy. Even laws don't have to exist. Multiverse: laws of universe come into existence with universe. Some universes without quantum mechanics? Eve Silverstein: space-time is emergent . . . . dimensions.

8:35 pm: argument over philosophical issues: in history of physics, e.g. Mach on reality of atoms; Einstein vs quantum mechanics . . . . Jim Holt isn't buying the pro-nothing position. Krauss has an interesting spiel, but I'm with Holt so far.

Holt: nothing is not a fruitful philosophical notion.

8:52pm: J. Richard Gott: nothing not even there. Tyson: after death, like before birth: your consciousness does not exist.

8:54pm: Krauss: universe came from nothing. Empty space, no time, no laws: everything came from nothing. Photons come from nothing. (Tyson: wrong.) Universe like zero energy photon. Our universe came from nothing. What if all possible laws exist? ME: incoherent.

8:57pm: Eve Silverstein: nothing ground state of ---- quantum system.

9:00pm: Tyson: nothing behind head of universes .....?? evolution of what's there not there with advance of scientific knowledge. Empty space . . . . now space not empty either . . . . now thinking outside our universe . . . . nothing? "Nothing" elusive . . . . just an illusion? There's always something behind it, even laws . . . . maybe no resolution. Nothing just null set in the final analysis?

9:01pm: Q-A begins.

9:03 pm: Charles Seife: infinity and nothing interdependent concepts.

9:07 pm: Eva: Experimental evidence of nothing? There's evidence of inflationary theory.

9:22 pm Krauss: Why always means how. ME: This I agree with.
Jim Holt and Lawrence Krauss are in vigorous opposition. Holt finds Krauss's assertions about nothing incoherent, as do I. Note for example the oddity of asserting that the laws of physics exist prior to any actual universe: this sounds like Platonism. My fragmentary commentary above doesn't really cover what's going on here; you will have to watch the video. But note how difficult it is to translate physico-mathematical theories into ordinary language. Tyson himself grapples with this difficulty in querying Krauss. He is not vociferous as Holt is, but he seems to find the same difficulties as we laypersons do in making sense of the concept of "nothing" as applied to cosmology. I conclude that those who trumpet that philosophy is obsolete ought instead to refrain from popularization altogether, especially when combined with (anti-)philosophical propaganda.

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