The Philosophical Foundations of Physics

25 Jul

One sometimes hears popular science programmes claiming that the scientific revolution began when Galileo had the bright idea of finding out about the world by doing experiments. However, whilst Galileo was not the first person in history to perform an experiment, he was the first person in history to claim that the language of natural philosophy should be exclusively mathematical, a view he expressed in this well-known passage from The Assayer:

“Philosophy [i.e. physics] is written in this grand book – I mean the universe – which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”

Why had nobody thought before to frame the theories of natural science in mathematical language? The problem was that before Galileo philosophers took the world to be full of sensory qualities: colours, smells, tastes, sounds. Intuitively one cannot capture the redness of a tomato, or the spicy taste of curry, or the sweet smell of flowers, in the austere, abstract language of mathematics. Galileo got around this problem by stripping the world of sensory qualities and locating them in the immaterial soul.

For Galileo, the spicy taste of curry isn’t really in the curry; rather it’s in the soul of the person tasting the curry. The sweet smell of the flowers isn’t really in the flowers; it’s in the soul of the person smelling them. Even colours for Galileo resided not ‘out there’ on the surface of objects but within the human soul. By stripping external objects of any qualities other than shape, Galileo created a world which could be exhaustively described in mathematical geometry.

In other words, it was a change in our philosophical conception of the world which made mathematical physics possible, and that change was a matter of placing the sensory qualities we encounter in conscious experience outside of the material world studied by physics.

This is the start of mathematical physics, which subsequently proved to be a great success. Once we can capture nature in mathematics, we can start to frame laws of nature in mathematical language. A short while later we have Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. And five centuries of developing more and more accurate mathematical models of the world’s causal structure has enabled us to manipulate it in all sorts of extraordinary ways, giving us lasers and microwave ovens and flights to the moon.

It is tempting to take this success as evidence for a kind of physics-fundamentalism, according to which mathematical physics is on its way to giving us a complete account the nature of space, time and matter. But this is the wrong conclusion to draw. The success of mathematical physics resulted from limiting the scope of enquiry. By putting the sensory qualities we encounter in conscious experience –colours, smells, tastes, sounds – outside of the domain of the physical sciences, we are able to give a purely mathematical description of what’s left over. But those qualities that Galileo took out of the material world still exist somewhere and must still be accounted for somehow. If the spicy taste of the curry isn’t really in the curry then where is it? Galileo thought it was in the soul, but if we don’t want to believe in souls then we need to find a place in the natural world for the sensory qualities Galileo believed were located in souls.

How are we going to do that? Do we need to move to a ‘post-Galilean’ picture of the world, which somehow accommodates both the causal structure we learn about from physics and the sensory qualities we encounter in our conscious experience? Or perhaps Galileo wrong to think that the sensory qualities can’t be accounted for in mathematical terms. Is there perhaps a way of thinking of the spiciness of curry or the sweet smell of flowers which would allow us to capture their nature in mathematical language?

These are very difficult questions. But if we’re ever going to find the answers, I think we’re going to need to keep some philosophers handy.

22 Responses to “The Philosophical Foundations of Physics”

  1. Stephen Clark July 25, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    Galileo was less an experimentalist than is often supposed. His argument, for example, against the sub-Aristotelian notion that heavy weights fell faster than lighter weights (not quite what Aristotle said, by the way), was logical not experimental. Two one-pound weights can’t fall more slowly than one two-pound weight as they are only verbally distinct from each other.

  2. chemistrypoet July 26, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    Philosophical thinking effects Science, and scientific thinking effects Philosophy, but each is a valid area of study that has an effect on life and living.

  3. jdk593 July 29, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Well if the universe can be described mathematically in terms of geometry.
    And if, when we look at cymatics, we can see that a vibrational tone will create geometric shapes.
    Furthering that, if the universe then, at its very core, is a series of vibrations, held as tones and changing from note to note to create the massive complexity we see.
    Is it not possible to map a colour to a vibration (as we have done), and that vibration to geometry. The vibration of a touch (possibly in the lower hz range, 2-16 say) and then map that to geometry. Same for all sensory qualities. Then it does become possible to continue on galileos line of enquiry, but simultaneously incorporating sensory qualities into the world out there. The question of consciousness then becomes a question of Integrated Information Theory in which the accumulation of this information, which at its base is geometric, is integrated into the physical system (our bodies) and thus perceived and experienced as an external world separate from ourselves, but in reality we are intrinsically tied to. This does still leave room for ‘Integrated into what exactly?’ how this information becomes integrated is still a question. But that could be seen in harmonic resonances between frequencies. If the vibrations harmonise with us, we then become connected to them and they integrate into our system through harmonic resonance and we then perceive the reality we do. – just speculation (im a philosopher not a physicist)

    • conscienceandconsciousness July 30, 2014 at 11:04 am #

      Absolutely fascinating proposal. As far as I understand it, though, IIT is intended as a non-reductive rather than a reductive theory. What Tononi is proposing is structural features which give rise to, rather than wholly account for, the qualities we encounter in experience. If you are intending it as a reductive account, I find it less plausible. No matter how much structural information you give a colour blind scientist, he’s still not going to know what it’s like to see red, which seems to show that no amount of structural information can completely capture what it’s like to see red. Despite my reservations, I would certainly be interested in seeing such a proposal explored in more detail.

  4. earwicker July 30, 2014 at 6:58 am #

    Galileo may have located sensory qualities in the soul but modern science would say that the brain is an information-processing mechanism, connected to devices for collecting information from various sources. The question(s) of what happens inside the brain is clearly not trivial (to understate the case!), but is the subject of intense and well-funded scientific research. Like any machine the brain is known to “go wrong” when damaged; victims of injuries report changes to their qualitative experiences, perception of colour, taste, motion and time, emotions, attitudes to others. There is no reason (apart from wishful thinking) to expect the brain to be anything other than a mechanism quite tractable to science.

    You seem to be deliberately winding the clock back to an outdated conception of science in which there was a gap (as in “god of the gaps”) for philosophy to inhabit.

    • conscienceandconsciousness July 30, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      Thanks for this thoughtful response.

      I must be clear though that I’m not proposing giving up on science. I’m simply proposing an alternative scientific approach, which involves moving on from the restricted vocabulary the physical sciences have worked with from Galileo onward. This kind of vocabulary seems inappropriate to capture the qualities we encounter in experience, as Galileo (and Locke and Boyle and Descartes) knew, which is why they thought we should put consciousness outside of the domain of their restricted project.

      Now you might say, ‘But looks at the success of science using this restricted vocabulary!.That gives good reason to think we’ll manage to explain consciousness with these resources eventually’. But Galilean physics has been so successful precisely because it has always been focused on a quite restricted project: mapping the causal structure of the natural world. A mathematico-causal vocabulary is perfect for this project, but seems ill-suited to capturing the qualities we encounter in our conscious experience (again this was well understood by the pioneers of the scientific revolution).

      In any case, I’m not advocating closing of *any* forms of enquiry; I’m just proposing pursuing an alternative too, one which is already pursued with great success by leading neuroscientists such as Cristof Koch and Guilio Tononi. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

      • earwicker July 30, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

        Again, you appear to be comparing physicists with neuroscientists: who will best succeed at explaining the mind? You bet it will be neuroscientists. I will not disagree with you! Can you imagine anyone would?

        Much of the confusion in this area is over the supposed perniciousness of reductionism. If you find atoms to be ever so dull, and then a scientists tells you that you are made of atoms, you suppose that he is implying that you are dull. But this is not so; the letters of the alphabet are, by themselves, a quite boring and limited collection of shapes. Yet the entire canon of English literature consists of nothing but streams of combinations of those few symbols, and is therefore simultaneously absurdly simple and bewilderingly complex. The way things are arranged is as important as what they are made from; indeed, in information processing systems the way things are arranged is the only important thing. The implication of this is that it is not necessary for minds to be made of specific material stuff; they could be modelled in anything that followed the right patterns at some level.

        You assert that “mapping the causal structure of the natural world” with a “mathematico-causal vocabulary” will not be sufficient to explain the mind. From this I *could* leap to the conclusion that either you believe that the mind is not part of the natural world, or you believe it is in some sense not “causal”. You couldn’t believe this in the sense of being compelled to believe it by evidence, it being impossible to gather evidence that something is not part of the natural world or not causal. Rather, you’d wish it to be the case. And it is a wish about a question that fundamentally can never be settled either way. The very essence of philosophy! 🙂

        But that could be a leap too far: by “causal structure” you might just mean the building blocks (analogous to the letters of the alphabet) out of which minds are constructed, i.e. you accept the material basis, but are merely pointing out that the arrangement and pattern are also important.

        But literally no one in mainstream science would disagree with you here. Chemistry consists of patterns constructed in the building blocks of nuclear physics. Biology consists of patterns constructed in the building blocks of organic chemistry, and so on (such hierarchies are never exact, but you get the idea).

        Which is why not only can we be sure that a neuroscientist will understand the brain better than a physicist does, but we can even be certain that an infant who has examined a certain block will be able to tell us whether it goes through the round hole, better than a physicist who knows the properties of the matter the block must be made of but hasn’t examined its shape. This is not controversial.

        I’m only vaguely aware of Koch. It may be that he’s one of the (regrettably many) scientists who, despite in their “day job” being scrupulously scientific and refusing to speculate on unresolvable/inconsequential pseudo-questions, nevertheless in “off duty” interviews will stray into wild speculation as if to cosy up to the wider audience for books in the “mind/body/spirit” department.

        As far as I can see the substance of his and Guilio’s work points to them being quite typical neuroscientists, in that they’ve endeavoured to explain consciousness and the mind entirely in terms of the electrochemical processes happening in the brain, all of which is ultimately grounded in physics.

  5. conscienceandconsciousness July 31, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    I think we have roughly the same view of how the physical sciences work, and the relationship between them. Neuroscience characterises brain states in terms of their causal role in the overall functional economy of the brain, and in terms of their chemical constituents (which in turn have constituents which are the subject matter of fundamental physics). My view is that this kind of limited vocabulary can’t capture what it’s like to see red. No matter how much information a congenitally blind neuroscientist has about the causal roles and chemical constituents of brain states, they won’t learn what it’s like to see red, and therefore there will be some information about colour experience they’re not getting. The same goes for any of the other qualities we encounter in conscious experience. This is why neuroscience, due to its restricted vocabulary, will never fully account for consciousness.

    This doesn’t mean that consciousness is outside of the natural order, or that science can’t get at it. It just means that we’re going to have to move to a science that has a more expansive vocabulary, in which qualities can be talked about as well as causal structure.

    You seem to be ruling out this approach with a definition of what counts as ‘proper science’, but what justifies clinging to a scientific paradigm in which we restrict ourselves to mapping causal structure? The success of the Galilean paradigm I think is what makes people cling to this restricted conception of science. But that success has wholly been a matter of mapping causal structure, and hence gives us no reason to think that the qualities we find in conscious experience can be accounted for in this way.

    (My entry ‘Can physics tell us everything there is to know about the universe might make my view about the physical sciences clearer)

    • earwicker August 1, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

      “My view is that this kind of limited vocabulary can’t capture what it’s like to see red.”

      I know (from previous discussions I’ve had along these lines) that you’ll regard it as “closing a door” or “giving up too easily” if I dismiss the question “What’s it like to see red?” as inherently confused and misguided, inappropriately conflating lots of things together in a tempting yet unrealistic attempt to cram a big, complex mess of interrelated stuff into a little box.

      So I won’t!

      Asking “What it is like” to experience something inherently demands that we draw an analogy between that thing and something else that is similar enough, and yet different enough, to get us somewhere. Sometimes a thing is so distinctive, unique and elemental that there is no other thing that can serve as the basis for an analogy.

      Also if you want to capture it in abstract from anything else, an analogy just isn’t going to work. Analogies, by their nature, can’t do that. But you still want an analogy, because you don’t want to be presented with a detailed ground-up explanation of the sort that science delivers; one that you have to work hard to comprehend. You prefer that easy satisfaction, the “flash of recognition”, that we get from analogies. We only get this because of their limited power to explain; they piggy back our our existing knowledge, so they (and we) don’t have to work so hard.

      Here’s how I’d use analogy in this situation. What’s it like to travel at 67000 miles per hour? It sounds like an exciting question from a gee-whiz point-of-view. But as you’re no doubt aware, you and I are currently travelling at about that speed, Earth’s motion as it orbits the Sun, in all inertial frames the laws of physics are identical, blah blah blah. So if you are inertial then it is not meaningful to assign you a velocity at all. One thing only has a velocity with respect to another thing.

      And so it is with seeing colours: because you have the ability to see more than one colour, you can differentiate between them. If you were born with an eye defect such that your lenses were perfect red filters, only allowing red light through, you would just see varying intensities of light. By experiment it would be possible to determined that you could only see red. And yet you would have no idea “what it is like to see red”, because that full experience inherently involves a comparison to seeing other colours.

      When light of a particular frequency has impacted on retinal cells tuned to that frequency and triggered a chain reaction that we perceive, it has to feel different depending on the frequency. It’s got to feel like something. If it didn’t feel however it does to you now, it would feel like something else, and you’d still have the same “mystery” troubling you. Apologies for the ironic quotes around “mystery”, but it is at this point that any remaining feeling of mystery collapses for me. It’s possible for something to feel at first like a mystery, and yet turn out on examination to be *our expectation* that there would be a mystery – when in fact there is none.

      The way it feels to see red is the way it feels to be [insert extremely long and detailed explanation of every single mechanism in the human eye-brain system, which you’d find unsatisfying because it’s not a simple analogical “explanation” that can be grasped intuitively].

      • conscienceandconsciousness August 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

        With regards to your first paragraph, I don’t want to close off any avenues of enquiry. I’m very interested in attempts to show that my approach is in some way confused. But you’d have to explicate exactly what you take the confusion to be. It’s no good just stating with heavy rhetoric that I’m obviously confused, throwing in ad hominem suggestions that I’m in love with mystery and can’t handle the science. Overall I think this kind of antagonistic tone is a bit silly, and distracts from the argument. I respect my opponents, e.g. Dan Dennett and Susan Blackmore, and take seriously the possibility that they might be right.

        You then go on to try to diagnose my confusion. Your suggestion is similar to one made by P. M. S. Hacker in his paper ‘Is there anything that it’s like to be a bat?

        It’s an interesting proposal. My response is as follows. Talk of ‘what it’s like’ in this context has nothing to do with analogy or comparison. Sometimes the word ‘like’ is used in this way, but not always. The phrase ‘what it’s like’ is a useful but dispensable way of focusing attention on the qualitative character of experience, which is apparent to us when we attend to our experience. There is a certain qualitative character to experiencing red, and we expect a science of consciousness to explain why red experiences have that character.

        You say there must be something that it’s like to experience red, given the neuroscientific explanation. Even if that’s right, the scientific explanation of consciousness is incomplete until it’s explained why red experiences have the *specific* character they do. And the trouble is that the limited vocabulary of neuroscience is unable to capture that character; as shown by the fact that someone who is congenitally blind could never grasp what it’s like to see red from a neuroscientific explanation.

        Moreover, I am persuaded by arguments made at length by David Chalmers that neuroscientific explanations of colour vision are perfectly consistent with the complete absence of colour experience, with there being nothing that it’s like to see red. The neurophysiological story could go on ‘in the dark’. Here’s his original and most accessible defence of this:

  6. earwicker August 5, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

    I guess my first paragraph had the opposite effect to what I’d intended – it was meant to be self-mocking. I have genuinely hurled such unsubtle, dismissive stuff at people before and it is – as you say – not at all productive, however tempting it is to someone with my “practical” bias.

    Hacker’s paper strikes me as perfect, explaining my exact train of thought on these issues (obviously more eloquently than I ever could) so much so that by the halfway point I’m responding ‘Bravo!’ to every sentence. And it seems to me that your response only restates the concepts that Hacker begins by describing only to dismantle them so effectively.

    Re: “someone who is congenitally blind could never grasp what it’s like to see red from a neuroscientific explanation.” Never mind neuroscience; the very question (per Hacker) is constructed in such a way that it is unanswerable.

    Note: this is not to deny the existence of such core subject experiences – for what it’s worth (nothing) I’m having them right now. (The Chalmers paper accuses Dennett and others of denying the existence of these experiences, but that doesn’t tally with my reading of Dennett.)

    Chalmers says nothing more to me than “experience is something that correlates with the stuff that neuroscience can study”, though he says this in a roundabout way: [1] experience being irreducible, we can take it to be ontologically fundamental, [2] wherever experience has structure, it is isomorphic with whatever objective things neuroscientists can measure (relationships between brain cells, the information they encode, possibly even springing up wherever there is a pattern of any kind in nature).

    So along with any brain (or, more speculatively, any information pattern), there is an ontologically fundamental “experience-having” phenomenon (OFEHP), which corresponds one-to-one in various ways with things that can be detected, even though the OFEHP itself is undetectable except to itself (the OFEHP experiences itself).

    From this it follows that all further discovery will take place in the detectable “correlates”, which are then assumed to map isomorphically with the OFEHP. So what exactly of substance has been proposed? The introduction of the OFEHP yields zero insight, because the only tool for exploring it is to continue with neuroscience, but now to augment it with the assumption that one is actually making discoveries in parallel about one’s OFEHP.

    Occam would no doubt have a field day with this, but then the speculation about “whether all information has a phenomenal aspect” is on another level entirely. Once we begin attributing conscious experience to, say, a game of naughts and crosses (not the people playing it, mind you, but the very game itself), then we’ve lost sight of the problem, or perhaps we’ve demonstrated what I suspect: that there is no problem that can be coherently defined.

    • conscienceandconsciousness August 6, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

      Apologies for misinterpreting your tone. Insurgent minorities sometimes develop a siege mentality.

      Glad you enjoyed the Hacker! My response is that not every use of the word ‘like’ expresses comparison. In the context we are focusing on it’s used to denote *how* the experience is. It’s like when we ask ‘What’s he like’ meaning ‘How is his character?’. Ultimately the phrase is not important. It’s just proved useful for getting people to focus on the qualitative character which we find when we attend to our experiences. Think of a situation in which you are in pain. In such situations you are able to attend to what it’s like, to how it feels. You focus on the qualitative character of the pain which is immediately apparent when you attend to it. I take this qualitative character to be a datum in its own right, and one we want a theory of consciousness to explain.

      You seem to be able to find no such datum (So we’re making progress in this discussion. Some people agree with me about the datum, but disagree about whether neuroscience can account for it, but you just deny that there is a datum to be accounted for). It’s difficult to know how to proceed at this kind of deadlock. However, I would say that almost everyone I come across finds it very easy to get on to notion of the qualitative character of experience when one says the kind of things I say in the last paragraph. So it seems to me that the onus is on you to show that this very intuitive notion is confused. I don’t think the Hacker attempt is very effective, given the ready response I gave in the last paragraph. Paul Snowden has a more recent paper trying to do something similar, although I’ve never read it.

      It’s easy to mock panpsychism as it’s wildly counter to common sense. People mock the idea that our ancestors were apes in a similar way. But if a theory offers the most elegant account of the data, then we should go for it regardless of whether or not it fits with pre-theoretical common sense. Obviously this gets us back to the question of what the data are.

      • earwicker August 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

        “My response [to Hacker] is that not every use of the word ‘like’ expresses comparison.”

        But Hacker himself says “It is important to note that the phrase ‘there is something which it is like for a subject to have experience E’ does not indicate a comparison.” i.e. he gets that the idea is to use the language of comparison without having anything to compare to. That is the starting point. He then proceeds (section 4, and again in 6) to show how this is a misapplied intuition, a habitual way of thinking, an attempt to use a tried and trusted method in a situation where it has to fail. We are accustomed to being able to use comparisons, and so we expect to be able to do so even in a situation where we all agree they cannot be made, and so we end up posing questions that definitely cannot be answered.

        > “Ultimately the phrase is not important”

        But as Hacker might say, it’s a kind of alarm bell for the misapplication of intuitive modes of thinking.

        > “You seem to be able to find no such datum…”

        All I can do is reiterate that I definitely experience pain, you have only imagined me saying that I don’t, and I am not in any way denying it exists, nor do I think Dennett would either (once again, for me, Chalmers misrepresents Dennett utterly). The point is not to deny subjective experience but to toss out the fundamentalism and accept that experience is not a continuum, a single essence. It’s really a mess of overlapping pieces that come and go, and cannot be said to fundamentally be there or not be there, just as a thing cannot be definitely judged to be alive or dead at certain times. To a fundamentalist pro-lifer, life is an essential property that is supernaturally granted to a dividing cell at a given instant, after which it has the property of being alive. To more realistic people, the beginning of life has to be treated as a grey area. It’s a pattern that emerges gradually, we reckon we know it when we see it, but it is often impossible to be certain whether it is there or not.

        So it is with experience. I go to sleep every night and for stretches of time I lose touch with experience. In between these blank times in which “I” seem to cease to exist altogether, I have periods where I seem to be “experiencing” a wildly inconsistent illusion that I nevertheless find convincing enough that I don’t realise it’s false and I get emotionally involved in it! I drift in and out of the states, and there are grey areas between. I forget a lot of it. It certainly isn’t an essence. My earliest memories are of crazy misunderstandings as parts of my brain developed at different rates, my last memories will probably be similarly crazy as parts of my brain break down, leaving little stranded islands of crippled semi-perception.

        Chalmers talks about experience as like a 3D surround sound HD movie playing in our heads. Such intuition-based language once again is an alarm bell: if it’s a movie, who’s watching it? Must be that little guy riding around in my skull… But neuroscience finds that experiences are sensed all over the brain in different places. It never all gets unified into single stream that some single essence of personhood can “watch”. The mind is a patchwork of parts working together. It may not feel like that, but we know it takes very little to fool us.

        > “It’s easy to mock panpsychism as it’s wildly counter to common sense.”

        That’s not the way I’m approaching it. I am not dismissing it because it’s counterintuitive. I’m dismissing it because the concept is only introduced as a result of fundamentalist assumptions: consciousness is either totally there or totally not there, and if we reject the idea that it is nowhere, then we feel forced to accept that it is everywhere. My response is that it is neither everywhere nor nowhere. It’s not that kind of pure essence *even in one person’s head*, let alone spread across the universe and inside house bricks and bottles of sunflower oil.

    • Alan August 7, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

      You say that introducing the ontologically fundamental “experience-having” phenomenon (OFEHP), yields “zero insight” but this needs to be examined at a deeper level. It can be explicated better.
      For quantum measurements, consider gaining knowledge and an experience after an observer has carried out an observation. So an increment of knowledge is gained (this is of complete necessity because of the quantum formalism), an experience occurs because of this. It’s valid to identify this OFEHP with this latter but the former to do with the observer is a major problem. This is highlighted in this comment by Frank Wilczek (from an article “What is quantum theory),

      “quantum theory…will remain obscure until someone constructs an observer, that is, a model entity whose states correspond to a recognizable caricature of conscious awareness; and demonstrates that the perceived interaction of this entity with the physical world, following the equations of quantum theory, accords with our experience.”

      So what the observer is (model entity…states…conscious awareness) before a measurement is not known, and not formalized in symbols. But the knowledge increment gained and experience are all tied together with this. There is a necessity in each part of this process in that there is inseparability for all aspects. Then you get back to what exactly the initial instigator, the observer, is. And why this whole process is one of information gained, experience and some essential free will at the very beginning. The first formalized, the latter not at all.
      Just to say that before a measurement, all is running smoothly (and deterministically) according to the Schrodinger equation, Dirac equation…
      The need to discuss the observer is also said here in the book Quantum Enigma by Profs. Kuttner and Rosenblum
      “Increasingly, contemporary experts in the foundations of quantum mechanics are explicit about the issue of consciousness arising when viewing the measurement problem. We close our first chapter with a quote (on the need to discuss consciousness) by Frank Wilczek” (the above quote).

      There seem to be other aspects here to do with that quantum physics based models are only highly accurate *descriptions* of reality (this idea again) at this level (even though you can measure Higgs masses etc. etc. from all of it). So is the formalism really the ontology, but what, glaringly, is going on before the measurements? Who, what are these actors? They are kind of invisible but utterly necessary.

      Really, I’m just picking up here on some issues commented on by quantum physicists and the same old issue that though quantum physics works with no experimental fails yet there’s an incompleteness in it.

  7. Philip August 8, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

    An excellent post on illuminating something profoundly missed in the assumptions of the scientific endeavour. A very apt article to this post is this published in nature:

    Philosophy is essential for piecing together the existential puzzle, providing arrangement and context for the findings of the scientific process – despite the recent comments of some science popularisers (ironically, which only reveals the unquestioned philosophical assumptions and predjudices harboured by such individuals).

    Indeed, a ‘post-Galilean’ picture of the world is essential and was indeed adopted by some pioneers upon the discovery of quantum mechanics. It is likely that Bohr and Heisenberg were right and that quantum mechanics is a complete theory and that it is our conception of reality that needs redefining. Einstein, like many scientists that have followed, couldn’t handle this and so tried for the the rest of his life to get around qm with new physics. Due to qm’s success, many instead try to get around the implications and, as in Everett, resort to wild Occam’s-razor defying interpretations.

    Einstein, like most, was under the spell of this assumed Galilean objectivism, which pervades a default metaphysical-materialist science culture, unaware that it was a practical birth as explained in the post – and not a complete description of reality, but compartmentalisation.

    Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett are a logical consequence of this subject-object dissected worldview. If he didn’t exist, you would have to invent him. Dennett’s conclusion is an obvious consequence of said physics-fundamentalism.

    I will give a succinct definition (not mine) of consciousness: The Knowing Principle – that which makes knowing possible.

    This definition is not to be conflated with the waking state, lucidity, qualia, attention, perception, memory, body/mind or any possible experience. These are all knowns, objects to the radical-subject.

    Dennett et al can be easily refuted. If consciousness (as it is understood) is an illusion, as according to Dennett, then by what means is the illusion known? Answer : consciousness. Therefore, consciousness is not an illusion, but fact.

    But matter, is that a fundemental fact? Are particles really there when not being measured? Is the collapse of a wave function is a real process affecting an objectively existing wave? Even if they where – by what means would they be known?

    By what means is the brain or the cosmos known?

    By what means is anything known?

    Can there be any known (object) without knowing (subject)?

    Is there a view from nowhere, as the metaphysical-materialist worldview assumes? If so by what means would it be known?

    Do second and third-person perspectives take place outside of where a first-person perspective is taking place? Better still, where do first-person perspectives take place?

    By what means is Naïve Realism known? (just having fun now)

    Logic and a careful review of the evidence eventually takes you to, where David Chalmers outlines in his recent Ted talk, a particular crazy idea. Only crazy of course if you’re under the spell of physics-fundamentalism 😉

    • Stephen Clark August 9, 2014 at 11:02 am #

      You might enjoy Wincenty Lutoslawski, The World of Souls, in which (I think I remember) he makes a similar point about what we know and what we guess

    • Alan August 9, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

      Just in reply to the Qbism link above (Nature article) you gave, this Qbism quantum interpretation comes up in Matt Leifer’s summary of what interpretations are ruled in or not, as far as many other quantum physics interpretations are concerned. This is to do with a groundbreaking 2011 article in Nature (Matt Pusey et. al.) to do with the reality of wave functions – ontic or epistemic? Qbism comes under “2.Wavefunctions are epistemic, but there is no deeper underlying reality” in Leifer’s discussion. Qbism isn’t ruled out.
      I just think this is a masterful summary/overview by him and should be at the heart of thinking about what wave functions are (hence Reality I guess).

      This is all to do with your point “Are particles really there when not being measured? Is the collapse of a wave function is a real process affecting an objectively existing wave? Even if they were – by what means would they be known?”

      Personally, “there is no deeper underlying reality” (are they really averse to some kind of realism?), I can’t get if one takes a multitude of anomalous consciousness phenomena seriously. Especially Dean Radin’s recent quantum laser/human intention experiments.

      Re you say… “our conception of reality that needs redefining” there’s a lot these days on retrocausal (a future quantum state is necessary for the present quantum state) quantum interpretations (Jeff Tollaksen, Yakir Aharonov), still with observers, that not only seem to need free will of these observers but new kinds of nonlocality. Causality still preserved overall. Actually Matt Leifer isn’t averse to retrocausality from his article.
      Fascinating interviews with Tollaksen here with philosophical implications.

      “a succinct definition (not mine) of consciousness: The Knowing Principle – that which makes knowing possible.”
      So how far does this knowing goes in to Reality. It *seems* knowing implies also creation of reality in quantum systems but if there are deeper structures to Reality are there other forms of knowing?

      “David Chalmers outlines in his recent Ted talk” – just listened to and I do follow.

      • chemistrypoet August 11, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

        This discussion reminds me of two things…firstly, ‘knowing’ linked to quantum states: quantum biology (an emerging field)?

        Secondly, Isaac Asimov’s imaginary compound thiotimoline, where at least one of its carbon atoms has 2 bonds in normal space and time, and one projecting into the past, and one projecting into the future……

      • Philip August 11, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

        First off, thanks to Stephen for the Wincenty Lutoslawski reference and to Alan for his links.

        So, in keeping with the original message of Dr Goff’s post (which, if I understand correctly, was a response to statements or musings made by a particular science populariser), it should be emphasised that science and philosophy are inter-dependent and complementary. They are both concerned with understanding the nature of reality.

        Science is a method, not a position. When scientists make interpretations, maps, models, theories and world-views based on the acumulated data – they are actually engaging in philosophy.

        The problem occurs when some scientists engage in philosophy, unaware they are doing so and are formulating ideas based on unquestioned philosophical assumptions; and then call it purely science. Some, even go so far as to make ignorant statements to the point as philosophy being no longer required, when, ironically, they’re working under and announcing philosophical positions all the time.

        Science, in its purest form, has no position. Positions are the province of philosophy.

        As Dr Goff points out, a divided subject-object philosophical position was adopted as a practical method of delineating areas of scientific investigation, never intending to be a position providing a complete picture.

        Unfortunately, science, has collectively-subconsciously been erroneously conflated with the philosophical position of metaphysical-materialism. That’s why when data is evidenced that contradicts this ‘working’ position, it becomes controversial amongst the academic community, because it “goes against our understanding of science.” Error: It goes against materialism. See the underlying philosophical ignorance?

        Science has no problem with any data. Philosophical positions have problems with some data. The scientific endeavour should have no philosophical biases nor agenda and be only concerned with the ongoing discovery of data which reveals reality as true as possible – confirming some philosophies and theories, and refuting others.

        Many scientists know the difference between science and philosophy and know they are making philosophical interpretations of the data evidenced. Many stay well clear of interpretations altogether, understanding the difference in academic disciplines and just do the science.

        There’s no problem with scientists doing philosophy. In fact, postulating theories is fundamentally necessary so that then the efforts and data hopefully reveal falsification or confirmation.

        Likewise, it is crucial for philosophers to keep abreast of as much key scientific data in order that it informs philosophy. This is why in so much that you can’t divide subject-object, you can’t truly divide philosophy and science: one asks the questions, the other tries to find the answers.

        There needs to be an inter-disciplinary conversation, rather than some science public-communicators, irresponsibly and ignorantly exalting one discipline over the other.

        It should also be noted, as science is confused with the position of materialism, materialism is also confused with rationalism. When people refer to e.g “rational explanation” they really mean “materialist explanation”.

        This is why David Chalmers, preemptively used the tactic of calling his ideas “crazy” i.e irrational, because they’re defecting from materialism – and in most peoples’ naive assumption; rationalism.

        Again, rationality is an instrument of discernment, not a position. It is one of many instruments of cognitive-function we use to negotiate reality and should not necessarily be pedestalised above any other tool we possess. Intuition, introspection, experiential insight, imagination and so on, are equally necessary scientific, philosophical and life tools.

        A good philosopher and a good scientist, is a good detective. A good detective doesn’t dismiss any line of enquiry nor dismiss any recuring patterns as coincidence, gathering as much evidence as necessary to solidify a coherent picture – no matter whether that picture confirms or falsifies their preferred position.

        It is indeed difficult to remove the sociological factors from science and philosophy, and that is why falsified paradigms diehard.

        In the scheme of things, David Chalmers’ ideas are not crazy, they are the consequence of following the data and, indeed, rationality to its extreme logical conclusion.

        I hesitate to state that it is Chalmers’ 1st crazy idea which I postulate is the logical conclusion and not the 2nd. I’m happy to discuss this on this site with Dr Goff if he is open to it – all in good fun of course!

        Oh and to answer your question, Alan: “It *seems* knowing implies also creation of reality in quantum systems but if there are deeper structures to Reality are there other forms of knowing?”

        I postulate that consciousness is fundamental (all stocked up with 1st type of crazy around here!). As that which makes knowing possible, consciousness has no form, is unqualifyable and not dependent on anything nor has any causality. It is not a ‘thing’, is that by which all things are known – the radical-subject and thus, cannot be quantified by a physicalist position – hence “the hard problem”.

        Put another way, by what means would another form of knowing be known? If you have read me so far, by now you will be able to surmise the answer for yourself.

        Happy detective work!

  8. drgsrinivas November 15, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Not only the red colour of a tomato is a sensation but also the round shape of the tomato is a sensation. In fact, our whole experience of the tomato (and of course this whole world) is nothing but a sensation. So when it is possible to explain the shapes of objects in mathematical terms, why do you think that our other sensations do not yield to mathematics.

    By the way, mathematics is just a language that uses its own ‘syntax’ and ‘alphabet’ to make statements. False statements remain false and true statements remain true irrespective of the language used to covey them.


  1. 2014, and only now I decide to contribute… | By which all is known - August 13, 2014

    […] public education. This post was originally a comment made in response of support to this article: by the philosopher Professor Philip Goff. Goff’s post was itself a response to statements […]

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