Speculative Science and Speculative Philosophy
A recent article on the NYT created some turmoil in the scientists’ blogosphere. In it, Dennis Overbye, a well-known science journalist/writer, presents the theses of a recent paper which proposes an explanation for the troubles with the LHC via postulating non-local temporal ‘interferences’ from the future (actually this whole idea was developed throughout a couple of previous papers by the same two authors). In other words, backward causation in time. The problems of the LHC (the helium leak of the 19th of September 2008), and its consequent (temporary?) failure in its quest for the Higgs boson, it is hypothesized, could be retro-caused by the laws of nature’s abhorrence of the creation of the Higgs itself.
In order to prove or disprove the idea, the two authors (Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto) propose a singular experiment involving a huge deck of cards, a very small number of which would have ‘stop the LHC’ written on them.
The experiment is very primitive in as far as it consists simply of a card-drawing game arranged so that some severe restriction on the running of LHC – essentially closure – is imposed with a probability p of the order of 5 × 10−6. If indeed a restriction card which has such a low probability as p ∼ 5×10−6 were to be drawn, it would essentially mean that our model must be true! If, however, just a normal card that gives no restriction is drawn, our theory would be falsiﬁed unless a seemingly accidental stopping of LHC occurs!
The idea, admittedly, is extremely far-fetched, so much that the reactions to it in the scientific community (to quote Sean Carroll’s own blogpost on the topic)
have ranged from eye-rolling and heavy sighs to cries of outrage, clutching at pearls, and grim warnings that the postmodernists have finally infiltrated the scientific/journalistic establishment, this could be the straw that breaks the back of the Enlightenment camel, and worse.
More explicitly, the main reaction (but, to be fair, not Carroll’s own…I’ll get to his opinions about it below) has been simple. Two ‘otherwise distinguished physicists’ have jumped on the fringe bandwagon. They now can be labeled as ‘crackpots’, the standard scientific terminology usually employed (rightly so…) for young-earth creationists and the like.
Now, from my point of view and my interests one could examine the probability argument of the paper as compared to the discussion of probability that Meillassoux does in his After Finitude, or one could ‘sociologically’ dissect the outraged reactions to the paper in Latourian ways (a large component of the ‘outrage factor’ comes from a subliminal feeling that this kind of speculation crackpottery actively undermines the credibility of proper science). But I don’t want to do either of these right now.
What I want to point out is that this is fertile ground to come back to regarding the discussion about the ‘utility’ of philosophy to science.
Carroll, in his blogpost, refrains from insulting the two authors, and instead gives a detailed reply to their theory, explaining why he considers it to be a crazy idea. Still, ‘crazy’ in a good way:
At the end of the day: this theory is crazy. There’s no real reason to believe in an imaginary component to the action with dramatic apparently-nonlocal effects, and even if there were, the specific choice of action contemplated by NN seems rather contrived. But I’m happy to argue that it’s the good kind of crazy. The authors start with a speculative but well-defined idea, and carry it through to its logical conclusions. That’s what scientists are supposed to do.
To many readers of this blog, what will appear interesting is the word ‘speculative’, of course. Time to declare my point: even if we consider Carroll’s somewhat ‘liberal’ approach to what is crazy and good as opposed to what is crazy and crackpottish, I wonder what the reaction of the scientific community would be if exposed to Meillassoux’s arguments. Of course, we have had Gabriel Catren’s criticism of his claims against the necessity of the laws of physics (on Collapse V. See this blogpost for a snapshot of Catren’s critique), but Catren is a philosopher of science (a philosopher of quantum mechanics to be more precise. See some of his papers here), not a pure physicist.
You see, my point right now is not even as deep as ‘let us try to see to what extent Meillassoux’s arguments are consistent and scientifically accurate’ (which is what Catren asks), but rather: how can we bring into dialogue with science ‘proper’ a speculative position like Meillassoux’s, which is not even supported/accredited by his being anything like a scientist, when even respected scientists get branded as ‘crackpots’ as soon as they propose a speculative idea?
My knowledge of physics is not deep enough to be able to give a complete and scientifically informed opinion on Nielsen’s and Ninomiya’s papers, but I tend to agree with Carroll’s opinions (and he’s someone with whom I often both agree and strongly disagree):
The disappointing thing about the responses to the article is how non-intellectual they have been. I haven’t heard “the NN argument against contributions to the imaginary action that are homogeneous in field types is specious,” or even “I see no reason whatsoever to contemplate imaginary actions, so I’m going to ignore this” (which would be a perfectly defensible stance). It’s been more like “this is completely counter to my everyday experience, therefore it must be crackpot!” That’s not a very sciencey attitude.
Even in Carroll’s case, however, (and I am using him now as a sort of paradigmatic example of the ‘open-minded’ scientist) I think that the understanding-scientist stance would fall when presented with an argument which not only comes from the wrong side of the ‘two cultures’ divide (philosophy), but that tries to demonstrate how the very basic assumptions of physics are wrong (especially since, just a couple of days ago at the opening panel of the Q2C festival in Ontario, Carroll answered the question ‘what physical question keeps you awake at night’? with ‘why the laws of physics are the way they are and not otherwise’, i.e. there is a reason, and science looks for it). The key assumption is what Roberto Trotta (a cosmologist) clearly spelled out in his wonderful interview in Collapse II:
We assume all along–and we couldn’t do without it–that the laws of physics are the same here, on Andromeda, and at the very beginning of time, which is a very major assumption. But there is little we can do if we don’t make this very strong assumption.
Now compare both Carroll’s and Trotta’s statements, with Meillassoux’s well-known thesis of the impossibility to discover such a necessity, (unless you are Hegel). (I quote here from ‘Time Without Becoming‘–since I have lent my copy of After Finitude to someone–which is however an extremely good summary of his position):
a metaphysician is a philosopher who believes it is possible to explain why things must be the way they are, or why things necessarily change, and perish–why things must be the way they are, or why things must change the way they change. I believe on the contrary that reason has to explain why things and why becoming itself can always become what they are not–and why there is no ultimate reason for this game.
If you just exchange ‘metaphysician’ for ‘physicist’ and ‘philosopher’ for ‘scientist’, the contradiction emerges quite clearly. Meillassoux is well aware of it, and in fact he knows that the question that his future (hopefully, forthcoming) work will have to answer is:
Would it be possible to derive, to draw from the principle of facticality, the ability of the natural sciences to know, by way of mathematical discourse, reality in itself, by which I mean our world, the factual world as it is actually produced by Hyperchaos, and which exists independently of our subjectivity?
and this is the real crux of the whole of his philosophical project, whose After Finitude was a (wonderfully argued) prolegomena.
To enlarge the focus, I think that the point is that philosophy in general, and Meillassoux’s project in particular, should be accepted as a legitimate pole of discussion from the scientific establishment. Unfortunately, when the average scientist hears about some philosophical incursion into his or her territory, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is ‘oh yeah, the postmodernists are at it again’. Now, keeping aside (with a great deal of effort) any judgement on the oversimplifications of ‘postmodernity’ that the ‘Science Wars’ have spoon-fed to the less philosophically-literate of the scientists, it is quite ironic to note how Meillassoux’s own stance is equally critical of science (insofar as it does not push enough the deanthropomorphisation that started with the Copernican Revolution) on the one hand, and of the ‘postmodern’ (insofar as it remains in the grip of correlationalism) on the other.
Again in the panel discussion of the Q2C Festival, Gino Segre (a theoretical physicist) uttered a plea to all young scientists, to ‘think crazy ideas!’, since only crazy ideas will lead to an intellectual revolution. My question is: are the scientists the only ones allowed to think crazy ideas? Is a powerful, logically consistent and well argued position like Meillissoux’s one (defined a proof by Badiou in his foreword, and Badiou does know a thing or two about mathematics), not scientific enough to be considered?
When it comes to discussing the necessity or non-necessity of the laws of physics there is no purely ‘scientific’ formulation. Carlo Strenger, in a recent Guardian article defending the new atheists’ crusade against creationist crackpots, wrote:
adhering to a scientific worldview requires discipline; it requires giving up on the certainties of childhood and the belief in ultimate protection. I don’t know whether doing so turns us into better human beings, but it certainly makes us intellectually more responsible.
I agree. But it appears that when it comes to other kinds of certainties science itself is not so ready to give them up. I would like here to resurrect a somewhat old (well, just 2 years actually) and controversial op-ed for the NYT written by Paul Davies. Here, Davies claimed that:
just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
Predictably, after this claim Davies was shredded to pieces, and branded as a crackpot once and for all (for the gruesome details, see here). Of course, Meillissoux’s argument is not the same, since what he claims to logically demonstrate is that there can be no necessity whatsoever for the stability of the physical laws. Nonetheless, it is not the nuances of the argument which count, but the final content: if the stability of the laws of physics is taken for granted, science can at best ‘work’, but as long as it is founded on the assumption (belief?) of their necessity it will still be caught in the correlationalist circle. Once again, his position is equally critical of science as it is of any kind of resurrection of creeping religiosity.
I’m not keeping focus on my point. What I want to say is: philosophy in general, SR in particular (and Meillassoux’s work programmatically) feel the need to deal properly with contemporary science. The 90s are over, the Science Wars and their excesses can be left behind (but not forgotten) and it is time for a new kind of dialogue to start. The problem is that, on the philosophical side, we tend to talk about science without 1) actually engaging with it (and yes, I am also talking about mathematical formalisms) and 2) most of the ‘hard’ scientists would not be open to even starting such a dialogue.
A few weeks ago I advertised here on the blog the ‘Philosophy and Cosmology’ conference in Oxford. Among the (few) professional philosophers we could find John Hawthorne and Timothy O’Connor. My impression here is that their presence there (and presumably their talks) was pretty much ‘philosophia ancilla cosmologia‘, sort of filling the explanatory gaps with more metaphysical takes on cosmological problems, with O’Connor, for example, (according to Carroll’s liveblogging of the conference) fundamentally stating that
Science is independent of any/most metaphysical claim. But that means it can’t possibly “explain” everything; there must be metaphysical principles/assumptions. Some of these might be part of the ultimate explanation of the actual world in which we live.
Hence, once again, to the average cosmologist, ‘philosophers’ would have again seemed as a folkloristical logically equipped bunch which often hide some secret theological agenda (any better than, ‘a pretentious postmodern bunch with an outspoken relativistic and anti-science agenda?).
Now, I can’t help but wonder: why was ‘a Meillassoux’ not invited? A very commonsensical answer is that SR is still unknown to a large number of philosophers, so no surprise if it isn’t to a group of physicist. But if, as a thought experiment, I try to imagine him there (or at any panel discussion where ‘hard’ scientists are the majority), giving a talk summarizing his position titled ‘Cosmological Archefossils and the Contingency of Physical Laws’, I envision the vast majority of reactions to be either ironic dismissal (another French obscurantist) or full-frontal outrage. Meillissoux could easily become a crackpot.
Of course, I agree with some of Catren’s remarks that Meillissoux probably lacks some more in-depth engagement with the laws of physics themselves, but that is something which only requires time. Philosophers should not, in any case, present a stereotype of science, but know what they are talking about. The problem is that scientists, even then, would probably not listen. As a (probably a bit weak) example: how many mathematicians have read Being and Event and tried to take it seriously? And how many of them, learning about the book, have thought ‘here we go, another French guy who misrepresents science/mathematics to support his philosophical agenda’?
As a last example, consider Carroll’s opinion (again, whom I consider to be quite an open-minded guy), in his post titled ‘Does philosophy make you a better scientist?‘:
Philosophical presuppositions certainly play an important role in how scientists work, and it’s possible that a slightly more sophisticated set of presuppositions could give the working physicist a helping hand here and there. But based on thinking about the actual history, I don’t see how such sophistication could really have moved things forward. (And please don’t say, “If only scientists were more philosophically sophisticated, they would see that my point of view has been right all along!”) I tend to think that knowing something about philosophy — or for that matter literature or music or history —will make someone a more interesting person, but not necessarily a better physicist.
Ok, I’ve gone way over what I consider a reasonable length for a blogpost. I just want to make clear that I do not want to point fingers, but I want to spot problems. Correct me if I’m wrong.