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Gunnar Tomasson


Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 69

Modern Physical Science and Metaphysics

My following message of yesterday's date to a correspondent encapsulates, as it were, the thrust of my critique of the epistemological aspects of modern physical science as expressed at more length in threads on related issues (with 'Einstein', 'Newton', and 'Economics' in their various titles) which I have started in the past on the NKS Forum:

In this message, I sketch my reaction to the thrust of [Edward O.] Wilson's viewpoint as summarized at the outset of your paper.

"Wilson proposes that all of the questions that have puzzled mankind from as far back as we can trace conscious thought can be answered through application of the method that natural scientists have tested and honed successfully over the past 300 years."

This is nothing short of fantastic!

For, considering Whitehead's view that western philosophy reduces to footnotes to Plato, it amounts to placing same in the dustbin of history.

But, of course, Wilson is not the inventor of this philosophical nihilism for, as Cornell philosophy professor E. A. Burtt wrote in the 1920s:

"So far as concerns the problem of the essential nature of reality, it ought to be fairly obvious after the feats of modern physics that the world around us is, among other things, a world of masses moving according to mathematically statable laws in time and space. To bring complaint against so much would be to deny the actual usable results of modern scientific inquiry into the nature of our physical environment. But when, in the interest of clearing the field for exact mathematical analysis, men sweep out of the temporal and spatial realm all non-mathematical characteristics, concentrate them in a lobe of the brain, and pronounce them the semi-real effects of atomic motions outside, they have performed a rather radical piece of cosmic surgery which deserves to be carefully examined. If we are right in judging that wishful thinking in the interest of religious salvation played a strong part in the construction of the medieval hierarchy of reality, is it not an equally plausible hypothesis to suppose that wishful thinking of another sort underlay this extreme doctrine of early modern physics - that because it was easier to get ahead in the reduction of nature to a system of mathematical equations by supposing that nothing existed outside of the human mind that was not so reducible, naturalists proceeded at once to make th e convenient assumption? And there is a certain peremptory logic in this. How could the world of physical matter be reduced to exact mathematical formulæ by anybody as long as his geometrical concentration was distracted by the supposition that physical nature is full of colours and sounds and feelings and final causes as well as mathematical units and relations? It would be easy to let our judgment of these giants in the history of thought to be over-harsh. We should remember that men cannot do arduous and profound intellectual labour in the face of constant and seductive distractions. The sources of distraction simply had to be denied or removed. To get ahead confidently with their revolutionary achievements, they had to attribute absolute reality and independence to those entities in terms of which they were attempting to reduce the world. This once done, all the other features of their cosmology followed as naturally as you please. It has, no doubt, been worth the metaphysical barbarism of a few centuries to possess modern science. Why did none of themsee the tremendous difficulties involved? Here, too, in the light of our study, can there be any doubt of the central reason? These founders of the philosophy of science were absorbed in the mathematical study of nature. Metaphysics they tended more and more to avoid, so far as they could avoid it; so far as not, it became an instrument for their further mathematical conquest of the world." (The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Doubleday Anchor Books edition, 1954, p. 305 - italics in original.)

And where does Wilson get the idea that this mathematical approach has been "tested and honed successfully over the past 300 years." ?

He certainly did not get it from Einstein, who had first-hand knowledge of some of the pitfalls involved - for example, a few months before his death, Einstein wrote to his lifelong friend Michel Besso that "...I concede, however, that it is quite possible that physics cannot be founded on the concept of field - that is to say, on continuous elements. But then, out of my whole castle in the air - including the theory of gravitation [General Theory of Relativity - insert], but also most of current physics - there would remain almost nothing." (Einstein - A Centenary Volume, Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 269 - italics in original.)

As it happens, it is as plain as the nose on one's face that "the concept of field - that is to say, ... continuous elements" is obviously inapplicable to the comparative viewpoints of two observers, one of whom is located within the solar system and observes a photon of light propagating along a straight line with respect to the solar field, on the one hand, while the other is located outside the rotating solar field and observes the self-same photon propagating along a curvilinear path because of the photon's finite velocity along a straight line with respect to the rotating solar field.

Einstein's relativity revolution is predicated on the proposition that there exists no "privileged" frame of reference insofar as the specification of physical phenomena is concerned - whence it follows that the self-same photon is moving along a straight and curvilinear path at the same time!

Not to put too fine a point to it, Wilson's view of science - and its "success over the past 300 years" - doesn't begin to make sense.

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Old Post 01-20-2005 02:53 PM
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Tony Smith
Meme Media
Melbourne, Australia

Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 168

Aristotle and Plato revisited

For all practical purposes, Aristotle was the authorty on many things for almost two millennia. Plato's idealistic notions were interesting but of less practical relevance.

In the unlikely event that the 20th Century came to be seen as representing the late second golden age of inquiry, I could almost make a case that E.O.Wilson would be seen as the new Aristotle and Einstein the new Plato.

Certainly Wilson was blind to the vicious tide of political correctness when he laid out his new synthesis of the facts of life in general with the same dilligence as his extraordinary body of work on eusocial insects, but if we are to make intellectual enquiry subservient to political fashions then we really have lost the plot.

With the wisdom of hindsight, there might also be a case to be made that the iconification of Einstein will come to be seen as marking the final excess and demise of Platonic idealism. If, as some believe, it eventually becomes indisputable that Einstein read more into the Michelson-Morley results than was actually there and general relativity is no more than a good enough planetary scale approximation to the dynamics of space-time-energy-matter, then reductionist over-simplification might finally become seen for the disease it is.

But discrediting Einstein could also threaten a lot of healthy babies still in his bathwater, so it should not be undertaken lightly.

I mention this, having just finished Pinker's The Blank Slate which presents a thoroughly contextualised defense of Wilson's notion of "Human Nature", though a defence that is too often decorated with momentarily fashionable apologia for the resurgent authoritariansim of the new Right.

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Old Post 01-21-2005 03:07 AM
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Gunnar Tomasson


Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 69

Tony,

Re. the following:

With the wisdom of hindsight, there might also be a case to be made that the iconification of Einstein will come to be seen as marking the final excess and demise of Platonic idealism. If, as some believe, it eventually becomes indisputable that Einstein read more into the Michelson-Morley results than was actually there and general relativity is no more than a good enough planetary scale approximation to the dynamics of space-time-energy-matter, then reductionist over-simplification might finally become seen for the disease it is.

Comment:

There are two distinct aspects to the "iconification" of Einstein.

1. The popular aspect, where Einstein has long been iconified as a marvel.

2. The peer aspect, which - in my view - exploits the popular aspect by elevating Einstein to an icon (seal of approval) for the kind of science which his peers have been doing.

A case in point: Many of his peers were deeply offended by Einstein's relentless critique of the epistemological aspects of quantum mechanics.

In the 1930, it moved Oppenheimer to remark that Einstein was "cuckoo" - in 1949, Max Born put it more politely:

"Here I propose to discuss Einstein's contributions to statistical methods in physics. His publications on this subject can be divided into two groups: an early set of papers deals with classical statistical mechanics, whereas the rest is connected with quantum mechanics. Both groups are intimately connected with Einstein's philosophy of science. He has seen more clearly than anyone before him the statistical background of the laws of physics, and he was a pioneer in the struggle for conquering the wilderness of quantum phenomena. Yet later, when out of his own work a synthesis of statistical and quantum principles emerged which seemed to be acceptable to almost all physicists, he kept himself aloof and sceptical. Many of us regard this as a tragedy - for him, as he gropes his way in loneliness, and for us who miss our leader and standard-bearer." (In 'Albert Einstein - Philosopher-Scientist', The Library of Living Philosophers, Volume VII, Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 1988, p. 163)

If, as Max Born suggested, Einstein had in fact "seen more clearly than anyone before him the statistical background of the laws of physics," then there can be no question but that Einstein had gone off his rocker.

The facts of the matter are somewhat different - for Einstein, the statistical aspects represented "the background to the laws of physics" ONLY in that they attested to the invariance of physical laws.

The statistical aspects are mute insofar as specification of such laws themselves is concerned.

This is not the view of Einstein's peers, for whom mere statistical regularities are routinely elevated to the status of physical laws - as if THOUGHT was not a necessary means of understanding the mechanics of physical nature.

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Tmaq
Kellie Kolonies
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It seems to me that a distinction between physics and an idealization is required.

Even Aristotle mistook his idealization (categorization) for reality. Likewise, Newton idealized one experience into a field and another into a durationless event. GR created durationless events, as well; photons.

Process Physics might be more important for the field of metaphysics than for physics, but it all depends on whether it is modelling physical reality, or the necessary functioning of imagination and thought.

How can we know which it addresses?

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Old Post 02-15-2005 11:24 PM
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Gunnar Tomasson


Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 69

If one views the physically REAL as - in John Stuart Mill's phrase - "the permanent possibility of perception", then two things are clear up front.

First. The physically REAL is something "out there" - a something, into which we are born and perceive through our senses.

Second. We can let it be - or, if we have a "scientific" bent of mind, we can speculate about the structure of that something.

That is what IDEALIZATION is about - it is a means of reducing the unknowable to a structured something.

Idealization provides NO answers - it is a means whereby we come to terms with the unknowable.

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Old Post 02-16-2005 01:18 AM
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Tmaq
Kellie Kolonies
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That certainly brings up the relevant 'point;' you can only point to it, or idealize it by imagining it despite it's lack of qualities, place, shape, or duration. Points aren't real, except perhaps as an unresolved, referrable system, and skepticism must reign for any model requiring them in their 'infinitely small' form.

The 'out there' to which you refer is also such an idealization. No one has ever been 'out there.' The patterns we experience from 'out there' are real, and in some sense, are all that can be known. JSMill's conceptualization recognizes that distinction; perception is an experience, not an idealization.

Though we can formulate ideas about any object, the 'object' in question might be an experience of perception based on reinforced sensory feelings, or it might be an experience of imagination alone. Points are the latter, so it's a priori problematic how they can be used to explain our experiences. Descartes' 'vortices' are still around.

"The Objective Universe" - akin to 'God' - is a wholly untestable, hence unscientific hypothesis. Our only possible evidence for or against, is more experience, begging the question. All of your experience happens inside your own skull. There is no 'blue' except where your brain paints it for various solid angles in your visual cortex, to register frequencies ~3700 Angstroms.

Fortunately, that useless hypothesis doesn't screw up our study of those patterns...but it can screw up our study of our internal patterns. And it appears to me that Process Physics may represent a large step...in our inward, not outward, understanding. But how do you tell the difference? How does Process Physics address that distinction, in the step from 'node' to 'quanta'? If 'experience' is 'a laying down of records,' then how do we know Process Physics is talking about the 'most real' layer of existence; the substances supposably causing our experiences, rather then the stuff which *is* our experience?

Additionally, Universe is not a system, let alone a visualizable one, because it doesn't have an outside. Speaking of which, I'm not 100% certain, being rather a newbie in this realm, but it appears that Process Physics is incompatible with a non-simultaneous Universe...which ours has repeatedly proven to be.

Am I overlooking something when I recognize a contradiction in terms between absolute frames and non-simultaniety? If not, that's a severe show-stopper for the whole notion.

As it turns out, 'Universe' can be defined as 'the sum of experience,' and all of physics survives intact. Hence, we know the 'objective universe' concept is redundant.

Process Physics, as just one example, appears to include, a priori, that 'ubiquitous experientiability' in the 'stuff' by which the Universe is made. A modelling of JSMill's concept as transfers of information, if I'm getting it. If I'm not, please update me, but it looks like the plan was to model a phenomenological universe - a view from 'inside' us - but someone switched which 'substance' they were modelling.

Process Physics starts by modelling micro-Universe as an 'experienced and experiencing information array,' leading in due course to 'topological defects,' aka 'knots' aka, 'self-interfering pattern integrities.'

Wouldn't it be easier to work the other direction? Start with experience as fundamental, proving this-or-that 'objective' structure real; patterns, frequencies, angles, records and rules?

That's what it does? But how do we know if Process Physics is talking about physical out-there underpinnings, not neural in-here visualization underpinnings?

The Scientific Method sticks us with experience as primary, anyway, so why not ditch the unnecesary idealizations which can only obscure comprehension of the patterns and structures in question?

Yes, nature is discrete. Hence the necessity of using 'frequency' rather than size or duration as the only proper dimensional metric. Frequency, after all, is an experience, not an idealization. It simultaneously encapsulates both Mach's Relativity and the lack of 'absolute size' which dimensions based on length and time require.

Universe has a frequency; there is one.

A physical point is an absurdity. The smallest possible wavelength in this Universe is that associated with a particle continaing all energy and mass. For f = total energy of the known universe/h, the wavelength still exists. It's not 'zero,' proving points can't exist, according to the rules demonstrated by that set of experiences we call 'physics' to be operating.

How would you explain your lack of delay in your sensory responses? Many of them take as much as 1/2 second to register in your cortex. Why don't you notice a lag?

Why do you trust your visualization of 'out there' when it's demonstrably 100% imaginative speculation? You see what, one octave out of eight, on the EM spectrum?

Any philosophy which doesn't face up to and account for the distinction between idealization and experience faces dismissal on alchemical grounds; A mystical object is neither the proper basis, nor goal, of a real science.

Real science squeaks by on 'repeatable,' 'falsifiable' and, rarely mentioned in the 4-step introduction, 'communication.'

I suggest that idealizations like points are optional...there's just a hell of a lot of work to iron out all the details.

Process Physics went back to Heraclitus, but kept the Latin geometrical formulations.

Does anyone know why?

-Tom

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