Humanist, poet, ex-scientist, ex-physician, philosopher, prolific writer —the list goes on—Raymond Tallis is the only person I’ve seen whose profession is described as “polymath” on Wikipedia. But being a polymath doesn’t always guarantee you’re right. In his column at the Guardian yesterday, “Philosophy isn’t dead yet, Tallis claims that philosophy—metaphysical philosophy—is the only way physics will get itself out of its current mess. What’s the problem?
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.
Well, yes, physics doesn’t understand everything, but I wasn’t aware that string theory had bogged down because its adherents don’t understand it. I thought it had bogged down because it’s early days for that theory, because there are a gazillion forms of it, and because physicists hadn’t found ways to test any of them. Likewise, the measurement problem seems, at least to a tyro like me, as some deep nonintuitive fact about reality, not something that demands a philosophical solution. In neither case can I see how philosophy—at least formal academic philosophy—is going to help physicists make progress.
Yes, I’m aware that people like Heisenberg and Bohr engaged in a bit of philosophizing about what quantum mechanics really means, but I’m not sure how far recent discoveries in physics have been motivated (rather than explained to the public) by formal academic philosophy as practiced not by philosophers, but by those trained in physics.
I suppose it is “philosophy” when David Albert takes Lawrence Krauss to task for not being explicit about what “nothing” means, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to see that. And the bizarre fact of nonlocality was discovered not by philosophers, who as far as I can see had little input into that solution, but by scientists. It’s been explained by philosophers to the public, but scientists who are writers can also do that, and often do a better job since they really understand the nuances. Yes, you can say that scientists engage in philosophy when they interpret what they find, but all scientists who ponder the meaning of their discoveries can be said to practice philosophy. That doesn’t constitute an endorsement of professional academic philosophy. The thing is, the “philosophy” practices of scientists doesn’t require the kind of professional training that philosophers demand when they accuse scientists of being “philosophically naive.” That accusation has always seemed to me a self-serving claim for the importance of one’s bit of turf.
According to Tallis, philosophy will solve difficult problems not only in other areas of physics, but also biology. What areas need philosophical input?
- Time. Tallis notes:
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”.
This is above my pay grade; perhaps writers can enlighten me about how philosophy will help straighten out the mess of time. I’d prefer to hear from Sean Carroll (not a philosopher) on this.
- A universe from nothing.
Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication. They demonstrate the urgent need for a radical re-examination of the invisible frameworks within which scientific investigations are conducted. We need to step back from the mathematics to see how we got to where we are now. In short, to un-take much that is taken for granted.
This comes close to replacing “philosophy” with “God.” “Free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings?” Really? Where did that “gift” come from? And we’re not at all sure that the “laws of nature” (which aren’t given by anyone, but are a description of how matter behaves), are the same in every universe—if there is more than one universe. And were they really “waiting in the wings” for the moment of creation? (“Creation”?). I’m not sure physicists would say that the “laws of nature” antedate the Big Bang.
Why the laws of physics are as they are, and whether they differ in other universes, or whether there are other universes, are questions that fall squarely in the bailiwick of physics. I can’t see how philosophers are going to render significant help here.
- Understanding consciousness. As he says,
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).
Well, perhaps philosophy can lend a wee hand here—after all Dan Dennett wrote a book trying to clear up some of the conceptual mess about consciousness, but how many scientists working on the problem have read it, or need to? That book, I thought, was aimed largely at other philosophers as well as the general public. Can philosophers really help us understand how self-awareness arises, both neurologically and through the aeons of evolution? I doubt it. Tallis ends by adding to philosopher’s jobs that of explaining physics to the public:
Perhaps even more important, we should reflect on how a scientific image of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that have neither identity nor location, connects with our everyday experience. This should open up larger questions, such as the extent to which mathematical portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we mean by “reality”. The dismissive “Just shut up and calculate!” to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists’ picture of the universe is simply inadequate. “It is time” physicist Neil Turok has said, “to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both”. This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.
Are philosophers really necessary for such an endeavor? As far as I know, relaying the discoveries of physics—and their meaning—have been done primarily (and done well) by physicists who are also popular writers, like Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, Lisa Randall, and so on. The really popular books on recent advances in physics have come not from philosophers, but from scientists.
As I’ve said many times before, I don’t dismiss all philosophy as worthless. I’m particularly fond of ethics, where philosophers like John Rawls, Peter Singer, and Dan Dennett have helped us think more clearly about the nature of the good and moral (I think Sam Harris, writer and neuroscientist, has contributed here as well). Philosophers are trained to see logical flaws and think precisely, and those skills often provide protective hip boots for wading through a mire of mushy thought. Another endeavor that I admire is secular philosophy’s attacks on theology, such as those of Walter Kaufmann and Herman Philipse (do read his God in the Age of Science). Their clear thinking has shown theology for what it is: mere post facto rationalization of what people want to believe in the first place.
But helping physicists advance their field, or explaining those advances to the public? Here I see no advantages of philosophers over smart science journalists or scientists who are good are writing for the public.