Philosophy and physics

The conversation continues . . .

Allow me to quote Nietzsche (although I know that will be considered by some to be in bad taste): “As the circle of science grows larger, it touches paradox at more places.” Physicists expand the circle, and philosophers help clear up the paradoxes. May both camps flourish.


Science, the Market and Iterative Knowledge

The second paper co-authored with Dave Hardwick has now been published in Studies in Emergent Order:

Abstract: In a recent paper (Hardwick & Marsh, in press) we examine the recent tensions between the two broadly successful spontaneous orders, namely the Market and Science. We argued for an epistemic pluralism, the view that freedom and liberty (indeed the very concept of liberalism and civil society) exists at the nexus of a manifold of spontaneous forces, and that no single epistemic system should dominate. We also briefly introduced the concept of “iterative” knowledge to characterize the essentially dynamic nature of scientific knowledge. Herein lies a tension. The Market (and perhaps the prevailing culture at large) sees scientific knowledge in cumulative terms, that is, progressing to a conclusion in a linear fashion. This relatively static understanding of medical science as it relates to pharmaceutical studies can have a corrosive effect on the practice of medicine and ultimately, we believe, on the proper functioning of the market itself. In this paper we examine this tension in much closer detail by focusing upon the demands of the market, specifically the pharmaceutical industry, and the science upon which it is based. In other words, we expound upon a clash of epistemic value – one (science) that sees knowledge as essentially iterative (dynamic yet tentative) and the other (the Market) that harvests conclusive scientific knowledge (ostensibly as a fixed and firm commodity) functional to its own interests. Clinical Trials that are sharply focused with precisely determined deliverables often manifest this tension in the sharpest of relief. As a means of recovering drug development and testing costs, conclusive assessment is required to avoid creating serious financial problems for the companies themselves not to mention issues in the public interest.


The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge.

Philip Kitcher, prominent philosopher of science in The New Republic:

The problem with scientism—which is of course not the same thing as science—is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

Human social behavior arises, in a complex social context, from the psychological dispositions of individuals. Those psychological dispositions are themselves shaped not only by underlying genotypes, but also by the social and cultural environments in which people develop. Cultural transmission occurs in many animal species, but never to the extent or to the degree to which it is found in Homo sapiens. Human culture, moreover, is not obviously reducible to a complex system of processes in which single individuals affect others. Rigorous mathematical studies of gene-cultural coevolution reveal that when natural selection combines with cultural transmission, the outcomes reached may differ from those that would have been produced by natural selection acting alone, and that the cultural processes involved can be sustained under natural selection. Whether this happens in a wide variety of areas of human culture and domains or is relatively rare is something nobody can yet determine. But culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.

Adam Frank, Professor Physics & Astronomy

Physicists vs Philosophers

Good article from Adam Frank:

At stake is a critical question living deep inside the heart of modern foundational physics: What are the limits of science?

David Albert was having none of it. As he correctly points out: Where do the fields come from? Better yet: Where do the laws of quantum mechanics come from? These are clearly meaningful questions even if, perhaps, they fall outside the domains of physics.


A Note on the Influence of Mach’s Psychology in the Sensory Order

Here is the intro to Giandomenica Becchio’s paper:

In the Preface of The Sensory Order, Hayek stated that this book was based on his readings in psychology during 1919–1920, when he was still a young student in Vienna interested in both psychology and economics. Among many others, Hayek explicitly cited Mach’s influence on him. Hayek’s contacts with the lively Viennese milieu during the 1920s and 1930s had a fundamental role in the story of the use of Mach in Hayek’s book. As Hayek himself explained, Mach had a great influence on Viennese students and scholars until the 1930s, because he represented ‘‘the only source of arguments against a metaphysical and nebulous attitude’’ that was spreading among scientists (Blackmore, Itagaki, & Tanaka, 2001, p. 124). The use of Mach’s philosophy as a tool against any metaphysical attitude was particularly strong inside the Vienna Circle, where scholars like Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap had founded the Ernst Mach Society (Verein Ernst Mach, 1927) to support their movement and to link Mach’s empiricism to their philosophical approach,which they later named ‘‘logical positivism’’ (Blumberg & Feigl, 1931). Hayek strongly criticized the Vienna Circle’s philosophical approach: he mainly rejected Neurath’s physicalism (the belief that all science ultimately reduces to the laws of physics, Neurath, 1931; Caldwell, 2004), even if he showed some interest in Carnap’s logical system (Carnap, 1928). When Hayek introduced the system of multiple classification in The Sensory Order, he cited Carnap as the one who provided ‘‘a somewhat similar statement of the problems of the order of sensory qualities’’ (Hayek, 1952, p. 51). Nevertheless, in the mid-1930s, when Carnap officially subscribed to Neurath’s physicalism, it culminated in the project of the unification of science (Stadler, 2001).1 Hayek’s aversion arose: From the fact that we shall never be able to achieve more than an ‘explanation of the principle’ by which the order of mental events is determined, it also follows that we shall never achieve a complete ‘unification’ of all sciences in the sense that all phenomena of which it treats can be described in physical term. (Hayek, 1952, p. 191)

And in the following footnote he specifically named both Carnap and Neurath: their physical language, since it refers to the phenomenal or sensory qualities of the objects, is not ‘‘physical’’ at all. Their use of this term rather implies a metaphysical belief in the ‘‘ultimate reality’’ and constancy of the phenomenal world for which there is little justification. (ibid.) In this passage Hayek accused them of having dropped their original antimetaphysical attitude – mediated through Mach – to propose a new form a metaphysical belief, based on the reduction of any reality to the empirical realm. Hayek’s j’accuse is significant: for 30 years the philosophers of the Vienna Circle claimed Mach’s philosophy as one of the main sources of their aversion to metaphysics and a pillar of their philosophical approach based on a new form of positivism.2 In the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Joergensen explained the three common traits between ‘‘Mach’s positivism’’ and the Vienna Circle philosophy: the idea that ‘‘human knowledge is a biological phenomenon’’; the rejection of any form of ‘‘thing-in-itself’’ (and for that matter, of any form of Kantianism) and the overlap between physical reality and physical elements (Joergensen, 1951, p. 853). To explain the link between Mach and Hayek on the one hand and Hayek’s aversion to the logical positivism (apparently and ‘‘officially’’ rooted in Mach’s philosophy) on the other hand, we need to consider what Hayek meant when he mentioned Mach’s influence in The Sensory Order.


Science of Consciousness

Here is the follow up to an earlier post on The Royal Institution event: