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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of science

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…

Gerardo Dottori, Explosion of Red on Green, 1910, oil on canvas. London, Tate Modern. [source]

A crop of new books attempts to explain the allure of conspiracy theories and the power of belief; Trevor Quirk considers them…

For the millions who were enraged, disgusted, and shocked by the Capitol riots of January 6, the enduring object of skepticism has been not so much the lie that provoked the riots but the believers themselves. A year out, and book publishers confirmed this, releasing titles that addressed the question still addling public consciousness: How can people believe this shit? A minority of rioters at the Capitol had nefarious intentions rooted in authentic ideology, but most of them conveyed no purpose other than to announce to the world that they believed — specifically, that the 2020 election was hijacked through an international conspiracy — and that nothing could sway their confidence. This belief possessed them, not the other way around.

At first, I’d found the riots both terrifying and darkly hilarious, but those sentiments were soon overwon by a strange exasperation that has persisted ever since. It’s a feeling that has robbed me of my capacity to laugh at conspiracy theories — QAnon, chemtrails, lizardmen, whatever — and the people who espouse them. My exasperation is for lack of an explanation. I see Trump’s most devoted hellion, rampaging down the halls of power like a grade schooler after the bell, and I need to know the hidden causes of his dopey rebellion. To account for our new menagerie of conspiracy theories, I told myself, would be to reclaim the world from entropy, to snap experience neatly to the grid once again. I would use recent books as the basis for my account of conspiracy theories in the age of the internet. From their pages I would extract insights and errors like newspaper clippings, pin the marginal, bizarre, and seemingly irrelevant details to the corkboard of my mind, where I could spy eerie resonances, draw unseen connections. At last, I could reveal that our epistemic bedlam is as a Twombly canvas — messy but decipherable…

Learn with @trevorquirk: “Out There,” in @GuernicaMag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we tangle with truth, we might send rigorous birthday greetings to Gustav Bergmann; he was born on this date in 1906. A philosopher, he was a member of the Vienna Circle, a a group of philosophers and scientists drawn from the natural and social sciences, logic and mathematics, whose values were rooted in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Their approach, logical positivism, an attempt to use logic to make philosophy “scientific,” has had immense influence on 20th-century philosophy, especially on the philosophy of science and analytic philosophy… even if it has not, in fact, eliminated the issues explored above.

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We might also send birthday greetings in the form of logical and semantic puzzles both to the precocious protagonist of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and to her inspiration, Alice Liddell; they were “born” on this date in 1852.

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“A mind that is stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions”*…

Alex Berezow observes (in an appreciation of Peter AtkinsGalileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science) that, while scientific theories are always being tested, scrutinized for flaws, and revised, there are ten concepts so durable that it is difficult to imagine them ever being replaced with something better…

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that science, instead of progressing gradually in small steps as is commonly believed, actually moves forward in awkward leaps and bounds. The reason for this is that established theories are difficult to overturn, and contradictory data is often dismissed as merely anomalous. However, at some point, the evidence against the theory becomes so overwhelming that it is forcefully displaced by a better one in a process that Kuhn refers to as a “paradigm shift.” And in science, even the most widely accepted ideas could, someday, be considered yesterday’s dogma.

Yet, there are some concepts which are considered so rock solid, that it is difficult to imagine them ever being replaced with something better. What’s more, these concepts have fundamentally altered their fields, unifying and illuminating them in a way that no previous theory had done before…

The bedrock of modern biology, chemistry, and physics: “The ten greatest ideas in the history of science,” from @AlexBerezow in @bigthink.

* Oliver Wendell Holmes

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As we forage for first principles, we might send carefully-calcuated birthday greetings to Georgiy Antonovich Gamov; he was born on this date in 1904. Better known by the name he adopted on immigrating to the U.S., George Gamow, he was a physicist and cosmologist whose early work was instrumental in developing the Big Bang theory of the universe; he also developed the first mathematical model of the atomic nucleus. In 1954, he expanded his interests into biochemistry and his work on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) made a basic contribution to modern genetic theory.

But mid-career Gamow began to shift his energy to teaching and to writing popular books on science… one of which, One Two Three… Infinity, inspired legions of young scientists-to-be and kindled a life-long interest in science in an even larger number of other youngsters (including your correspondent).

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“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present”*…

Iwan Rhys Morus suggests that we’re enthralled to a Victorian paradigm that haunts us still: the idea that inventors and entrepreneurs hold the keys to the utopian future…

Tech titans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos present themselves as men who could single-handedly shape the future. For their supporters, their ruthless drive toward success is their key virtue. And their showmanship — Musk sending a Tesla Roadster into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket, or Bezos sending Captain Kirk into orbit with Blue Origin — is a way of demonstrating that virtue and asserting they are in control.

We owe to the Victorians the idea that there is a firm link between virtue and technological agency. They established a powerful paradigm that continues to haunt us: that the future is (or can be) a utopia, and inventors and entrepreneurs are the ones who know how to get there.

While our notions of virtue have shifted today, we still assume that future-making is the prerogative of very specific sorts of innovators — even as their imagined identities have fractured and transformed. The assumption that innovation is the property of charismatic individuals still underlies the way we think about technology.

The seductive power of Victorian thinking about the relationship between character, technology, and the future remains pervasive, even if views about just what the proper character of the inventor should be have shifted….

With its focus on individual virtue, the Victorian vision of the future is an exclusive one. When we subscribe to this paradigm about how — and by whom — the future is made, we’re also relinquishing control over that future. We’re acknowledging that tomorrow belongs to them, not to us.

Back To The Victorian Future,” by @irmorus1 in @NoemaMag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Albert Camus

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As we ponder power and its purpose, we might send inclusive birthday greetings to Jacques Lucien Monod; he was born on this date in 1910. A biochemist, he shared (with with François Jacob and André Lwoff) the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965, “for their discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis.”

But Monod, who became the director of the Pasteur Institute, also made significant contributions to the philosophy of science– in particular via his 1971 book (based on a series of his lectures) Chance and Necessity, in which he examined the philosophical implications of modern biology. The importance of Monod’s work as a bridge between the chance and necessity of evolution and biochemistry on the one hand, and the human realm of choice and ethics on the other, can be seen in his influence on philosophers, biologists, and computer scientists including Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky, and Richard Dawkins.

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“Men knew better than they realized, when they placed the abode of the gods beyond the reach of gravity”*…

In search of a theory of everything…

Twenty-five particles and four forces. That description — the Standard Model of particle physics — constitutes physicists’ best current explanation for everything. It’s neat and it’s simple, but no one is entirely happy with it. What irritates physicists most is that one of the forces — gravity — sticks out like a sore thumb on a four-fingered hand. Gravity is different.

Unlike the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity is not a quantum theory. This isn’t only aesthetically unpleasing, it’s also a mathematical headache. We know that particles have both quantum properties and gravitational fields, so the gravitational field should have quantum properties like the particles that cause it. But a theory of quantum gravity has been hard to come by.

In the 1960s, Richard Feynman and Bryce DeWitt set out to quantize gravity using the same techniques that had successfully transformed electromagnetism into the quantum theory called quantum electrodynamics. Unfortunately, when applied to gravity, the known techniques resulted in a theory that, when extrapolated to high energies, was plagued by an infinite number of infinities. This quantization of gravity was thought incurably sick, an approximation useful only when gravity is weak.

Since then, physicists have made several other attempts at quantizing gravity in the hope of finding a theory that would also work when gravity is strong. String theory, loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulation and a few others have been aimed toward that goal. So far, none of these theories has experimental evidence speaking for it. Each has mathematical pros and cons, and no convergence seems in sight. But while these approaches were competing for attention, an old rival has caught up.

The theory called asymptotically (as-em-TOT-ick-lee) safe gravity was proposed in 1978 by Steven Weinberg. Weinberg, who would only a year later share the Nobel Prize with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Abdus Salam for unifying the electromagnetic and weak nuclear force, realized that the troubles with the naive quantization of gravity are not a death knell for the theory. Even though it looks like the theory breaks down when extrapolated to high energies, this breakdown might never come to pass. But to be able to tell just what happens, researchers had to wait for new mathematical methods that have only recently become available…

For decades, physicists have struggled to create a quantum theory of gravity. Now an approach that dates to the 1970s is attracting newfound attention: “Why an Old Theory of Everything Is Gaining New Life,” from @QuantaMagazine.

* Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two

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As we unify, we might pause to remember Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, OM, FRS; he died in this date in 1944.  An astrophysicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science known for his work on the motion, distribution, evolution and structure of stars, Eddington is probably best remembered for his relationship to Einstein:  he was, via a series of widely-published articles, the primary “explainer” of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to the English-speaking world; and he was, in 1919, the leader of the experimental team that used observations of a solar eclipse to confirm the theory.

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“Supersymmetry was (and is) a beautiful mathematical idea. The problem with applying supersymmetry is that it is too good for this world.”*…

Physicists reconsider their options…

A wise proverb suggests not putting all your eggs in one basket. Over recent decades, however, physicists have failed to follow that wisdom. The 20th century—and, indeed, the 19th before it—were periods of triumph for them. They transformed understanding of the material universe and thus people’s ability to manipulate the world around them. Modernity could not exist without the knowledge won by physicists over those two centuries.

In exchange, the world has given them expensive toys to play with. The most recent of these, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which occupies a 27km-circumference tunnel near Geneva and cost $6bn, opened for business in 2008. It quickly found a long-predicted elementary particle, the Higgs boson, that was a hangover from calculations done in the 1960s. It then embarked on its real purpose, to search for a phenomenon called Supersymmetry.

This theory, devised in the 1970s and known as Susy for short, is the all-containing basket into which particle physics’s eggs have until recently been placed. Of itself, it would eliminate many arbitrary mathematical assumptions needed for the proper working of what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics. But it is also the vanguard of a deeper hypothesis, string theory, which is intended to synthesise the Standard Model with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein’s theory explains gravity. The Standard Model explains the other three fundamental forces—electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces—and their associated particles. Both describe their particular provinces of reality well. But they do not connect together. String theory would connect them, and thus provide a so-called “theory of everything”.

String theory proposes that the universe is composed of minuscule objects which vibrate in the manner of the strings of a musical instrument. Like such strings, they have resonant frequencies and harmonics. These various vibrational modes, string theorists contend, correspond to various fundamental particles. Such particles include all of those already observed as part of the Standard Model, the further particles predicted by Susy, which posits that the Standard Model’s mathematical fragility will go away if each of that model’s particles has a heavier “supersymmetric” partner particle, or “sparticle”, and also particles called gravitons, which are needed to tie the force of gravity into any unified theory, but are not predicted by relativity.

But, no Susy, no string theory. And, 13 years after the LHC opened, no sparticles have shown up. Even two as-yet-unexplained results announced earlier this year (one from the LHC and one from a smaller machine) offer no evidence directly supporting Susy. Many physicists thus worry they have been on a wild-goose chase…

Bye, bye little Susy? Supersymmetry isn’t (so far, anyway) proving out; and prospects look dim. But a similar fallow period in physics led to quantum theory and relativity: “Physics seeks the future.”

Frank Wilczek

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As we ponder paradigms, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald; he was born on this date in 1853. A chemist and philosopher, he made many specific contributions to his field (including advances on atomic theory), and was one of the founders of the of the field of physical chemistry. He won the Nobel Prize in 1909.

Following his retirement in 1906 from academic life, Ostwald became involved in philosophy, art, and politics– to each of which he made significant contributions.

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