Tag Archives: Lee Smolin

The problem with philosophy

First some light philosophical relief – Monty Python’s Football – before the serious issues

There has been a bit of a donnybrook recently over the science-philosophy conflict. (Dare we talk about a “conflict model” of the science-philosophy relationship?).

There is evidence of some accumulated antagonism on both sides. But this time the spark was some ungentlemanly comments made by Lawrence Krauss. Or perhaps the spark was the “scathing” New York Times review of his recent book (A Universe from Nothing) by David Albert (wearing his philosopher hat) – Albert’s comments were more sophisticated but nevertheless were hardly gentlemanly.

In an interview with Ross Anderson published in The Atlantic (Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?) Krauss referred to “moronic philosophers  that have written about my book” and made some general criticisms of philosophy, and especially the philosophy of science as it is practised. Have a look at the interview for the details.

Then other philosophers joined the battle. Massimo Pigluicci, never one to stay away from such a stoush, retaliated with Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex hinting that this conflict was a lot wider than individuals, a book and its review. I am not surprised – in general I enjoy Pigluicci’s writing but feel that he throws around criticisms of scientists, and words like “scientism”, far too liberally. He sank to Krauss’s level by describing him as a “brilliant (as a physicist) moron.” But he did deal with some of the mores substantive criticisms made by Krauss. Again, refer to his article for the details.

Justin Vacula made what I thought were more unemotional criticisms of Krauss’s comment in A response to Lawrence Krauss’ comments denigrating philosophy at American Atheists’ 2012 convention. And physicist Sean Carroll recently contributed some useful comments in his post at Cosmic Variance (see A Universe from Nothing?). Actually, I recommend Carroll’s book From Eternity to Here  which deals with similar issues to those in Krauss’s book.

Diversity in philosophy

So what are we to think, especially as both sides appeared to be generalising about the other? Is the “conflict model” of the science-philosophy relationship factual, or just a myth? Have they been fated to be in continual argument since they divided centuries ago?

I think yes and no. In the sense that some schools of philosophy seem inevitably bound to conflict with science, while other schools don’t. In a real sense philosophy as a discipline is far more diverse, or divided, than is science. When one is dealing with the real world, interacting with it, testing and validating one’s ideas and theories against reality, there is less room for long-lasting divisions. On the other hand philosophy can be practised by people from an armchair, never bothering to keep up with current scientific knowledge.

Let me quickly add I am not talking about all philosophers by any means. there are many who interact and cooperate with practising scientists. Who learn from science and develop their philosophy accordingly. There can be a very fruitful and practical relationship between scientists and philosophers.

I have had an interest in the philosophy of science since my student days and early on became aware of the existence of diverse philosophical schools.  This was brought home to me when a professor gave us a lecture on “THE philosophy of science” in a chemistry lecture. What he understood by the words was quite different to what I understood by them. Since then I have thought scientists have an inbuilt suspicion of philosophy. If only because they abhor the idea of imposition of ideological dogma on their research justified as “the philosophy of science.” We have seen it before, haven’t we?

So, being very much aware of this “problem of philosophy”* – 0f the existence of different trends, often with ideological tinges, I was relieved to see that Krauss actually apologised for his blanket criticisms of philosophy in his Scientific American columnThe Consolation of Philosophy.” This was subheaded “An update by the author of “A Universe from Nothing” on his thoughts, as a theoretical physicist, about the value of the discipline of philosophy.”

I like the way he finished the column:

“So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize.  I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality.   To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this:  Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

I agree with him.

* Before some of the philosophically-inclined take umbrage at my title “The problem of philosophy” please note I use it in the spirit of physicist Lee Smolin’s book title “The Trouble With Physics.” That was not dissing physics – far from it. He was discussing some issues within current physics and the  problems they create.

The trouble with physics?

Scientists working on the Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Collider ( Photo: REX FEATURES & The Telegraph)

No, this is not an in-depth critique of string theory along the lines of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next or Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. It’s more along the lines of how do you know when a physicist is joking?

I think part of the attraction of modern physical theories and speculations are their non-intuitive nature. I buy that – and don’t find myself rejecting ideas just because they violate “common sense.” But I have often through that this non-intuitive nature does leave the field wide open to bullshit.

OK – I am aware that pseudo-science uses this to it’s own advantage to sell products and ideologies. But here’s a more practical problem I face – who do you believe when you read stories about physical discoveries on or around April 1 every year?

For example – I am pretty sure that the CERN Newsletter editors were pulling my leg when they reported – CERN scientists report sidereal influence on the behaviour of antimatter:

CERN scientists today reported an unexpected effect in the behaviour of antiprotons in the ALPHA experiment’s particle trap. ALPHA traps antiprotons from the laboratory’s Antiproton Decelerator and mixes them with positrons to form antihydrogen.

The experiment’s ultimate goal is to perform spectroscopic measurements on antihydrogen atoms in order to investigate nature’s preference for matter over antimatter. ALPHA reported an important step forward last month with the announcement that they had succeeded in changing the internal state of antihydrogen atoms using microwaves.

One of the key stages in CERN’s antimatter programme is slowing the antiprotons down as much as possible, a process known as cooling. In all measurements to date, the ALPHA experiment has cooled the antiprotons to a temperature of just 0.5 Kelvin. However, when the experiment ran on Monday 26 March, they observed antiprotons cooled to 0.4 Kelvin: in other words, they were moving more slowly than usual. Another curious phenomenon was that the temperatures of the antiprotons followed a Poisson distribution instead of the usual Gaussian. The following day, the antiprotons were back to their normal temperature of 0.5 Kelvin.

“We took a long time to figure this one out,” explained collaboration spokesperson, Jeffrey Hangst. “On Monday, the antiprotons were particularly cold, but they responded well to microwave warming, allowing us to conclude the run. On Tuesday, our antiprotons were back to normal.”

The solution came from an unexpected direction.

“There was something else strange about Monday’s run,” said Hangst. “Our run coordinator Niels Madsen arrived an hour late, which is very uncharacteristic behaviour for him.”

This provided the clue the ALPHA collaboration needed.

“I’d forgotten that the time changed over the weekend,” said Madsen. “And of course no one had told the antiprotons that the clocks went forward either, so they were just a little more slow than usual. By the time we got to Tuesday, they’d adjusted to Central European Summer Time.”

But what about this from Jon Butterworth – a physics professor at University College London and a member of the High Energy Physics group on the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. He’s normally a serious guy but reported in his Guardian Blog Life and Physics recently (April 1 actually) that “a bug in the software used to model the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider could have been covering up evidence for extra space time dimensions” (see  First evidence for string theory at the Large Hadron Collider):

Complex software models are used to understand the results from the Large Hadron Collider. These include simulations of the particle physics in the proton-proton collisions, as well as of the material and geometry of the detectors and the strength of the various magnetic fields. As more data are accumulated, the required precision of this software increases.

A recent review recommended that the number of decimal places used to represent numbers in the software should be increased. This means all mathematical constants such as e and pi, as well as physical constants and the measured dimensions of the detectors. So far, so routine. But when adding more precision to pi, a strange effect was noticed. The alignment of charged particle tracks across detector boundaries actually got worse when a more precise value was used. In addition, the agreement between simulation and data also got slightly worse.

This really should not happen – more precision should mean better alignment and better agreement.

Boring scientists say this is probably evidence that some physicists don’t know how to write proper code. However, string theorists have pointed out that a firm prediction of string theory is the existence of extra space-time dimensions. In a space which is curved into a higher dimension, the apparent value of pi can deviate from that seen in real life. And thus the LHC may have proved that they were right all along. More data are needed before we can be sure.

Well, I don’t know. Sounds as credible as most of the stories coming from the LHC and the scientists working there.

Perhaps a hint that the story is an April Fool’s joke comes from the last sentence:

Less welcome news for CERN is that since they have been near to the beams for two years, the values of pi used in those parts of the ATLAS which were built in the UK are now hot, and therefore as of today will attract VAT.

Or perhaps it’s only the last sentence which is the joke?

That’s the trouble with modern physics. When should we take it seriously.

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Cosmological cranes – not skyhooks

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett draws out the philosophical significance of evolution by natural selection. Darwin himself hesitated to apply his ideas to humanity, let alone to wider philosophical issues.


Dennett describes how natural selection explains phenomena such as development and evolution, using “cranes”, rather than “skyhooks”. How development can arise internally rather than relying on an external “designer” or “manipulator.” He also describes natural selection as the “universal acid.” All this implies the concepts of natural selection can be applied more widely than just biology.

One application Dennett mentions is in cosmology and he briefly describes Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmological natural selection in his book. 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. It is also the year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12) and the 150th anniversary of publication of his The Origin of Species. So it is fitting to link the two commemorations and cosmological natural selection does this.

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