Science and philosophy – 2

I just finished reading “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. The book is somewhat less technical than I had expected. Despite having a chapter titled “Against Philosophy”, Weinberg deals with several issues that have more to do with the methodology of science than with its content, such as reductionism, “aesthetics” in science, positivism, belief in God etc. Overall, the book is quite enjoyable. I am interested in developing a better understanding of several of the issues Weinberg discusses, so this book has given me a lot of starting material.

To me, the most interesting arguement that Weinberg makes is that “aesthetics” has played a significant role in the formulation as well as the acceptance of several of the theories that have been developed in the last century. I had encountered similar claims before but had not taken them very seriously. But Weinberg makes his case quite convincingly. He argues that validating a theory by means of experiment is not as simple as it may seem. There can be any number of reasons for an anomaly in experimenal results. In judging whether a theory may be valid, whether it is worth trying to validate, physicists necessarily rely on “aesthetic” judgements. As an example, he argues that physicists were more or less certain of Einstein’s theory of general relativity before it was conclusively validated by experiment. As another example, he argues that physicists were sceptical of the theory of quantum electro-dynamics although it was in agreement with experimental results because some calculations based on it involved “ugly” infinities in intermediate steps. He writes that part of this “beauty” lies in simplicity – not the simplicity of the equations but of ideas. Another part of this beauty lies in what he calls logical isolation or rigidity. For example, he writes that no one has yet found a way to make a small modification in the principles of quantum mechanics without destroying the theory altogether. It would make little difference in Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational force if the exponent were changed to 2.01 instead of 2, but even the introduction of a small non-linear term in the linear equations of quantum mechanics produces nonsensical results. Such a theory does not explains why it should be correct but it explains why it cannot be just a little wrong. Concluding a chapter titled “Beautiful Theories” Weinberg writes

We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty… the beauty of present theories is an anticipation, a premonition, of the beauty of the final theory. And in any case, we would not accept any theory as final unless it were beautiful. (emphasis mine)

The last sentence in that excerpt sums up most of what Weinberg is saying about beauty. If one keeps asking why as Weinberg does, there will come a point where one will have to stop. How does one decide what that point is? For Weinberg that point will have been reached when we have a simple and logically isolated theory that “explains” everything including the values of what we call universal constants.

In my next post in this series, I will try to present my own thoughts on what it means for a theory to explain something and on beauty.

Advertisements

Is TARP criminal?

Donald Luskin asks “Is TARP a criminal enterprise?” and goes on to describe a number of dubious details such as:

…it was disclosed that “nearly 20 preliminary and full criminal investigations” are underway, including “large corporate and securities fraud matters affecting TARP investments, tax matters, insider trading, public corruption, and mortgage-modification fraud.”

…Perhaps this refers to the controversy that surfaced last January when it was said that Barney Frank (D., Mass.), the powerful head of the House Financial Services Committee, intervened to get TARP funding for a favored constituent, Boston’s OneUnited Bank.

…It’s easy to guess that Barofsky is looking into the possibility that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson coerced the CEOs of the nine largest banks to accept capital investments from TARP, even though several of them didn’t want the government as a stakeholder.

…Cuomo writes that according to a deposition by CEO Lewis, “Bank of America did not disclose Merrill Lynch’s devastating losses . . . and would have done so but for the intervention of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.”

But the important question to ask is not “Is TARP (or any other particular program) a criminal enterprise?”. The important question is “Could it have been otherwise?” The government is nothing more than an organization of people. A private organization does not have the authority to confiscate people’s property and use it for its own purposes, whatever those purposes may be. Neither does a government. The proper term for such confiscated property is loot. Is there a non-criminal way to acquire or distribute loot? I think not.

Ayn Rand’s novels

For some time, I have been thinking of writing a series of posts on “Atlas Shrugged”. What I took away from it, why I was so influenced by it, why I enjoyed it. So I was delighted to discover the comment thread on Aristotle The Geek’s post Dry Humor that featured an excerpt from “The Fountainhead”. I think Aristotle The Geek nails quite a few of the things I would have written myself. I still intend to do the series, but meanwhile, go read the thread.

Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

A spiritual experience

Today, I went to a meeting in a certain company to promote a product. And I was treated to about 40 minutes of a talk on “spirituality” by the representative of the company. This person has been visiting some camp for about a month every year for the past five years. The goal of the camp (as stated by him) is to help people like him understand that they are not limited human beings but infinite unlimited manifestations of the oneness of the cosmos. The way to understand this is to listen to talks on some scriptures (the same sciptures every year) by some “masters” who already have this understanding. What is required to reach this understanding is not any active analysis or committed efforts to understand the scriptures but repeated “exposure” to the scriptures. This ultimate knowledge will “happen” automatically, just as one sees a book when one opens one eyes automatically, that is without the exercise of free will. The fact that he has not reached this ultimate knowledge yet (although his clarity on the subject has improved with time) is proof of the fact that his mind is limited. He will have to abandon his ways of thinking and all the “notions” (a very large number of them) that he has developed to free himself. He cannot but give the benefit of doubt (stated with a lot of emphasis) to someone who tells him that his true nature is infinite. What has he got to lose? If he makes a mistake, he will be reduced to the finite. If he comes to the understanding he seeks, however, he will have achieved all that he has been seeking – not security, but the knowledge that he is not insecure in the first place, that there is nothing to be insecure about. He will transcend dharma (righteousness), kama (work), artha (wealth) and reach moksha (liberation) – the understanding that liberation consists of transcending the desires for kama and artha. Moreover, he will reach this without any hard work, he just needs patient exposure to the scriptures. Isn’t this what all of us have been yearning for all our lives and perhaps for many lives? How does he know that the “masters” have this understanding? Are they different in some way? He can sense it. It is difficult to explain but their confidence and the way they carry themselves indicates it. They have compassion for everyone in the cosmos, not just humans but also animals, birds, trees etc. After all, these are all just different forms of the same oneness. Just as one sees a lot of different kinds of images when one visits a house of mirrors in some entertainment park, these are all manifestations of the single infinite. People who have not reached this understanding are like a child who has just dropped his ice-cream or burst a balloon and is wailing thinking that the world is coming to an end. But the masters are like adults who know that nothing has been lost, that one can always get other ice-creams or balloons. And their attitude towards the unenlightened is similar. They have a lot of patience. They want the unenlightened to realize that what they are suffering from is unimportant. Also the masters do not have any ill-will towards anybody. How can they? They realize the oneness of the infinite. Does one get angry with ones teeth when one accidentally bites one’s tongue? No. Similarly the masters only have compassion for everybody. Reaching this understanding is as simple and as effortless as dropping a heavy load that one has been carrying. What can be easier than that? But one should know that the load can be dropped.

That is about as much as I can remember. After 40 minutes of this, he was back to work and was discussing mundane things about business. Amazing how people can compartmentalize and lead a double existence.

I can’t say that his talk had no effect on me however. I did felt very sleepy by the end of it. And I had a good nap after I got home.

Government and education

A while back I came across this infuriating story (via A Little Lower than The Angels) of a man who did not send his children to a public school against the law of his state and so was shot dead by the agents of the state. Since I have written a bit lately on the moral and political implications of public education, this is a good time to relate this story to that debate. The legal murder of John Singer is the logical conclusion to any arguement that advocates public education. Here’s how.

a) The state has the power to tax me to provide public education.

b) Therefore I have a legal responsibility to the state for the welfare of others.

c) Therefore the state may decide that my children’s education is essential to the welfare of others (free and compulsory education)

d) Therefore  the state may decide what this education must consist of.

e) Therefore the state may punish me (ultimately by death if I resist) if I refuse to accept the state’s requirements.

Do you agree with (a) but not with (e)? Examine your premises. Logic has a way of catching up with people even if they do not choose to be logical.

Charity

Just as I began writing this post, I saw this short piece by Kendall J.

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong.

This idea usually comes from people who want the state to step in and force everyone to be charitable. A case in point is the recent discussion I had with T.R. who was arguing for free public education so that poor people can afford education. The ironic part is that we already have a free (and broken) public education system for precisely this reason, indicating that there are many people who are concerned that poor people would not be able to afford education and don’t mind getting taxed to “solve” the problem. So why do these people need the state to intervene? As I see it could be two reasons:

1) They think their donations would not be enough to run an adequate system and so they want to coerce others.

2) They think they themselves would not donate if the state did not force them to.

Since there are very few people who ever advocate the scrapping of subsidized education, reason 1 is not credible. What about reason 2? Clearly reason 2 is paradoxical. Why would they not spend money voluntarily when they themselves think it is important to do so?

The answer can be found in the morality of altruism. Altruism creates an artificial line between actions that help you and actions that help others and claims that only actions that help others are noble. So if Edison invents the electric bulb and sells it for a profit, his action is called selfish (and at best amoral) even though it has benefitted innumerable people much more than it has benefitted him. On the other hand, when Bill Gates donates a large part of his wealth to charity, his action is called selfless (and noble) even though much of those donations will be ineffective (Africa’s biggest problem is not disease). Note how actions are being judged not by their rationality but by their (intended) beneficiaries. So Mother Teresa, who never produced any wealth in her life is judged to be incomparably nobler than Dhirubhai Ambani, who established a large business empire that created wealth for so many people (including himself). By this absurd standard, man is certainly not noble (and that is a very good thing – just imagine everybody spending their whole lives with a begging bowl with the intention of helping others with the proceeds).

The proper standard for judging actions should be – does this action actually benefit the actor? Is this a rational, workable, sound idea or is this a stupid idea that will cause harm? Since most men use both standards, the altruistic standard in the domain of morality and the rational standard in the domain of practicality, they carry over the obvious conclusion from the moral standard and apply it to the practical standard. Thus they reach the conclusion that man (not this or that individual, but man as a species) is incapable of acting for his own long term interests and has to be forced to do so.

But the domains of morality and practicality are not separate. Proper moral principles are <i>derived</i> from practical experience. The moral is the practical. Applied to charity, charity is just another action like investing in a company or buying a work of art and like any other action it can be good or bad. It is only the absurd morality of altruism that claims that charity cannot be in one’s self-interest and then exhorts one to engage in it nevertheless. The proper way to judge it is to balance the costs with the rewards (not necessarily in terms of money). The Mother Teresa kind of charity (redistributing wealth created by others in the prime of her life and sinking into a depression at the end of it) is bad charity because it is incredibly stupid. The Carnegie kind of charity (establishing libraries and universities when he might have lacked the energy to engage in directly productive work) is good charity because it brought him great satisfaction at little cost while also helping others.

%d bloggers like this: