Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 87

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

How effective is economic theory? (Hint: not much…)

Why a moratorium on microaggressions might be a good idea.

Time to accept the reality of time.

In praise of (philosophical, but also otherwise) specialization.

Major new study finds that political polarization is mainly a Right-Wing thing.

_____

Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

Advertisements


Categories: Plato's Suggestions

85 replies

  1. Massimo, indirectly related your comment to DM and Alan, I know that physicists in the recent past have entertained the possibilities that some of the treasured “constants” of physics might subtly change over the billions of years of the universe’s existence.

    Should anything like this be true, it would of course be logically impossible to formulate an underlying law about change itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. was common even before the start of neoliberalism?

    Likely back much further than that … to when ‘liberal’ meant what ‘neoliberal’ means now.

    Like

  3. Socratic,

    Not sure that it would be logically impossible to arrive at meta-laws. Just very very difficult. But I’m interested in the reasoning that somehow excludes that a priori.

    Like

  4. I’m not sure I go as far as Smolin. But what makes you and Alan so sure that there ought to be an underlying law describing such change, if it occurs?

    What else would you assume? Complete randomness (instead of partial as in QM)? What in hell would that mean? We just happen to be in a period of constant co-incidence that mimics time dependence?

    I do agree that since advent of relativity the meaning of ‘now’ has become murky…yet operationally it works…

    And all we are aware of is what are brains construct including time, space and colors. If you want to call that ‘illusion’ you can, but if it’s correlated with external reality that does not seem like the right world. Hardly anybody thinks we have direct perception of reality and if there’s somebody who does they are wrong.

    Grass is green https://goo.gl/ihIwRp

    Like

  5. Prof. Massimo,

    let me put the problem in this way: at the end of the 19th and at the begin of 20th century, any well-educated man could have study the major works of philosophy of that time, obtaining the required background to understand the develop of the discipline. Afterwards, the things has drastically changed: in contemporary philosophy, even to comprehend the situation of a limited sub-set of questions (for example, philosophy of language or ethics), an eventual reader should have to look up hundreds of article journals and extremely technical books, just to obtain a vague idea of what philosophers are doing now in that area.

    Undoubtedly, this shift has provoked some frustration in non-specialistic audience, which doesn’t understand it anymore and in some cases lose faith in it.

    Like

  6. Massimo, it would be the self referential angle, I’m thinking of, with hat tip to Gödel et al, and a hat tip to Hume on the problem of induction, which would actually really be a problem in this case. If physical constants are changing, we have no way of knowing if the change rate will be the same in the future, and therefore, at minimum, you couldn’t have any law about the constancy of change. So, self-referentialism on an informal logic level, if you will.

    Like

  7. Hi Arthur,

    I don’t know what that even means. Temperature is real enough (ouch) and it is emergent.

    Smolin isn’t denying that space is real. He’s just saying it is secondary to time. That it arose in time and it could potentially disappear again. Time is the only thing that is fixed, and time being fixed means that nothing else can be. Which I think is a bizarre view.

    That’s just the definition of a pentagon.

    And all of mathematics is like this. It’s just definitions and analysis of definitions. Which to Smolin means we should not be too attached to it or mistake it for something that can really capture all that is important about physical reality.

    The confusion seems just verbiage to me.

    I agree that the confusion is just verbiage when it’s block-timists arguing with presentists, even when the participants in the argument believe themselves to have a substantial disagreement. But Smolin is no mere presentist. His whole thesis is making radical claims that build on a presentist intolerance for the 4D block time view.

    Like

  8. Alesso,

    You are considering two separate issues; Whether it is possible for a well educated person to grasp the basic outlines of human knowledge, as well as whether professional philosophy is trying to provide a general audience with some grasp of the world around us.
    To offer a few thoughts on the matter, first and foremost, we exist at a particular moment in human history and evolution, so that provides some initial focus.
    Obviously there has been an exponential explosion of information being gathered and views formulated around it. To the extent this is an aspect of some meta process, there will be some process of distillation, as theoretical possibilities coalesce into more stable views. So, if the cycle holds, some greater clarity will emerge, but this is part of the process of climbing toward that mountain top.
    As for the general audience, there are a great deal of social and economic issues, that many average people feel those in positions of power are not exactly being up front about and higher education seems to find itself in particular sections of that political dynamic. This too is an issue which will play out over time.

    Like

  9. Should anything like this be true, it would of course be logically impossible to formulate an underlying law about change itself.

    Just so. I said something similar a while back…

    Like

  10. Not sure that it would be logically impossible to arrive at meta-laws. Just very very difficult. But I’m interested in the reasoning that somehow excludes that a priori.

    Why would you want to exclude that a priori? General relativity replaced Newtonian gravity because Newton was inadequate. If the gravitational constant is found to vary with time (Dirac), one would have to replace or extend GR.

    Like

  11. Hi Massimo,

    But what makes you and Alan so sure that there ought to be an underlying law describing such change, if it occurs?`

    What is a law? It’s just a description of how something happens. If something happens, then there has to be some sort of way that it happens.

    I can think of two ways to describe how something happens. You can describe a mechanism by which it happens if it is built out of parts (e.g. the metabolism of a cell), or you can give a law if it is isn’t built on top of some other mechanism but is elementary (e.g. the fundamental laws of physics, whatever they are). Sometimes you can provide both kinds of explanations if a non-elementary system behaves in an orderly fashion — e.g. the gas laws describe the system of a gas composed of particles.

    Unless I’m missing something, the only time you can say there is no law to describe how something happens is when it is a complex system built out of too many moving parts to capture in a law, e.g. human history or the process of composing a poem. Unless Smolin is positing an infinite regress of levels built on levels all the way down forever, you have to hit the bedrock of physical law at some point.

    So to say there is no law to describe this change is to my ears the same as saying that something happens but not in any particular way. It just happens. Stop asking questions, dammit! It’s hand-waving at best and straight out incoherent at worst. Even entirely random processes can be characterised by a fixed mathematical description (e.g. a probability distribution).

    I’m totally OK with the idea that the apparent laws of physics might change, and possibly in ways too slow and complex for us to ever grasp or understand, but I cannot accept that there is no ultimate set of fixed laws to describe such change if it occurs, however unknowable those laws might be in practice. I cannot accept that there is anything in nature that happens but not in any particular way. I can’t conceive of how to make sense of such an idea. It smacks of the supernatural or mysterianism.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Synred,

    “What else would you assume? Complete randomness (instead of partial as in QM)?”

    Not sure, I wouldn’t assume anything. Laws of nature are just empirical generalizations, there is no logical guarantee that they are constant.

    “it would of course be logically impossible to formulate an underlying law about change itself.

    Just so. I said something similar a while back…”

    But why? Meta-laws are definitely a logical possibility, no matter how unlikely, or difficult to discover.

    “But I’m interested in the reasoning that somehow excludes that a priori.

    Why would you want to exclude that a priori?”

    I didn’t. I think DM and Alan did.

    DM,

    “What is a law? It’s just a description of how something happens”

    No, it’s an assumption that something always happen, regardless of place and time. That’s much stronger than your definition.

    Alessio,

    “Undoubtedly, this shift has provoked some frustration in non-specialistic audience, which doesn’t understand it anymore and in some cases lose faith in it.”

    Agreed. But the very same thing is true for every other academic field. And I don’t see people complaining about that…

    Like

  13. Hello Massimo,

    On the issue of the specialization of phylosophy, I remembered one of your talks with Dan about Sellars. There you argued that philosophers should have a ‘stereoscopic’ vision, including both the scientific and the manifest images. How do you think this specialization affects this ‘stereoscopic’ vision? Also, this specialization wouldn’t lead to more ‘chmess’ being done? (not just in philosophy, but since this was the focus of the OP)

    Like

  14. Hi Massimo,

    I didn’t. I think DM and Alan did.

    Exclude what? Meta-laws? No, I have no problem with meta-laws. If there are meta-laws, then the meta-laws are just the fundamental laws and the laws as we know them are local approximations.

    I’m not saying the laws as we know them are fixed. I’m saying there have to be fixed laws at some level. So, if there are meta-laws, that’s fine, but the meta-laws have to be fixed (or else there are fixed meta-meta-laws, or meta-meta-meta-laws, or …). Either there is an infinite regress, or there are fixed laws at some level.

    No, it’s an assumption that something always happen, regardless of place and time. That’s much stronger than your definition.

    One can define laws in different ways. I don’t think that really gets to my point though. You seem to be ignoring everything I said just to split a hair.

    If we take that strongest definition of law, everything I said still holds. I just say instead — what is a law? just a description of how something always happens, regardless of place and time. Strengthening that point does nothing to change my argument.

    I think there do have to be fixed laws of physics that are fixed regardless of time and place. But I would never take it for granted that any of the “laws” in our physics textbooks is such a law. I don’t think we can ever know whether a “law” known to man is a fundamental law or merely an effective “law”.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Massimo, to give a more specific example to my previous comment and to riff on Hume’s comment about “just going to sleep” when asked about the problem of induction and the sun’s rise —

    We “know” the sun rises in the east. We also know that the earth’s rotation is continuing to slow. Let’s say, though, that we discover that the rate of change is non-constant in an irregular way that can not be formalized by arithmetic or geometric sequences, etc. etc. …

    In that case, you can’t plot its change. Now, extrapolate from that to a physical law of the universe.

    Like

  16. Fernando,

    “How do you think this specialization affects this ‘stereoscopic’ vision? Also, this specialization wouldn’t lead to more ‘chmess’ being done?”

    I keep publishing technical papers, which are not really accessible to the general public, and yet keep a stereoscopic vision. I don’t see the problem. Yes, there is the danger of more chmess. But what’s the alternative? No specialization? That would mean no progress.

    DM,

    “You seem to be ignoring everything I said just to split a hair.”

    C’mon, man, I have time to address a fraction of what you guys write. I saw something that was highly questionable, I commented on it. It’s up to you to counter-comment, possibly without complaining about how I don’t spend enough time on every aspect of your arguments. I do this for free, as you know.

    “I think there do have to be fixed laws of physics that are fixed regardless of time and place”

    Again, why?

    Socratic,

    “In that case, you can’t plot its change”

    Why? Never heard of second or higher order functions?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. We “know” the sun rises in the east. We also know that the earth’s rotation is continuing to slow. Let’s say, though, that we discover that the rate of change is non-constant in an irregular way that can not be formalized by arithmetic or geometric sequences, etc. etc.

    The are small (unmeasurable) QM variations in such a rate and pretty much everything. That is not the laws of physics changing, but the laws of physics operating.

    If we are a simulation then the programmers could just tweak a constant in the debugger, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over the possibility.

    Like

  18. “I think there do have to be fixed laws of physics that are fixed regardless of time and place”
    Again, why?

    In GR the very existence of space-time depends on the laws of physics. We might have ’em a bit wrong, but they work pretty well. There is and likely always be a difference between the laws of physics and our current best understanding.

    Like

  19. Hi Massimo

    “Again, why?”

    I thought the reasons DM gave were pretty good.

    Like

  20. Massimo, I just mentioned basic arithmetical and geometrical sequences as an “everyday” sampling. My implication was that the randomness would be of a nature that it would be …. random! Not even higher-order functionally modelable.

    Like

  21. Hi Massimo,

    I don’t mind you correcting me on a point. I don’t mind you not answering my points. But the way you did it seemed like perhaps you thought that one point invalidated the rest of my argument. Perhaps you didn’t intend it that way, in which case never mind.

    Again, why?

    For the reasons I explained in my last comment. Because if there are no fixed laws at some level, then the effective laws we see evolve without there being any characteristic way or mechanism behind how they evolve.

    That, to me, is the essence of supernaturalism. It seems to me that the only thing that really unites the various forms of the supernatural (clairvoyance, God, fairytale witchcraft) is a claim that something happens or exists while the mechanism by which it works or how it came to be is waved away or outright denied (and so here I would draw a distinction between supernatural magical creatures such as the gorgon and natural creatures which happen not to exist such as The Loch Ness monster). It’s not only that we don’t know how the supernatural works, it’s the attitude or implication that such questions are beside the point or meaningless or unknowable. For instance, nobody asks how God is supposed to think if He doesn’t have neurons. The very idea that there could be some mechanism or algorithm by which God’s thought processes work is anathema to the concept of God. He is irreducibly mysterious — that mystery is a part of the concept. If we could study God and find out how he worked, then He wouldn’t be God, he would just be an omnipotent natural being who created the universe. Similarly, if we found a subspecies of horse on a remote island that had a single horn, it wouldn’t really be a unicorn if it were just an otherwise ordinary animal.

    The idea that the laws change, but that there is no mechanism by which the laws change, nothing that can ultimately be grounded in fundamental physical law, seems to be just the same sort of idea. It’s the embracing irreducible mystery. It’s not so much that I’m sure that Smolin is wrong (all though I’m pretty confident he is), it’s more that I cannot understand how this claim is supposed to make sense. Perhaps if it could be better explained I might accept it as a possibility, but right now I reject it for the same reason that I reject the supernatural, because something that works without there being a mechanism or law to describe how it works is an idea that seems incoherent to me.

    Like

  22. Prof. Massimo,

    maybe people regret about the current trend in philosophy because they expect a different purpose of what a philosopher must do: eventually, giving justice to what we know in relation to our sensibility as humans (I borrow the expression from Hao Wang), furthermore a much more interest in pratical issues, regarding their existence — namely, your attempt to discover the Stoicism as a way of life or Peter Singer’s work in bioethics and animals’ rights.

    Like

  23. DM wrote:

    I can think of two ways to describe how something happens. You can describe a mechanism by which it happens if it is built out of parts (e.g. the metabolism of a cell), or you can give a law if it is isn’t built on top of some other mechanism but is elementary (e.g. the fundamental laws of physics, whatever they are).

    = = =

    Here’s something that happened today. I called a childhood friend, who lives in LA.

    Other things that happened today: I drank a coffee; walked my dog; played Mass Effect 2; went to the grocery store; cooked dinner.

    I could describe each thing that happened pretty intricately, without once “describing a mechanism” or “giving a law.”

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Massimo

    I think Ladyman and you definitely have a point, I also happen to think Voltaire makes a point as well though:

    “What harm can a book do that costs a hundred crowns? Twenty volumes folio will never make a revolution; it is the little pocket pamphlets of thirty sous that are to be feared.” – Voltaire

    I often wonder if a lot of specialized philosophy actually “IS” causing progress, in the larger sense. I mean what is ultimately the point of so much written in political philosophy & social sciences in contrast to published books such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense & Chomsky’s Recorded Interviews? And how much did it matter what Marx has written in his 3 volumes of Capital in contrast to his Communist Manifesto?

    I mean I’m quite sure a lot of academics don’t have expectation in become famous & influential and are just satisfied that a smaller group of people appreciates their work and that’s fine. But I think when people become engaged in ideas and spend their lifetime studying something, it’s because they care about the bigger picture.

    I dislike Richard Dawkins’ New Atheist material, but he did reach a lot of people who were struggling with the question of religion. I wonder if he was doing something right that a lot of atheist philosophers were not, other than good PR.

    Like

  25. Robin, DM,

    I simply see no reason to buy into DM’s arguments, pretty much for the reasons laid out by Dan. All other sciences outside of fundamental physics do without laws, and yet function perfectly fine. The very idea of “law” of nature is an anomaly within science, and it may turn out to be incorrect, as Smolin suggests. An illusion caused by the fact that certain things change too slowly for us to appreciate.

    Socratic,

    conversely, yes, of course, if things happen at random then there isn’t going to be any meta-description. But why randomly? The things Dan described aren’t happening randomly, nor is a vast number of phenomena described by non-fundamental science. We can arrive at generalizations and statistical predictions without laws.

    Alessio,

    “your attempt to discover the Stoicism as a way of life or Peter Singer’s work in bioethics and animals’ rights.”

    But, again, I also publish technical papers that are incomprehensible to the public. Technical philosophy is not incompatible with public philosophy. They are two different kinds of activities. Some people can and do engage in both, some in only one.

    Which brings me, Saphsin, to the example of Dawkins. He hasn’t published in the technical literature (with the exception of very few, short commentaries) since The Selfish Gene. He is not a scientist, he is a science popularizer. Same goes for deGrasse Tyson, for instance. Which is fine.

    So there are people who do only popularizing (in philosophy, Baggini, Warburton, and others); some who do only research (Ladyman, almost everyone else); and some who do both (me, Singer, others). Don’t see the problem.

    Liked by 2 people

%d bloggers like this: