Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 135

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

Why some scientists say physics has gone off the rails.

Sources of error: the illusory illusions of reductionism.

Does honor matter? A critique.

Why professors distrust beauty.

The defeat of reason. Two new books on physics and philosophy of science during the 20th century.


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. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

89 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 135

  1. brodix


    One thought to consider is the larger circularity. Is the chicken emergent from the egg, or the egg from the chicken?

    We think of complexity as emergent from simplicity, but for nature it is a bit of a cycle, as when complexity gets unstable, it resets/crashes back to a more stable level, yet that less complex stage is a product of and thus emergent from the prior complexity.

    I admit to being a big bang skeptic, but even if we assume the entire universe is a process of increasing complexity and emergence, what larger dynamic would be creating it and other, potential universes, given cosmology has come to the assumption that if this is a distinct process, there must be others?

    Which gets back to my point about time. Think in terms of a factory, the product goes start to finish, while the process/production line faces the other directions, consuming material and expelling product.

    Individual lives and species are the same relationship, as individuals go from birth to death, being in the future to being in the past, while the species moves onto the next generation, shedding the old, past to future.

    Thought and consciousness are the same, as thoughts come into being and fade, while consciousness moves onto the next.

    So even a big bang universe would be a unit going from start to finish, in some further dynamic.

    The other requirement for emergence is space. Having a niche available to grow. When the environment is stable, the tendency is to grow by using every resource, option and efficiency, which selects for specialization and increasing complexity, but sets the stage for a reset, as rigid structures clash with shifting resources.

    Yes, there is order on the microscopic level and we assume reality is emergent from that, but there is also order on the cosmic level and that provides the background. Both of which are elemental. Between them we have these essentially thermodynamic processes of cycling expansion and consolidation.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Allocation of resources: I have no sense of how much we spend on supporting string theorists

    I don’t have numbers at hand, but my colleagues tells me that it is a lot. While there certainly are more frivolous ventures, the comparison has to be within fundamental physics, where string theorists have dominated faculty positions, grant panels, and admission of graduate students for decades.

    I don’t have a good sense of what benefits there would be in declaring string theory “not” physics

    It would lead to a serious rethinking within the fundamental physics community about both the nature of the discipline and the allocation of resources. Not a bad outcome, in my mind.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    But what does ‘reducible’ mean in that sense?

    You said it yourself: the production of theoretical bridges so that a higher level theory can be expressed in languge proper to a lower level theory.


  4. Philosopher Eric

    On trying to dig your way out of a hole, I know exactly what you’re talking about. We see that sort of thing it all the time. But with me have you noticed that it’s commonly “one and done”? I say my piece, drop my mike, and…

    Keep watching. There are more points still to my game that I think you could use.


  5. Robin Herbert


    You said it yourself: the production of theoretical bridges so that a higher level theory can be expressed in languge proper to a lower level theory.

    Yes, and in this sense some quite trivial behaviour is irreducible. Even the cooling behaviour in my model is irreducible in this sense.

    But you were suggesting that they might still be reducible in another sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. synred

    Thermodynamics is ‘reducible’ in the sense that the laws of particle physics, applied to certain conditions (lots of interacting particles) will produce thermodynamic behavior.

    We need new concepts not contained in the particle physics to understand how thermodynamic behavior emerges. I would say these concepts are as fundamental as the underlying particle concepts.

    Basic observables like pressure and temperature are not defined at the particle level. They are averges.


  7. Massimo Post author


    But you were suggesting that they might still be reducible in another sense.

    As I said before, there are two sense: the epistemic (trivial, as you say) and the metaphysic. The latter is usettled, as far as I can tell, with the majority of philosophers and scientists, however, going for reduction.


  8. synred

    Theory as whole does not cost much. This is an argument among theorist – but they are arguing over scraps. It’s us experimentalist who currently have to measure the cost of our next generation machines in units of ‘aircraft carriers’.

    The trouble with theory is there is only a handful of theorist we really need, but we don’t know which ones they are. Even age is not a reliable measure – Einstein’s later errors, contributed more to Quantum Mechanics than many others who didn’t make these mistakes.

    String theory should not be stopped, but a little more room for other approaches needs to be made.


  9. SocraticGadfly

    Sergio, thanks for the second reply. I don’t think accepting limits to human knowledge, including accepting that some of these limits are permanent and part of the infrastructure of the universe, are mysterian.

    I know Einstein was in part rebelling against that when he rejected Copenhagen’s “complementary” take on QM, as well as rebelling against Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle behind it.

    I personally can accept Heisenberg, with the idea that this is a fundamental graininess to the universe, without accepting Bohr. Of course, ultimately, such quasi-realist stances appear to lead down the road of non-locality, which Einstein ALSO rejected. And, at some point, I think one must say that this is an issue within Einstein’s psyche.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jesper Valgreen


    Maybe not making stuff up. But it does seem to me as though he’s skipping a beat or two. In particular, how Bohr and Einstein alike were influenced by, not logical positivism, but the original positivism of Comte and Mach, with Comte at least, as I recall, explicitly anti-Kantian.
    I think I see in the Copenhagen Interpretation something of a parallel to Comte’s invective against Kantian things-in-themselves; but I don’t know enough about this to say anything confidently. But this whole mess of ‘observation’ in QM certainly comes from appropriating a term that may have made sense in the original, without pausing to clarify what it might mean in physical terms

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Jesper Valgreen


    Also; a “powerful narrative”? Well, storytelling is a field that comes with its own constraints, such as, say, a cast of heroes and villains. There are ways to counter this, and good authors do. But maybe the job of philosophers is not to tell stories? Maybe the job of philosophers is to play obstruction to powerful narratives, especially the ones that involve real people cast as heroes and villains?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jesper Valgreen


    If string theory were to come up with a breakthrough tomorrow… Then, yes, of course that would be physics. But I gave you my reasons for not thinking at all likely. Given the absolutely mind-boggling hugeness of the string ‘landscape’, if one was genuinely concerned about procuring something definite about this universe, it seems to me that the very first item on one’s agenda should be to find some way to radically pare that landscape down into something that could actually accomplish that.
    As for the pressure to publish, yes it does seem evident that this is distorting every field. But that, I think, is part of a wider trend, where absolutely everything has to incessantly justify itself in terms dictated by the global, neoliberal economy. And it doesn’t even seem to matter whether there’s any substance to this justification, only whether it works as propaganda…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. brodix


    I, on the other hand, am willing to make more of a pest of myself. Not to the point of totally banging my head on the wall, but occasional chiseling away at it.

    If you will, consider a point I keep making: Is the basis of time the sequence of events, which physics treats as measures of duration, totally ignoring that what is being measured, action in this case, is presumably more elemental than the units of measurement derived. Or is it a constantly changing state, where events are configurations that arise and dissolve?

    While I get totally ignored making this point, no one refutes it. So if physics and those presumably interested by it, can’t see fit to consider something so basic, it does seem the only alternative will be to just keep digging.


    “Basic observables like pressure and temperature are not defined at the particle level.”

    They are measurements, of activity related to volume, which is a more complete concept of space than just distance. Three dimensions versus one. Meanwhile duration is a measure related to sequence of action, aka frequency. Yet it gets treated as pretty fundamental. Couldn’t we use ideal gas laws to create a pressurespace, or temperaturespace, similar to how spacetime is derived from measures of distance and duration?

    Temperature and pressure are as fundamental to our experience of reality as time. It’s just that they are only foundational to our emotions, physical processes, environment, etc, not the sequencing of events that is the essence of our thought process, so we are, presumably, more objective about them.


    “Maybe the job of philosophers is to play obstruction to powerful narratives,”

    Good luck throwing a monkey wrench into current narrative. It has way too much momentum. Any philosophy given stature is just to keep the galley slaves distracted. It will have tear itself apart.


  14. Jesper Valgreen

    Just to clarify: I’m obviously not a string theorist, but I have been, and maybe still am a bit of a fan. My critique comes, like that of every fan, from a place of love and frustration.
    I want Team String to play well, and I want Team String to play for the win. But now, instead of doing that, it seems they would rather try to pass a motion to the effect that ‘winning’ doesn’t actually mean what everyone thought it meant.


  15. Robin Herbert


    As I said before, there are two sense: the epistemic (trivial, as you say) and the metaphysic. The latter is usettled, as far as I can tell, with the majority of philosophers and scientists, however, going for reduction.

    And it is this latter sense that I am trying to understand.

    What does ‘reduction’ mean in this metaphysical sense? What is reducible to what and in what sense is it reducible?


  16. Massimo Post author


    What does ‘reduction’ mean in this metaphysical sense? What is reducible to what and in what sense is it reducible?

    I’m not sure how else to put it. It’s the same exact question, only from two perspectives. Is is possible to account for higher-level phenomena in terms of lower-level ones? Currently, as you said, no. But is this impossibility a result of human limitations (epistemic) or is it not possible in principle (metaphysics)?


  17. synred

    In the case of statistics needed for thermodynamics I’m not sure what to call it. With out statistics and large number effects existing they would be no thermodynamic effects. And they will and did happen whether we know about them or not.

    What does that make ’em?


  18. brodix

    Robin, Massimo,

    Sergio’s essay does make a valuable point. When we do try to distill out some “essence,” i.e. reductionism, we are left with the question of how the whole emerged from this essence, but the problem goes back to the original flaws in Plato’s essences. That they are not the whole in the first place and are subject to the frame deciding what is foundational. As synred points out, particles arise from fields. Yet what are “fields?” Yes, they are the energy from which the “particle” is derived and arises, but they are also context and there are the usual feedback loops, etc. One could argue the “field” from which reality arises is the universe and those quanta are just fluctuations in it. So the notion of higher orders emerging from lower orders might be more a function of our one track thinking, then the larger reality.

    As Sergio comments on his own blog;

    “reductionistic and simplistic? Yes.
    Studying the brain is like trying to understand how a modern car works, without knowing it needs fuel, having no key to ignite it, but armed with a hammer, a stethoscope and a voltmeter.
    You simply have no option: got to start with very basic stuff and build up from there.”


  19. Jesper Valgreen


    Yeah, but one can still try, one pesky little comment at a time…

    And speaking of; have you seen Carlo Rovelli’s ‘The Order of Time’?
    It’s that rarest of things; an accessible, non-technical treatise by an accomplished physicist who’s also conversant on Aristotle, Augustine, Scholastic conceptions of time, and Roman poetry – he will quote Horace at you. It’s effing brilliant, and I think you might like it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Robin Herbert

    So the idea is that, while there are no simple bridge laws, there might be really complicated bridge laws well beyond the capability of humans to understand?

    I would be interested in finding out why anyone would think that. To me it seems that there simply are no bridge laws, that the macro level behaviour depends upon some things that do not apply to the way individual particles behave and so a description of the behaviour of a part simply is not enough.

    Also I wonder why so many people think that the existence of irreducible principles would be magic, or like magic. It seems to me that there might be perfectly good physical reasons why there are some behaviours of the composite object that can’t be reduced to the behaviour of the parts.

    In my models I always have one red particle among the black, so that I can see how each individual particle behaves. Each individual particle is buffeted around in a random walk. At the higher level the behaviour is perfectly orderly and predictable.

    If someone is claiming that the causality in a system is exerted at the level of these things being buffeted around in a random walk and not at the level where it is orderly and predictable, well they would have to unpack that for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. brodix


    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve read reviews, but the internet has magnified my ADD. With all that is going on, on a daily basis, along with having to work 6 days a week, the information overload has killed my ability to consume entire books.

    That said, he still seems to be writing up the current spacetime model. Which I see as one last effort to explain the narrative effect, of which Newton’s “flow” is just an earlier model.

    If you consider time as simply an effect of change, the “flow” is future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns. Different clocks can run at different rates, while remaining in the same present, as do gps satellites, because they are separate actions. Every action is its own clock and every clock is a distinct action. Biologists understand this very well, as the body is composed of innumerable body clocks, that are constantly having to synchronize. Think metabolic rates.
    The simultaneity of the present was dismissed by pointing out different events will be observed in different order, from different locations, but that is no more consequential than seeing the moon as it was a moment ago, simultaneous with seeing stars as they were years ago. It’s the energy being conserved, not the information carried by it.
    Meanwhile the block time model can’t explain why time is even asymmetric. Yet if it is simply a measure of action, action is inertial. The earth turns one direction, not both.
    Not to mention it completely dismisses the present as subjective perspective, yet it is this dynamic of the present doing all the determination of what occurs. As Alan Watts observed, the wake doesn’t steer the boat, the boat creates the wake.

    As for trying to monkey wrench the system, here is an essay I wrote on the subject;

    View at

    Mostly ideas I’ve tried running through here, but compressed.


  22. Robin Herbert


    If you had a mechanical implementation of a Turing Machine running Eratosthanes’ Sieve and you had no idea what it did, then you might still have no recourse but to start at the bottom level and work your way up.

    You might be able to puzzle out what it does, but once you had you would realise that the lower level stuff was more or less irrelevant to the principle at work and that the same principle could have operated on a number of completely different substrates, even in an universe where the physics was completely different from our own.

    Would the macro level behaviour of the TM running Eratosthanes’ Sieve then be considered emergent behaviour?


  23. Robin Herbert

    There appear to be plenty of scientists and philosophers who say that if facts about our decision processes can be reduced to facts about fundamental physics then this has public policy implications. Saying something has public policy implications takes it out of the abstract and the academic and makes it imperative that “reducible” means something definite.

    Going by Mark Bedau’s definition, something is weakly emergent if there is no direct derivation but the macro behaviour can – at least in principle – be derived by way of a simulation from the micro level behaviour.

    The implied definition of “reducible” there appears to be that the macro behaviour can be produced from the micro behaviour, at least in principle by a simulation.

    Well, OK, but I am expressing my skepticism that the behaviour of human decision making can be produced, even in principle, by a simulation of any lower level process. I could give reasons for that skepticism, but really it is up to those who claim that it can to make the case.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Massimo Post author


    To me it seems that there simply are no bridge laws, that the macro level behaviour depends upon some things that do not apply to the way individual particles behave and so a description of the behaviour of a part simply is not enough.

    That’s the strong emergence position, which I sympathize with, but which seems to be by far a minoritian opinion (among philosophers and fundamental physicists, few biologists doubt the existence of strong emergence, downward causation, and the like). The main argument being that anything like that invokes something spooky or magical, since it’s quarks (or whatever) all the way down.

    And yet, even the laws of physics themselves must be emerging from causal interactions, they are not, presumably, Platonic ideals. So, it’s an interesting discussion, and I remain open to being convinced one way or the other.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Robin Herbert

    Let me give an example of what I am talking about…

    Now I am totally in favour of non-retributive punishment and think that this has nothing to do with any metaphysical or scientific theory about our volition.

    But it will become harder to advocate for this position if it becomes linked to some unpopular metaphysical position.

    If that position turns out also not to be defendable then it becomes disastrous.


  26. Sergio Graziosi

    Another semi-collective reply, hurried as always…
    I think this discussion suggests I didn’t manage to achieve the effect I was aiming for (in my OP) – so I’ll try again here.
    If, as I believe, any approach to understand reality comes with its own blind-spots, then, in the case of reductionism (as a method!), emergence is one of them. The existence of emergence is a consequence of how reductionist methodology works; moreover, the distinction between strong and wheak emergence (which was not interesting to me at the time of writing) is not something we can explore/clarify with reductionist methods.

    The other aim was the “illusionary illusions” that the method produces: no one would think the alarm clock doesn’t really exist only because we can disassemble its internal mechanisms, so why should we believe that our sense of agency, or our sense of self (etc) don’t exist, if we find ways to explore (and dissect) their internal mechansism? It’s because we don’t understand that reductionist methods, for all their astonishing effectiveness, also have their own epistemic cost. In what ways are springs and cogs “more fundamental” than the assembled clock itself?

    The other effect of this line of reasoning is that reductionism as a methaphisical position (not a method!), understood as the idea that there is no strong emergence, is dubious at best, but more importantly, should be understood as irredimably self-referential: it exists because it ignores the fact that “emergence” is a side effect of reduction as a method.
    I think this means that I’m still not very interested in resolving this particular conundrum: does strong emergence really exist? I don’t know and I don’t think we should care. Reductionist methods work extremely well in an extremely wide range of domains. That’s good, let’s use them and let’s use them while remembering that they come with their own limitations.

    Small asides:
    Brodix – I confirm the reading suggestion. Rovelli is worth your time. I have planned a post on time and time perception starting from an information theory perspective. Hopefully I’ll find the time to write it soon. Precursor is here (about information).
    You also seem to link reduction to essentialism. That’s understandable, but I find myself to be fiercely anti-essentialist while also fully convinced that reductionist methods work well and should not be frowned upon (with the caveats above).

    Robin, on policy consequences: if I’m right, this means we should be really extremely cautious before accepting the argument that “no strong emergence justifies/requires radical policy changes”. For me, the scientists and philosophers who jump to this conclusion show that they have little understanding of the inherent limits of reduction (as a method) and therefore I find their argument not convincing (does not meant it’s wrong!). It’s one reason why I’m so happy this discussion is happening: if I’m right, my argument should be discussed / considered in wider circles…

    Liked by 2 people

  27. davidlduffy

    I have previously pointed to Arto Annila on emergence in physics, I think – see his website. I must mention an excellent article citing Annila

    “A Possible Ethical Imperative Based on the Entropy Law”

    “Stating this in the form of a Thermodynamical Imperative, we have
    TI.1. One ought to do things, in so far as possible, in such ways that the production of entropy is minimized.
    TI.2. We ought to do things, in so far as possible, in such ways that the consumption of entropy is maximized (Lindsay 1959).”


  28. brodix


    That is a bit of a medium versus message dichotomy. I see the problems and issues of reductionism and emergence somewhat differently. More along the lines of Sergio’s point, but with some added observations.
    For instance, our reductionism functions a bit like distillation, so we seek out the most stable components and structures and assume they, as “math,” are foundational. It would be like boiling water down to the little bit of calcification and calling that concentrated water. Or a body down to the bones and trying to figure out how it arose.
    Among the various physics issues I have problems with, is one I haven’t brought up here much. That space gets dismissed as an artifact of geometry, rather than geometry a modeling of space. If we eliminated all material and physical properties from space, it would still have the non-physical qualities of infinity and equilibrium. Infinity because it is unbounded and not actually emergent from infinite dimensionless points. While equilibrium seems implicit in SR, in that the frame with the fastest clock and longest ruler would be closest to the underlaying, unmoved equilibrium of space. So then if we consider this infinite equilibrium as the basis of quantum mechanics, as well as cosmology, infinity and an absolute equilibrium would be the bounds between which reality functions. Light expanding to infinity, or at least the stage it loses sufficient energy, while mass coalesces toward equilibrium. Thus the most prominent feature of the universe are galaxies, storms of expanding radiation and coalescing mass. This provides both the bottom up energy and the top down structure.
    Whether you agree with the concept, I still think it reasonable to see space as the underlaying premise of fields, while particles are the hard little bones we extract from them.
    We are very object and matter oriented, because it is what we can mentally and physically grasp.
    Consequently we spend our time trying to figure out how reality springs from the bones, rather than from the soil and seeds(cycles)
    A bit rambling, but off to work…


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