Sunday, June 3, 2018

Some summer reading on why often fail to understand one another

I just read a terrific review (here) of two books that deal with very large philosophical themes (meaning, truth, relativism, the aims of science etc.) that others might find amusing to look at. The review is by Tim Maudlin, a very very good philosopher, and it not only serves as an excellent advertisement for the two books under review (which sound tremendously amusing aside from being enlightening) but is well worth reading in itself. It's a paradigm of what a good review should be: it is engaging, informative, provocative and makes you want to read the originals.

The first part reviews a book by Adam Becker on quantum mechanics and some conundra that beset it. I like reading this kind of thing because it suggests that the problems that I see endemic to discussions in the mental sciences, is part of debate in the "real" sciences as well (at least if one takes quantum mechanics to be what a real successful science looks like (which I do)). The discussion reprises a debate between the heavy weights of 20th century science. One the one side we have Einstein and Schrodinger and on the other Bohr Heisenberg and the Copenhagen School. What Maudlin, following Becker, outlines is a kind of fruitless debate where those that "won - and would continue to win - all the logical battles" would nonetheless decisively loose the war of ideas (actually, Maudlin says "propaganda war" so the ideas war though lost was not seen to have been lost by most of the practitioners of the field) (p.9).

How won the battles and lost the war? Einstein. Who Lost the battles and won the war? Bohr. But what is striking in the telling is not the winners and losers, but Becker's and Maudlin's claim that this winning and loosing really had nothing to do with the substance of the debates because the winning side never really came to terms with the arguments of the loosing side. As Maudlin puts it (p.9):
Bohr never cam to grips with [Einstein's] argument. Indeed, it is unclear whether he ever understood it.
How could this be? In part because Einstein and Bohr had very different conceptions of then aims of scientific inquiry (Einstein shooting for explanation, Bohr for data coverage), which was in turn rooted in different conceptions of where the cognitive content of a theory comes from (the Positivist view that observational equivalence exhausts the whole content of "meaning" vs the rejection of this).  This made it very hard for those Einstein criticized to address his concerns seriously, which mean that they ended up addressing them non-seriously, if at all.

The remarkable feature of the story that Becker tells (a la Maudlin) is that Einstein's defeat came mainly by denigrating Einstein's powers in later life ("Einstein defeated, drifts into crank hood, never more doing significant physics" (10)) and by ignoring the arguments, and not just by happenstance but in as an organizing principle of "debate." The Oppenheimer quote  wrt David Bohm gives a taste for what opponents of the Copenhagen view were in for: "If we cannot disprove Bohm then we must agree to ignore him." So, in place of argument, there was propaganda and, it appears some concentrated efforts at suppression (and Bohm is not the only one ignored). All of this became institutionalized via the mis-education of future physicists. It seems that not only in the mental sciences are people sure that books and papers they have never read make claims that have never been made.

The themes Becker pursues are further investigated in the other book that Maudlin reviews by Errol Morris. Again issues of meaning lie at the heart of the discussion. I will leave it to you to take a look, but it sounds like a terrific read, albeit one that has some problems (see here for another review, also favorable, but more critical).

Summer vaca is the best perk of academic life. If you are lucky (and too many are not), you get several months to just think and work and rejuvenate yourself intellectually. Here are two books to promote thought and amusement. They will also help you appreciate, by looking at another domain that what look to be mere philosophical views cut deep. This does not mean that people with different views of "what counts" cannot argue with each other rationally. They can. But hey can, it appears, only get so far before the inevitable misunderstandings generated by their starting points clouds the relevant issues. When smart people really don't appear to be engaging intellectually, then you can bet that some tacit vital philosophical assumption is at issue, one that being tacit is not engaged and hence serves to stifle discussion. Should I now mention the Empiricism/Rationalism divide? Nah!

1 comment:

  1. I think TM's remarks on Kant are absurd, to put it mildly, although the review is otherwise great. There is no doubt that Kant influenced the obscurantism at issue, but just becuase he kinda infuenced everyone. Thomas Ryckman is excellent on the Kant-idealism-Einstein connection, with reference to QM and beyond, a connection Einstein himself spoke about. TM has some axe to grind here that has badly led him astray. Kant's problem in modern parlance was: how is it possible that creatures with our cognitive equipement can develop science and mathematics that is true of a world that appears not designed for us to know? TM presents Kant as some kind of idiot subjectivist-idealist, whereas his actual goal was to show how objective knowledge is possible for creatures like us.