Sunday, June 16, 2019

Apologies to Maudlin

In my last post I complained about the philosophers George Ellis recommended in Sabine Hossenfelder's book. Further research reveals that I was wrong. I have to retract my complaint, at least in the case of Tim Maudlin. I'm happy to report that Maudlin appears to have a healthy respect for Aristotle. Further, the latter part of his paper on substances and space-time is written in the style of Thomas Aquinas's replies to objections in the Summa.

Maudlin also has a very good paper on unification in physics from which I think Hossenfelder and Smolin would profit. He asks what unification means and sets out some limitations of what we can reasonably expect from unification efforts.

A young theorist friend of mine points out that people largely aren't working on grand unification schemes these days (viz., GUTs, TOEs) and that the figures interviewed in Hossenfelder's book who are working on unification are either older or somewhat marginal. (Admittedly he wasn't familiar with some of the names.) It strikes me that the people who are most concerned with unification are people like Hossenfelder and Smolin who write books on what's wrong with unification efforts. But what they really need to consider is that the possibility that unification of physics isn't possible within physics as we understand it today, but through philosophy, that is, natural philosophy (in other words, by also bringing in some methodologies more typically characteristic of metaphysics). (I wonder if Ellis was hinting in that direction.)

Discovering truth is unification, at very least bringing together reality and the mind, but also often finding commonalities in previously separate insights. The over-all tendency of a truth-discovering activity like philosophy is to unify seemingly unrelated parts of and thoughts about the universe.

Tim Maudlin 1990 "Substances and Space-time: What Aristotle Would Have Said to Einstein," Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 21:4, 531-561.

Tim Maudlin 1996 "On the Unification of Physics," The Journal of Philosophy, 129-144.

Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Lost in Math

I recently read Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math and recommend it. The backbone of the text is a series of interviews with fellow theoretical physicists, punctuated by the author's own typically gimlet observations and reflections. I don't intend to review the book here, but merely to provide a few highlights.

Some of the people interviewed:

  • Nima Arkani-Hamed
  • Steven Weinberg
  • Chad Orzel
  • Frank Wilczek
  • Garrett Lisi
  • Joseph Polchinski
  • Xiao-Gang Wen
  • Katherine "Astrokatie" Mack
  • George Ellis

Hossenfelder's thesis is that the dearth of data in high-energy physics over the past few decades has left theorists with little guidance, so they end up selecting among the many possible theories using criteria spun largely out of thin air. "Beauty" is how many refer to that inarticulate quality that supposedly characterizes a good theory. Hossenfelder particularly takes issue with "naturalness": the idea that dimensionless constants in physics should have a value of order of magnitude 1. Simplicity, elegance, and symmetry are other criteria.

Chapter 2's catalog of where "beauty" has failed physics should be required reading for aspiring theorists. A primal example is Kepler's inscribing the planetary orbits in the Platonic solids; she also cites Galileo's preference for circular orbits over elliptical. Here's a choice line:

The historian Helge Kragh concluded his biography of Dirac with the observation that "after 1935 [Dirac] largely failed to produce physics of lasting value. It is not irrelevant to point out that the principle of mathematical beauty governed his thinking only during the later period." (p. 21)

In chapter 5, she names the types of proposed multiverses: Eternal Inflation, String Theory Landscape, Many Worlds, and The Mathematical Universe. All of these seek to avoid fixing the values of mathematical parameters in theories by positing that every value of every parameter is actualized somewhere or in some way. The weakness of the justification for such theories becomes evident when she undermines the uniqueness of the present need for them: "Since every theory requires observational input to fix parameters or pick axioms, every theory leads to a multiverse when it lacks input" (106). Throughout all of physics we could have speculated about a multiverse, but we didn't.

She talks with Steven Weinberg at length. The most interesting part was this remark on quantum foundations:

If you had a theory that said that, well, particles move around and there's a certain probability that it will go here or there or the other place, I could live with that. What I don't like about quantum mechanics is that it's a formalism for calculating probabilities that human beings get when they make certain interventions in nature that we call experiments. And a theory should not refer to human beings in its postulates. You would like to understand macroscopic things like experimental apparatuses and human beings in terms of the underlying theory. You don't want to see them brought in on the level of axioms of the theory. (124)

Aristotle's dictum that form precedes matter makes perfect sense of this irreducibility. The truth of two facts is no mere coincidence: that Weinberg doesn't understand this aspect of quantum theory and that he would be one of the last people to admit that Aristotle had anything meaningful to say about the world.

I typically find George Ellis insightful, and Hossenfelder's interview with him does not disappoint. He's especially good in observing how atheists' baseless claim that science disproves the existence of God actually contributes mightily to undermining the authority of science (214). The conversation also fruitfully turns to the value of philosophy, including this exchange:

"Yes—when we have an infinity appearing in a function, we assume it's not physical," I explain. "But there's no good mathematical reason why a theory should not have infinities. It's a philosophical requirement turned into a mathematical assumption. People talk about it but never write it down. That's why I say it gets lost in math. We use a lot of assumptions that are based on philosophy, but we don't pay attention to them."

"Correct," George says. "The problem is that physicists have been put off philosophy by a certain branch of philosophers who spout nonsense—the famous Sokal affair and all that. And there are philosophers who—from a scientific viewpoint—do talk nonsense. But nevertheless, when you are doing physics you always use philosophy as a background, and there are a lot of good philosophers—like Jeremy Butterfield and Tim Maudlin and David Albert—who are very sensible in terms of the relationship between science and philosophy. And one should form a good working relationship with them. Because they can help one see what are the foundations and what is the best way to frame the questions. (218)

Recognizing a value to philosophy is certainly a significant step, but does it go far enough? I have at best a passing familiarity with the work of the three philosophers named, but I daresay that they are the typical "safe" philosophers that physicists typically turn to, the kind that never question the central idea of modernity that philosophy has no meaningful access to the natural world except through "science." This kind is a far cry from recognizing that what we call physics today is actually a subset of a much larger field called natural philosophy, whose axioms are as certain and as immediately graspable as your presence in the place where you read this; which can draw on physics without being wholly dependent on it for data about the real world; and on which physics is wholly dependent if only implicitly. I would delight to be proven wrong about these three philosophers: please comment below with citations.

Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Big Screen Conventions

The big screen (not to mention the small screen) is not only a screen that presents the world, but it is also a screen that obscures the world. Below is a list of some prominent big-screen conventions that we need to see past to see the world rightly.

Bop on the head
It's a convenient way to get someone out of the way without killing him. By convention, the person comes to without any lasting damage. In reality, being knocked unconscious is a serious injuring, possibly accompanied by a concussion.
No helmet
The good don't wear helmets, at least ones that would obscure their faces. For example, in Lone Survivor (2013), the heroes repeatedly throw themselves down the side of a mountain to escape the Taliban forces pursuing them. Somehow their heads sustain no injuries, despite the lack of protective headgear. Why? Movies are a visual medium, and the audience has to be able to tell the protagonists apart, and seeing their faces also helps us to identify with them. What's also interesting is how often the bad guys are anonymized by wearing helmets, e.g., the Star Wars stormtroopers. That way we don't mind their being killed.
Sleeping around
Many modern romantic comedies and situation comedies have characters sleeping around. But no one gets pregnant or contracts a venereal disease. I suppose the reason is that if something like that happened, the movie would take on a deeper moral dimension and no longer be a (light) comedy. Of course, in a slasher film, the convention is exactly the opposite: the teen couple that transgresses this moral boundary is usually the first to suffer at the hands of the supernatural antagonist.
Anachronistic sexual morals
The characters in relationships portrayed as taking place in a previous age often hold assumptions about the nature of sexual intercourse that are manifestly characteristic of the modern, anything-goes age. For example, in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), the action takes place in 1939, but the characters in the love triangle at its center talk as if casual relations were nothing remarkable. The Amazon series Man in the High Castle (2015–) takes place in an alternative 1962, but two central characters, Frank and Juliana, live together unmarried, with no one around them making any special note of the fact. The assumption behind these anachronisms is that the upside-down situation that has prevailed since the advent of the Pill is how things have always been. At best, this is shorthand for allowing us moderns to identify with the characters of the past. At worst, it's a kind of cultural imperialism: the present conquering the past, notionally if not in fact, in order to justify itself.
Significant details
Any detail shown is significant to the story. In part, this is just a limitation of story-telling: there's only limited time to convey the action and make it understandable to the audience. But it has the potential to mislead. What's significant to our lives very often we only realize in retrospect, whereas any given detail of our day-to-day lives (e.g., an unexpected coincidence), is unlikely to have a tremendous significance to our life story.
The End is The End
Another story-telling convention. Stories are finite, they must end. But the end carries with it the implication that the character's state at the end is what prevails from that time on, "ever after." In reality, the only real end is death and the end of a story is the beginning of another story—or rather another point in the continuum of life. Episodes of The Twilight Zone have significant endings in this sense, though often the end conveys a notion of Justice that echoes that Final Judgement we all must face.

What are some other conventions? I'd be interested to hear in the comments.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Strange, New Things

I just saw the first episode of Oasis, an series based loosely on the 2014 novel by Michel Faber The Book Of Strange New Things. It's about a "priest" who travels to a far-distant planet in support of a human colonization effort. The premise of a Christian preacher in space is fascinating, though one could ask for a more robust presentation of Christianity.

In the first episode we see the protagonist, Peter Leigh, say goodbye to his wife dying of cancer. A later flashback shows her pushing the plunger for what we can only presume is her own medically assisted suicide. So it's little surprise that Peter is not even a C of E priest in a Roman collar, but an "ecumenical" pastor who, as he puts it, believes in the validity of all denominations. (I guess that pretty much amounts to the same thing.) The book is somewhat similar in the liberalism of Peter's Christianity: though there's no euthanasia, Peter apparently has no problem with contraception or masturbation.

From here, I'll be reflecting on the book as a whole, so there will be SPOILERS.

The plot of the book is pretty straight-forward. Peter signs up to be chaplain to the indigenous inhabitants of the new planet. It turns out they have a keen interest in Christianity. To get them to churn out the food-stuff the colonists need, they have to be kept happy with a preacher to instruct them in this new, fascinating religion.

The creatures are pretty much perfect targets for liberal Christianity, because they have no sins to be saved from. The part of Christianity that really interests them, we discover in the end, is the promise of eternal life. It turns out it's not even supernatural life that interests the aliens, but purely natural life: their bodies can't repair themselves. How in creation is it possible any of them have managed to survive to adulthood with such an incomplete metabolism? Mr. Faber should have studied some biology!

So, when an author has to contrive such an outlandish fictional species to make its interest in liberal Christianity plausible, is it any wonder that interest among very real humans in liberal Christianity is dying?

In the TV episode, the proceedings have to be drawn out to fill the episodes and create more interest. By the end of the pilot, we don't even know we're dealing with aliens yet, and there's more drama with the crew.

As I said, one could ask for a more substantial presentation of Christianity and its unique claims. The problem is that the World/"Hollywood" insists on portraying Christianity in its own image. But maybe we're supposed to take that as a compliment?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Secondary causation

Perhaps you're already familiar with the work of Jeremy Englund. A friend posted a link to this article on his work:

He has been described as the “next Charles Darwin,” and he is credited with a new theory of life based on physics.

Someone on the thread remarked that the first reporters to talk to him assumed he was an atheist because of the implications of his work, and were surprised to discover he was an Orthodox Jew. That's the thing about secondary causation: it can easily be read as an argument for or against God. Of course ultimately it leads to ultimate explanations.

Happy feast of St. Lawrence!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mamma Borg

I recently caught up with some episodes of Star Trek I hadn't seen before. Among these episodes were those of Voyager in which "Seven of Nine" first appears and then joins the the crew, and then when her (Borg) cortical implant starts to malfunction, endangering her life. Let me tell you why I found these episodes disappointing.

Anyone who has seen the show can tell you that Seven is a healthy specimen of womanhood. And it's more than clear why the people who run the show chose an actress with a good figure: ratings. But the question remains: in the context of the show's fiction, why would the Borg allow an assimilated organism to devote its metabolism to the development of such inefficient structures as large breasts and wide hips? They take up space, and wide hips are inefficient for running. And that's not to mention the way anatomical irregularities make the resultant drone hard to fit within the uniformity of the collective.

I can think of no reason. It's not as if Borg females need to gestate babies, give birth, or suckle infants. And even if they were to do so, a Caesarian section and smaller breasts would do the job well enough for the intervention-happy Borg.

In actuality, the Borg would be much more likely control the hormones of their drones to channel their metabolism to "necessary" structures, like bones and muscles, or at least amputate the breasts and remove the uterus. The resultant drone would be even more efficient and terrifying than what we see on screen now, and certainly much less viewer friendly.

And then there were the couple episodes in which Seven's cortical implant begins to malfunction. They had Tuvok, Torres, and Janeway all allowing themselves to be assimilated to acquire a new implant and then being rescued by Voyager and returned their natural state, apparently without any permanent damage of significance.1 It was all too easy. And after that there was an episode with "Borg children"—rescued on Voyager. Ugh.

The reason I found this all so disappointing is that all these developments soften the Borg and present them as less terrifying than they should be. The original genius of imagining this "race" (for lack of a better word) is that they are the major dark attractor toward which human development is in our very non-fictional world being drawn: completely anti-human and opposed to the ideals represented by the Federation and the Star Trek franchise itself. To soften or "nerf" them is to compromise the humanistic (dare I say "prophetic") witness of the show.

But of course, making such a statement about hormone blockers would hit far too close to home these days for many in the audience, at least now if not back in the day when the episodes were first aired. The simple truth is that the dominant culture of the developed world has, at present, set a course to turn mankind into the Borg.2

Huxley's Brave New World is far too cheery in imagining humanity will find contentment in its humanity, in the norms of its nature, to any recognizable extent. But as in that tale, the dystopia is far more likely to come about through the sum of individual choices than through imposition of a dictatorship through some 1984-style extrinsic power.3 Thanks to James Cameron and others, the popular notion of the post-human world portrays it as being initiated by newly intelligent machines; in reality machines will only trouble to take notice of and work against humans at the behest of other humans for the latter's peculiar gain. Thus has it always been that man's greatest enemy is man. Similarly it will not be the machines who turn the humans into machines, but the humans who dehumanize themselves. And I daresay it will be individual humans who will choose to dehumanize themselves, at least initially, before gaining enough strength to force that transformation onto others.

The people pushing for this future are "transhumanists," though this word has become associated in the popular press solely with the folks who want to "upload" our minds into computers, whatever that means. The dominant culture of Western modernity has no resources to oppose their core notion that man is really God and should have his power: because that notion is in fact at the heart of modernity. The only thing that can challenge their ideas is a spiritual power. In the West, the spiritual power is Christianity, which gave rise to it and imparted what strength it has, but in which the West has sadly lost all faith.

As I was finishing this post up, this review by Michael Gerson of Yuval Noah Harari's book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow came to my attention: "Humans reach for godhood — and leave their humanity behind." The review illustrates the crisis of belief in the West and how it leaves us powerless to oppose the coming storm.


1. One of the perils of watching TV episodes in syndication is their presentation is discontinuous and likely incomplete. If I'm wrong about this or any show detail, please let me know in the comments.

2. The original navigators were Bacon and Descartes.

3. In this discussion we're not considering "principalities and powers"

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Ascension in a Scientific Universe

The Catholic (universal and unified, as opposed to sectarian) confession of Christianity teaches that Jesus ascended into heaven. How is this belief tenable in a modern vision of the world, post-Copernicus, in which the heavens have been "dethroned"? Can there be any significance to rising into the sky if the sky has no significance? How are we to understand the Ascension in our modern scientific world?

John Henry Newman writes,

First, Christ's Ascension to the right hand of God is marvellous, because it is a sure token that heaven is a certain fixed place, and not a mere state. That bodily presence of the Saviour which the Apostles handled is not here; it is elsewhere,—it is in heaven.

He continues,

This contradicts the notions of cultivated and speculative minds, {208} and humbles the reason. Philosophy considers it more rational to suppose that Almighty God, as being a Spirit, is in every place; and in no one place more than another. It would teach, if it dare, that heaven is a mere state of blessedness; but, to be consistent, it ought to go on to deny, with the ancient heretics, referred to by St. John, that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh," and maintain that His presence on earth was a mere vision; for, certain it is, He who appeared on earth went up from the earth, and a cloud received Him out of His Apostles' sight. And here again an additional difficulty occurs, on minutely considering the subject. Whither did He go? beyond the sun? beyond the fixed stars? Did He traverse the immeasurable space which extends beyond them all? Again, what is meant by ascending? Philosophers will say there is no difference between down and up, as regards the sky; yet, whatever difficulties the word may occasion, we can hardly take upon us to decide that it is a mere popular expression, consistently with the reverence due to the Sacred Record.

And thus we are led on to consider, how different are the character and effect of the Scripture notices of the structure of the physical world, from those which philosophers deliver. I am not deciding whether or not the one and the other are reconcileable; I merely say their respective effect is different. And when we have deduced what we deduce by our reason from the study of visible nature, and then read what we read in His inspired word, and find the two apparently discordant, this is the feeling I think we ought to have on our {209} minds;—not an impatience to do what is beyond our powers, to weigh evidence, sum up, balance, decide, and reconcile, to arbitrate between the two voices of God,—but a sense of the utter nothingness of worms such as we are; of our plain and absolute incapacity to contemplate things as they really are; a perception of our emptiness, before the great Vision of God; of our "comeliness being turned into corruption, and our retaining no strength;" a conviction, that what is put before us, in nature or in grace, though true in such a full sense that we dare not tamper with it, yet is but an intimation useful for particular purposes, useful for practice, useful in its department, "until the day-break and the shadows flee away," useful in such a way that both the one and the other representation may at once be used, as two languages, as two separate approximations towards the Awful Unknown Truth, such as will not mislead us in their respective provinces. And thus while we use the language of science, without jealousy, for scientific purposes, we may confine it to these; and repel and reprove its upholders, should they attempt to exalt it and to "stretch it beyond its measure." In its own limited round it has its use, nay, may be made to fill a higher ministry, and stand as a proselyte under the shadow of the temple; but it must not dare profane the inner courts, in which the ladder of Angels is fixed for ever, reaching even to the Throne of God, and "Jesus standing on the right hand of God."

I will but remind you on this part of the subject, that our Lord is to come from heaven "in like manner" as He went; that He is to come "in clouds," that {210} "every eye shall see Him," and "all tribes of the earth wail because of Him." Attempt to solve this prediction, according to the received theories of science, and you will discover their shallowness. They are unequal to the depth of the problem.

Along similar lines, Pope Benedict writes:

The New Testament, from the Acts of the Apostles to the Letter to the Hebrews, describes the "place" to which the cloud took Jesus, using the language of Psalm 110:1, as sitting (or standing) at God's right hand. What does this mean? It does not refer to some distant cosmic space, where God has, as it were, set up his throne and given Jesus a place beside the throne. God is not in one space alongside other spaces. God is God—he is the premise and the ground of all the space there is, but he himself is not part of it. God stands in relation to all spaces as Lord and Creator. His presence is not spatial, but divine. "Sitting at God's right hand" means participating in this divine dominion over space.


Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the "Ascension": now, through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all—throughout history and in every place.

He is gone, but, now transcending time and space, he is still with us in a way that our science cannot fathom.


Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection (Ignatius Press, 2011), pp. 282-3, 284.

John Henry Newman, "Mysteries in Religion," Parochial and Plain Sermons 2:18, no. 1.