Physics Vs. Philosophy: Really?

Reply Wed 2 May, 2012 10:18 am
Physics Vs. Philosophy: Really?
May 2, 2012
by Marcelo Gleiser - NPR

An unfortunate controversy has been unfolding the last few weeks over the relationship (or lack thereof) between physics and philosophy. Adam wrote about this yesterday, providing excellent context for the discussion.

What's all the fuss? Theoretical physicist, author and friend Lawrence Krauss has published a book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. In it, Krauss explains how modern physics has been inching toward an explanation to what is, perhaps, the hardest question we may ask: the origin of everything. It is the oldest of questions. Creation myths are an essential part of all cultures, being a rich topic of study for cultural anthropologists and historians of religion. They define the values and traditions of the cultures that create them. It's not only the Bible that starts with a creation event.

Philosopher of science David Albert wrote a scathing review of Krauss' book for The New York Times questioning his understanding of the meaning of "nothing." Briefly, Albert claims that physics presumes the existence of fundamental fields in order to define nothing. Hence, it's not really nothing, but something.

There always has to be something for science to make sense of it.

Krauss responded in a blog interview with The Atlantic in which he decried (as he did in his book, and Richard Feynman and Steven Weinberg before him) philosophy and theology as useless wastes of time. Of course, such radical dismissal of philosophy brought in bitter and justified criticism. A few days ago, Krauss wrote a measured apology in Scientific American.

As I explained in The Dancing Universe, there are essentially two options to the riddle of creation: either the universe appeared at some point in time, or it has existed forever. All creation myths fall within these two categories, including the Hindu myth of the dancing Shiva, who creates and destroys the cosmos for all eternity: in an endless succession of creations and destructions none is more important than the other.

It is no coincidence that oscillating universes, eternal universes and universes with a beginning also appear in scientific models of our origins. The difference, of course, is that in science we can use data to distinguish between models, and thus decide for their usefulness.

The central question of creation is what is often called the "first cause." If we describe reality through a sequence of causations, tracing them backwards leads to the one that started it all. And what is that? This is where the plot thickens.

Creation myths, being pre-scientific explanations of reality, suppose the existence of entities that could transcend it, gods that function beyond the limits of space and time and the laws of nature. That essentially takes care of the problem, if you are satisfied with a supernatural explanation for the world.

Science, of course, is not. The central dogma of science is that nature is intelligible: with the diligent application of reason we can construct explanations of natural phenomena that can be tested and falsified. Within this framework, no explanation can be deemed final: as concepts and measuring tools evolve, so do our explanations of the world.

For Columbus, the cosmos was finite, Earth-centered and static. A hundred years ago, people thought the universe was static and that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was all there was to it. Fifteen years ago, few of us would imagine that the universe is undergoing an accelerated expansion. Scientific concepts evolve as tools evolve in an ongoing and mutually enriching two-way exchange.

So, if nature is intelligible, can science make sense of the first cause? This is the question Krauss addresses in his book and that has sparked the recent controversy.

Krauss is not the first one to write or think about this. In 1973, Edward Tryon, then at Columbia University, proposed that the universe could pop out of a quantum vacuum, just like pairs of particles and antiparticles can. This strange notion comes from applying the rules of quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole: close to the beginning, the entire universe can be thought as being a tiny particle, and thus must obey the laws of quantum mechanics.

Central to the concept of the quantum world is the concept of the vacuum. We think of vacuum as the absence of everything, or as nothing. In quantum mechanics, however, there is no such thing as complete nothingness: there is always a residual energy, which is called zero-point energy. We don't know what it is, and have serious issues understanding it.

For example, if we apply our current understanding of quantum mechanics to the universe, it should be filled with zero-point energy. So filled, in fact, that it wouldn't exist, having been forced to implode on itself right after the "beginning." To make sure this doesn't happen, we arbitrarily set it to zero or to a small value in our models. This conceptual challenge is sometimes called the "cosmological constant problem," and its resolution may shed light on the mysterious Dark Energy, the present culprit for the accelerated cosmic expansion. Or it may point us in a entirely different direction.

Much of the rift seems to be about final claims. Even if Krauss is careful in his explanations of what is known at present and what is speculative, the tone of his book is the typically triumphant tone that science will conquer all. This sort of attitude, even if exciting and inspiring, is difficult to justify.

Yes, we are making enormous progress in our understanding of the universe, and we can even conceive of models where the universe can be explained as a zero-energy fluctuation out of the quantum vacuum. But why not say just that, and not extrapolate this over to the much more ambitious and, as of yet, unjustified claim that science provides a solution to the first cause. Current experimental knowledge of physical processes remains some 15 orders of magnitude below the energies prevalent near the beginning.

Given that there is so much that we don't know, humility is at least advisable.

Science has done a wonderful job explaining many of the hows of the cosmos. But most people are not satisfied just with hows. They want to know why. In The Atlantic, Krauss states that "if you read my book I never say that we know all the answers, I say that it's pompous to say that we can't know the answers."

One could easily argue that what is pompous is to think that we can know all the answers. Or that it's the job of science to find them.
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Lustig Andrei
Reply Wed 2 May, 2012 10:56 am
One could easily argue that what is pompous is to think that we can know all the answers. Or that it's the job of science to find them.

Reply Thu 3 May, 2012 11:48 am
@Lustig Andrei,
Debating Language: The Role of Culture And Biology (Part 2)
May 3, 2012
by Barbara J King - NPR

Part 2: Cognition + Culture + Communication = Language

With this formula as shorthand, in his new book Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Dan Everett argues that the variability in human cultural life explains the variability in human languages.

Last week I introduced some of Everett's ideas about language and discussed their genesis in his Brazilian fieldwork. When I suggested that Everett's ideas about culture's forceful impact aid in thinking skeptically about a heavily biological paradigm stemming from the work of Noam Chomsky and colleagues, the response was fast and furious. As I noted in that first post, this is no calm, scholarly debate! People get really riled up about this stuff.

Blogger Mike Clauss wrote that my dichotomy between "Chomsky-esque armchair theorizing" and immersive anthropological fieldwork was unfair. Chomsky's disciples often do fieldwork on languages, and I should have said so. (Chomsky himself didn't, as far as I can tell; that was the idea I wanted to convey.)

Tobias Kroll helped me to see, through multiple informative comments here at 13.7, that, in addition to testable hypotheses and competing data sets, there's much more going on: It's the very nature of language that's contested. Because of different starting assumptions and definitions, including those about recursion, it can be hard for the two (or more) sides to hear each other clearly.

So I'll be as clear as I can manage: despite his focus on culture, Everett doesn't ignore biology, as our brains, our genes and our vocal tracts are crucial for our language. He just doesn't accept that human linguistic universals emerge from language genes or brain areas specifically dedicated to language.

Everett notes that our species operates via "something akin to an interactional instinct," and concludes, "The instinct to communicate, or interact, precedes language and grammar. It does not explain them."

Recursion is central to his discussion. Linguists all recognize the usefulness of recursion such as embedded clauses in sentences, Everett says. It's just that "they do not all accord it the same theoretical importance."

For Noam Chomsky, there's no way to produce an utterance without recursion, which is biologically locked into language. For Everett, recursion shows up in language, "when and where a culture desires it, if it does at all." Recursive thinking is crucial in all human groups; recursion in language isn't.

For some readers, I was too easy on Everett. Well, I do have some skeptical question marks in the margins of Language, regarding issues both minor and major.

Minor: Everett refers to "trained" bonobos who understand symbols, but the apes he refers to learned how to use some symbols by intense interaction with humans and other bonobos in the know. And I don't buy the idea that when we English speakers hear the sentence "I just love that lavender skirt on you," we intuit culturally that both the speaker and the recipient are likely female. Am I the only one to have male friends who would utter that sentence in a heartbeat?

Major: Everett attributes to his theoretical opponents ("nativists") claims that I'm not sure they've made in any strong sense. "We may all know how to make a noun phrase," he writes, "but we cannot all write good novels. If these skills are part of language, then the different abilities are not predicted by nativists." Do most nativists really predict uniform linguistic abilities across individuals? That sounds unlikely to me.

But I want to dispense with any notion, suggested by some readers, that Everett's core views have been debunked or are unworthy of serious consideration. He's hardly alone in questioning the hard-wired, fixed nature of recursion in human language, for one thing. For another, his books are widely reviewed and his research made the basis of a new televised documentary not only because they are exciting and controversial but also because they are full of solid ideas that are ripe for cross-cultural testing.

After many years of working firsthand on Amazonian languages, including Pirahã, Banawá and Wari', Everett is in a good position to offer supporting examples to show that culture shapes language. Last week I explored the Pirahã language in this light. Everett cites other researchers' findings as well as his own in this context.

John R. Roberts' work on the Amele language spoken in New Guinea shows that Amele lacks the verb "to give." The culture-based explanation? Giving behavior is so foundational to Amele ways of being that the verb for it is absent. This cultural value is so intensely ingrained in day-to-day life that language is freed from a need to specify it.

It's notable also that Everett invites more research on the biology-culture nexus: "I believe that the Pirahãs' lack of counting and their lack of number words are both caused by a cultural taboo against unnecessary generalizations beyond the here and now. This may or may not be correct. Therefore I still lead teams of psychologists and linguists to the Amazon to test not only my own but others' hypotheses about the relationship between language and thought."

I find many of the cultural factors cited by Everett and others to be promising explanations for linguistic variability. "Each language is a cognitive tool for its speakers," he writes, "and comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture."

This ongoing research-based conversation about language is a genuinely scientific one (unlike, say, any "debate" about whether human beings have evolved over time).

A genuine debate on language: scientists shouldn't want it any other way.
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