Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Raymond Tallis - Philosophy isn't dead yet

Far from having replaced metaphysics, science is in a mess and needs help. Einstein saw it coming

‘The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally.'

In 2010 Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that philosophy was "dead" because it had "not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics". He was not referring to ethics, political theory or aesthetics. He meant metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – of space and time, the fundamental stuff of the world. If philosophers really wanted to make progress, they should abandon their armchairs and their subtle arguments, wise up to maths and listen to the physicists.
This view has significant support among philosophers in the English-speaking world. Bristol philosopher James Ladyman, who argues that metaphysics should be naturalised, and who describes the accusation of "scientism" as "badge of honour", is by no means an isolated case.
But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart ofquantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.
Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).
And then there is the mishandling of time. The physicist Lee Smolin's recent book, Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive. This worried Einstein: in a famous conversation, he mourned the fact that the present tense, "now", lay "just outside of the realm of science".
Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication. They demonstrate the urgent need for a radical re-examination of the invisible frameworks within which scientific investigations are conducted. We need to step back from the mathematics to see how we got to where we are now. In short, to un-take much that is taken for granted.
Perhaps even more important, we should reflect on how a scientific image of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that have neither identity nor location, connects with our everyday experience. This should open up larger questions, such as the extent to which mathematical portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we mean by "reality". The dismissive "Just shut up and calculate!" to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists' picture of the universe is simply inadequate. "It is time" physicist Neil Turok has said, "to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both". This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.

Some related issues:
NB: Matters that are unanswerable by scientists may nevertheless be significant for human life and well being. Metaphysical speculation does not concern only ridiculous propositions, but important issues of concern for human action and social existence. These include questions such as :

Is the essence of truth mathematical? Is the idea of truth exhausted by science, leaving no space whatever for speculative intelligence?
Are science and reason ethically vacuous?
Can there be irrefutable knowledge of the consequences of our actions?
Does a speculative future lighten or remove the burden of present action?
Are we in a condition of confrontation with a hostile universe?
Is the meaning of life an invention or a discovery?

I think discussing these (and similar) matters; as well as issues of public morality is a necessary exercise - it is reasonable, whilst not being 'scientific'. Metaphysics in this sense is another name for philosophical questioning, and as such has immense significance for a healthy society - Dilip

some related passages from a philosopher
"The connection between reason and the good is established by the structure of human experience as choosing between better and worse. It is a false description of human nature and therefore bad science, to say that we make these choices on a narrowly utilitarian basis; and it is simply unintelligible to be told that we are not making these choices at all but that they are being made for us by our blood sugar level or the firing of cells in our brains. There is no ghost in the machine, not merely because there are no ghosts, but because we are not machines.." "Of course humans disagree about which things in particular are good and which bad. But the disagreement would be impossible if they did not agree that there is a difference between good and bad.." "To say that reason is good for life, is of course, not the same as saying that life is good. My point, however, is not that reason is an instrument for something else but that it is a direct expression of goodness." (From the essay 'Sad Reason', by Stanley Rosen in 'Metaphysics in ordinary language'.

‘It is time to state that philosophy is neither analytic nor synthetic, but both, and more. Philosophy is the dream of the whole. This dream is known in the textbooks as metaphysics.. What is required is the capacity to see outside the limits of analysis, and this means to see, indeed, to dream, the context of analysis. In so doing we must not reject analytical thinking. The turn to the pre-scientific is not a turn away from science but an act of obedience to the original intention of science, of which contemporary analytical philosophies of science are fantasms' - Stanley Rosen, in 'The Limits of Analysis'

Extract from a criticism of a typical example of rationalist nihilism:

It is, as I hope we agree now, no accident that Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the existentialists, in attributing nihilism to the consequences of rationalism, accept without quarrel the rationalistic definition of reason. That definition was doomed from the outset on two main counts. First, the reduction of reason to ratio in the sense of counting, ordering, intuiting geometrical shape, and drawing inferences made it impossible to describe the activity of reason in reasonable terms. Second, the activity of reason, regardless of the divine powers initially attributed to it, was rooted in man's imagination, will, and passions. The application of ratio to the passions of the soul did not give a basis for pride but melancholia. Since the values attributed to human passions are but facts, and the pattern of the facts is a matter of chance, man has been revanquished by fortune. Contrary to Machiavelli's advice, fortune, even though put to the torture, has triumphed in the midst of her defeat.

Not all modern rationalists have succumbed to melancholia. This, however, may be a sign of their thoughtlessness rather than of their strength of soul. Is the currently fashionable "scientific humanism," for example, anything more than an uncritical vulgarization of Nietzsche's interpretation of science as a free creation of spirit, and so as an expression of the will to power? Even an admirer of science might be forgiven for preferring Cartesian pride or Nietzschean creativity to the spectacle of positivism wedded to romanticism. However this may be, the net philosophical result of modern rationalist epistemology is to have created a situation which cannot be distinguished from Nietzsche's teaching, so far as the reasonableness of reason is concerned. Let us close this section of our study with a brief analysis of the crucial contemporary example of rationalist nihilism. Suppose we believe, as do so many scientific humanists today, that all psychic or mental phenomena may be reduced to biochemical processes and thereby to mathematically computable energy distributions. What is the status of this belief itself, and finally of the self who believes it? (emphasis added - DS)

To begin with, if the belief is true, it is itself an instance of a biochemical process, an electrical excitation of the physical organ known as the brain, and so a pattern of extension, matter, or energy. As such, it has no "value" in any sense other than the numerical. Thus, the mere fact of its truth (supposing it to be true) carries with it no rational or scientific recommendation, not to say obligation, that it be believed or, if believed, that it be regarded as a reasonable belief. If the reasonable is the useful, it is almost certainly unreasonable, because harmful, to accept a doctrine that obliterates the difference in dignity between man and dirt. On the other hand, if "reasonable" means "true," and the doctrine in question is true, then we accept it in tacit or explicit deference to the principle, "one ought to accept what is true." Now what status has this principle? 

If it is true that one ought to accept the truth, then it cannot be true that truth is always at bottom a mathematical description of energy patterns, since such patterns, if taken to be the final stratum of reality, into which all superficial or illusory strata are to be reduced, provide no basis for the reconstruction of moral or psychological imperatives. If it is not true that one ought to accept the truth (because of the assumption that "true" and "ought" are incompatible), but merely that we sometimes have a propensity to do so, then truth, and so reason, must be distinguishable from motives determining what we accept or believe. In other words, there is no reason, no reasonable reason, for believing the true rather than the false. The mere fact that proposition X is true is insufficient to command the allegiance of a reasonable man to that proposition, especially if it certifies that, qua man, or conscious being who is deliberating whether to accept X, he is an illusion and so does not exist in those terms which alone make rational the debate concerning the acceptance or repudiation of proposition X.

On this alternative, then, the fact that proposition X is true is paradoxically transformed into a value, namely, something which we may believe or not as we see fit, or depending upon whether we regard it as worthwhile to believe it. And the transformation is paradoxical because X in effect asserts the radical distinction between facts and values. This self-transformation of the assertion of the principle of contemporary rationalism into a value is equivalent to the transformation of philosophy into poetry by Nietzsche and others. In the first case, a distinction is made between facts and values which renders values unreasonable. In the second case, facts are redefined as a special kind of values, which means that facts are rendered unreasonable. The contemporary nihilist situation is a synthesis of these two (basically equivalent) processes: the total effect is to make both facts and values unreasonable and valueless. And so there is no real difference, in this context, between scientists and humanists. If it is fatuous to assume that nihilism will be overcome by knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics, it is equally fatuous to assume that it will surrender to an appreciation of poetic style. What then are we to say of the view that man's salvation lies in the union of such knowledge and such appreciation? - Stanley Rosen, Nihilism: a philosophical essay - Yale Univ P, 1969; pp 69-71