Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Turtles all the way down

Really good post at Cosmic Variance about the difference between physics and the sort of woo that goes into quasi-new-age philosophy as exemplified by the What the Bleep Do We Know? movie, quoting philosopher David Alpert:
It seems to me that what’s at issue (at the end of the day) between serious investigators of the foundations of quantum mechanics and the producers of the “what the bleep” movies is very much of a piece with what was at issue between Galileo and the Vatican, and very much of a piece with what was at issue between Darwin and the Victorians. There is a deep and perennial and profoundly human impulse to approach the world with a DEMAND, to approach the world with a PRECONDITION, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE FOUNDATION OF ALL BEING, is some powerful and reassuring and accessible image of OURSELVES. That’s the impulse that the What the Bleep films seem to me to flatter and to endorse and (finally) to exploit - and that, more than any of their particular factual inaccuracies - is what bothers me about them. It is precisely the business of resisting that demand, it is precisely the business of approaching the world with open and authentic wonder, and with a sharp, cold eye, and singularly intent upon the truth, that’s called science.
(Shouting in the original) I think this is very insightful and clarifying, although I draw somewhat different conclusions from it than the science guys.

It seems you can distinguish three very clear positions based on the above:

(1) the foundation of all being is the physical laws of nature as explicated by science. Intelligence is a contingent result of these mechanical processes, an epiphenomenon. This is the naturalist position.

(2) the foundation of all being is intelligence, which is somehow prior to the material universe. This is the religious position, seen in intelligent design theory and theology in general.

(3) there is no foundation, or none that we are have access to. This is the antifoundationalist position, seen in various philosophies (pragmatism, postmodernism, etc).

The appeal of quantum woo is that it seems to bridge the gap between (1) and (2). Certain other weird ideas in physics (anthropic cosmology) also seem to be somehow letting us have our cake (physics) and eat it too (give intelligence a central role). ID is what happens when believers in (2) try to ape the methodology of position (1), with generally laughable results.

Where am I? Well, I am in the position of a (1)ist with strong urges towards (2) deviationism. Humans are not the center of the universe, god knows, but they are at the center of something. As I said in the comments:

there is the physical world, which the hard sciences study, and the mental/social/cultural world, which is indeed part of and emergent from the physical world but is also in some sense a separate sphere, striving for independence from its physical substrate. This is the world people spend most of their time in, even physicists. In this world, people ARE the central and most important feature.

The relationship between these two worlds is hard to understand and What the Bleep sounds like an example of how NOT to think about it clearly.

Position (3) seems like giving up, or resigning yourself to linguistic gameplaying.

I just thought of position (4) -- there is a foundation, but it is not captured by either science or theology. I'm going to call this Taoism, but that is not its name.

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