A recent interview on NPR, in their “Short Answers to Big Questions” segment, went to special extremes to demonstrate how monumentally bad science journalism is these days. My discussion here will come in two parts, one short, and one a great deal more detailed. The short part will be a quick debunking of supposedly scientific claims from a conventionally scientific standpoint. In particular, statements are made in this interview with absolute confidence that cannot possibly stand up to even the most basic grasp of physical science. The longer discussion will have to do with philosophical criticisms that run beyond most of contemporary science. This is because so much of that science has degenerated into pure model centrism, and consequently fails to ask any of the fundamental questions that need to be raised. The motivating idea behind all of this is the idea of “empty” space.
The offending NPR piece opened with a question about how empty a volume of space would be were there only (say) three atoms or molecules within a volume of about one cubic meter. After a few moments discussion about the volume of molecules of air in a cubic meter at sea level (a discussion that appears to contain an unimportant typographical error), the discussion moves out into space, into deep, deep space. The conversation leads to the following (slightly edited) highly problematic exchange:
if there are points in space with only three atoms per square meter, what fills in the rest? The answer is nothing…
for a physicist, the absence of matter is nothing. I mean there is still space and time there, but you know, there – the absence of matter we consider to be a state of, you know, zero matter, zero energy density, is a way of putting it.
The problems here come at two levels, one of fairly ordinary physics and the other at a deeper philosophical level. I’ll deal with both in turn. Continue reading
This is just a quick shout-out to my friend and colleague, Ronny Desmet, for putting together the papers that were presented at the 2015 International Whitehead conference in the new book, Intuition in Mathematics and Physics: A Whiteheadian Approach, in which yours truly is a contributor.
The articles within are from Section IV, Track 2 of the conference. The table of contents is not yet available at Amazon, so the contributions are as follows:
- Integral Philosophy – An Essay on Speculative Philosophy – Ronald Preston Phipps
- Reflection on Intuition, Physics, and Speculative Philosophy – Timothy E. Eastman
- Whitehead on Intuition – Implications for Science and Civilization – Farzad Mahootian
- Whitehead’s Notion of Intuitive Recognition – Ronny Desmet
- The Beauty of the Two-Color Sphere Problem – Ronny Desmet
- The Complementary Faces of Mathematical Beauty – Jean Paul van Bendegam and Ronny Desmet
- Creating a New Mathematics – Aran Gare
- Whitehead, Intuition, and Radical Empiricism – Gary Herstein
- What Does a Particle Know? Information and Entaglement – Robert J. Valenza
- A Neurobiological Basis of Intuition – Jesse Bettinger
So, what is it that makes something true? (Trust me, this ties in with this post’s title.) If I say that “X is the case,” and it, indeed, turns out that X IS the case, then my saying so was true. Or, rather, the thing I said was true, and my saying it was said truly. (Actually, my saying it was said truly, because I truly said it, regardless of whether what I said was actually true.) But what establishes the connection(s) between my saying it is the case, and its actually being the case? Well, presumably it is reality that makes that establishment; but how is that reality, how is that establishment, established in experience such that the truth-saying and the truth-being converge in a truth making?
Because even as (and insofar) as “the truth is out there,” our having, getting, finding, or whatever, that truth involves a substantial amount of making. If you take the idea of truth seriously, then you must take seriously the fact that we have to go out and make that truth apparent through significant and substantive inquiry. Where this is going (and it will go fast) is that the maker that connects the truth as said with the truth as found, looks a lot like a successful “strategy” in a “game.” This is a formal, logical concept, which brings scientific inquiry into a dirty-dance with that part of formal logic known as model-theory. (Somewhere, somebody has sheet music on this stuff … ) Continue reading
“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” This well known saying is variously and unreliably attributed to a number of persons, from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill. But as long as one is not trying to steal the words for one’s self, it is less important who said a true thing, than that the thing said be true. Credit should be given, of course, when credit is due, and identifiable. But just because, say, Abraham Lincoln said a thing, that thing is not automatically true, any more than if Richard Nixon said something, it is automatically false. Now, it is not an ad hominem to call a liar a liar, nor is it a fallacy to question the credibility of a person whose credibility has been shredded by repeated abuses of the truth. Still, one must be very careful when it comes to either accepting or dismissing a statement merely on account of its source. If you dismiss an alcoholic’s statement that drinking is bad for you, on account of the fact that the person making the statement is an alcoholic (who is still drinking), you’ve committed the tu quoque version of the argumentum ad hominem. If anything, the alcoholic is better situated to speak with genuine expertise on the damage of alcoholism than, say, a more sober member of society.
But to return to our original point, there is an intransigence to falsehoods that is not easily dislodged by anything so inconsequential as reason and truth. There are many psychological studies (I’ll not link to any – they are easy to find) that point out that, for example, climate change denialism – devoid as it is of any shred of valid or scientific justification – nevertheless becomes more stubborn when it is confronted with logic and facts that admit of no rational dispute. The lie, as it were, digs in its boots. I’ll skip over any discussion of those rhetorical techniques that do seem to work, because such methods are not my interest here and it pisses me off that I’d ever have to resort to them. Rather, I want to look at those factors that let the lie out of the starting gate before the truth even knows that there is a race today. In particular, what is it that makes the lie so easy, and the truth so hard? Continue reading
My colleague Brian asked (some little while ago), “I wondered if you might make some comments on the relationship (assuming there is one) between science and speculative philosophy?” Well, now that the generalized madness that is and was the 2015 International Whitehead Conference is behind me, I finally have time to turn my attention to this and other questions.
There is absolutely a relationship between science and speculative philosophy, and it is worth remembering how that relationship expressed itself in the past: Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton all knew themselves to be engaged IN philosophy when they made their grand, speculative proposals. My answer here, however, will be thoroughly Whiteheadian. Not, however, because I’m a “fan,” but because I believe that Whitehead was substantially correct on the issues he chose to engage, and always interesting, regardless.* Continue reading
Within the limits of my own study, the idea of “data density” and its relation to science vs. pseudo-science, is not one that I recall having encountered. (And I freely admit that my studies are limited; the world is large, and human life is short.) I suspect that no small part of the problem is that we have only begun to slam into this wall in earnest in the last few generations. I wish to use this idea of “data density” here to compare two branches of scientific study. It is my thesis that the data in gravitational cosmology is especially “thin” and “patchy,” which makes the general lack of attention to alternative models to the standard one especially inexcusable.
It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.
– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet
There are scientific disciplines out there that are in a state of fundamental crisis. But unless you’ve a moderate degree of expertise in those fields, it is unlikely you know about such crises. I want to examine one such crisis here, and touch on its relation to a way of approaching the world that I’ve taken to calling “model-centrism.”
The Holmesian dicta quoted above is hideously simplistic (one must already have significant theoretical commitments in play before any evidence can make its appearance AS evidence. To decline to theorize entirely would not make one open to the facts and evidence, it would make one completely incapable of recognizing anything as a fact or as evidence.) Nevertheless, it touches upon an important issue with model-centrism, and model-centric thinking, namely the impatience for gathering data that leads some people to favor abstract theories without any regard for how such theories might be tested or validated.