Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thinking about thinking about physics…

The following are some observations derived from some of my recent reading materials, mainly Roger G. Newton's Thinking about Physics (TP), as well as Nick Huggett's Everywhere and Everywhen (EE).

The first thing to note is that Huggett's and Newton's approaches to "the philosophy of physics" are very similar, while their methods of exposition are very different. Both authors show a strong bias in favor of letting "normal science" reign over philosophizing about "science per se". For both authors, physical results can be dispositive of metaphysical questions. Newton plainly states in his preface that he will stick as close to physical data and methods as possible, but does defend metaphysics as the arena for honest disputes between intelligent people about those data and methods. At the end of nearly every chapter in EE, Huggett shows how physical discoveries can shed light (even decisive light) on classic philosophical queries.

Huggett's book is much broader than Newton's, and much more accessible to "the intelligent lay reader." Indeed, three or four times while reading EE, I realized Huggett had explained matters so well that it felt like the first time I had really grasped the issue, despite countless previous exposures on my part. Newton is also a very lucid writer, but, as he points out in the first sentence, TP is addressed to "readers with a good undergraduate education in physics", so, if, like me, you lack such an education, TP will be rough sledding. One deficit of EE, is its relative (!) lack of discussion of quantum mechanics, whereas TP discusses quantum theory in great detail. A good book to read in conjunction with TP, is Wolfgang Smith's The Quantum Enigma. Another good companion book is Lawrence Sklar's Theory and Truth, not the least because both authors qua "chaste realists" evince the same weaknesses in what I would call Kantian or critical realism.

It is in this vein that we can begin to discuss what I think is a substantive philosophical disparity between EE and TP. As a professional and highly awarded physicist, Newton is much more inclined to "let the physics do the thinking," as it were. In this way, he is very much a realist about scientific truth, since he writes as if we can read reality from the very face of science. His form of realism is, however, burdened by serious complications, which I shall discuss presently. Huggett, by contrast, is a professional philosopher with training in physics, and so he is much better at situating various physical questions in their broader philosophical context. Even so, Huggett strikes me as even more of a realist than Newton, and this, precisely in inverse proportion to their respective rejection of, or kinship with, Kantian idealism. Huggett locks horns with Kant on a few occasions to refute him in EE. As far as I can tell, Newton only refers to Kant once in TP, and dismissively, but certain statements he makes show how he is unwittingly a disciple of Kant, a connection which I shall also have to discuss later.

In any case, to focus on TP, Newton writes in his preface that he wants "to demystify quantum mechanics as much as possible." This is a key admission, since TP is very much a philosophically deflationary book. Time and again in TP, to philosophers of quantum reality, and physicists who would like to imagine they are philosophers of their trade, Newton effectively say, "Simmer down." Quantum theory (QT) tends to make people say and propose wacky theories, a tendency which Newton does not entirely gainsay, nor repudiate, but one that he insists can and should be toned down with a more reasonable interpretation of basic physics. His key tactic for demystifying QT, in express disagreement with Feynman and Heisenberg, is to shift focus from the particle as the most fundamental reality to the field as being most fundamental. It is only because people instinctively treat QT as a particle-based theory that QT seems to bizarre. An extension of this tactic is to undermine the crazy-making focus on indeterminacy in (Copenhagen-interpretation) QT, and treat quantum indeterminacy as just one mode of the larger, rather pedestrian issue of probabilistic physics altogether. Hearing that QT is indeterministic, Newton basically shrugs, and points out that so is, for example, classical thermodynamics. Get over it. Simmer down.

Now I want to begin discussing what I think are crucial defects in Newton's philosophical handling of his own beloved subject. I will have to bracket a discussion of Huggett for now, not only because this post is getting largish, but also because his book requires more codgitating (and a re-reading) on my part. In fact, since I need to go to class soon, I will leave this post as an introduction to the more detailed critiques to come.

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