Monday, October 31, 2011

Thinking about thinking about physics, part 2...

In my introductory post of this series, I noted how Roger G. Newton is what I call a "chaste realist" (C.R.) and that, as such, his instinctive realism is at odds with his crypto-Kantian idealism. As I noted in the introductory post, Newton's thinking about physics is largely deflationary, in the sense that, at the end of the day, even the strangest scientific discoveries and theories can and should be reconciled as closely as possible with common sense (i.e. realism about the world and our knowledge of it). The following are informal characterizations, but I think they will make my basic point.

A C.R. is someone that, so to speak, wants realism to be true, but who is also aware of how far from reality scientific theories can be and are. Secretly, a C.R. knows science is on the right path and that normal science tells us important, lasting things about the real, mind-independent world. A C.R. cannot bring himself to subscribe to scientism, since he admits the ontological limitations of scientific claims are tied up with their origin in human cognition. C.R.s recognize that idealization, pragmatic selectivity, aesthetic bias, and so on, effect scientific paradigms, but they insist the general thrust of scientific inquiry tracks reality better than most, if not all other, methods of reasoning. On the other hand, a C.R. rejects constructivism and most of the non-progressive, anti-realist theory of science (as espoused by Duhem, Carnap. Hempel, Quine, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Van Fraassen, Giere, et al.). Scientific standards and conceptions may be relative to human "users" of science, but that does not entail the former are relativistic and fictional. In effect, C.R.s say to the regnant anti-realist regime in the philosophy of science, "If we promise not to claim too much for science as a 'truth engine', can we be allowed to accept scientific findings as 'true enough'?"

So, I'm calling Newton a chaste realist. I'll begin by noting his realism. First of all, Newton has i) ambitious aims for scientific explanation (Se). Se must not be mere description. For instance, Newton argues, even if we discovered that physical constants changed, as Paul Dirac and others have suggested based on the expansion of the universe, "we would still have to search for an underlying time-independent law that would account for the specific way in which these constants vary with time. Physics never regards history itself as a sufficient explanation of any fundamental change" (Thinking About Physics [TP], p. 10).

Likewise, ii) Se is about more than the pragmatic success of science. "What justifies our confidence in the basis soundness of the entire [scientific] structure," Newton writes, "is its coherence, an intellectual coherence that includes consistency with all the experiences and expectations founded on it, the fulfillment of precise, far-reaching predictions implied by it, and the functioning of all the technology built on its basis" (p. 19, my italics). Newton's claim contains a number of overly realist quantificational implications, which ultimately are at odds with the chastity of his realism, about which more later.

In any case, Newton continues with a point which strikes, wittingly or unwittingly, against a main pillar of the crude scientism prevalent in much of Western society, namely, the 'argument' that "Science Works, Bitch!" As Newton says, however, "[t]o point out that science works, in the sense that we readily watch television..., is, of course, the most banal of the answers we can give to those who question the truth of science... [though] it is an important component of the coherence of physics" (p. 19). These claims indicate how, for Newton, scientific truth is not merely a matter of technical success or "better living through science," but rather derives from the ambition of making sense of the world by way of science itself. Coherence, as Newton describes it in "the broad sense above... is the basis for claiming truth as the goal of physics-- not as an attainment, but as an aim" (p. 20). Lawrence Sklar, in Theory and Truth, makes almost exactly the same claim, so I hope to discuss both authors in tandem at some point.

Lest the above seem too theoretical, I should note that "the philosophy of science" is not Newton's focus. Rather, his focus is largely on how to reconcile the oddity of quantum theory (QT) with the mainstream of historical scientific claims. For instance, he denies that QT undermines good ole fashioned Newtonian determinism in the popular "spooky" way many people think, since "[q]uantum mechanics is as deterministic as classical mechanics" and that the truly weird things about QT--namely, entanglement--"originates in the wave-particle duality" (pp. 22-23). Indeed, "while part of what is meant by entanglement would obtain for any probabilistic theory... other parts [of QT] go further and are caused by phase correlations" (p. 23). Such entanglement, free of the wave-particle duality, does not strike us as odd for wave dynamics proper, so, as I mentioned in the introductory post, it is Newton's implicit aim to demystify the weirdness of QT by situating it in the larger context of physical statistics as such. A crucial premise in Newton's deflationary QT, is that "reality at the everyday level has to be distinguished from reality at the submicroscopic level" (p. 26).

This is a striking claim, and one with profound philosophical implications. Since, as always, my time is running short before I must head to class, I will close this post without getting any deeper into Newton's own claims in TP. In the next post I will connect Newton's premise about the macro-/microscopic cleft in reality (or the MMC) with its larger philosophical implications from an Aristotelian perspective (mainly by citing Wolfgang Smith's The Quantum Enigma and David Oderberg's Real Essentialism).

Stay tuned.

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