why scientists really don’t need the input of philosophers like raymond tallis

May 29, 2013


A long time ago, I shared one of my favorite jokes about philosophers. It went like this. Once, a president of a large and prestigious university was asked who were his most expensive staff to fund. "Phycisists and computer scientists," he replied without hesitation, "they always want some brand new machine that costs a fortune to build and operate, not like mathematicians who only need paper, pencils, and erasers. Or better yet, my philosophers. Those guys don’t even need the erasers!" Yes, yes, I know, I’m a philosophical phillistine, I’ve been told of this so many times that I should start some sort of contest. But my lack of reverence for the discipline is not helped by philosophers who decide to speak up for their occupation in an age of big data and powerful, new tools for scientific experimentation to propose answers to new and ever more complex real world questions. Case in point, a column by Raymond Tallis declaring that physics is broken so much so that it needs metaphysics to pull itself back together and produce real results.

Physics is a discipline near and dear to my heart because certain subsets of it can be applied to cutting edge hardware, and as someone whose primary focus is distributed computing, the area of computer science which gives us all our massive web applications, cloud storage, and parallel processing, there’s a lot of value in keeping up with the relevant underlying science. And maybe there’s already an inherent bias here when my mind starts to wonder how metaphysics will help someone build a quantum cloud or radically increase hard drive density, but the bigger problem is that Tallis doesn’t seem to have any command of the scientific issues he declares to be in dire need of graybeards in tweed suits pondering the grand mechanics of existence with little more than the p’s and q’s of propositional logic. For example, take his description of why physics has chased itself into a corner with quantum mechanics…

A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum 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.

As science bloggers love to say, this isn’t even wrong. Tallis and Wallace have mixed up three very different concepts into a grab bag of confusion. Quantum mechanics can do very, very odd things that seem to defy the normal flow of time, but there’s nothing that says we can’t know the general topology of a quantum system. The oft cited and abused Uncertainty Principle is based on the fact that certain fundamental building blocks of the universe can function as both a wave and a particle, and each state has its own set of measurements. If you try to treat the blocks as particles, you can measure the properties of the particle state. If you try to treat them as waves, you can only measure the properties of the waves. The problem is that you can’t get both at the same exact time because you have to choose which state you measure. However, what you can do is create a wave packet, where you should get a good, rough approximation of how the block behaves in both states. In other words, measurement of quantum systems is very possible.

All right, so this covers the Uncertainty Principle mixup, what about the other two concepts? The biggest problem in physics today is the lack of unification between the noisy quantum mechanics on the subatomic scale and the ordered patterns of general relativity. String theory and the very popular but nearly impossible to test many worlds theory tries to explain the effects of the basic forces that shape the universe on all scales in terms of different dimensions or leaks from other universes. So when Tallis says that it’s still 40 years and we don’t know which one is right, then piles on his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics on top of Wallace’s seeming inability to tell the difference between multiverses and string theory, he ends up with the mess above. We get a paradox where there isn’t one and scope creep from particle physics into cosmology. Not quite a ringing endorsement of philosophy in physics so far. And then Tallis makes it worse…

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).

Again, a grab bag of not even wrong is supposed to sell us on the idea that a philosopher could help where our tools are pushed to their limits. Considering that Tallis dismisses the entire idea that neuroscience as a discipline has any merit, no wonder that he proclaims that we don’t have any clue of what consciousness is from a biological perspective. The fact is that we do have lots of clues. Certain patterns of brain activity are strongly associated with a person being aware of his or her environment, being able to meaningfully interact, and store and recall information as needed. It’s hardly the full picture of course, but it’s a lot more than Tallis thinks it is. His bizarre claim that scientists consider some nerve pulses to be conscious while the majority are said not to be is downright asinine. Just about every paper on the study of the conscious mind in a peer reviewed, high quality journal refer to consciousness as a product of the entire brain.

The rest of his argument is just a meaningless, vitalist word salad. If brain activity is irrelevant to consciousness, why do healthy living people have certain paterns while those who had massive brain injuries have different ones depending on the site of injury? Why do all those basic brain wave patterns repeat again and again in test after test? Just for the fun of seeing themselves on an EEG machine’s output? And what does it mean that it’s a surprising fact that we can perceive matter around us? Once again, hardly a serious testament to the usefulness of philosophers in science because so far all we got is meaningless questions accusing scientists of being unable to solve problems that aren’t problems by using a couple of buzzwords incorrectly, haphazardly cobbling bits of pieces of different theories into an overreaching statement that initially sounds well researched, but means pretty much nothing. Well, this is at least when we don’t have Tallis outright dismissing the science without explaining what’s wrong with it…

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.

Here we get a double whammy of Tallis getting the science wrong and deciding that he doesn’t like the existing ideas because they don’t pass his smell test. He’s combining competing ideas to declare them inconsistent within a unified framework, seeingly unaware that the hypotheses he’s ridiculing aren’t complimentary by design. Yes, we don’t know how the universe was created, all we have is evidence of the Big Bang and we want to know exactly what banged and how. This is why we have competing theories about quantum fluxes, virtual particles, branes, and all sorts of other mathematical ideas created in a giant brainstorm, waiting to be tested for any hint of a real application to observable phenomena. Pop sci magazines might declare that math proved that a stray quantum particle caused the Big Bang or that we were all vomited out by some giant black hole, or are living in the event horizon of one, but in reality, that math is just one idea. So yes, Tallis is right about the confusion under the algebra, but he’s wrong about why it exists.

And here’s the bottom line. If the philosopher trying to make the case for this profession’s need for inclusion into the realms of physics and neuroscience doesn’t understand what the problems are, what the fields do, and how the fields work, why would we even want to hear how he could help? If you read his entire column, he never does explain how, but really, after all his whoppers and not even wrongs, do you care? Philosophers are useful when you want to define a process or wrap your head around where to start your research on a complex topic, like how to create an artificial intelligence. But past that, hard numbers and experiments are required to figure out the truth, otherwise, all we have are debates about semantics which at some point may well turn into questions of what it means to exist in the first place. Not to say that this last part is not a debate worth having, but it doesn’t add much to a field where we can actually measure and calculate a real answer to a real question and apply what we learn to dive even further.

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  • I couldn’t find anything in Tallis’ article that wasn’t simply defensive ranting from someone who stubbornly refused to see the errors they’d made. What made it pathetic was how badly he wanted to assert the philosopher’s position among the Great Thinkers while demonstrating absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the subjects he targeted, like a small-town baptist minister railing against evilution.

    What’s annoying about the whole thing is, if I wrote something that scattered and ignorant, the rejection notice would have been in my inbox within the hour. But I suppose the Guardian has some kind of tenure system – either that or the editors really liked Carmen Miranda while growing up…

  • nopaniers

    I could comment on a number of things, but your reply about the measurement problem “not even being wrong” is simply incorrect. The measurement problem is a perfectly valid problem,


    And that you don’t realize there is even a problem is evident from this statement,

    > However, what you can do is create a wave packet, where you should get a good, rough approximation of how the block behaves in both states.

    We should… But that’s exactly the problem, it is very difficult to do. When measurement is involved the equations we use (wavefunction collapse) are stochastic, and when it’s a closed system we use deterministic, unitary evolution. You can’t get one from the other without adding extra philosophical elements.

    Work done by Zureck and others goes some way to giving us a better understanding of decoherence and measurement, but to suggest that the philosophical problem is solved, or that a particular philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics has no bearing on how you attempt to do that is just wrong.

    Many worlds, like he mentions, is one of several ways, in which the observer finds himself in one branch of the wavefunction, and it is his *subjective* experience which accounts for collapse. On the Copenhagen interpretation, the collapse is objective, and happens because measurement devices are large, macroscopic objects. On a Bohmian account, particles in stochastic positions are guided deterministically by a nonlocal wavefunction, and so on… different philosophical approaches give different ways of resolving the problem, but all give exactly the same experimental predictions.

    When I was younger, I was like you, I didn’t see the use of philosophy. Engineering and physics was all that there was. But as I learned more physics, I realized there were problems, open problems, and many of them were philosophical.

  • gfish3000

    Here’s the issue with the measurement problem the way Tallis worded it. He isn’t following the Uncertainty Principle as he claims, he’s actually talking about the issue of whether there’s such thing as wavefunction collapse and if it even exists, then says that because there’s still a conflict about this, quantum mechanics must be impossible to verify experimentally and it’s paradoxical that we can measure anything subatomic at all. But that’s not true at all.

    We can measure the behavior of quantum systems and predict what it will be, we’re just limited to the degree of precision. The link about the weird things that happen in the quantum world actually deals head on with the measurement problem in much more depth, but the moral of the story is that we did measure the end result of the quantum state. If we couldn’t do that, he would be correct in how he invokes the issue. However, this is not how he’s invoking it.

    The other issue that you mentioned is a set of philosophical questions which surround the semantics of the measurement problem. It we just go ahead and accept the philosophical issues with the measurement problem at face value, then what Tallis has effectively demonstrated is that far from being a great help to physicists, philosophers are just as hopelessly stuck with the very same problem for just as long. Speaking of which…

    different philosophical approaches give different ways of resolving the problem, but all give exactly the same experimental predictions.

    Then of what help are they when we can’t differentiate between them? You still won’t know which one is right and which one is wrong because evidence for one based on the results of your experiment is by default evidence for all of them. And that’s the problem of applying too much philosophy to science and engineering. You end up being caught in semantics, chasing problems that might not even be there.