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.