Archive for October, 2007

Calling all Quantum Theorists and Cosmologists who can be patient with innumerate humanists and theists…

October 22, 2007

Hi, gentle readers. I’m moving another comment thread up onto my front page where it belongs. Please jump into the conversation — just as long as you can be very respectful to science, and very respectful to both humanism and theism, okay? All right then. Ready? Set? Go!

Thank you so much for joining in here, Maria! Welcome to the discussion.

Now Gavin, be patient here with all of us, and don’t take yield to the temptation to take these questionings that non-physicists have as simply some kind of New Age occultism, okay? Continue to be your tolerant and patient self, okay? (If you don’t, I will have to remind you that YOU lean toward many-worlds (gasp!) as the best interpretation of wave collapse — and that sounds extremely “New Agey” to most people, even though it is strictly mathematical, right?)

Maria, I am better at responding when I’ve had time to ponder, so I’ll get back to you later on, except to say that many very good minds (including scientific ones) have seen quantum indeterminacy as opening up a universe that is much more open to freedom and spontaneity than was thought in Newtonian times. And eventually, when we know more about QM, I think it may shed some brand new light on very old metaphysical questions. (BTW, I was just wondering this morning some questions along the lines of what you are saying.) So I will get back to you. Instead, I am now going to ask Gavin the quantum physicist some questions that have come to the forefront for me lately.

[Still, let me recommend to theists the epilogue to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, in which he talks about nature in a way that shows he had been talking with the physicists at Cambridge and Oxford about Copenhagen QM (quantum mechanics) and the way that many manifest processes in nature seem to depend on resources lying elsewhere. It is so strange to me that many scientists are very comfortable talking about all of this stuff — just as long as no one uses the words “God” or “spiritual,” because these words have very unwelcome connotations (and I’m not sure theists aren’t responsible for many of these bad connotations). Theists, be sure to look, too, at what Richard Dawkins, the bad man hisself, said in an interview discussed in my earlier post, “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily…”]

In the meantime, let me ask Gavin and other physicists/cosmologists/molecular biologists and so forth, these questions that have finally crystalized for me, questions that may in the long run prove to be related to Maria’s thoughts.


1) My son took a GE course in astronomy/cosmology at Penn last spring and came home for the summer and repeated to me something I’ve heard before about quantum indeterminacy. I want to know if you agree. He said that if you throw a ball at a solid wall a billion billion times, one time it might not bounce back, but continue right on through the wall. I understand why this is said (I think) but it is up-to-date in your view?

2) Here’s another question, one that has been driving me crazy. If you shot a rifle that was not accurately lined up or had looseness in its design where it shouldn’t, isn’t it the case that you would end up with a haphazard spray of bullet holes around the center of the target, and they would be randomly distributed and you couldn’t say where each bullet would be except roughly within a certain tolerance?

Now why is it that the collapse of the wave function is so worrisome to theorists, given that the particles are bound to appear within the range of the wave function and you can even specify the probability of where any given particle might appear on the screen. Setting aside the wave/particle duality itself (if we can), why is it so problematic that we can’t say where each particle itself will land, in a strict deterministic fashion? Aren’t there many things in nature that operate this way? When water is splashing along in a stream, it doesn’t splash exactly the same way twice, but it is certainly determined within certain limits. (?)

In the humanities and social sciences, we talk about norms applying “with a certain degree of determinacy.” In other words, the manifestation is always within a certain range, but the degree to which the normative outcome applies may be very loose or somewhat loose or may apply with very little indeterminacy, but it does not have to strictly every time to be a true normative pattern. Does there really have to be a deterministic mechanism underlying everything in science? If so, what about the water splashing…. (Or Brownian motion? It is random, isn’t it? “Random” within a certain shaping description.)

3) Finally, I remember that you said that Roger Penrose was waaay off in suggesting that a new theory of quantum gravity may eventually provide an underlying mechanism for the wave/particle enigma. (And he connects this with the quantum nature of consciousness, too, which Maria has heard of and that it is in the collective psyche of our culture right now.)

So Gavin, can you clarify what is the exact nature of your disapproval of Penrose, here? Is it the gravity part of the theory that you object to, or is it the very idea that physics will discover an underlying mechanism that is currently unknown, for wave collapse? That you are convinced in sticking with the current maths like Copenhagen does and not looking for anything further?

It seems to me that the general course of scientific progress indicates that an anomaly like wave/particle collapse will eventually be resolved by a new and deeper underlying theory, as in the case of earlier anomalies like black body radiation and the Michelson-Morley experiments. Yet it seems that you like the current maths enough to invest in the “other” explanation: that the current anomaly is explained by the particle being in every possible location but in different universes. But doesn’t this interpretation mean that “we” are in all those different universes too, but each of “us” doesn’t know the others exist? That SOUNDS, at least, pretty far out. I don’t say this to provoke you, Gavin, because I understand how compelling the mathematics are said to be. But what of the “metaphysical” implications? Don’t those give you pause? And why are you so opposed to a more “traditional” way out: that a new theory will provide a new mechanism for a more deterministic explanation?

4) Oh, sorry, one more question. I’ve been reading a philosopher of science James Cushing who describes the de Broglie/Bohm theory of quantum collapse, which Bohm developed after the acceptance of the Copenhagen approach as the standard theory. Cushing says Bohm’s iis a deterministic theory, and that it explains the phenomenon as well as Copenhagen does, and he contends that it is merely historical contingency that the Copenhagen hit the scene first and became orthodoxy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would expect that physicists would opt for a deterministic theory if it really held water for them, even if another theory got there first….?

Sorry to load all of this questions onto poor Gavin. Any other physicists or others out there who care to comment on any of these questions? Or innumerate humanists and/or theists?

Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”

October 10, 2007

As the month of October is slipping by us, remember that you’re invited to read (or reread) the great novel Silence, written by one of Japan’s finest novelists, Shusaku Endo. In November, we’ll see if we can get some discussion of this novel going. The conversations we’ve had here about physics and poststructuralism have had the perverse effect of helping direct me more deeply into my off-line theoretical writing, so I have had less time for blogging. But I’d love to talk over this provocative novel that Hi brought up with the varied readers we have here. [For some thoughts on science and literature, wherein I end up comparing Endo and Einstein, see my comment here.]

Silence is a “spare and elegant” classic that is frequently taught in “international fiction” courses, which is how I happened to pick it up to read years ago, when a colleague was teaching it. In it, Endo shows us an historic clash of cultures by telling the story of a seventeenth-century European missionary to Japan and his flock of Japanese converts, as they seek to endure a fierce persecution.

Endo, who is Japanese, identified himself as a Christian. (And Hi has some very thoughtful remarks on this and on Christianity in Japan.) In any case, he certainly looks very deeply into the idea of Christian sacrifice and martyrdom in this novel — so deeply that it has aroused disquiet and even protest among Christians.

For myself as a Christian, I was deeply moved by reading this difficult and unforgettable book. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and I found it spiritually bracing and cleansing. It gets down to basics about what Christ’s death means for believers in a way nothing else I’ve ever read has done.

But it’s a very rich novel, with many faces, and if I am not mistaken, Hi introduced it in connection with the question of why anyone would (or should) embrace belief in the Christian God, or in any gods, when different cultures have such different religious traditions. (Science on the other hand has a certain universality that appeals across cultures. I believe that is part of this thought.) And Hi also mentions how hard-edged and aggressive all of the Western religions seem to be, from the Eastern perspective accustomed to Buddhism and Shintu. But he says this all, better than I am doing.

As Christians are heading toward the season of Advent, a season that calls them to “silence” and darkness, in which they await the coming of the Christ-child and ponder what this nativity means, it seems appropriate to read a novel called Silence, about a Christian who is forced to make a terrible choice in a time of great personal darkness — in a time of utter silence from God, which might remind us of Mother Theresa’s letters about her sense of “abandonment” by God. (We talked about this a little bit over at The Land of Unlikeness. But not in depth, and I still have many questions about them.)

Another connection with current issues, perhaps, is to be found in the way that Endo’s protagonist does not know for sure (how can he?) whether his God will see his decision as sinful and blasphemous, or as being perhaps in the deepest likeness to Christ’s divine love as manifested on the Cross. He is an extreme situation, in which none of us would wish to find ourselves, for which no conventional guidelines from the past seem to apply. Faith, though, always tests not us, but who we think God is, and what God is for us (this God who “is love”).

Right now, we Episcopalians find ourselves in a place where the same diametrically opposed interpretations of our actions are being offered us. How can we know for sure? We have to trust in the God we know. I have never thought that the real question is, does God exist? No, the real question is, who and what is God?

And the question, who is God, what is God, is also the question: what have I found in my journey that compells my allegiance and is worthy of my deepest devotion?

I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to ponder this novel, and pursue whatever issues it raises for us, without being militant or disputatious. So, my very gentle readers (gentle most of the time anyway), I hope you’ll get your copies and start reading….

Here’s to November!

Conversation continues on mass, Higgs field, and science amidst the other liberal arts…

October 1, 2007

Gavin asks:

“Janet, I got the answer to what you want to do, but I’m still unsure whether learning some science has anything to do with it. Why are you asking about mass and energy and the Higgs Boson? Is this really what you need to know?”

Janet replies:

Here’s why, Gavin. (Why I’m asking about mass, energy, and the Higgs field.) It must seem like I have had a scatter-gun set of questions over the course of this blog, but they actually are guided by my own script and my own “strategy.”

So I do have a strategy, and I have worked on various pieces of it for years, like the Greeks, medievals, and 17th century pieces, but it’s a very broad and expansive project, and not a narrowly focused endeavor such as our academia most readily approves. But some people HAVE to be generalists, popularizers, and sythesizers, too. Or try to be!

Others have already done so much of the thought work. But I specifically want to try to “put it in terms” that Americans can understand and “relate to,” as they say, and not speak merely to specialists in one field or another….)

So I’m interested in mass, energy, and the Higgs field in relation to common assumptions about “objects,” and here’s why. The Anglo-American tradition of philosophy, called “analytic” of course, started out by trying to be a “scientific” philosophy with a mathematico-logical approach, around the turn of the 20th century (Frege, Russell, early Wittgenstein). Their foundationalist efforts are rightly termed “objectivist,” and it’s that set of assumptions concerned with the nature of “objects” vis-a-vis reality is what I’m always thinking about, because it constitutes a lot of what prevents scientists and humanists from talking to each other.

Their effort to ground science (as they understood it) and to ground mathematics (as they understood it) in symbolic logic relied on an explicitly stated assumption: that, as Russell said, “the universe consists of a plurality of objects, standing in external relations to one another.” By “external relations” they meant that the object wouldn’t be any different, no matter what set of relations it was put into. They weren’t having any of this “mutually self-constituted” or “dialectical” relationship stuff that was being looked into on the Continent (Hegelian dialectic, phenomenology, and soon Saussurean sign-systems and hermeneutics).

Then Russell et alia sought to show the logical conditions in which a verbal statement could be said to have properly captured the strictly “external” relationships between “objects.” A set of such “external” relationships was what Russell called a “fact.” Reality, in this tradition, is the natural world, viewed as being strictly a matter of “objects” and “facts.” It’s really ironic that Russell and Whitehead were writing Principia Mathematica right when Einstein was working out the theories that led to mass-energy and time-space equivalence as deeply interrelated phenomena…. Don’t even ask where “Hamlet” would stand in this view of “reality.” Something like “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet” captures a “fact”; it states the external relation between two objects, documentedly empirically existing objects….

On the other hand, the Continent approached the nature of scientific method very differently,after Saussure and other thinkers sunk in. And therefore, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and Continental thinkers have had the same problems speaking to each other that we see here in the U.S. and Great Britain, between the hard scientists and the cultural theorists, in the Alan Sokal hoax affair or in the responses to Dawkins’ polemic against religion. Empiricists against cultural theorists.

But the Continental philosophers were assuming a different universe: they were trying to firgure out how to look into deeply interrelated and internally connected and constituted states of affairs, which must be “known” dialectically, through a back-and-forth process of inquiry that probably never gets finished. Much more like what I described in my posts on Plato’s Ion. (Russellian thinkers tend to expect a finished edifice of scientific truth; a complete description of the natural world. It’s built into their view of the universe, as you can see.)

But on the Continent they certainly did not deny the reality of the natural world or science’s genuine interaction with it — but they are often misunderstood here in the U.S. because, I believe, of our touchingly Russellian assumptions. As soon as we hear anyone talking as though reality includes much more than hard concrete objects, or whenever anyone is exploring the interactions of theory-building in one area with the operative linguistic and cultural constructions in the same society, then we tend to assume they are denying the hard sciences and MUST therefore be relativists and social constructionists. (And sometimes over here, this is exactly the case.)

So my searching for fresh vocabulary in order to develop a description of, let’s say, “the episteme” and its pursuit of the formal script, that can apply to all the disciplines, has got to be able to describe what scientists do, in a way they can approve of, but that goes beyond naive “objectivism,” which equates “truth” with empirical “objects” and obvious, non-mediated “relationships” between empirical objects. (Where does this leave what Plato and Aristotle saw as the biggest component, the theoretical formalizations and the structures they build for understanding.)

I’m very interested in how 17th century physicists saw their own methods, and even then, I don’t think the Russell approach comes anywhere near to describing how they developed their physics or the nature of what it was they are trying to know about. Galileo and Newton, for instance, were dealing with a continuous sequence of action that unfolded over time and they were looking for proportionalities and trying to name or conceptualize various elements in the entire picture, as they rehearsed the experiments over and over again (here, for the motion of falling). And of course they looked for whatever measurable elements or quantities might be involved — quantities of matter, force, momentum, velocity, and so forth.

In the process, it’s notable how certain quantities could be “solved for” — they didn’t need to be always directly measurable in every case. So right from the start, you could quantify “mass” without knowing exactly what mass “is.” It is relationally defined, structurally defined, like so many things in the humanities and social sciences. But at first mass seemed to be so fundamental and empirically self-evident, in its relationship to “weight.” Its mode of existence seemed so obvious. It was equal to “quantity of matter” (density) times volume. And “Eureka!” We knew how to measure volume indirectly, from classical Greece. So we could always arrive at a numerical sum for density through weight and volume.

Nowadays, we know that weight is only a relative concept — it manifests itself in relation to a gravitational field and it depends upon the strength of the field. Similarly, gravity and its effects (bending space) are relational quantities defined by the equations they work in. Now, while weight varies, the mass of an object does not vary; it does not increase as it speed up, Gavin clarifies, but its energy does. So it is even more clear now that it is defined formally or relationally, as the particular variable that it is in the equations? Is that right? Do you see why this would be helpful to me? I want people to be able to take “formal” things seriously whether or not they are made of matter or are, perhaps, obvious relationships between two material objects that remain unchanged by those relationships. Energy seems important here, because as energy, it is not mass, but is convertible into mass. (??)

And there are “particles” that do not have mass. Clearly, then, neither mass nor lack of it determines what “exists,” or defines absolutely what an object “is.” This doesn’t make massless things less real of course. But it makes it easier to see the kind of “scientism” upon which Russell built his logic and that still defines what “really exists” for most Americans.

This brings us to the Higgs field. I was familiar with electro-magnetic fields (I mistakenly called these “energy fields”) and how the waves of which they usually seem to be composed can manifest themselves as particles. Some particles have mass (electrons) and some don’t (photons). But the Higgs field really interested me because it exists everywhere even in the vacuum of deep space where there is no matter by definition. If mass is the measure of an object’s resistance to change of velocity (its inertia), then the Higgs field is hypothesized as being what particles interact with, that determines their mass, I guess. A “3 quarks daily” piece described it as like a field of snow, and some particles have to wade through it, while others seem to have snowshoes or even skis….

I’m interested in fields just like I’m interested in mass and mass-less-ness, in that there are “things” in physics that are relationally and mathematically hypothesized and defined without needing to be an empirical “object” in the old naive sense. What is the mode of existence of a Higgs field or a massless particle (or of any particle)? We don’t know and we don’t need to know, because they have FORMAL reality, based on the way physics operates experimentally and mathematically in knowing about its own kind of thing.

I’m not trying to show that physics deals with non-existent or fictional “things” but rather that the structure of the physical world is not well represented by thinking of it as material “objects” standing in external relations to one another. Actually, the Russell effort in mathematical logic failed and is now abandoned, but I think most Americans think of “reality” the same way that Russell did, because they have no other convenient way to think of it.

The science bloggers who are most ferocious rely on Russellian vocabulary all the time. I remember a young woman who wrote in to express how disturbed she was when she attended a lecture by a major physicist and he spent the time assessing whether it could be said that quarks “really exist.” He concluded that, on the whole, science was justified in saying that they do exist. She was very disturbed by this, because she was used to saying that science deals only with things that really exist as empirical objects.

She was naive, of course, because physics is always methodologically un-certain of the exact relationship between its current models and whatever the “reality” might be. But wouldn’t it be good to have a GE program in the liberal arts that could fill her in without discrediting science, or demeaning the non-scientific disciplines? If I recall correctly, in one of our earliest exchanges, Gavin suggested that science is objective and general, as opposed to the more idiosyncratic and subjective areas of life and I said we needed a clearer description, because many other areas of life show general regularities and can be studied formally without being sciences.

In my own fields, we deal with “formal principles” all the time, just as though they “exist” out there in their own right, even though they are better regarded as our current attempts to model certain cultural “norms” that we try to observe. These are principles, idealized as norms, which humans statistically seem to “obey,” but their exact mode of existence is problematic, since whatever they are, they are internalized by human subjects from the shared semiotic codes of the culture, and we can’t even decide on the ontological status of mental concepts! Let alone the norms governing a mental concept for an entire language community….

Americans have trouble with this work with formal relationships and systems because they sort of want us to point them to the empirical “object” that is a formal sign system. Or they want a relationship in a sign system to be something separate from the signs it is relating to one another. But everything in a sign system is relative to everything else, mutually self-constituting.

Or they want any formal principle or relationship to be a strictly deterministic law. If it is merely probablistic, or “for the most part,” then they think it isn’t a real thing. It can’t be scientific or rigorous unless it is an “object” or a deterministic “law” relation objects to one another. But we are observing the behaviors and building our models or scripts for the system of mental/perceptual associations that we designate a sign system, whether it is a language or a code of etiquette or a kinship system or any other rule-governed practice. And we Americans would be very happy if language were simply a set of “words” standing in purely referential relationships to external objects. We don’t like it getting more complex than this, but basically it was the highly mediated and complex multi-leveled structure of language that defeated the project of Russell’s “scientific” rationalism.

In Continental thought, however, it turns out that when we say “puppy,” the meaning of the word is constituted by a much deeper web of associations that we’ve learned in addition to the simple word-refers-to-object “fact” that we can end up taking for granted once we’ve learned the language on all its levels of functioning. There is a much deeper and more complicated mental and perceptual structure involved than simply in just using the word “puppy” as though it were a verbal object standing in a relationship to a concrete empirical object.

But I can use the Greek notion of episteme for this linguistic situation quite beautifully, because it takes for granted the idea that formal entities “exist,” such as the kind of thing called “puppy,” and that the kind of thing is itself composed out of formal relationships that make it what it is. Just think. The KINDs of things for which we have nouns don’t “exist” in the world in the same way as an actual puppy does, but for human beings it does exist, and most people would say that the KINDs of thing humans notice and name do correspond with something in the real world, even though only humans explicitly think and name of a discrete object as also being a formal member of a class of things. (Family pets learn their own names along with the names of the human family members, but they wouldn’t recognize category names such as “humans” and “dogs” and “cats,” would they? This formal element is what makes human language and thought possible. What the Greeks thought of as “Form”-al.)

This recognition and use of “formal” entities (like numbers, for another fascinating example) was the focus of Greek philosophy and their vision of the liberal arts. So they offer us a very efficient and interesting new (old) way to think about all the disciplines — that we are all seeking to find the scripts for different phenomena by rehearsing them and formalizing the underlying structures — but people run aground right away here, because they protest that science deals with real things, but you are talking about “formal” structures of language and cultural codes and they must be less real things or fictions because they don’t empirically exist, do they? Or if we claim they do exist, then are we claiming that science is “just a social code” too?

Well, we work from observation to theory and from theory to observation just as physics does, so that we have a deep context of theoretical work just as physics does, when it moves toward naming smaller and smaller constituent components of the physical world, for instance.

A difference is that we have to work together more “intuitively” than the scientists — not more intuitively than physicists do when they are developing hypotheses to test (because this is very intuitive and creative and a real “art”) but more intuitively in that we have to discuss and test our theories against much less isolatable phenomena and in less quantifiably measurable and direct ways, to make our progress.

Remember though, that we are dealing with historical and cultural human phenomena, and the fact that our formalizations are part of our time and place and in conversation with them is a large part of their value. It might not matter to physics when Planck’s constant was discovered or who discovered it, for its consequences would remain to be developed, but part of the purpose of our disciplines is that we do the best we can to be always relating our findings to the problems of our own times and to the meaning of our personal lives, and this is appropriate to the nature of our disciplines and what we are studying.

But like the physicists, as we are carried from external observations to underlying formal relationships and theoretical construct, we havegood reason to believe in the existence of what we are studying, based on a whole history of evolving theory, the way psyschologists believe in “repression” for instance, and in “working through,” because they see that mechanism operating over and over again in therapeutic and other situations, and yet the script for it and how it works is always evolving.

So you see it is very important for me that physics has such a large theoretical and formal component and deals with kinds of quantities which to some degree define each other, and not simply with “material objects.” It’s important, that is, if we are to develop a description that can make sense to all of us and that can be shared by hard scientists and cultural theorists alike, as well as musicians and so forth, so that they can understand and respect each other’s efforts to know.