Incommensurability and Private Language

– David Bohm argues in his talk in ‘The Structure of Scientific Theories’ that terms in a given scientific theory only have meaning within the context given by that theory. This can probably be called ‘strong incommensurability’ – no two theories seem to be able to talk to each other.

– What this leaves us with is a kind of private language for science – private theory language. If the terms in a theory have their meaning only within the context of that theory, then it would seem that, as far as theories are concerned, scientists are unable to talk to each other. Given, however, the fact that scientists do talk to each other (and sometimes even about each others theories) there must be a snag somewhere.

– Bohm’s solution (and he later acknowledges that though it looks as if he’s advocating a kind of solipsism, he’s not) is to try and show that until a kind of common language can be adopted, confusions will continue to crop up in theory development. He cites a number of scientific cases from quantum mechanics where confusion abounds. Some familiar examples might be von Neumann, Kepler/Newton, etc.

– I think it’s fair to here identify Bohm to be paying tribute to the positivist tradition (Carnap et al) in his effort to move from ‘private theory language’  to a common kind of language – a project which saw a large reaction in 60’s and 70’s philosophy of science, especially in the area of theory-laden observation, which attacked the idea that there is in fact even neutral sensory data and neutral language to translate a theory from and into.

– Despite significant confusions in science (Bohm is correct to identify this) it seems a bit shaky to assert that this is both something to assert that this confusion is something to be avoided at all costs by adoption of a more neutral language (even though a Wittgensteinian picture of language may be of help here). Such confusions are only a strict problem if they stem only from theories not being able to talk to each other and do nothing to advance science – and quite often, these confusions help to sharpen, clarify and discard theories and concepts and so help science to advance forward.

– An example here that Bohm cites is malaria – which, throughout history, has had many different theories formed about its origin, structure, spreading, etc. Bohm notes that every different theory here is incommensurable – theorized causes ranged from bad air, damp air, etc, which all seemed to be confirmed by the data – and that effectively, each theory had nothing in common other than the fact that each dealt with malaria.

– In rebuttal, Robert Causey argues that far from demonstrating strong incommensurability, this merely shows that some theories are harder to falsify and some easy to confirm. The current (correct) theory of malaria makes sense of the same data as earlier, more primitive theories (damp air, bad water, etc) – Causey more or less argues that the history of malaria shows that, far from being incommensurable, these theories dealt with the same problem and the same data. Causey further argues that to show the kind of incommensurablity that Bohm is driving at, Bohm would have to show that (1) the problems dealt with by the different theories really were different problems with only the mere appearance of being the same (2) that the terms used by the different theories really were different and (3) that the differences in these terms and their meanings are different enough to show that the problems the theories were dealing with really were different problems.

– This, though a crude sketch, shows that incommensurability requires a fairly high burden of proof if it’s going to be asserted in as strong of a form that Bohm asserted.

Stanley Jaki on Einstein’s Failure

‘The year of that Slovay Congress, was, it is well to recall, the year in which Heisenberg gave his derivation of the principle of indeterminacy concerning measurements in physics. One can therefore in a sense understand Einstein’s tactics in taking on the Copenhagen interpretation at its nerve center, which consisted in the insistence that measurements were inconceivable without someone doing them. Thus it would be argued that the act of measurement, which in one way or another implied pointer readings and therefore a reliance on light quanta, deprived the measurement of absolute precision. Such insistence when elevated into a first principle became equivalent to withdrawing into a citadel. Once confined to measurements within that citadel, one could declare that physical theory was limited to the measurable and therefore had no need of hidden variables. Withdrawal into that citadel also meant the the viewing of anything outside it as unreal. It was such a citadel that Einstein wanted to conquer from within, by trying to devise a thought experiment in which absolute precision was in principle possible. He was bound to fail for the very reason that no measurement is possible without observation. But it did not follow from this that knowledge of reality was equivalent to measuring it with absolute precision. Philosophically the citadel in question did not represent the full range of man’s knowing reality, and it certainly did not represent the full range of modern physics. Einstein’s own theory of relativity was a case in point, and all members of the Copenhagen school could have been forced to admit that it was a telling case.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 209)

Stanley Jaki on the Copenhagen Theory

‘Whatever the distance of human passions from atomic physics, the real question was whether one’s epistemological attitude was truly general, that is, consistent or not. The impression Bohr gave was that one was to have two kinds of epistemology, one for atomic phenomena, another for everything else, but it was still to be explained whether the understanding, or episteme, could be split in two. On this decisive point Bohr gave at best an impression which was vague and superficial. Staying with superficial impressions means staying on the surface, and this in turn implies the avoidance of deep questions. Typically enough, Bohr completed the final review of his epistemological conflict with Einstein with the remark that “through a singularly fruitful cooperation of a whole generation of physicists we are nearing the goal wheere logical order to a large extent allows us to avoid deep truth.” The most obvious of such deep truths should have been for Bohr the truth of the complementarity of matter and light, waves and particles, atomic stability and indeterminacy. The truth that they were complementary to one another was not a matter of observation, but an inference, and a genuinely metaphysical one, which had no justification in the Copenhagen theory. The truth in question was about the truth of a reality which had complementary aspects. These aspects could really complement one another only if they inhered in a deeper reality, about which Bohr could only be agnostic. A harmony of relations or aspects, complementing one another, such was Bohr’s epistemological message, a message void of reference to the ontological reality of anything harmonious. About the entity which embodied the harmony of relations he was not permitted by his own premises to make any claim and he carefully avoided doing so. In a truly pragmatist way, which he learned from Hoffding, a forerunner of William James, Bohr could speak of fruits, though not of their harmny (which is never a matter of direct observation) and certainly not of the tree which produced the fruits, to say nothing of the soil which supported and nourished the tree. For Bohr the deepest aspect of existence was pragmatic fruitfulness, the rather shallow perspective in which he saw physics itself: “Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the present position of physics is that almost all the ideas which have ever proved to be fruitful in the investigating of nature have found their right place in a common harmony without thereby having diminished their fruitfulness.”

As will be seen shortly, this was not even true of quantum mechanics, a fact which should surprise no one. The really creative elements of quantum mechanics are not the data observed by physicists bu the marvelous ideas formed in their heads. Of those heads few were as impressive as that of Bohr, who for many was a twentieth-century Moses with two flaming horns on his forehead. The horns were the horns of complementarity, but as interpreted by Bohr they could not secure reality to the atomic realm, to say nothing of Moses or Bohr himself. Bohr’s pairs of complementarity resembled pairs of horns from which one could not even infer unambiguously that they were rooted in the same head and thereby truly complementary or that the head itself was real, and even more fundamentally real than the horns themselves.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and he Ways to God’, p. 205-206)

Notes on Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics

– The basic principle of NET, as developed by Ilya Prigogine, is that systems far-from-equilibrium (FFE) are sources of order.

– Classical thermodynamics is primarily concerned with closed systems and the equilibrium obtained therein – that is, the state of the closed system as being one of maximum entropy, or disorder, and temperature uniformity. This is generally seen as a static state.

– Key things about closed systems: there is no decrease in entropy – that is, disorder only increases. Another way of putting it is that organization and organized activity in the system only decrease.

– Non-equilibrium systems differ, obviously enough, by not being in a state of maximal disorder and not being in the state of uniform temperature. Paul Davies uses he example of a sealed flask of liquid and a boiling teapot: the former is in a maximal state of disorder (despite appearances) while the latter is FFE.

– The interesting thing about FFE systems is that their behaviour can change abruptly when the system is pushed FFE.

– A key point of difference between open and closed systems is that a closed system, as its name implies, is closed off to its environment, whereas an open system, is (surprise) open to its environment – in other words, the former receives no energy from its environment while the latter does.

– Prigogine is noted for his discovery/development of dissipative structures – systems which, when pushed FFE by an outside energy source, dissipate the energy/entropy that pushes them towards disorder and adopt a stable form.

– In a nutshell, dissipative structures can get around the second law of thermodynamics by dissipating the entropy/energy to their environments, resulting in an increase in organized activity, and showing that systems FFE can be a source of order – as Prigogine puts it, non-equilbrium systems bring order out of chaos.

*edit – a friend of mine notes that ‘NETherm does not so much get around the second law as was said, but shows how local entropy reduction at systems far from equilibrium which are easily perturbed can occur within its confines.’

A Few Good Links

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump, so in lieu of a post of my own here’s a few good links I’ve found today:

A few 3:AM interviews:

Tim Maudlin –

‘Philosophy of mathematics is a large and fascinating area about which I have had nothing at all to say. I am a mathematical Platonist in the simple sense that I believe clear, unambiguous mathematical propositions (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture or the Axiom of Choice) to be either true or false independently of whether or not they can be proven. Indeed, it seems obvious to me for many different reasons (including, of course, Gödel’s theorems) that infinitely many mathematical truths are not theorems of any intuitively acceptable proof system. So I believe in a “world” of mathematical fact in virtue of which clear mathematical propositions are either true or false. But I do not take these mathematical facts to be materialist or naturalistic in any interesting sense. I would not, myself, regard this as a “counterexample” to naturalism or materialism, because I never thought of those doctrines as making any claims about mathematics. But perhaps I am idiosyncratic in that regard.’

Tim Crane –

‘What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons…’

Timothy Williamson 

‘Anyway, I am indeed saying that it is necessary what there is. Necessarily everything is necessarily something. There could not have been more or fewer things than there actually are, and which particular things there are could not have been different. What is contingent is only what properties those things have, and what relations they have to each other. I call that view necessitism. Its denial is contingentism.’

‘Wittgenstein could indeed have had a daughter. But no past, present, or future person could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein, at least not in the biological sense (obviously he could have adopted many actual women). Nor could any actual sum of atoms have been identical with a daughter of Wittgenstein, it could only have constituted such a daughter, and constitution isn’t identity. Rather, for a necessitist, something that could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein is a merely possible person, and a merely possible concrete object. It is neither concrete, a person, nor a daughter of Wittgenstein, but it could have been all three. Similarly, there could have been no tigers, if evolution had taken a different turn. In those counterfactual circumstances, all the actual tigers would have been merely possible tigers—non-concrete non-tigers that could have been concrete tigers. So it is contingent what kinds of thing are instantiated.’

aeon’s David Dobbs on why the selfish gene needs to die

‘It’s a gorgeous story. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple. It has inspired countless biologists and geneticists to plumb the gene’s wonders and do brilliant work. Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and many others, the selfish-gene story is so focused on the gene’s singular role in natural selection that in an age when it’s ever more clear that evolution works in ways far more clever and complex than we realise, the selfish-gene model increasingly impoverishes both scientific and popular views of genetics and evolution. As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us.’

A really cool chart on the philosophy of science –


(I’d probably put myself between scientific and structural realism, leaning a bit closer to structural realism, while recognizing that no one position here can do science justice. Some theories are purely instrumental – some are much more realist.)

A great Russell quote:

“I still think that truth depends upon a relation to fact, and that facts in general are nonhuman; I still think that man is cosmically unimportant, and that a Being, if there were one, who could view the universe impartially, without the bias of here and now, would hardly mention man, except perhaps in a footnote near the end of the volume; but I no longer have the wish to thrust out human elements from regions where they belong; I have no longer the feeling that intellect is superior to sense. I used to think of sense, and of thought which is built on sense, as a prison from which we can be freed by thought which is emancipated from sense. I now have no such feelings. I think of sense, and of thoughts built on sense, as windows, not as prison bars.” (‘My Philosophical Development’ (1959), p. 213)

And, on the topic of Russell, An Aristotelian-Thomistic response to Russell’s problem of induction –

‘And so to respond to Russell’s claim: what is existential or particular or singularcan refer either to the thing understood, or the way of understanding. If the latter, it’s false to say that experience is particular; if the former, then the particular is no more opposed to the universal than it is to the particular.’

Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)


Reading Notes 8/31/2014

John Grisham’s ‘The Summons’ has been a great read – fun, mysterious, page-turning, etc. It’s the first of his I’ve ever read, and I can see now why he’s pretty much at the top of the modern canon of fiction. I actually don’t know the last time I read a book that kept me up late to read it.

I stopped reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’ – maybe I just don’t get it but honestly, that was one boring book. Now that I think about it, there is no maybe – I just didn’t get it. I try and read one fiction book at a time, so putting this book down was the reason I picked up ‘The Summons’

.Brian Greene’s explanation of string theory and its unification of both general relativity and quantum mechanics in ‘The Elegant Universe’ is so far some of the best writing on the subject I’ve been able to find. A short segment on the nature of physical laws caused me to break out Feynman’s ‘Six Not-So-Easy Pieces’ where he talks about the symmetry of physical laws. The nature of physical law is a fascinating thing to reflect on – especially the ontological status of said laws.

Torrance’s essay on Polanyi in ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’ is a brilliant essay – his exposition of some fairly complex ideas is outstanding. The whole book is great, but the Polanyi essay is probably one of the stronger essays in the book.  Torrance’s concept of stratified levels of intelligibility in reality is definitely something I’ll be thinking further on.

Reading Notes 7/14/2014

I’m nearing the end of Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’, and so far, the most interesting part has been his placing Jesus in the tradition of failed Messiah-kings (Wright cites Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Bar-Kosiba and Herod as examples of failed Messiah-kings, then shows how Jesus is the actual king who inaugurates both the new creation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven). Interesting fleshing out of this idea. A lot of the book is fairly basic Wright themes – if you’ve read his weightier books, then this one will seem pretty repetitive.

I’ve been reading more closely Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and aspects of it are very interesting. As far as a survey of various strands of existentialism throughout history, it’s a great book, but his theology, if you can call it that (it’s more of trading theology for ontology, and ontology of existential psychology) isn’t really worth much. He strikes me as fairly Wittgensteinian in his ‘theology’, which upon close examination, turns out to be more of a semiology than theology. So basically, he goes from theology to ontology, from ontology to psychology, and then from psychology to semiology. A note I found very interesting was his classifying Plato as existentialist, on account of (for Tillich) Plato’s philosophy ultimately showing that man is estranged from his essential essence.

I started going back over some of Brian Greene’s physics books – ‘The Hidden Reality’ and ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’, to learn more about inflationary cosmology. What a fantastic teacher of physics – it took a minute of reading, but he broke down IC in such an easy way that even I was able to grasp the broader principles behind it. His use of analogy and metaphor in place of dense mathematics is brilliant. I tried reading Susskind’s ‘The Theoretical Minimum’, and there was just too much math – for someone as terrible at math as me, that’s basically a non-starter.

Bruggemann’s ‘Old Testament Theology’ is continuing to be a solid, challenging book. I disagree with his methodology, almost in its entirety, but a lot of his conclusions and exegesis is pretty solid. His emphasis on the rhetorical nature of the OT as well as thinking of the OT in solely in the category of ‘witness’ is a very fruitful avenue. His flippant dismissal of Christian interpretations of the OT isn’t as fruitful, though. It’s odd (I mentioned this in an earlier post on this book) that someone so willing to interpret the OT along post-modern/critical lines (which is fine – I’m not one of those anti-PoMo Christians), which is a very foreign category to the OT, simply dismisses Christian interpretations (for example, the OT being a ‘pointer’ or ‘witness’ to Christ) as wrong.

Kenneth Kitchen’s ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ is a tour de force of OT archaeology and interpretation. While the style is as engaging as the nutrition facts on a cereal box, the content is fantastic and the attention to detail is rigourous to a fault – I read through half a dozen pages comparing styles of architecture among ancient near eastern temples, grain prices, slave prices, etc. Great content, terrible style.



Stanley Jaki on the Starting Point of Science

‘Since science is divested of its nature when it ceases to be about nature, it is but logical to start with the facts of nature in staking out the epistemological phases of the road to discovery. The most immediate feature of those facts is their complexity, a complexity, however, that is far from chaotic. Regularities in those facts are obvious even to a cursory look, but so are departures from them. It is these departures or anomalies that spark curiosity in the mind, a feature which is mysterious only to those who are busy with the task of clearing up the process of understanding without admitting their curiosity about the task itself. Curiosity is not an automatic reaction, and much less automatic is the urge to look for ever more meaningful curiosa presented by nature. Such a look involves a patient sorting-out process, which in turn implies the isolation of special factors operative in nature, giving rise to more specialized or abstractive notions of it. The interrelation of those factors into sets and the integration of the sets themselves are further steps along the road to discovery of so-called laws, which are obtained when a complete generalization is achieved in the act of induction.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 252-253)

Metaphysics, Science, Metaphysics

Stanley Jaki, one of my favourite authors, says in almost every one of his books that one can go from philosophy to science, but not from science to philosophy. It’s a one-way street. To build a philosophy from science (assuming the common definitions of both) is a conceptual confusion – or is it? How often is it said that a given scientific area of research is answering questions previously reserved for philosophy only?

Think, for example, of determinism. Determinism is a metaphysical theory – that any given state of affairs is causally necessitated by preceding states of affairs. Now, if the road truly is one way, then a metaphysical theory cannot be falsified by empirical data. Two things come to mind, however, that would ‘disprove’ determinism: quantum mechanics and Ilya Prigogine’s work in the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics ( Both of these scientific enterprises seem to show that determinism is a bankrupt idea.

How is this possible, though? How can empirical scientific discoveries falsify a metaphysical theory? I suspect that the answer can be found by looking closely at what I’ve argued is the intimate tie between science and metaphysics. If a scientific discovery appears to falsify a metaphysical theory, then that ought to be a sign that what we hold as a metaphysical theory is simply a scientific theory in disguise – by the same token, if a metaphysical theory is taken to falsify a scientific theory, then what we have isn’t a metaphysical theory but a scientific theory disguised as metaphysics. If the above scientific enterprises falsify determinism, then it merely serves to demonstrate the deep concord between metaphysics, science and language.

The extent to which (say) determinism is falsified by a given scientific discovery shows the extent to which science and metaphysics are bound up together – while the metaphysics of causality aren’t empirical (Hume), the empirical correlations we see in scientific research do give us insight into the realm of causality. T.F. Torrance actually goes into a bit of depth on causality in light of the resurrection of Jesus – see here:

If I could formulate a maxim of my own on this subject, in might be something along these lines: without metaphysics, there is nothing by which we can study the empirical, and without the empirical, there is nothing which we can study.

I wanted to say more, but my dog barked and I lost my train of thought.