An Upanishadic lesson for modern science?

Do the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads lack the “baggage of biography” – to borrow Amit Chaudhuri’s words – because we don’t know who the authors, outside of the mythology, are or – as Chaudhuri writes in a new essay – do these texts carry more weight than their authors themselves because Eastern Philosophy privileged the work over its authorship? Selected excerpts:

One might recall that the New Critical turn against biography is related to a privileging, in the twentieth century, of the impersonality, rather than the emotional sincerity or conscious intention, of the creative act. This development is not unrelated … to the impact that certain Indian texts had on modernity after they were translated into European languages and put into circulation from the late eighteenth century onwards. …

By the time the Gita’s Krishna was first heard in Europe, all judgements were deemed, by the Enlightenment, to be either subjective or objective. What kind of judgement escapes this binary by being at once passionate and detached, made in earnest without mindfulness of outcome? Immanuel Kant addresses this in a shift in his own thinking, in his writings on aesthetics in 1790 … Five years separate the Gita’s appearance in English, and three years its translation into French, from Kant’s intervention in aesthetics. It’s unlikely he’d have been unaware of the work, or made his sui generis departure without it. The second time such “disinterestedness” appears as a concept, when Matthew Arnold redefines what criticism is, the link to the Gita is clear, and doesn’t require speculation. …

The Gita’s practice of “impersonality” points to T. S. Eliot’s attack, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, on the idea that poetry is an “expression of the personality” or of “emotion”. It’s no accident that the final line of The Waste Land is the Upanishadic refrain, “shantih shantih shantih”, the Sanskrit word for spiritual peace or even-mindedness …

It’s uncertain in what way these conceptual departures would have existed in modernity if these texts hadn’t been put into circulation when they were. Yet a great part of this history of ideas remains unwritten.

Chaudhuri also sets out the relative position of the Upanishads in modernity, particularly their being in opposition to one of the fundamental tenets of modern philosophy: causality. Per Chaudhuri, the Upanishads “dismantle” the causal relationship between the creator and the creation and “interrogate consciousness” through a series of arguments that attempt to locate the ‘Brahman’ in human and natural logic.

He concludes this portion of his text by speculating that the Upanishads might in fact have been penned by “anomalous Brahmins” because in the Bhagavad Gita, which is contemporaneous with some of the Upanishads and followed the rest after more than a century, Krishna asserts, “Neither Vedas, nor sacrifices, nor studies, nor benefactions, nor rituals, nor fearful austerities can give the vision of my Form Supreme” – whereas just these rituals, and their privation, concern the typical orthodox Brahmin today.

While the essay provides much to think about, the separation of creator and creation – in terms of the Upanishads being disinterested (in the specific sense of Chaudhuri’s definition, to mean an ‘evenness of the mind’ akin to unfixation rather than uninterestedness) with both a godlike figure or rituals and making room for biographical details in their verses – is incredibly interesting, especially in relation to modern science.

As Chaudhuri writes,

… “the field of knowledge called “the history of Western philosophy” could just as easily be called “the history of Western philosophers”, inasmuch as Western philosophers are the sum total of their lives and works, and we often defer to both biography and thought when we interact with the philosophy. Each body of work has a personality, but so does its author; in almost every case, we can, literally, put a “face” to the work, whether that’s a photograph of Bertrand Russell or a fourth-century BC bust of Plato.”

Prof Gita Chadha alluded to the same trait in the context of science pedagogy – in The Life of Science‘s promised postscript to their webinar on July 10 about ‘geniuses’ in science. In response to a question by Mrinal Shah, as to how teachers and educators could disprivilege the idea of a ‘scientific genius’ at the primary school level, Chadha said (excerpt):

There is an interesting problem here … In trying to make science interesting and accessible to children, we have to use relatable language. This relatable language organically comes from our social contexts but also comes with the burden of social meanings. So then, what do we do? It’s a tricky one! Also, in trying to make role models for children, we magnify the individual and replay what goes on in the world of science. We teach relativity as Einstein’s theory, we teach laws of motion as Newtonian laws of motion. The pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea becomes counterproductive.

‘Geniuses’ are necessarily individuals – there are no ‘genius communities’. A genius’s status as such denotes at once a centralisation of power and authority, and thus influence; a maturation of intellect (and intellect alone) presented as a role-model to others; and, in continuation, a pinnacle of achievement that those who profit from the extraction of scientific work, such as universities and research funders, valorise.

This said, I can’t tell if – though I suspect that – the modern history of ‘Western science’ is largely the modern history of ‘Western scientists’, especially of the ‘geniuses’ among them. The creator causes the creation, so by contemplating the science, you contemplate the scientist himself – or, as the ‘genius’ would have it, by contemplating the science you necessarily contemplate the creator and his specific choices. And since the modern scientific enterprise was largely harmonised to the West’s methods in the post-colonial period, this is our contemporary history as well.

Chadha had previously noted, in response to a question from yours truly, that she struggles to argue for the non-separation of science and scientist in the context of the #MeToo movement. That is, our liberty to separate important scientific work from the (extra-scientific) actions of an errant scientist may not be so easily achieved, at least if one intends to the extent possible to not participate in the accumulation of power. Instead, she said, we must consider them together, and call out “unethical or non-inclusive practices” – and by extension “you will also call out the culture to which they belong, which will help you to restore the balance of justice, if I may say so.”

This resolves to some extent my issue with Lawrence M. Krauss (although not fully because while Krauss’s culture has been dismantled at his previous university, however temporarily, he continues to maintain an innocence grounded in distasteful convictions). However, I’m still adrift vis-à-vis the late Richard Feynman and others. As a physics journalist first, I can’t help but encounter Feynman in one form or another – but how do you call out a dead man? Or does calling out the dead man’s culture, as perpetuated by the likes of Krauss today, suffice?

Chaudhuri has a similar question: “What do we do with a philosophy when there’s no philosopher in sight?” This matters because the philosopher’s “absence constitutes a problem in giving, and claiming, value. Meaning and significance in Western culture are not just features of the work, but pertain to, and arise from, the owner of the work – the author is the work’s first owner; the author’s nation or culture (“Greece” or “Germany”, say; or “the West”) its overarching one.”

So as with the Upanishads, would we be better served if we concerned ourselves less with deities and their habits and more with the “impersonal” instruction and interrogation of what is true? This seems like a straightforward way out of the problem Mrinal Shah poses, but it doesn’t address, as Chadha put it, the “pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea” – while “impersonal” interrogations of what is true will wrongly ignore the influence of sociological forces in science.

However, all said, I suspect that the answer is here somewhere. The ‘scientific genius’ is a construct and a shared one at that. When we contemplate a body of groundbreaking scientific work, we don’t contemplate the work alone or the scientist alone; we contemplate the work as arising from the scientist but even then only in a limited, constructive sense. But there is more at play; for example, as Chadha said, “We need to critically start engaging with how the social location of a scholar impacts the kind of work that they do”. If I write an article calling X a ‘genius’, X wouldn’t immediately occupy that position unless he is held there by social and capitalist forces as well.

The Upanishads in this context encourage us to erase the binary of ‘creator’ and ‘creation’ and with it the causal perspective’s temptation to think the scientist and the science are separable. In their stead, there is I think room to compose a communitarian story of science – where good arises not from the one but the whole, where power becomes, in keeping with the Upanishads, impersonal.

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

On this note: please also donate a sum comfortable to you to support our work. Even an amount as little as Rs 200 will go a long way.

The Wire
December 26, 2019

The calculus of creative discipline

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over world-building. World-building is dull. World-building literalises the urge to invent. World-building gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). World-building numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, world-building is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism.

Once I’m awake and have had my mug of tea, and once I’m done checking Twitter, I can quote these words of M. John Harrison from memory: not because they’re true – I don’t believe they are – but because they rankle. I haven’t read any writing of Harrison’s, I can’t remember the names of any of his books. Sometimes I don’t remember his name even, only that there was this man who uttered these words. Perhaps it is to Harrison’s credit that he’s clearly touched a nerve but I’m reluctant to concede anymore than this.

His (partial) quote reflects a narrow view of a wider world, and it bothers me because I remain unable to extend the conviction that he’s seeing only a part of the picture to the conclusion that he lacks imagination; as a writer of not inconsiderable repute, at least according to Wikipedia, I doubt he has any trouble imagining things.

I’ve written about the virtues of world-building before (notably here), and I intend to make another attempt in this post; I should mention what both attempts, both defences, have in common is that they’re not prescriptive. They’re not recommendations to others, they’re non-generalisable. They’re my personal reasons to champion the act, even art, of world-building; my specific loci of resistance to Harrison’s contention. But at the same time, I don’t view them – and neither should you – as inviolable or as immune to criticism, although I suspect this display of a willingness to reason may not go far in terms of eliminating subjective positions from this exercise, so make of it what you will.

There’s an idea in mathematical analysis called smoothness. Let’s say you’ve got a curve drawn on a graph, between the x- and y-axes, shaped like the letter ‘S’. Let’s say you’ve got another curve drawn on a second graph, shaped like the letter ‘Z’. According to one definition, the S-curve is smoother than the Z-curve because it has fewer sharp edges. A diligent high-schooler might take recourse through differential calculus to explain the idea. Say the Z-curve on the graph is the result of a function Z(x) = y. If you differentiate Z(x) where ‘x’ is the point on the x-axis where the Z-curve makes a sharp turn, the derivative Z'(x) has a value of zero. Such points are called critical points. The S-curve doesn’t have any critical points (except at the ends, but let’s ignore them); L-, and T-curves have one critical point each; P- and D-curves have two critical points each; and an E-curve has three critical points.

With the help of a loose analogy, you could say a well-written story is smooth à la an S-curve (excluding the terminal points): it it has an unambiguous beginning and an ending, and it flows smoothly in between the two. While I admire Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series for many reasons, its first instalment is like a T-curve, where three broad plot-lines abruptly end at a point in the climax that the reader has been given no reason to expect. The curves of the first three books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series resemble the tangent function (from trigonometry: tan(x) = sin(x)/cosine(x)): they’re individually somewhat self-consistent but the reader is resigned to the hope that their beginnings and endings must be connected at infinity.

You could even say Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been smooth at all because there have been so many critical points.

Where world-building “literalises the urge to invent” to Harrison, it spatialises the narrative to me, and automatically spotlights the importance of the narrative smoothness it harbours. World-building can be just as susceptible to non-sequiturs and deus ex machinae as writing itself, all the way to the hubris Harrison noticed, of assuming it gives the reader anything to do, even enjoy themselves. Where he sees the “clomping foot of nerdism”, I see critical points in a curve some clumsy world-builder invented as they went along. World-building can be “dull” – or it can choose to reveal the hand-prints of a cave-dwelling people preserved for thousands of years, and the now-dry channels of once-heaving rivers that nurtured an ancient civilisation.

My principal objection to Harrison’s view is directed at the false dichotomy of writing and world-building, and which he seems to want to impose instead of the more fundamental and more consequential need for creative discipline. Let me borrow here from philosophy of science 101, specifically of the particular importance of contending with contradictory experimental results. You’ve probably heard of the replication crisis: when researchers tried to reproduce the results of older psychology studies, their efforts came a cropper. Many – if not most – studies didn’t replicate, and scientists are currently grappling with the consequences of overturning decades’ worth of research and research practices.

This is on the face of it an important reality check but to a philosopher with a deeper view of the history of science, the replication crisis also recalls the different ways in which the practitioners of science have responded to evidence their theories aren’t prepared to accommodate. The stories of Niels Bohr v. classical mechanicsDan Shechtman v. Linus Pauling and the EPR paradox come first to mind. Heck, the philosophers Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend are known for their criticisms of each other’s ideas on different ways to rationalise the transition from one moment containing multiple answers to the moment where one emerges as the favourite.

In much the same way, the disciplined writer should challenge themself instead of presuming the liberty to totter over the landscape of possibilities, zig-zagging between one critical point and the next until they topple over the edge. And if they can’t, they should – like the practitioners of good science – ask for help from others, pressing the conflict between competing results into the service of scouring the rust away to expose the metal.

For example, since June this year, I’ve been participating on my friend Thomas Manuel’s initiative in his effort to compose an underwater ‘monsters’ manual’. It’s effectively a collaborative world-building exercise where we take turns to populate different parts of a large planet with sizeable oceans, seas, lakes and numerous rivers with creatures, habitats and ecosystems. We broadly follow the same laws of physics and harbour substantially overlapping views of magic, but we enjoy the things we invent because they’re forced through the grinding wheels of each other’s doubts and curiosities, and the implicit expectation of one creator to make adequate room for the creations of the other.

I see it as the intersection of two functions: at first, their curves will criss-cross at a point, and the writers must then fashion a blending curve so a particle moving along one can switch to the other without any abruptness, without any of the tired melodrama often used to mask criticality. So the Kularu people are reminded by their oral traditions to fight for their rivers, so the archaeologists see through the invading Gezmin’s benevolence and into the heart of their imperialist ambitions.

Some notes on empiricism, etc.

The Wire published a story about the ‘atoms of Acharya Kanad‘ (background here; tl;dr: Folks at a university in Gujarat claimed an ancient Indian sage had put forth the theory of atoms centuries before John Dalton showed up). The story in question was by a professor of philosophy at IISER, Mohali, and he makes a solid case (not unfamiliar to many of us) as to why Kanad, the sage, didn’t talk about atoms specifically because he was making a speculative statement under the Vaisheshika school of Hindu philosophy that he founded. What got me thinking were the last few lines of his piece, where he insists that empiricism is the foundation of modern science, and that something that doesn’t cater to it can’t be scientific. And you probably know what I’m going to say next. “String theory”, right?

No. Well, maybe. While string theory has become something of a fashionable example of non-empirical science, it isn’t the only example. It’s in fact a subset of a larger group of systems that don’t rely on empirical evidence to progress. These systems are called formal systems, or formal sciences, and they include logic, mathematics, information theory and linguistics. (String theory’s reliance on advanced mathematics makes it more formal than natural – as in the natural sciences.) And the dichotomous characterisation of formal and natural sciences (the latter including the social sciences) is superseded by a larger, more authoritative dichotomy*: between rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism prefers knowledge that has been deduced through logic and reasoning; empiricism prioritises knowledge that has been experienced. As a result, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that debates about which side is right (insofar as it’s possible to be absolutely right – which I don’t think everwill happen) play out in the realm of science. And squarely within the realm of science, I’d like to use a recent example to provide some perspective.

Last week, scientists discovered that time crystals exist. I wrote a longish piece here tracing the origins and evolution of this exotic form of matter, and what it is that scientists have really discovered. Again, a tl;dr version: in 2012, Frank Wilczek and Alfred Shapere posited that a certain arrangement of atoms (a so-called ‘time crystal’) in their ground state could be in motion. This could sound pithy to you if you were unfamiliar with what ground state meant: absolute zero, the thermodynamic condition wherein an object has no energy whatsoever to do anything else but simply exist. So how could such a thing be in motion? The interesting thing here is that though Shapere-Wilczek’s original paper did not identify a natural scenario in which this could be made to happen, they were able to prove that it could happen formally. That is, they found that the mathematics of the physics underlying the phenomenon did not disallow the existence of time crystals (as they’d posited it).

It’s pertinent that Shapere and Wilczek turned out to be wrong. By late 2013, rigorous proofs had showed up in the scientific literature demonstrating that ground-state, or equilibrium, time crystals could not exist – but that non-equilibrium time crystals with their own unique properties could. The discovery made last week was of the latter kind. Shapere and Wilczek have both acknowledged that their math was wrong. But what I’m pointing at here is the conviction behind the claim that forms of matter called time crystals could exist, motivated by the fact that mathematics did not prohibit it. Yes, Shapere and Wilczek did have to modify their theory based on empirical evidence (indirectly, as it contributed to the rise of the first counter-arguments), but it’s undeniable that the original idea was born, and persisted with, simply through a process of discovery that did not involve sense-experience.

In the same vein, much of the disappointment experienced by many particle physicists today is because of a grating mismatch between formalism – in the form of theories of physics that predict as-yet undiscovered particles – and empiricism – the inability of the LHC to find these particles despite looking repeatedly and hard in the areas where the math says they should be. The physicists wouldn’t be disappointed if they thought empiricism was the be-all of modern science; they’d in fact have been rebuffed much earlier. For another example, this also applies to the idea of naturalness, an aesthetically (and more formally) enshrined idea that the forces of nature should have certain values, whereas in reality they don’t. As a result, physicists think something about their reality is broken instead of thinking something about their way of reasoning is broken. And so they’re sitting at an impasse, as if at the threshold of a higher-dimensional universe they may never be allowed to enter.

I think this is important in the study of the philosophy of science because if we’re able to keep in mind that humans are emotional and that our emotions have significant real-world consequences, we’d not only be better at understanding where knowledge comes from. We’d also become more sensitive to the various sources of knowledge (whether scientific, social, cultural or religious) and their unique domains of applicability, even if we’re pretty picky, and often silly, at the moment about how each of them ought to be treated (Related/recommended: Hilary Putnam’s way of thinking).

*I don’t like dichotomies. They’re too cut-and-dried a conceptualisation.

Can science and philosophy mix constructively?

Quantum mechanics can sometimes be very hard to understand, so much so that even thinking about it becomes difficult. This could be because its foundations lay in the action-centric depiction of reality that slowly rejected its origins and assumed a thought-centric one garb.

In his 1925 paper on the topic, physicist Werner Heisenberg used only observable quantities to denote physical phenomena. He also pulled up Niels Bohr in that great paper, saying, “It is well known that the formal rules which are used [in Bohr’s 1913 quantum theory] for calculating observable quantities such as the energy of the hydrogen atom may be seriously criticized on the grounds that they contain, as basic elements, relationships between quantities that are apparently unobservable in principle, e.g., position and speed of revolution of the electron.”

A true theory

Because of the uncertainty principle, and other principles like it, quantum mechanics started to develop into a set of theories that could be tested against observations, and that, to physicists, left very little to thought experiments. Put another way, there was nothing a quantum-physicist could think up that couldn’t be proved or disproved experimentally. This way of looking at the world – in philosophy – is called logical positivism.

This made quantum mechanics a true theory of reality, as opposed to a hypothetical, unverifiable one.

However, even before Heisenberg’s paper was published, positivism was starting to be rejected, especially by chemists. An important example was the advent of statistical mechanics and atomism in the early 19th century. Both of them interpreted, without actual physical observations, that if two volumes of hydrogen and one volume of oxygen combined to form water vapor, then a water molecule would have to comprise two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.

A logical positivist would have insisted on actually observing the molecule individually, but that was impossible at the time. This insistence on submitting physical proof, thus, played an adverse role in the progress of science by delaying/denying success its due.

As time passed, the failures of positivism started to take hold on quantum mechanics. In a 1926 conversation with Albert Einstein, Heisenberg said, “… we cannot, in fact, observe such a path [of an electron in an atom]; what we actually record are the frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path.” And since he held that any theory ought only to be a true theory, he concluded that these parameters must feature in the theory, and what it projected, as themselves instead of the unobservable electron path.

This wasn’t the case.

Gaps in our knowledge

Heisenberg’s probe of the granularity of nature led to his distancing from the theory of logical positivism. And Steven Weinberg, physicist and Nobel Laureate, uses just this distancing to harshly argue in a 1994 essay, titled Against Philosophy, that physics has never benefited from the advice of philosophers, and when it does, it’s only to negate the advice of another philosopher – almost suggesting that ‘science is all there is’ by dismissing the aesthetic in favor of the rational.

In doing so, Weinberg doesn’t acknowledge the fact that science and philosophy go hand in hand; what he has done is simply to outline the failure of logical positivism in the advancement of science.

At the simplest, philosophy in various forms guides human thought toward ideals like objective truth and is able to establish their superiority over subjective truths. Philosophy also provides the framework within which we can conceptualize unobservables and contextualize them in observable space-time.

In fact, Weinberg’s conclusion brings to mind an article in Nature News & Comment by Daniel Sarewitz. In the piece, Sarewitz, a physicist, argued that for someone who didn’t really know the physics supporting the Higgs boson, its existence would have to be a matter of faith than one of knowledge. Similarly, for someone who couldn’t translate electronic radiation to ‘mean’ the electron’s path, the latter would have to be a matter of faith or hope, not a bit of knowledge.

Efficient descriptions

A more well-defined example is the theory of quarks and gluons, both of which are particles that haven’t been spotted yet but are believed to exist by the scientific community. The equipment to spot them is yet to be built and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and be orders of magnitude more sophisticated than the LHC.

In the meantime, unlike what Weinberg and like what Sarewitz would have you believe, we do rely on philosophical principles, like that of sufficient reasoning (Spinoza 1663Leibniz 1686), to fill up space-time at levels we can’t yet probe, to guide us toward a direction that we ought to probe after investing money in it.

This is actually no different from a layman going from understanding electric fields to supposedly understanding the Higgs field. At the end of the day, efficient descriptions make the difference.

Exchange of knowledge

This sort of dependence also implies that philosophy draws a lot from science, and uses it to define its own prophecies and shortcomings. We must remember that, while the rise of logical positivism may have shielded physicists from atomism, scientific verification through its hallowed method also did push positivism toward its eventual rejection.

The moral is that scientists must not reject philosophy for its passage through crests and troughs of credence because science also suffers the same passage. What more proof of this do we need than Popper’s and Kuhn’s arguments – irrespective of either of them being true?

Yes, we can’t figure things out with pure thought, and yes, the laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known. However, in the search for objective truth – whatever that is – we can’t neglect pure thought until, as Weinberg’s Heisenberg-example itself seems to suggest, we know everything there is to know, until science and philosophy, rather verification-by-observation and conceptualization-by-ideation, have completely and absolutely converged toward the same reality.

Until, in short, we can describe nature continuously instead of discretely.

Liberation of philosophical reasoning

By separating scientific advance from contributions from philosophical knowledge, we are advocating for the ‘professionalization’ of scientific investigation, that it must decidedly lack the attitude-born depth of intuition, which is aesthetic and not rational.

It is against such advocacy that American philosopher Paul Feyerabend voiced vehemently: “The withdrawal of philosophy into a ‘professional’ shell of its own has had disastrous consequences.” He means, in other words, that scientists have become too specialized and are rejecting the useful bits of philosophy.

In his seminal work Against Method (1975), Feyerabend suggested that scientists occasionally subject themselves to methodological anarchism so that they may come up with new ideas, unrestricted by the constraints imposed by the scientific method, freed in fact by the liberation of philosophical reasoning. These new ideas, he suggests, can then be reformulated again and again according to where and how observations fit into it.

In the meantime, the ideas are not born from observations but pure thought that is aided by scientific knowledge from the past. As Wikipedia puts it neatly: “Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts.” These ‘known facts’ are akin to Weinberg’s observables.

So, until the day we can fully resolve nature’s granularity, and assume the objective truth of no reality before that, Pierre-Simon Laplace’s two-century old words should show the way: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future” (An Essay on Probabilities, 1814).

This article, as written by me, originally appeared in The Hindu’s science blog, The Copernican, on June 6, 2013.

Can science and philosophy mix constructively?

'The School of Athens', painted by Rafael during the Renaissance in 1509-1511, shows philosophers, mathematicians and scientists of ancient Greece gathered together.
‘The School of Athens’, painted by Rafael during the Renaissance in 1509-1511, shows philosophers, mathematicians and scientists of ancient Greece gathered together. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Quantum mechanics can sometimes be very hard to understand, so much so that even thinking about it becomes difficult. This could be because its foundations lay in the action-centric depiction of reality that slowly rejected its origins and assumed a thought-centric one garb.

In his 1925 paper on the topic, physicist Werner Heisenberg used only observable quantities to denote physical phenomena. He also pulled up Niels Bohr in that great paper, saying, “It is well known that the formal rules which are used [in Bohr’s 1913 quantum theory] for calculating observable quantities such as the energy of the hydrogen atom may be seriously criticized on the grounds that they contain, as basic elements, relationships between quantities that are apparently unobservable in principle, e.g., position and speed of revolution of the electron.”

A true theory

Because of the uncertainty principle, and other principles like it, quantum mechanics started to develop into a set of theories that could be tested against observations, and that, to physicists, left very little to thought experiments. Put another way, there was nothing a quantum-physicist could think up that couldn’t be proved or disproved experimentally. This way of looking at the world – in philosophy – is called logical positivism.

This made quantum mechanics a true theory of reality, as opposed to a hypothetical, unverifiable one.

However, even before Heisenberg’s paper was published, positivism was starting to be rejected, especially by chemists. An important example was the advent of statistical mechanics and atomism in the early 19th century. Both of them interpreted, without actual physical observations, that if two volumes of hydrogen and one volume of oxygen combined to form water vapor, then a water molecule would have to comprise two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.

A logical positivist would have insisted on actually observing the molecule individually, but that was impossible at the time. This insistence on submitting physical proof, thus, played an adverse role in the progress of science by delaying/denying success its due.

As time passed, the failures of positivism started to take hold on quantum mechanics. In a 1926 conversation with Albert Einstein, Heisenberg said, “… we cannot, in fact, observe such a path [of an electron in an atom]; what we actually record are the frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path.” And since he held that any theory ought only to be a true theory, he concluded that these parameters must feature in the theory, and what it projected, as themselves instead of the unobservable electron path.This wasn’t the case.

Gaps in our knowledge

Heisenberg’s probe of the granularity of nature led to his distancing from the theory of logical positivism. And Steven Weinberg, physicist and Nobel Laureate, uses just this distancing to harshly argue in a 1994 essay, titled Against Philosophy, that physics has never benefited from the advice of philosophers, and when it does, it’s only to negate the advice of another philosopher – almost suggesting that ‘science is all there is’ by dismissing the aesthetic in favor of the rational.

In doing so, Weinberg doesn’t acknowledge the fact that science and philosophy go hand in hand; what he has done is simply to outline the failure of logical positivism in the advancement of science.

At the simplest, philosophy in various forms guides human thought toward ideals like objective truth and is able to establish their superiority over subjective truths. Philosophy also provides the framework within which we can conceptualize unobservables and contextualize them in observable space-time.

In fact, Weinberg’s conclusion brings to mind an article in Nature News & Comment by Daniel Sarewitz. In the piece, Sarewitz, a physicist, argued that for someone who didn’t really know the physics supporting the Higgs boson, its existence would have to be a matter of faith than one of knowledge. Similarly, for someone who couldn’t translate electronic radiation to ‘mean’ the electron’s path, the latter would have to be a matter of faith or hope, not a bit of knowledge.

Efficient descriptions

A more well-defined example is the theory of quarks and gluons, both of which are particles that haven’t been spotted yet but are believed to exist by the scientific community. The equipment to spot them is yet to be built and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and be orders of magnitude more sophisticated than the LHC.

In the meantime, unlike what Weinberg and like what Sarewitz would have you believe, we do rely on philosophical principles, like that of sufficient reasoning (Spinoza 1663Leibniz 1686), to fill up space-time at levels we can’t yet probe, to guide us toward a direction that we ought to probe after investing money in it.

This is actually no different from a layman going from understanding electric fields to supposedly understanding the Higgs field. At the end of the day, efficient descriptions make the difference.

Exchange of knowledge

This sort of dependence also implies that philosophy draws a lot from science, and uses it to define its own prophecies and shortcomings. We must remember that, while the rise of logical positivism may have shielded physicists from atomism, scientific verification through its hallowed method also did push positivism toward its eventual rejection. There was human agency in both these timelines, both motivated by either the support for or the rejection of scientific and philosophical ideas.

The moral is that scientists must not reject philosophy for its passage through crests and troughs of credence because science also suffers the same passage. What more proof of this do we need than Popper’s and Kuhn’s arguments – irrespective of either of them being true?

Yes, we can’t figure things out with pure thought, and yes, the laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known. However, in the search for objective truth –whatever that is – we can’t neglect pure thought until, as Weinberg’s Heisenberg-example itself seems to suggest, we know everything there is to know, until science and philosophy, rather verification-by-observation and conceptualization-by-ideation, have completely and absolutely converged toward the same reality.

Until, in short, we can describe nature continuously instead of discretely.

Liberation of philosophical reasoning

By separating scientific advance from contributions from philosophical knowledge, we are advocating for the ‘professionalization’ of scientific investigation, that it must decidedly lack the attitude-born depth of intuition, which is aesthetic and not rational.

It is against such advocacy that American philosopher Paul Feyerabend voiced vehemently: “The withdrawal of philosophy into a ‘professional’ shell of its own has had disastrous consequences.” He means, in other words, that scientists have become too specialized and are rejecting the useful bits of philosophy.

In his seminal work Against Method (1975), Feyerabend suggested that scientists occasionally subject themselves to methodological anarchism so that they may come up with new ideas, unrestricted by the constraints imposed by the scientific method, freed in fact by the liberation of philosophical reasoning.

These new ideas, he suggests, can then be reformulated again and again according to where and how observations fit into it. In the meantime, the ideas are not born from observations but pure thought that is aided by scientific knowledge from the past. As Wikipedia puts it neatly: “Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts.” These ‘known facts’ are akin to Weinberg’s observables.

So, until the day we can fully resolve nature’s granularity, and assume the objective truth of no reality before that, Pierre-Simon Laplace’s two-century old words should show the way: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future” (An Essay on Probabilities, 1814).

(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on June 6, 2013.)