Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hoisted from Comments: Peikoff's Weird Science

Following Greg Nyquist's discussion of the roots of Leonard Peikoff's "The Ominous Parallels", regular commenter Dragonfly chimes in on Peikoff's odd views on science (p276-277):

Dragonfly: Peikoff also argues that scientific theories are influenced by bad philosophy. He mentions Heisenberg's uncertainty relation as an example. No doubt no such thing would exist in Objectivist physics! Further he writes: "Even the professional mathematicians, the onetime guardians of the citadel of certainty and of logical consistency, caught the hang of the modern spirit. In 1931, they were apprised of the latest Viennese development in the field, Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, according to which logical consistency (and therefore certainty) is precisely the attribute that no systems of mathematics can ever claim to possess." Really a strange version of Gödel's theorem! No doubt Objectivists can point out the error in Gödel's proof? As in his DIMwit lectures, Peikoff uses as reference for his scientific insights the well-known scientific publication The New York Times.

The following observation is also interesting: "Decades ago, the exponents of purposefully guided, objective cognition - which is what scientists had once been - began yielding to two newer breeds: the narrow technicians and the punch-drunk theoreticians. The former are intent on amassing disconnected bits of experimental data, with no clear idea of context, wider meaning, or overall cognitive goal. [Really, Doctor Peikoff? How do you know? Where is your evidence?] The latter - trained in a Kantian skepticism by Dewey, Carnap, Heisenberg, Gödel and many others - turn out increasingly arbitrary speculations while stressing the power of physical theory; not its power to advance man's confidence or make reality intelligible, but to achieve the opposite results. Quantum mechanics, the theoreticians started to say, refutes causality, light waves refute logic [I wonder how they do that?], relativity refutes common sense [and therefore it must be wrong?], thermodynamics refutes hope [???], scientific law is old-fashioned, explanation is impossible, electrons are a myth [where did he get that notion?], mathematics is a game, the difference between physics and religion is only a matter of taste [it is at least bigger than the difference between Objectivism and religion].

Sometimes you can hear some of the less orthodox Objectivists whisper that Peikoff now has lost his marbles, but that he has been so brilliant in the past. Well, it seems he lost his marbles already 25 years ago. Perhaps he has never had any marbles!


Tom Rowland said...

Heisenberg formulated a theory, one of many, that attempted to explain certain real phenomena in quantum mechanics. that the phenomena exist no one doubts--and philosophy, including Objectivism, is silent on the phenomena. But it is not silent on the rationaility of the theories that attempt to explain them. Godel's theorem is self-contradictory, which we are not the only people to point out
The rest of your excerpts are also common controversies in the field. Surely, you can't be surprised that Objectivists might take sides in them.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Godel's theorem is self-contradictory, which we are not the only people to point out

Hi Tom

Can you be a bit more specific? Certainly Godel has his critics, but what matters are the arguments. Can you show exactly where Godel's logic is in error?

As for Peikoff's arguments, their weirdness stems from what seem to be wild distortions of quite reasonable arguments. For example, nameless "theoreticians" supposedly claim "explanation is impossible." Which actual scientists say that? Now, you might find many scientists who say ultimateexplanations are impossible. But who says more modest explanations are "impossible"?

What is even more puzzling is that Peikoff makes this slam on scientists about "explanations being impossible." Yet he comes out with statements like "there is no 'why?'" himself when he feels like it. Is it that scientists aren't allowed to make such claims, but philosophers are?

David said...

Mr. Rowland:

Piekoff's criticisms as quoted in the post are little more than know-nothing broadsides against theories he perceives to be at odds with Objectivist doctrine.

If he were really taking sides in "common controversies in the field," then he'd (a) present the competing theories accurately and (b) explain why he supports one side over another, preferably with reference to empirical fact to support his position.

He does none of that. Instead he makes claims like "thermodynamics refutes hope." Shall we unpack all that's wrong with that statement?

First we - his audience - have to assume that he's referring to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. That's one mark against him as a communicator because already we're not exactly sure just what he's talking about.

So, let's guess that he's referring to the 2nd Law, which states, "The total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value." What has this to do with hope? Thermodynamics is a the branch of physics essentially dealing with heat, energy, and movement. Hope, on the other hand is the belief (rational or not) that the outcomes of short-term or long-term events and circumstances will generally be positive. What has this to do with entropy in closed thermodynamic systems? Nothing, that's what. What has this to do with thermodynamics in general? Nothing.

Piekoff is implying some sort of connection between two incredibly dissimilar things, offering no explanation of how they're connected. Does he have evidence contradicting the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics? Does he have data dealing with, say, heat energy in the brain when one experiences hope? Has he anything concrete, constructive, or illuminating to say about thermodynamic or the nature of hope? No, no, and no. He just moves on to his next broadside.

The best one can say about Piekoff based on this excerpt is that he's a terrible communicator. The WORST that can be said is that he's a terrible philosopher.

Given that this is not an isolated misstatement in an otherwise thoughtful critique of modern science, but instead one of many inaccurate, incorrect, and unexplained assertions, I'm inclined to conclude the latter.

It's nothing but bluster back with bluff.

Daniel Barnes said...

Excellent comment, David. Mr Rowland, over to you?

Neil Parille said...

I'm sure you can find someone who says anything. No doubt a lot of nutiness if taught in physics, but I would like to know whom he is talking about. But isn't "LP" claiming that others say that thermodynamics refutes hope? I doubt he sees a connection (well, maybe he does with the "benovolent universe" premise).

The larger problem with Objectivist intellectual history is that it's philosophy with with the arguments left out.

Dragonfly said...

Neil: But isn't "LP" claiming that others say that thermodynamics refutes hope?

Perhaps, but what do you make then of the phrase "relativity refutes common sense"? Does Peikoff think that relativity does not refute common sense (meaning relativity is correct, but it isn't counterintuitive with regard to our everyday notions of space and time) or does he think that relativity wouldrefute common sense, and must therefore be wrong? Neither of these options makes sense to me!

The only thing I can think of in connection with thermodynamics and hope is the fact that thermodynamics definitely squashes any hope of the possibility of a perpetuum mobile (Galt's motor?). Peikoff's remark is still puzzling: what has science done wrong in that case?

And what does he mean by "light waves refute logic"? Perhaps he's read something about the famous double slit experiment with its couterintuitive results (perhaps in the New York Times?) without understanding the implications. Possibly he thinks that the fact that the results are contrary to our intuition means that the theory refutes logic. The point is however that it is the experimental evidence (in other words the facts) that is counterintuitive. The theory that gives a correct description (QM) of the experiment merely reflects the apparent weirdness of the microscopic world.

And then "electrons are a myth". Which scientist has ever said that? Peikoff is just inventing weird statements, without any references (not even from the New York Times), which probably only exist in his imagination. How can anyone take this seriously?

Michael Prescott said...

Years ago I took Peikoff's taped lecture courses. In one of them he says, "Philosophy has veto power over science." A physics student in the class muttered, "Yeah? Let him try to exercise it."

D.R.M. said...

I think LP is refering to how Quantum Physics or Quantum Logic doesn't (according to some interpretations) involve the Principle of Distributity, a principle in classical logic.

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