Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 12

Objectivism & Physics. David Hume once remarked that, while errors in religion might be dangerous, those in philosophy are “only ridiculous.” Metaphysical errors are also, in the main, "only ridiculous." They are ridiculous rather than dangerous because they have no effect on conduct. A philosopher may have the most extravagant notions of reality, yet after he’s finished propagating his peculiar species of balderdash, he goes about his business like everyone else and, despite his absurd doctrines, has no difficulty finding his way home. “Nature is always too strong for principle,” is how Hume described the phenomenon.

There are many far worse systems of metaphysics than Rand’s. Yet the very badness of these systems renders them entirely impotent. They are so bad that no one could ever make practical use of them. They are merely a kind of poetry that tender minded people lisp to themselves. Since much of Rand’s metaphysics supports notions allied to common sense, it has more potential to, by leading people astray, exercise a baleful effect. These bad effects stem from three aspects of the Objectivist metaphysics: (1) its attempt to determine matters of fact through logical and rhetorical constructions; (2) its conviction that reality is “logical” (i.e., “contradictions cannot exist in reality”); and (3) its belief that philosophy has a “veto power” over science.



Consider some consequences of these three principles, starting with Peikoff’s assertions about philosophy’s veto power:

Philosophy certainly has a veto power over any subject if it violates principles established philosophically. So, if Heisenberg says for instance in the principle of uncertainty that causality is a myth or has been overturned on the subatomic level, you can throw out Heisenberg's theory on that grounds alone. And the same is true for the idea of something proceeding out of nothing. In other words, that is something proceeding causelessly, because there was nothing before it and it violates the very meaning of nothing….

Now, if you consult Dave Harriman's course, you will see that quantum mechanics, the theory of everything, string theory, is riddled with contradictions and is arbitrary, 'cause it reflects the corrupt epistemology dominant in the intellectual world.


This Dave Harriman, mentioned by Peikoff, is an amusing enough fellow. His attacks on relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang theory, etc. are filled with clever quips and amusing juxtapositions. Consider what he has to say of space:

I want to start by stating unequivocally, there is no such thing as “space,” whether viewed as the infinite void of the Greek atomists, or the receptacle of Plato, or the absolute cosmic reference plane of Newton, or the acrobatic and curving frame of Einstein, or the final frontier of James P. Kirk. There is no such entity.


These little sallies are accompanied by Harriman’s protestations that he accepts all the facts brought forth to support Einstienian relativity and quantum mechanics, he just questions the "interpretations." However, given how entangled the interpretations are with the facts, this just won’t do. The interpretations of relativity and quantum mechanics are strange because the facts themselves are strange. Consider the famous double-slit experiment:



Let us assume, for argument's sake, that the interpretation offered in this video is wrong. If so, then what would Peikoff or Harriman put in its place? What would constitute a "logical" interpretation of this bizarre phenomenon? Objectivists seem to believe that ordinary perception provides us with a “logical” world, and therefore that all of reality should behave as grosser objects do in perception. Since tennis balls don’t divide in two and reunite when shot through double slits, it is assumed that photons can’t do likewise. But who decided that human perception, interpreted via common sense, is the final arbiter of what’s possible in reality, particularly at the quantum level? Where’s the justification for that? Nature, not the human mind, is the standard of what is possible in nature. The reason quantum reality seems so strange is that our minds have not evolved to understand it. Our ancestors had no experience of it; knowledge of it was not necessary for their survival and reproductive capabilities; so the mind, being innocent of its oddities, is perplexed by them. But nothing is truly perplexing to a mind willing to accept nature on nature’s terms, rather than the mind's terms. Peikoff and Harriman, by allowing the Objectivist metaphysics to lead them astray, are no different than earlier metaphysicians who attempted to impose their sense of things on reality. Plato thought that the orbits of the planets had to be circular because the circle was a "divine" form. Peikoff's conviction that reality must be "logical" is no more credible.

21 comments:

Matt Warren said...

The human mind is often held up by Objectivists as the pinnacle of biological development. Never mind that we are emotional creatures that have a very long, messy evolution. Our minds are not perfection.

We have evolved not just in a particular environment, but at a particular size-scale and time-frame. This is that relativity stuff that is so despised by Objectivists and creationists (methodological patterns, anyone?)

And never mind that there's broad agreement across scientific disciplines for both relativity and evolution. Science is a paragon. Unless, of course, it doesn't jibe with our emotionally derived conclusions.

Yay for reason.

"Kids! Put your fingers in your ears and make the La La noise!" - Seymour Skinner

Cavewight said...

Matt,

Perhaps the human mind, messy as the process has been, really is the pinnacle of evolution. That doesn't mean its perfect or not messy. I would say that the mind is infinitely more complex than the Objectivists give it credit for.

I'm not trying to lure anybody away from this excellent blog, but right now over on humanities.philosophy.objectivism (usenet) there are some interesting epistemology threads.

I like your Skinner quote, sounds like something a Randroid audience might do at debates whenever the opposing team gets a chance to speak.

Michael Prescott said...

The double slit experiment is logical if we imagine the photon as an image generated by an information processor. In that case, the calculations necessary to generate a particular point in space for the photon will be performed only when the user, i.e., the observer, has a need to know that information. When no request for information is made, no calculations need be performed - or to put it better, any values that are calculated need not be stored. An outstanding exposition of this point is found at the website thebottomlayer.com , in the online book titled "The Reality Program."

Quantum physics contradicts logic only if we assume that quantum units like photons are physical things existing in space. If they are more akin to the pixels on a computer screen, the apparent contradictions melt away.

Of course this means reality is not "objective" - that is, not independently real. It is still real, but it depends on information processing that goes on at a deeper level.

At least, this explanation is the first and only one that makes sense (to me) and renders quantum paradoxes intelligible.

Cavewight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dragonfly said...

Michael: "Quantum physics contradicts logic only if we assume that quantum units like photons are physical things existing in space."

Quantum physics doesn't contradict logic at all. The point is that "physical things existing in space" in the microscopic realm doesn't correspond to the naive notion of our intuition that has been formed by our experiences in a macroscopic world, namely that particles are tiny perfectly localized billiard balls. The only contradiction that exists is between the extension of the classical newtonian billiard ball model to the microscopic realm and the model that describes this realm accurately and with stunning accuracy. The solution is of course not to conclude that this latter model is contradictory, but to conclude that the classical model is not valid for the microscopic realm.

What Objectivists do is to equate "logic" with their newtonian worldview and then conclude that QM is "riddled with contradictions", only because it doesn't conform to the classical model, which shows that they don't at all understand what logic means. They should follow Rand's advice "check your premises", but they don't practice what they preach.

Michael Prescott said...

"Quantum physics doesn't contradict logic at all."

Well, by most interpretations it would seem to contradict causality, at least.

Consider the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment, which goes something like this. Photons are fired through slits to hit a target screen. Measurements are taken at the slits, and the data are recorded. However, no one looks at the data or at the target screen. Both the slit-measurements and the screen are stored away, unexamined. They stay in storage for some indefinite period, say a year.

At the end of a year we decide we want to finally examine the plate and see what pattern was produced. But before we do this, we face a choice. We can retain the slit-measurement data, even if we still don't choose to look at it, or we can erase it and thus destroy it forever, making it permanently inaccessible.

If we retain the data and then look at the plate, we will see a particle-like pattern.

If we erase the data and then look at the plate, we will see a wave-like pattern.

But how can this be? Wasn't the pattern set down by the photons a year earlier? Yet the availability of the slit-measurement data in the present day determines whether the pattern on last year's target screen is particle-like or wave-like.

This certainly appears to violate causality!

However ... if the photons are imagined as images generated by the calculations of an information processing system, the conundrum disappears, and logic and causality emerge unmolested. (For details, see "The Reality Program" mentioned above - specifically, Chapter 3.)

Dragonfly said...

Michael: ""Quantum physics doesn't contradict logic at all."

Well, by most interpretations it would seem to contradict causality, at least."

Causality has nothing to do with logic.

Now your description of the delayed choice experiment is in fact incorrect and misleading, but that is not relevant here (the experiment is far more subtle and the pattern on the target screen does not depend on the choice that is made later, see for example the wikipedia entry for delayed choice). But even if your description were correct, it wouldn't be a logical contradiction, only a falsification of a physical hypothesis. Causality is an empirically observed phenomenon and not a logical necessity.

Cavewight said...

Causality has something to do with logic: synthetic a priori logic. It has something to do with logic when we consider that the mind puts concepts of its own devising into the experience. Likewise for measuring quantum states, quantum particles deliver up the states we are looking for. Unfortunately, in doing so we lose track of the complementary state, which is equivalent to saying it exists in a quantum flux - it is literally neither here nor there.

The delusion held by Objectivists, but which they have not had the inclination or ability to question, is the idea that space and time are continuous. Experience gives us continuity, and this forms the pattern of our logic including the logic of causality. Physics experiments, however, reveal a different picture. Space and time are discontinuous, existing in discrete units. This is simply impossible to observe on the macro level. Quantum particles, which have no macro properties to deceive our senses, reveal the truth of the matter. Reality is like pictures on a movie screen that fly by too quickly for us to see the individual frames.

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Cavewight said...

I would like to thank Anonymous for revealing, with his "NEW NYQUIST BOOK" comment, that the Objectivist crowd has run out of arguments.

Of course this has always been the case.

Rey said...

What? An Objectivist homophobe? Quelle surprise!

Wells said...

On Causality

Remember that Causality is an observed phenomenon. We see events causing other events in the future, which is the reason why we have the causality concept in the first place. It has nothing to do with logic, quantum, or anything else.

Also

Causality, strictly defined, is really something like
For Event A to cause Event B, Event B must be within the light-cone of event A.

For example An Atom bomb goes off somewhere and a building collapses somewhere else.
For the atom bomb to actually knock down the building; enough time must pass, at a minimum, for light to go from the site of the blast to the site of the building.
The further the building is away, the more time this takes.
If the bomb knocks down the building before light could have traveled from the blast to the building site, the bomb would essentially be knocking down buildings in the 'past' are But since this never happens (Or has never been observed to happen anyway), events can only cause stuff to happen in the 'future'

Xtra Laj said...

Remember that Causality is an observed phenomenon. We see events causing other events in the future, which is the reason why we have the causality concept in the first place. It has nothing to do with logic, quantum, or anything else.


Actually, this is debatable and was one of the issues that Hume, in some interpretations, questioned. You see a ball hit another, but you do not "see" the ball *cause* the other ball to roll. All causal claims are conjectural/empirical in that they are falsifiable, but when they are imputed into scientific statements, they become logical.

What I think Objectivism gets wrong is that it tries to state what can/must qualify as causality before the fact and refuses to say that these claims about what qualify are also *conjectural*. If Objectivists said something like or ideally meant something like, "To the best of our knowledge, we know that effects must follow their causes in time, but while our current understanding of causality makes a cause appearing after its effect in time hard to comprehend, it is not impossible.", there would be little to quibble about.

But when Objectivists go around talking about causes preceding effects as absolute truths that can rule out any interpretation that seems to contradict those claims, they are prophets of confirmation bias, stilted thinking and dogmatism. The fact that we can't imagine a cause being preceded by an effect might be because our imaginations are currently limited. It's difficult to tell the difference between a limited imagination and an absolute truth.

Michael Prescott said...

Thanks for the clarification, Dragonfly. I still think the delayed choice experiment poses grave problems for physicalism, though.

As for causality and logic - as Cavewight suggests, it depends on what we mean by logic. I mean logical reasoning as most people employ it on a daily basis. Causality is clearly an important ingredient in this kind of logic, which consists mainly of induction.

"Space and time are discontinuous, existing in discrete units. This is simply impossible to observe on the macro level. Quantum particles, which have no macro properties to deceive our senses, reveal the truth of the matter. Reality is like pictures on a movie screen that fly by too quickly for us to see the individual frames."

I agree, and would add that the space between frames is where the information processing gets done. The "pixels" (quantum units) are rearranged from discrete instant to discrete instant according to a program that runs behind the scenes.

Michael Prescott said...

Incidentally, this is the solution to Zeno's Paradox. Zeno said reality consists of discrete static moments; ergo there can be no change, only stasis. But there is change. How is this possible?

Answer: change occurs on a nonphysical (information-processing) level between static moments. Each time the "screen" of physical reality refreshes with a new arrangement of "pixels," change is observed as a fait accompli. The change itself occurs off-screen, as a result of a new set of calculations being run in the background.

It's all quite logical. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Extra Laj: "What I think Objectivism gets wrong is that it tries to state what can/must qualify as causality before the fact and refuses to say that these claims about what qualify are also *conjectural*."

I agree.

Moreover, Objectivist writing is also full of post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies. One objectivist writer or another is always trying to suggest causes to things (especially in history) that are based only on a loose sense of events in sequence.

But rarely is it the result of deep critical inquiry; mostly it results from cherry-picking facts that can be marshalled in the service of confirming their preset worldview.

One good example of this fallacy is the idea that there was slavery in the US, then industrial capitalism developed in the US, therefore capitalism ended slavery.

- Chris

Dragonfly said...

Michael: "Causality is clearly an important ingredient in this kind of logic, which consists mainly of induction."

It's important to distinguish logic, the art of valid inference, from the subject to which logic is applied. We experience causality in everything we observe in our daily life, in our macroscopic world. So when we say that it is "logical" that some event does have a cause, that only means that we suppose that our world view, our hypothesis that everything does have a cause is correct and we base our conclusions on that hypothesis. If we now observe something that violates that rule, logic tells us that, while our logical reasoning may have been perfect, our hypothesis wasn't correct, that we've found a black swan. It is in fact the strict application of logic that forces us to conclude that in the microscopic world our ideas based on our knowledge and intuition about the macroscopic world are no longer valid.

Xtra Laj said...

But rarely is it the result of deep critical inquiry; mostly it results from cherry-picking facts that can be marshalled in the service of confirming their preset worldview.

I fully agree. The paramount importance of excluding other possibilities and the near impossibility of actually doing so in complicated subjects like politics/economics is lost on Objectivists. I can't completely blame them because ideology is required to simplify living a complex world. But it's amazing how childish a purportedly realistic view of the world can be. Your example of capitalism and slavery is quite appropriate and can be multiplied with capitalism being the answer to any and all social ills that are political as it is the necessary consequence of embracing Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology and ethics (of course, whether what they imagine to be capitalism is how capitalism operates in the real world is another story).

Cavewight said...

Michael,

I agree except I would locate the information-processing in the mind. After all, the idea that the mind itself somehow affects quantum particles cannot be justified without resorting to ESP. Rather, the mind affects what it itself views as reality. A "particle" outside of observation is really a wave, except upon being viewed it "becomes" a particle because that's how the mind presents this information. Physicists give us the impossibility of photons "deciding" which course to take as if they are little mind-readers. But the impossibility is overcome when it is understood that the mind determines, not the particle, but it only determines what it sees. But by no means is this result illusory, it is just our macro existence brought down to a smaller level. The "particles" seem to comply with this demand because that's how the mind operates, not because that's how the particles operate. Reality is in the mind.

Michael Prescott said...

Very interesting comment, Cavewight. Thanks.

Thanks also to Dragonfly for his comments and insights.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>These little sallies are accompanied by Harriman’s protestations that he accepts all the facts brought forth to support Einstienian relativity and quantum mechanics, he just questions the "interpretations."

Does Harriman question Little's TEW interpretation?