Thursday, February 10, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part IV

In my last post, I explained how my "emergence" project started back in 2007. As a grad student in the History and Philosophy of Science, I started to think that philosophy had become so distracted by science, that it had forgotten about the bigger picture almost completely. As I read all the great philosophers of the past -- such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche -- I found that they all very explicitly criticized the sort of narrow scholarship that I was finding in modern philosophy. They all looked for ways to break out of mere argumentation, and discuss things that matter. This was the sort of task that I saw ahead for myself.

I saw "emergence" as the first step. Emergence is the idea that complex things have properties that can't be reduced to the motions of atoms. I thought that if I could show that biology and the social sciences could not be reduced to physics, then it might leave room for art, literature, and old-fashioned philosophy as well. My theory of emergence was supposed to show that pure physics could never encompass the rest of science, because new "laws of nature" would arise in complex systems (such as molecules and organisms). After discovering that the mathematics I had developed for my theory had already been discovered and published by someone else, I decided that my dissertation would be about the wider philosophical implications of emergence.

But this landed me in pretty weird territory. Where was I going with all of this? What would my conclusion be? That physics is not quite as great as we thought it was?

So I asked myself, "Where did philosophy make its wrong turn?" The answer I came to was that it happened back in the 20s and 30s with a movement called "Logical Positivism." The logical positivists -- the most famous of which was Bertrand Russell -- had been extremely impressed with advances in physics, mathematics, and technology, and quite fed up with the obscure metaphysics of the Hegelians (the ruling party of philosophical scholars). They argued that old debates over God, morality, society, and values had all gone nowhere in hundreds of years, and that philosophy should imitate the methods of science, so that it could achieve similar progress. Science had given us cars, planes, and computing machines. Metaphysics had only given us incomprehensible arguments. Clearly (Bertrand Russell and others argued) science had gotten something right.

The writings of this group proved enormously popular among scientists, intellectuals, and the majority of philosophers in the United States. Over time, this way of seeing things became dominant. The task of philosophy was now to uncover the principles of logic that underlie the success of science. After a couple of decades of trying to develop this master system of logic, it became clear that the task was impossible or at least premature. Logical positivism eventually died (sometime in the 60s or 70s) -- but the goal of understanding science lived on as "Analytic Philosophy," based on the faith that the rational principles underlying the success of science could still be discovered.

All I had accomplished with my theory of emergence, at best, was to show that a certain proposed principle of science -- "reduction" -- was no good. But it seemed to me that I might prove still more. If there were no laws of nature that were universally applicable, then perhaps there were no laws of reason that were universally applicable.

Here's what I mean when I say I was in weird territory. My idea was basically that the whole of Analytic Philosophy was off track. This idea was by no means unheard of, and in fact there had been dozens of philosophers that had argued against positivism and analytic philosophy over the last 80 years, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Polanyi, and Richard Rorty -- all famous names. The problem was that all of these thinkers had been forced to the fringes of the Analytic tradition.

In December of 2007, the faculty asked me for a progress report on my research, including a sketch of what I was envisioning for my dissertation, so they could evaluate my performance in the program so far. Overestimating their confidence in my abilities, and underestimating the extent of their concern, I was completely honest about my interests. I mentioned Wittgenstein, Polanyi, and Rorty (all of which are usually considered off limits) and tried to explain that I wanted to make some of their ideas more precise.

Their reaction was not happy. They did their best to make logical mincemeat out of what I had written -- something that I had written not to be an argument at all, but merely a rough sketch. In meeting after meeting they told me that my progress was too slow and that I simply had to start going through the motions to finish my dissertation. They told me that I should just follow the formula: read everything written on my topic in the last 50 years, summarize it in about 50 pages, and then try to demonstrate that I had a solution to the problem. The impression I got was that it was not permitted to think "outside" of the analytic tradition.

At first I decided to follow their advice. After all, I was only a graduate student. I could work on these wider issues as a professor. So for a time I buckled down, and started to grind through. I worked on this throughout the winter and spring of 2008, reading everything I could get my hands on about reduction and emergence.

Once I had thoroughly understood the literature, I was extremely disappointed with the picture that seemed to emerge. The most reasonable arguments for emergence have been made back in the 20s by a philosopher called Samuel Alexander. He had even used the argument that it would be impossible to use physics to calculate everything in practice, even if it could be done in theory. He talked about how complexes could emerge, and give rise to new laws. He explained it all using common sense, and he even argued that it rendered logical positivism utter nonsense.

His arguments had never been adequately answered, in my view. This still could have made for an interesting dissertation, but the real problem at this point was that I no longer cared. It seemed like I could spend the rest of my life arguing over reduction and emergence, which from my point of view were merely stepping stones to what was really important, namely, reviving the old spirit of philosophy that was neither dogmatic nor overly logical, but which sought to face directly the biggest problems facing humankind. It did not seem to me that I was on the right track to accomplishing this.

In fact, I was fed up and wanted to try a new way of life entirely. I decided to take a two-year leave of absence to see if I could find a different path that would give me more time to read and think about the things that I cared about.

This was in the spring of 2008. For the next two years, I was no longer in Philosophy School, but out on my own.

Interlude: Adventures as a God-seeking Hermit

During my four years as a grad student I had managed to save up several thousand dollars. This was enough money that I was able to spend much of my two years living on my own, unemployed, reading, thinking, and writing for most of the day. Summer 2008 I was with my parents in Hyrum, Utah; August 2008 - June 2009 I lived in a studio apartment by myself in Logan, UT; Summer 2009 I lived in Rhode Island (teaching nerd camp) visited New York, and ended up in Santa Cruz, where I lived unemployed until January 2010, when I returned to my parent's house, broke, and met my future wife, Emily.

In all this time I didn't spend five minutes thinking about reduction or emergence. Analytic philosophy in general only took up maybe 5% of my time. My perspective widened, and I reveled in my freedom. I thought mostly about civilization, society, progress, evolution, and utopia. My main obsession for the first year of my break was to find a way to prove that progress and utopia were impossible. It seemed to me that this was the surest way to finally cure philosophy of its obsession with science.

What I failed to realize at first was that this project would bring me no better satisfaction than emergence had. You would still be left with the question: so what? So what if science isn't so great? What do we replace it with? So what if there's no progress? What are we supposed to strive for?

I spent a lot of time looking for philosophers other than Nietzsche or Lao Tzu that could help me. I delved into Montaigne, Lichtenberg, Paul Valerie, and Thomas Carlisle. They were all worth reading, but none of them brought me the satisfaction I was looking for. In every case they questioned pure science, but they never had anything to replace it with. Over and over they made the point that science was mechanical, dead, and without life, vitality, or purpose. But then where does one find life, vitality, and purpose? These things are obviously essential to a satisfying life, but nobody seemed to know what they were.

In these philosophers from centuries ago, I had found a group of fellow sufferers. We'd all been searching for a spirited way of life, but lacked any way to explain what this really meant. Nietzsche called science "despiritualizing," and Carlisle lamented its lack of "sweetness and light."

I myself wrote voluminous notes on this ineffable thing, which I referred to as "vitality" or "spirit." But whenever I went back over these notes they struck me as vapid and unilluminating. The best way I could express it was to say that life must be lived energetically, perhaps even violently, fighting with tooth-and-claw the way animals do in the jungle. I justified this view to myself by appealing to Darwin's theory of evolution, and the fact that modern society had made people into sheltered cowards. Stories from long ago of knights fighting for honor -- I told myself that this was the long lost ideal that was missing.

This was far from satisfying, because there I was, a hermit living on rice and omelettes, spending my days on long walks in the cold contemplating the meaning of life. I was nowhere near the ideal of barbaric living that I supposedly held, and yet deep down I felt that my life was closer to being truly spiritual than ever before.

At times, I was tempted to think that I had finally grasped what spirit was. I would be on a walk, and I would think of one of my hero philosophers who had gone mad trying to discover it. For moment it would seem like I saw what they had been trying to say. But the next moment I would be seized by inexplicable horror, deep anxiety, and racing thoughts. Usually the only way to fight down this anxiety would be to remind myself that the universe is far too complex to be comprehended by any finite mortal, like myself. My nervous breakdown from college would come back to me, and I would back away from these thoughts, afraid of being burned again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part III

Tensions between myself and my professors in graduate school started already when I arrived as a first-year student back in 2004.  As I described in an earlier post ("The Two Cultures"), I was looking for a more human type of philosophy, one that considered moral, social, and spiritual concerns.  This is what brought me out of physics and into philosophy in the first place.  But what I found was that the philosophy department here was primarily concerned with logical analysis of science, rather than considering its wider meaning.

But there still seemed to be grounds for hope.  Philosophers have always prided themselves in considering alternate points of view and discussing them rationally.  I realized that though I might disagree with my professors, this would make interesting grounds for discussion.  Furthermore there was a great diversity of opinion among them, and several of them seem to be receptive to some of the philosophical points I want to make about science.

In my previous post -- "Physics Omniscient?" -- I described how, in college, I debated my fellow students concerning the possibility of a mathematical "Theory of Everything."  It is considered to be one of the central doctrines of modern science that, given a large enough computer, the laws of nature, and the configuration of all the particles in the universe, one could theoretically predict the future perfectly.  Anyone who has studied physics extensively enough comes to realize this that this is true.  Everything that happens is governed by natural laws.  There's no room for magic.

At no point in my career have I doubted this principle.  It's about as sure as the law of gravity.  But during college and early grad school I came to realize that way too much was being made of it.  People were claiming that eventually all sciences would be reduced to equations in physics, that there would even be equations for human consciousness, and that everything would ultimately be explained in terms of particles, demonstrating that basically everything except physics has been an illusion.

It seemed to me that this "physics-worship" was a lot like the "science-worship" that was going on in society at large.  In fact, mathematical physics is considered by most philosophers of science to be the only realm of knowledge that has made real progress.  This worried me greatly, because it directly contradicted my own conclusions that intelligent people need to stop thinking exclusively about molecules and start thinking about things that matter, such as society and values.  And it seemed to me obvious that values and society were never going to be reduced to a simple, easily calculated equation.  If it could, then obviously life would be rendered pointless and trivially mechanical.

These seemed to me obvious points, but as I tried to express them in my philosophy of science papers in grad school, I found that my professors wanted extraordinarily precise arguments for every small point I wanted to make, no matter how clearly true.  I realized that in philosophy these questions had already been debated for decades.  If I wanted to make my ideas into a dissertation, I had to show by logical argumentation how they were better than previous ideas on the same topic. 

My first attempt to do this was my "philosophical account of emergence."  In analytic philosophy, "emergence" is the notion that complex things are more than the sum of their parts.  The opposed notion, "reduction" is the notion that complex things really just reduce to the atoms that make them up.  Reductionists usually saw physics as the most important and profound science.  Emergentists wanted to give every science equal footing, or perhaps even put the social sciences at the top is the most important.  It seemed to me that emergence had the greater promise for helping philosophy out of its physics-obsessed muddle.

Most reductionists had argued using the principle I described above, namely, that a large enough computer could calculate what would happen using the laws of physics that govern the motion of atoms.  The emergentists had been struggling over the decades to overcome this argument, publishing dozens of papers and books over the decades, but not seeming to get anywhere.

My own line of attack was this.  I argued that even if the laws of physics were true and never changed, you could still see the "emergence" of higher level laws (such as Darwin's laws of evolution, for example) which had to be understood in their own terms for science to advance.  This was not an entirely new idea, but my way of defending it was new.  I employed a concept that hadn't been used in the debate before, the "possibility space," which is basically the idea that the laws of physics still allow for number of different possible "complexes" -- such as humans, trees, computers, etc. -- each of which operates both according to the laws of physics and according to the principles that apply to the complex structure.

Did you get that?  If not, you see why it took me almost 30 pages to explain the idea in sufficient detail.  Eventually, this paper passed as my "philosophy comp" (or thesis) and I earned my M.A.

Still, the professors only passed it "with reservations."  I knew that I had a lot of work to do if I was going to make it into a dissertation.

At this point I started debating directly with those professors who leaned more toward the "reductionist" camp, trying to see what they found implausible about my ideas.  This led to my next big "breakthrough" (as I saw it at the time) -- a fully mathematical theory of emergence.

 What I believed I could prove was that the possibility spaces left by the laws of physics were too big ever to be calculated by a physical computer.  In other words, even if one had a theory of everything, there'd be no way for finite mortals (like ourselves) to use this theory to predict everything.  This would mean that the laws of physics would always leave room for computational "shortcuts" -- in other words, the laws of biology, social science, etc.

Did you get that?  Really? Even if you think you do, you don't.  The point of the argument is that it's supposed to be mathematically precise, and I haven't given you the mathematics yet.  By the time I succeeded in working out all the mathematics myself, none of the professors were able to understand it.  They either told me that they didn't have the mathematical skill, or that I had not explained myself clearly enough. 

I was frustrated, but far from giving up.  By this point I had started my fourth year of grad school, and I realized that my skills at mathematics had started to wane.  So I looked around for similar ideas published by physicists or mathematicians, to see if there was someone I could learn the proper math from.

Lo and behold!  I discov
ered that a physicist had proven the exact result I had set out to show, and using almost identical mathematics (his word for a possibility space was "partition").  This vindicated me, I felt.  I no longer felt like a crackpot churning out incomprehensible mathematics.  Someone else had come to the same result using the same basic ideas (On the Computational Capabilities of Physical Systems, 2001).  In fact the results had been published in a highly respected physics journal, Physics Review Letters.

I sent the article to the professors I was working with, explaining that I was not at all disappointed that my ideas had already been published, but actually relieved, because now I could write my dissertation about the philosophical implications of the theory, rather than spending all my time on mathematical formalism.

This was Fall 2007.  But the next few months would prove rough, and would seriously shake my determination.  I'll leave the story for next time.