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.


  1. Goodness sakes. Now I'm really hooked. Can't wait til the next post.

  2. I've always known you were a genius, but these blogs really put your genius into perspective! That is amazing Sam! I am trying to find the right words to say, but I think it's a good lesson for us all, that learning doesn't end. Even when we become doctors and we think we have it figured out. Students may become our greatest teachers, if we are willing to listen. I am just in awe. Your story is incredible.

  3. If I may indulge in some levity...

    Strike one: if it was published in a physics journal, that means what you were doing was physics, not history or philosophy, and you shouldn't have been doing it in the first place since you're in an HPS grad program.

    [Not that I believe such a thing, of course, but that's one way of looking at it.]