Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Philosophy of the 'Smarty Pants'

“The Ten Assumptions of Science,” by Glenn Borchardt, 2004

This slim volume of scientific philosophy also applies outside of science.  It is a through-going intellectual broadside against idealism and anti-materialism, in favor of materialism.  The author takes on aspects of Einstein while making fun of monkeys typing novels, un-noisy falling trees, time travel, the ‘end of history,’ creationism and the big bang.  Borchardt’s own name for these dueling dualisms are ‘determinism’ and ‘indeterminism,’ which amount to the same concepts, or, in his exact method, ‘similar’ concepts.

The U.S. is not friendly to philosophy – unless it is some version of pragmatism, which barely qualifies as an ethos.  Borchardt understands that basic hypotheses – let’s say ‘infinity’ - cannot actually be tested.  Ultimately, they are based on assumptions that underlie research, providing direction or context in regard to that research.  Borchardt does not choose his assumptions out of the blue, but based on generally accurate orientations that match the accumulating facts, as he and science understand them.    For instance, many scientists assume the ‘big bang’ is true, even though it has not been proved.  Yet, according to Borchardt, it makes sense to them because they believe in certain untested quasi-religious assumptions about time and matter.  Those are their assumptions.

Borchardt is a dialectician, and certainly a materialist, at least in the realm of science and extending into the ideas of human society.  He does not use the moniker ‘dialectical materialist’ however. These are his 10 assumptions and their dialectical opposites; thesis and anti-thesis, neatly arranged:

1.         Materialism                                         -1.        Immaterialism
2.         Causality                                             -2.        Acausality
3.         Uncertainty                                         -3.        Certainty
4.         Inseparability                                      -4.        Separability
5.         Conservation                                       -5.        Creation
6.         Complementarity                                -6.        Noncomplementarity
7.         Irreversibility                                       -7.        Reversibility
8.         Infinity                                                -8.        Finity
9.         Relativism                                           -9.        Absolutism
10.       Interconnection                                  -10.       Disconnection

As you can see, this lineup shows one of these columns to be at a disadvantage as far as science is concerned, though perhaps not at the religious charter school, the home-schooler near you or CNN.  As the decades go by, and more and more scientific information becomes available through research, idealist/indeterminist ideas become more and more questionable and pushed to the ostensible margins.  Time is on the side of materialism, evidently, unless materialism is destroyed in some way.  However, Borchardt points out that idealism still exists among the ranks of scientists themselves, which should be no surprise, given the society we live in. 

Marxists attempt to apply scientific methods too, and also closely follow developments in the arena of science. (See review of “Ubiquity” below, for more on scientific philosophy.)  This book will only bolster Marxist concepts – including those related to materialism, dialectics, constant change, spiral history, and the impulse to organization, not just disorder.  Borchardt cites Engels only once, quoting him in support of the concept of ‘matter being unthinkable without motion’ (from “Dialectics of Nature), which is part of Borchardt’s concept of inseparability. 

Borchardt is not alone in believing that assumptions underlie science.  His essay starts off with a riff on R.G. Collinwood, an idealist who also understood that scientific assumptions – metaphysics - were at the heart of much research and conclusions.   Borchardt quotes extensively from David Bohm, a philosopher-physician who shares Borchart’s views.  His overall view challenges mechanistic science of the Newtownian variety and ‘systems analysis’ of a more recent variety with an approach that puts everything in the context of a greater 'environment' that embraces all things.  I am going to sample each assumption, but reading the whole book gives you a fair view of an advanced scientific outlook.  Don’t expect the Cliff Notes version to fully make sense to you.

  1. Materialism.  The external world is not dependent on a solipsistic observer.  Ludwig Feurbach observed that ‘faiths of all kinds were derived from the material existence of the people who held them.’  Without material reality, there is no science or actual knowing.  This seems to be pretty basic, from Democritus to today.
  2. Causality.   Any effect has numerous material causes.  Since nothing is purely static, nothing is ‘uncaused.’  The motion of the earth around the sun, for instance, involves an infinite number of gravitational fields, among other forces.  Try to count them.
  3. Uncertainty.  Heisenberg’s 1927 uncertainty principal was a groundbreaking development, which rejected ultimate knowledge.  Bohm himself thinks the search for Einstein’s ‘god particle’ or ultimate law fruitless.  As Borchardt puts it, we can only know more about more, but never all about all.  “Chance’ – the favorite myth of indeterminists – is just another name for ignorance.
  4. Inseparability.  “Without Separability, souls, ghosts and gods would find no home in the universe.”  Matter and motion are one, as pointed out by Spinoza, Hobbes and Engels.  Matter never stops moving and motion is matter in action.  There is no such thing as absolute zero – in fact it has never been discovered.  The third law of thermodynamics precludes it.  Energy can never be without matter, as it is just a characteristic of matter.  I.E. ghosts don’t exist, nor does ‘space-time’ in the conventional sense, as space is really matter and time is a form of motion.
  5. Conservation.  Matter and the motion of matter can not be created or destroyed.  The Greek Aniximander and the Roman Lucretius pointed this out hundreds of years ago.  This is also the first law of thermodynamics.  Explain that to the ‘creationists’ of humans or the universe.  The universe will never disappear.
  6. Complementarity.  Matter is subject to both convergence and divergence.  Borchardt takes on the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts ultimate entropy.  He argues that there are also complementary forces in the universe that ‘organize’ matter and motion, hence the second law is incomplete without its anti-thesis.  Everything does not head towards ruin, otherwise the universe would not have existed as long as it has.  He calls this the “SLT-Order paradox.”  “Negentropy” is the word for this opposing force.  Borchardt insists that the environment to every ‘system’ actually influences that system, hence ultimate entropy is impossible. 
  7. Irreversibility.  Time travel is impossible.  Nothing happens the same way twice.  All experience burdens the future, and cannot be erased.  Time moves in one direction, not backward, not sideways, not cyclically, nor does it end.  Pretty basic also.  The second law of thermodynamics actually supports this assumption. 
  8. Infinity.  The universe is both macroscopically and microscopically infinite.  There is no edge to the universe, nor are there ‘basic’ particles.  The ‘edge’ of the universe is only that area we cannot see.  Ignorance again, like the role of God.   As science has found out, the atom and then the electron have been broken down into even smaller particles - bosons, leptons, quarks, neutrinos, etc.  There is no reason to believe there are not more or smaller ones.  As Borchart says, “Timid minds will seek shelter from the godless specter of infinity.  As always, it will be to no avail.” 
  9. Relativism.  As opposed to Absolutism.  The Greek sophists were the first relativists.  They poked holes in every logical ‘law.’  Sophism is now an insult, usually hurled by apologists for conventionality.  For instance, analogy and disparity are useful in categorizing things. However, nothing is actually ‘identical’ to something else.  As Borchardt puts it, ‘in nature there are no absolute equalities and no absolute inequalities.’  Plato was wrong, as are the long line of idealists after him.
  10. Interconnection.  Here is where we get spacey.  The world is both continuous and discontinuous, yet every single part of the universe is connected, as there are no isolated systems.  Empty space doesn’t exist – it is an idea - as is solid matter.  Only matter in motion exists - everywhere - almost as a kind of ether.  Om.

Borchardt’s book actually makes great sense and is somewhat simple to read, once you understand he is not straying from the material reality we know.  It challenges certain ideas that float in the bourgeois air we breathe, and now you know why they are fraudulent.  

And I bought it at Mayday Books,  on the recommendation of John.
Red Frog
May 21, 2013

P.S. - Oddly enough, the May 23rd Guardian has a story called "Roll Over Einstein: meet Weinstein."  Evidently Weinstein is Eric Weinstein, a former scientist and now civilian and non-academic who has been invited by one of Oxford, England's top mathematicians, Marcus Du Sautoy, to give a lecture on theoretical physics.  And, oddly enough, Weinstein proposes to solve the contradiction between relativity and quantum mechanics.  He is said to propose a 14-dimensional 'observerse' that could introduce another 150 sub-atomic particles which would 'fill in' the 95% of the universe that does not contain ordinary matter, but instead would explain 'dark matter' and 'dark energy.'  These other dimensions of the universe we cannot really 'see' yet, according to Weinstein.   As you can see, this fits in with what Borchardt said in his book about "infinity" and 'interconnection.'  However, as Borchardt points out, a mathematical construct 'can' lead to an observable event or not, unlike 'string theory,' which is a mathematical construct that has never been seen in reality.
 At any rate, the kicker for those who only believe in academic credentials are these quotes by Du Sautoy:
1) "I think this represents a new trend. It used to be that one had to be part of an academic hub, such as Harvard or Oxford, to produce cutting-edge research. But not any more. Part of the reason is the wide availability of scientific information on the internet. And I think this is a wonderful development, which should be supported." 
2) "I also see two lessons coming from this. The first is for the young generation: with passion and perseverance there is no limit to what you can do, even in high-end theoretical science. The other lesson is for me and my colleagues in academia – and I say this as someone who on most days takes an elevator to his office in an Ivory Tower, as it were – we should be more inclusive and more open to ideas which come from outside the standard channels of academia, and we'll be better off for it."

So all you folks in basements with computers and internet access, start your engines


AA said...

Books like this are pseudo-scientific bunkum that do a disservice to anyone who would understand science. To get to grips with science one has to go the hard road -- there are no exceptions, no shortcuts. Basic courses in differential and integral calculus and differential equations and linear algebra as a bare minimum, followed by at least one course in classical mechanics, which is the ur-science of the Western world.

Marxists are not scientists -- though they may fondly imagine themselves to be so. Their subject material does not allow precise measurement, nor repeatable experiments. Nor is their theoretical framework falsifiable. The same holds for all economics.

Red Frog said...

The author is a scientist, which you are not. He discusses mathematics and how it substitutes for actual testing. He also discusses the limitations of classical mechanics - which most scientists are aware of.

In fact, you might learn something from this book - though you deny that anyone can teach you anything.

Marxists are scientists - they study the facts of history and economics, and base their understanding on that material world. Absolute precision is not possible, of course. History is a series of experiments. Marxism is not limited to economics at all.

AA said...

On the contrary. My undergrad math degree is from King's College London. My grad degree from Imperial College London -- both among the world's elite scientific schools. I am weary of these pseudo-scientific tracts that give people an illusion of scientific understanding.

Red Frog said...

Upset by through-going materialism? Hmmm.

Certainly you know more about hard math (as you do not mention what your grad degree was in) as taught at King's College / Imperial College than I do. However, us peons attempt to learn any way we can. I would rather take pointers from a progressive working scientist like Borchardt - 49 years long - than someone who went to school years ago - and did not follow it up with any actual work in mathematical or scientific fields that I know of. Borchardt heads the Progressive Science Institute at Berkeley, btw.

As we know from lit grads or lit MFAs, getting a degree doesn't mean you can write.

I will, however, adjust the terminology of 'scientist' since I think you are right on that.

AA said...

The problem is laymen aren't equipped to critically assess what a scientist is saying. So they go by his degree (PhD), the number of his publications (which may be utter dross), and where he's a prof at (Berkeley). They're unwilling or unable to master the technical tools of the trade. So my advice to learn basic calculus, differential equations, and classical mechanics will go unheeded. In the absence of even a rudimentary scientific background, talking about science is futile. It can only be done from within.

The reason I'm talking about this book at all is I think I've seen it and was singularly unimpressed. There is no insight there.

Physics went beyond materialism in the sense a Marxist might understand it a looong time ago. Or rather, the worldview is in terms of categories that would make no sense to the uninitiated.

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AA said...

Du Sautoy is more of a populariser than active research mathematician (though he must have come out with some papers to get an Oxford professorship). I have his popular "Music of the Primes" and I've seen his book "Symmetry" (but not been enticed to buy it).

The idea of 14 dimensions seems similar to the old supergravity models of 30 years ago which postulated 11 dimensions of which 7 got "squashed" in some manner but accounted for some physical phenomena. None of the attempts to unite quantum theory with general relativity have borne fruit. Predating the supergravity models are the 5-dimensional Kaluza-Klein theories, which Einstein dabbled with for some years.

Theoretical physics seems not to have gone anywhere over the last fifty years or so. In contrast to the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20 century. We seem to be living in a period of diminishing returns.

In recent decades instead of applying math to physics, people have been applying physics to math -- the work of Atiyah, Singer, Donaldson, Manin, and Witten comes to mind. These names are mostly unknown to the lay public but these are the magicians of this era.