Saturday, May 9, 2015

The New Dark Age of Scientistic Materialism

Note:  See an illustration of what I say in the Update below.

I am still learning a lot about the phenomenon of college educated ignorance and scientific ignorance of the most basic practices of scholarship and even science.  I had little to no idea how bad things were until I went online and read lots of people with degrees, many of them with academic careers in science and other academic topics who are abysmally ignorant and entirely willing to violate the most basic of all rules that we were told were required in tenth grade.   And a lot of those doing that are in my age cohort, this has been building for quite a while.

Understanding how we came to this position isn't easy, one thing I have concluded is that a lot of it is a result of cutting corners and relying on things based on repute instead of rigor.   And there is nothing that fits that bill like anything that can be sold as science.  It doesn't actually have to be scientific, the definition of science, set for such topics as physics and chemistry, were gradually expanded to include the study of life and associated entities which can't possibly be studied successfully or as completely due to the far greater complexity of the subjects of study.   As that study expanded the applications of the methods of science were stretched to an extreme and, with the theory of natural selection and a desire to include such things as behavior and mental activity, it passed the breaking point.  However, I believe largely in the interest of academic politics, what was being done was still called "science" though the methodology was often only a pantomime of what was done in the physical sciences.   And, as theoretical physics extends beyond any practical possibility of confirmation in nature and, more to the point, as physicists and cosmologists have desired to use the authority of science to support their ideological materialism, they've even outdone the psychologists in demanding an exemption from the most basic requirements for doing science.   I've gone through this idea before but it is coming ever more into focus for me.   

Science may be the one area of intellectual activity which has enjoyed the highest repute and, ironically enough, the blindest faith in the history of the species.   Among the educated of today, even those with little to no knowledge or understanding of science and its requirements, the faith in anything called "science" is as absolute as any state religion has ever enjoyed.   The uncomprehending faith in science is ubiquitous, even as the areas of science presented as infallible and entirely reliable are a matter of picking and choosing.  Hardly anyone has a uniform faith in science that is unrelated to either their ideological or, more often, financial interests.   Self-interest trumps even that faith.   Yet, picking and choosing along the way, one of the greatest of all modern sins is to disbelieve in something which either is, actually, reliable science or which enjoys the label of "science" no matter how lacking in reliability it is.  Those who deny the science of human caused climate change will claim "science" in support of their denial, creationists have had to invent their own "science" to support their denial.  But it's as true that much of what is accepted in the conventional canon of science isn't much more founded in the scientific observation and analysis of evidence in the natural universe. 

The classifications of periods of human history is hardly a science, it's not even very sophisticated history.  No period of human history was uniformly dark,  the age called the "enlightenment" has contained some of the darkest, most homicidal acts in the history of our species.  The claims that those dark blots on "enlightenment" are claimed to represent remnants of medieval, mystical, and other allegedly regressive hold-overs of the past when all of them used what was represented to be and widely taken as science as their intellectual foundation.  All of the darkest, most benighted regimes of our time and in the past two hundred years put enormous resources and efforts into science and, especially, the products of science, the level of that usually tied to the economic resources available to the regime and, in the absence of that, mined out of the people living under that regime.  In his quest for nuclear weapons, Zia ul Haq, the former president of Pakistan said that he would pursue the bomb even if it meant the people of Pakistan would be reduced to eating grass.  The despoliation and destruction of entire regions of people in the Soviet union and, in developing catastrophes in such places as Sellafield in Britain and Hanford Washington represent similar phenomena.  

Science, even real science has proven itself able to accommodate the darkest of patrons and the darkest of ideologies.  Scientists have proven themselves to be capable of enjoying, encouraging and even demanding the belief of people in their pronouncements, even those pronouncements which are not in any way understood by those believers.  Every day on comment threads, in blog posts and articles, you can read the same kind of demand made by people whose educations and intellectual formation contain nothing which would permit them to understand what was being said or to choose between the sciency statements of those they support.  That is true even for the most obviously ideological statements which are in no way widely accepted by other scientists or mathematicians, philosophers with relevant competence or others who do understand what is being asserted.   I can just about guarantee you that if I were to land on any comment thread on any blog or web-mag this minute there would be an assertion of that kind made by the most entirely ignorant of people.   I've wasted months of my life arguing with people like that over things like consciousness, abiogenesis, free will, natural selection, multiverse creationism, ... and that doesn't even get to the outright and massively believed in pseudo-sciences such as evolutionary psychology and the social "sciences".   The stupidity of such believers is generally matched with the most massive of conceit and arrogance, which can be amusing to encounter, even as it rapidly becomes tedious.

Being in the midst of a dark age can be exhausting if only intermittently amusing.  But I don't think there's much of a choice because if you suspend rigorous consideration you can get suckered into it, too.  So, I think I'll keep on with what I'm doing.


Max Tegmark, someone is snarking about my speculated reaction to Max Tegmark's most recent attention grabbing star pose of turning consciousness into matter.   Well, I suspect that the idiot who did that knows nothing about Tegmark (who, by the way,  changed his name from Shapiro because he thought it would make him more marketable, an irony in itself) but he unwittingly provided about the best current example of what I said here by doing so.

Peter Woit's blog post on his "Mathematical Universe" is worth reading in so many ways, showing how a first class mathematician applying the standards of science to scientific claims, not to mention mere logic and rigorous analysis, can come away quite skeptical of that.  I think the idea that every possible thing that is calculable existing is a rather silly idea but I can't apply the same level of thought to it that Woit does.

However, the most telling part of the blog post is in the comments where Tegmark's greatest supporter, unlike Woit and other skeptics, hadn't read the book under discussion.

"CJ says:
January 27, 2014 at 10:12 am
Dear Max, it is your behavior that is having the chilling effects not only on this blog, but throughout the entire physics community.

It is quite remarkable that while you are the one with millions upon millions of dollars at your disposal, a professional publicity machine, MIT’s PR department, and legions of Ph.D.-free pop-sci-fanboys, you accuse Peter of being a “creationist” bully for merely reading your book and reflecting on its empty content as a lone individual. To pile irony upon irony, it is also remarkable that while your book does little more than promote a faith-based initiative, which is not testable science, you then have the gall to accuse scientists and objective writers of behaving like religious fanatics.

Max Tegmark’s biggest defender Orin writes, “Peter, I’m afraid I haven’t had the time to read the book yet, but I’m familiar with the material I expect to be in it.”

Max, you do realize that your career is built more on laymen who have not read your book, than on scientists who have?

Orin says:
January 27, 2014 at 11:35 am
Well Peter, this “Ph.D.-free pop-sci-fanboy” has given your blog a fair shake. Specimens in irony like the above only do you a disservice by lending credence to Max’s comparison. Enjoy your echo chamber.

Peter Woit says:
January 27, 2014 at 11:44 am
I hope once you do get around to reading the book under discussion, if you find a non-vacuous argument in it for the MUH or the Level IV multiverse, you return to let me know."

I suppose I should thank the dolt for reminding me of such a good example of what I'm writing about and that there is a tie in to the upcoming Koch bros. financed NOVA 

From Woit's piece, I especially liked this:

"There’s only small part of Tegmark’s book that deals with the testability issue, the end of Chapter 12. His summary of Chapter 12 claims that he has shown:

The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is in principle testable and falsifiable.

His claim about falsifiability seems to be based on last page of the chapter, about “The Mathematical Regularity Prediction” which is that:

physics research will uncover further mathematical regularities in nature.

This is a prediction not of the Level IV multiverse, but a “prediction” of the idea that our physical laws are based on mathematics. I suppose it’s conceivable that the LHC will discover that at scales above 1 TeV, the only way to understand what we find is not through laws described by mathematics, but, say, by the emotional states of the experimenters. In any case, this isn’t a prediction of Level IV."

Though I think this is far more explanatory as to why he gets as much attention as he does:

"One answer to the question is Tegmark’s talent as an impresario of physics and devotion to making a splash. Before publishing his first paper, he changed his name from Shapiro to Tegmark (his mother’s name), figuring that there were too many Shapiros in physics for him to get attention with that name, whereas “Tegmark” was much more unusual. In his book he describes his method for posting preprints on the arXiv, before he has finished writing them, with the timing set to get pole position on the day’s listing. Unfortunately there’s very little in the book about his biggest success in this area, getting the Templeton Foundation to give him and Anthony Aguirre nearly $9 million for a “Foundational Questions Institute” (FQXi). Having cash to distribute on this scale has something to do with why Tegmark’s multiverse ideas have gotten so much attention, and why some physicists are respectfully reviewing the book."

As Woit mentions, Tegmark would seem to not have an awful lot of use for mathematicians for someone who wants to reduce consciousness to mathematical fluctuations and to give mathematics the ability to determine ultimate reality of things otherwise entirely unobserved.

"A very odd aspect of this whole story is that while Tegmark’s big claim is that Math=Physics, he seems to have little actual interest in mathematics and what it really is as an intellectual subject. There are no mathematicians among those thanked in the acknowledgements, and while “mathematical structures” are invoked in the book as the basis of everything, there’s little to no discussion of the mathematical structures that modern mathematicians find interesting (although the idea of “symmetries” gets a mention). A figure on page 320 gives a graph of mathematical structures which a commenter on mathoverflow calls “truly bizarre” (see here). Perhaps the explanation of all this is somehow Freudian, since Tegmark’s father is the mathematician Harold Shapiro."

Update  2:

Massimo Pigliucci's article which Woit links to leaves me wondering how anyone can take Tegmark seriously.    I mean:

While I have commented positively on ontic structural realism (again, without necessarily buying into it), and more generally on the idea of a “naturalistic” metaphysics (i.e., a metaphysics that takes seriously the best known physics), my conversation with Max Tegmark actually generated more doubts than illumination.

One obvious problem is posed by what it would mean for the world to be “made of” mathematical structures. The notion of mathematical structure is well developed, so that’s not the issue. A structure, strictly speaking, is a property or a group of mathematical objects that attach themselves to a given set. For instance, the set of real numbers has a number of structures, including an order (with any given number being either less or more than another number), a metric (measuring the distance between points in the set), an algebraic structure (the operations of addition and multiplication), and so on.

The problem is in what sense, if any, can a mathematical structure, so defined, actually be the fundamental constituent of the physical world, i.e. being the substance of which chairs, electrons, and so on, are made.

Of course, both Julia and I asked Max that very question, and we were both very unconvinced by his answer. When Tegmark said that fundamental particles, like electrons, are, ultimately mathematical in nature, Julia suggested that perhaps what he meant was that their properties are described by mathematical quantities. But Max was adamant, mentioning, for instance, the spin (which in the case of the electron has magnitude 1/2). Now, the spin of a particle, although normally described as its angular momentum, is an exquisitely quantum mechanical property (i.e., with no counterpart in classical mechanics), and it is highly misleading to think of it as anything like the angular momentum of a macroscopic object. Nevertheless, Julia and I insisted, it is a physical property described by a mathematical quantity, the latter is not the same as the former.

Could it be that theories like MUH are actually based on a category mistake? Obviously, I’m not suggesting that people like Tegmark make the elementary mistake of confusing the normal meaning of words like “objects” and “properties,” or of “physical” and “mathematical.” [I don't know why not, he would certainly seem to do just that.]  But perhaps they are making precisely that mistake in a metaphysical sense?

There are other problems with MUH. For one, several critics of Tegmark’s ideas have pointed out that they run afoul of the seemingly omnipresent (and much misunderstood) Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Mark Alford, specifically, during a debate with Tegmark and Piet Hut has suggested that the idea that mathematics is “out there” is incompatible with the idea that it consists of formal systems. To which Tegmark replied that perhaps only Gödel-complete mathematical structures have physical existence (something referred to as the Computable Universe Hypothesis, CUH).

This, apparently, results in serious problems for Max’s theory, since it excludes much of the landscape of mathematical structures, not to mention that pretty much every successful physical theory so far would violate CUH. Oops.

It does, actually, get worse after that in Pigliucci's article.  I will point out that I've been critical of both Woit and Pigliucci on ideological grounds but if they've got problems (some of which I can even sort of get) with Tegmark's fashionable ideas, it's wise to take their reservations at least as seriously as you might want to take Tegmark's ideas.   They both know what they're talking about in their areas of expertise and they're saying far less outlandish things than Tegmark.

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