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.
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.
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?
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."
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.