Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Rahul Mahajan rahul at hagar.ph.utexas.edu
Sun Jun 18 10:37:31 MDT 1995

Hans Ehrbar wrote:

>Rahul, thank you for responding so patiently to the crossfire of
>probing questions and attacks which you have attracted.  One of the
>issues here is the distinction between philosopher and scientist.

Hans, thanks for the post. If discussion on this thread gets acrimonious,
be sure I'm not directing any of it at you. I don't at all wish to obviate
the distinction between philosopher and scientist -- I do think that the
great or at least brilliant scientists are the people best-qualified to
push forward the philosophy of their fields. However, certainly all one
needs to do so is a thorough knowledge and understanding of the
fundamentals of the field -- you don't also need to do research.

>I am appending an earlier posting of mine which tried to explain
>Bhaskar's position on this.  In short it says: the philosopher of
>science asks so-called "second-order" questions of the kind: what must
>the world be like that the activities which the scientist engages in
>can yield knowledge about the world.  It is a question about the
>presuppositions of what the scientist does which must be kept separate
>from the questions which the scientist asks while doing his science.

This is a dangerous line of argument to take. It's certainly an appealing
one, but it also leads to mushy metaphysics like the anthropic principle --
in order for science to be possible, we must be possible, therefore (weak
version) the universe and natural law must be set up so that we could exist
(this is trivially obvious, because we're here) or (strong version) U and
NL are set up so as to mandate our existence. I might even agree with Jim
Jaszewski's comments about the arrogant, dogmatic bourgeois-scientism of
those who believe in the strong version. I'm not at all accusing Bhaskar of
such ideas -- it's just when you start asking questions like how must the
universe be in order for x to be possible, it's _very_ difficult to
liberate yourself completely from parochialism. You may have mentioned it
before, but what do you think would be the best (not more than 1000-page)
piece by Bhaskar to read to get the main idea?

>If one accepts that these areas of inquiry must be separated, then one
>can resolve some of the questions brought up in the current debate as

It doesn't necessarily pay to be too dogmatic about this separation. The
first-order-second-order distinction, while it makes sense, may be obviated
by discoveries. In fact, one could make a case that projects like that of
string theory, which could be taken to be that of deriving a unique
universe from consistency requirements, have crossed that line, i.e., that
physics at least contains 1st and 2nd order questions in its legitimate
realm. Of course, no experimental results have come out of string theory,
but there's no a priori reason they shouldn't sometime.

>(1) The philosopher cannot hope to derive the existence of
>elementary particles simply from dialectical principles (this is a
>first-order question).

What does a statement like "derive the existence of (certain) elementary
particles from dialectical principles" mean to you?

>(2) On the other hand you, Rahul, should not disqualify questions about the
>ontological underpinnings of modern scientific endeavor by saying:
>only the expert in physics can answer them.  There is indeed a very
>rich philosophical thinking which has to say something about this.

I don't intend to be dogmatic about this. It's simply that we all have
finite time to spend reading and I don't wish to waste time on things which
I consider have a low probability of being fruitful. From what I have seen
of philosophy of science, it has rarely raised the questions that I and
many other physicists consider most interesting, and when it does (like
Kuhn, e.g.), it does so in a trivial, vague, or pointless way. I have not
read extensively in the field, though -- largely because of this opinion
formed from the first half a dozen books or so.

>(3) I think you are also giving too little credit to social sciences.
>Of course, most mainstream social sciences are wrong because of their
>social role of apologists of capitalism.  This does not mean that
>a scientific understanding of society is impossible.

I never said it was. I just don't think any social scientists have come
close to such a thing, in my conception of what a scientific understanding
is. This doesn't mean that people like Marx and Engels didn't make major
contributions to our understanding of many aspects of society -- they did.
They also made some major blunders.

When you say "scientific understanding," what do you mean by it -- i.e.,
with regard to questions like quantitative results, predictability, etc.?

>As I understand Bhaskar, he does not claim that the scientist needs
>the philosopher to do science.  Many excellent scientists are very
>naive about the philosophical implications of what they are doing.

I find it a little unfair that the point is always formulated thusly. Could
we not equally well say that much excellent science is done without any
input from philosophy and is invulnerable to any changes in philosophy that
may occur? It may mean much the same thing, but why always slam the
scientist? Other excellent scientists (Einstein, for example) have had a
profound understanding of the philosophical implications of what they were

>Example: Lisa asked in a recent
>post regarding quality and quantity whether one could not view all
>the qualitiative breaks which were given as examples as quantitative
>gradations?  The answer is: if the world would be as "monistic" and
>without breaks as Lisa wants it to be, then science would either be
>automatic or it would be impossible ...

I'm not sure how you reach that conclusion. In any case, the two views can
be reconciled -- you can set up simple models where behavior changes
qualitatively at one point as you continuously twiddle a parameter (phase
transitions, etc.). Of course, you could also imagine that discontinuity
exists at arbitrarily deep levels -- I don't think there's much to be said
one way or the other.


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