Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Scientific Problem with Panpsychism & String Theory (With Lee Smolin) (1)

[The words “string theory” are used in the following. One of Lee Smolin's main arguments is that there are many string theories. Not surprisingly, some/many string theorists dispute that.]


Lee Smolin's book book, The Problem With Physics, is relied upon in all the parts of this piece . It's relied upon because Smolin's views parallel (at least in part) my own on panpsychism. However, I certainly wouldn't have relied on Smolin's book if it weren't for his strong and detailed emphasis on string theory. It's this emphasis on string theory which ties in strongly with my own positions against panpsychism.

I personally don't have a firm position on string theory. I certainly don't adopt Smolin's strictly scientific positions on it. That's primarily because any position (at least of a scientific nature) on string theory must – almost of necessity - involve complex mathematics. Yet I'm neither a mathematician nor a physicist. Indeed I'm not even an “amateur expert” on string theory. However, it's also the case that nothing said in the following depends on my knowing the complex mathematics required for string theory. Everything I say should stand without such scientific and mathematical knowledge. Despite saying that, I'm well aware of the possible objections – from string theory acolytes - to my position. Smolin himself brings up such objections. He writes:

Some string theorists prefer to believe that string theory is too arcane to be understood by human beings.... One recent posting on a physics blog laid this out beautifully: 'We can't expect a dog to understand quantum mechanics, and it may be that we are reaching the limit of what humans can understand about string theory. Maybe there are advanced civilizations out there to whom we appear as dogs do to us, and maybe they have figured out string theory well enough to have moved to a better theory...'...”

The Czech string theorist (or perhaps I should say physicist), Luboš Motl, even comes close to saying all this (in his review of The Problem With Physics) about Smolin himself. He writes:

Because these statements [of Smolin] are of mathematical nature, we are sure that Lee is wrong even in the absence of any experiments.”

Thus if some string theorists believe that Smolin is an (mathematical) “outsider”, then you can be sure that they think the same about everyone else on the outside. As Smolin puts it:

The views of outsiders must be disregarded because outsiders are not skilled enough in the tools of the trade to evaluate evidence and pass , of judgment.” (287)

This insider-outsider situation is also, of course, the case with philosophers; as well as with all other specialists (or professionals). And in both the case of string theorists and philosophers (perhaps also panpsychists), there's much justification for this insider-outsider mismatch.

Despite that, string theorists still find themselves in an extremely neat and convenient position. That position is expressed by William Poundstone in his book, Labyrinths of Reason. (Poundstone puts the quandary into the mouth of Sherlock Holmes.) Thus:

'I subscribe to several esoteric journals to ease the tedium of the apiarist's life. I was reading in one of them that William Shanks, a mathematician of our fair island, has recently computed pi to 707 decimal places. It took him twenty years. His result filled a whole page with quite senseless, random numbers. Should anyone doubt Mr. Shank's result, he would have to budget an equal amount of time and duplicate his work. In that case also, verifying the answer would be precisely as difficult as coming up with the answer in the first place – the very antithesis of an obvious solution.'....”

Sherlock Holmes, of course, was a layperson when it comes to higher mathematics. However, even within mathematics and mathematical physics, some such professionals are essentially laypersons when it comes to the domain of string theory. Indeed, if we split string theory up into its many sections, then some string theorists will be (almost) laypersons when it comes to the work of other string theorists.

Of course what's been said is also partly true of all physics. That is, the entirety of physics includes mathematics which laypersons won't understand. Nonetheless, such areas of physics don't – one can argue – suffer from the same problems which string theory faces (i.e., the problems discussed in this piece).

Having said all the above, and also having read The Problem With Physics, I'm still not entirely sure what Lee Smolin's final stance on string theory actually is. Obviously it's true that he has very big problems with it. (E.g., the fact that it offers no predictions; has no experimental input; has no precise mathematical formula which is systematic and works for all string theories; has an unhealthy academic hegemony; etc.) Though, despite that, Smolin also seems to argue that string theory may well still be true/correct/accurate. He definitely does say – in accordance with his Feyerbendian theoretical pluralism (see later) – that string theory has both a value and an important role to play in physics. Indeed he spends much time making precisely that point.

Smolin also stresses his string-theory credentials. For example, he writes:

.... there have been periods when I avidly believed in string theory and devoted myself to solving its key problems. While I didn't solve them, I wrote eighteen papers in the subject...”

More relevantly to this piece, Smolin says:

Nor am I for anything except science, or against anything except that which threatens science.”

That quote gets to the heart of the matter. Smolin believes that string theory is, in many ways, unscientific; or, at the least, non-scientific (see later). This is where philosophy comes in. That is, in order to claim that x is non-scientific, one has to advance philosophical arguments in order to justify that claim.

To sum up Smolin's positions on string theory, it can be said that his two main (scientific) claims are the following:

i) String theory makes no testable predictions.
ii) String theory has no accepted or systematic mathematical formulation. (This claim is far less relevant to this piece.)

Thus it's of course ironic that in the review of The Trouble With Physics mentioned earlier, Luboš Motl also turns on Smolin's claim that string theory is non-scientific by saying that "the concentration of irrational statements and anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations”.

Despite Motl's hyperbolic statement, and as previously said, Smolin also says that string theory may still be at least partly true/correct/accurate without thereby also abiding by (all of?) science's rules... That's if science has any rules! I make this point because there's an entire chapter (called 'What is science?') in Smolin's book which is devoted to Paul Feyerabend . This American/Austrian “anarchist philosopher” rejected the very existence of a “scientific method”. He also argued that it would be counterproductive for science even if it the scientific method did exist. And Smolin seems to at least partly endorse Feyerabend's position. This, at least prima facie, seems to work against Smolin's strong position on string theory's non-scientific nature. Indeed, when speaking against string theory, he does so by saying that it goes against the scientific method. (Incidentally, Motl too says that Smolin is both "anti-scientific" and "against the scientific method".) For example, this is Smolin on Fotini Markopoulou's results on quantum gravity. He writes:

... it shows promise of leading to unique predictions, which will either be in agreement with experiment or not. Most important, this obviates the need to revise the scientific method.... Science done the old-fashioned way is moving ahead.”

Of course it may simply be the case that Smolin accepts Feyerabend's theoretical pluralism (or theoretical “anarchism”) and rejects his positions on the scientific method itself.

Unscientific or Non-scientific?

The relevant - and obvious - point here is that panpsychism is a philosophical theory; whereas string theory is part of science. Nonetheless, some of the philosophical (i.e., not scientific) problems which both face are very similar.

In any case, panpsychist philosophers don't claim that panpsychism is a science or even that it's scientific.

Indeed philosophy itself isn't a science. And that must mean that panpsychism isn't a science.

However, many panpsychists (as do various “analytic metaphysicians”) claim that panpsychism must still be beholden to science. Alternatively, they say that it shouldn't (directly) contradict anything in science. (David Chalmers, for example, classes himself as a “naturalist” - actually, he calls his position “naturalistic dualism”!) Indeed because panpsychism deals with “intrinsic natures”, then - almost by definition - it can be said that it can't contradict anything in physics.

All this parallels – at least to some extent - the Wittgensteinian claim that science and religion don't contradict each other because they're dealing with different phenomena. (Alternatively, Wittgensteinians claim that science and religion sometimes deal with the same phenomena; though in different ways.) Thus science and religion are – in the language of Steven Jay Gould - “non-overlapping magisteriama”. (There will be more on the overlapping-worlds idea later.) This may also mean that panpsychism and physics are non-overlapping worlds. And, if that's the case, then how they they contradict one another?

The other point which has to be made is that the scientific criticisms of panpsychism can also be applied to many other philosophical theories. Indeed the entirety of metaphysics can be said - and has been said - to be suspect from a scientific point of view (at least according to some scientists). Thus panpsychism's relationship with science is far from being unique.

Yet philosophy can indeed be unscientific rather than simply non-scientific. So is panpsychism unscientific or non-scientific? What about string theory? Is it – at least partly - unscientific or is it non-scientific?

A simple - and perhaps naive - example of this problem relates to the question as to what is and what isn't observable. If what can be observed – or can be in observed “in principle” (as it's often put) – is ignored or rejected, then that would be an unscientific position to take. However, even within science many things are unobservable (e.g., quarks, protons, the iron core at the center of the earth, distant galaxies, fields and forces, etc.). Some things are even unobservable in principle (e.g., the past, numbers, laws, universals, perhaps other minds, etc.). That clearly has relevance to both string theory and panpsychism.

Indeed in terms of most/all of the claims of metaphysics (even those claims about things which are observable): they're still primarily about things which aren't observable.

Perhaps a quote from the English philosopher C.D. Broad will help here. (As found in his paper, 'Philosophy', in Inquiry I.) Thus:

We must distinguish between being non-scientific and being un-scientific. What I have admitted is that philosophy is a subject which is almost certainly of its very nature non-scientific. We must not jump from this purely negative statement to the conclusion that it has the positive defect of being unscientific. The latter term can be properly used only when a subject, which is capable of scientific treatment, is treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific method.” 

Very controversially, it must be said here that Broad might well have had telekinesis, mind-reading and even backwards causation in mind when he wrote the above. That alone shows us how problematic the distinction between x being unscientific and x being non-scientific is. That is, that distinction may simply allow too much even when it comes to what's non-scientific: never mind what's unscientific.

In any case, if we forget telekinesis and mind-reading, it's feasible that both string theory and panpsychism can be non-scientific without also being unscientific. However, there's an obvious difference. As stated, string theory is a science and panpsychism isn't. Thus if string theory is either non-scientific or unscientific, then that's a problem. Panpsychism, on the other hand, is only problematic if it's unscientific. Thus if we say that panpsychism is non-scientific (to quote Broad again), “[w]e must not jump from this purely negative statement to the conclusion that it has the positive defect of being unscientific”. The same can't also be said of string theory.

The last statement from Broad is very helpful in this context. Let me re-quote it:

The latter term ['unscientific'] can be properly used only when a subject, which is capable of scientific treatment, is treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific method.” 

That means that if panpsychism deals with a subject “which is capable of scientific treatment” (and which “is [also] treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific method”), then we may have a philosophical problem. (We certainly do if we're naturalists.) The point here is that panpsychists will simply claim that panpsychism – or at least most/all of the claims from panpsychists – have nothing whatsoever to do “with the principles of scientific method”. Philosophers may again claim – in the Wittgensteinian sense - that panpsychism and science are non-overlapping worlds. That claim, however, may be both too convenient and simply false. After all, take the following:

i) If physics states that there are no “intrinsic natures” (certainly if it claims that micro-entities don't have “phenomenal properties”),
ii) then panpsychism does indeed “conflict with the principles” of physics.

The problem is, however, that some/many panpsychists claim that physics simply “ignores” intrinsic natures. That is, it has no position on them. As the philosopher Philip Goff puts it:

This [panpsychist] argument presses us to the conclusion that there must be more to physical entities than what they do: physical things must also have an ‘intrinsic nature’...”

And elsewhere he says:

... given that physics is restricted to telling us only about the behaviour of physical entities – electrons, quarks and indeed spacetime itself – it leaves us completely in the dark about their intrinsic nature. Physics tells us what matter does, but not what it is.”

Some physicists, on the other hand, will simply claim that intrinsic natures don't exist. Thus we can conclude by saying that physics as a whole – as stated - doesn't have a universal or systematic position on intrinsic natures (or on “micro-minds”).

This also means that if science/physics has no problem with panpsychism (or even accepts the fruitfulness of research into it), then that would also fit in well with Smolin's Feyerabendian theoretical pluralism.

So what about string theory and the non-scientific/unscientific bifurcation?

We can say that because of the current state of play, many of the claims and theories of string theory aren't (to use Broad's words again) “capable of scientific treatment”. (Though not only for reasons of the experimental limitations brought about by deficiencies of contemporary technology.) Nonetheless, that doesn't necessarily also mean that string theory also “conflicts with the principles of science”. Of course it can now be said that if string theory's claims aren't capable of scientific treatment, then how can they also be scientific? Though this, of course, would also render very many 19th and 20th century theories (in physics) and statements (from physicists) non-scientific. That is, many claims and theories were made before the evidence or experiments were in. Does that mean that such claims or theories were non-scientific or even unscientific? If the experiments and evidence came to be available, then surely we can't say that such claims and theories were unscientific. Thus they were non-scientific, rather than unscientific. Indeed perhaps they weren't even non-scientific: they might have simply been (as it were) protoscientific.


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