In my more ignorant days, that is, my early days as an undergraduate student of physics, I would say that string theory doesn’t deserve to be funded. In fact, I would have said it wasn’t really physics, or at least that nobody have proved that string theory was physics to me. That has changed. No, my actual view of string theory vis-à-vis physics has not changed; but what has, is my view of the relationship between all of the human endeavors to understand the world, or, more broadly, “what is the case” —even what might be the case. This change has come about as a direct result of my studies of philosophy and, really, my understanding of how the human condition, in its healthiest state, is heavily embedded in the process called the “liberal arts.” Continue reading
Category Archives: Physics
Not-So-Faster-Than-Light Particles and the GZK Cutoff: Philosophical Considerations of Wayward Travels
As promised, I am posting some of my philosophy of physics ideas that aren’t as well formulated. Click here. The idea in the attached paper is that there are a number of large-scale phenomena that might suggest that the notion of “travelling” might not be so well defined. In the time to come, I will be blogging about Wesley Salmon’s “at-at” theory, which has been universally embraced by nearly all philosophers and, almost assuredly, every physicist holding a university position. This paper, “Not-So-Faster-Than-Light Particles and the GZK Cutoff: Philosophical Considerations of Wayward Travels,” is really a shot in that direction, contra “at-at” theory. The “at-at” theory says that an object moving from point A and B occupies each spatial point, xi (i = 1, 2,…,n), at some corresponding point in time, tj (j = 1, 2,…,n), satisfying the following two criteria: 1) i=j, 2) the object occupies each contiguous location en route to the final point, and 3) this set, the set of contiguous locations, is the unique set such that distance is minimized between point A and B. Continue reading
In her opinion article “Physicists Versus Philosophers” (in The Philosophers Magazine Issue 58, 3rd Quarter 2012), Ophelia Benson presents a short, but interesting, account of friction between philosophers and physicists. I was a bit bothered by a number of elements presented in the article, and provoked to sympathy for the physicists, by way of reflection. “Sympathy,” not because I side with the comments of physicists, like “‘The only people, as far as I can tell, that read works by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science’”; but because of all of the changes in tides and shifts in power away from physics. It really is a tumultuous time in academia. Take a second to consider it. Many (maybe most?) scientists and philosophers no longer believe in ontological reduction down to the level of physics. Continue reading
I need to go a bit further than what I did in my blog post on conceptual anachronism. It is the worst nightmare of the historian, mostly because his or her craft is centrally about context. For them, there is a wrong answer, when looking at history unfairly with a modern lens. Philosophers make this mistake, too, but they tend to do it with style and blissful ignorance like you’ve never seen. The problem with philosophers doing it is double: 1) The philosopher’s project is often (only!) ostensibly lacking in investment in historical accuracy; but the truth is that this false impression makes it more difficult to pick up on his or her error —and this, in my opinion, means partial exculpation for the indicted philosopher. 2) The creative fashion in which conceptual anachronisms are employed is so unclear that the error may seem debatable. I have a particular instance in mind. It arose this past week, in a seminar I am taking under Jordi Cat, called “Unity of Science.” Continue reading
I offer for consideration a very interesting dialogue from the opening of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (Pocket Books, 2004, page 5). The protagonist begins:
“You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.”
“That’s all right,” said the Psychologist.
“Nor having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.”
“There I object,” said Filby. “Of course a solid body may exist. All real things —”
“So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?”
“Don’t follow,” said Filby.
Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?”
Filby became pensive.
“Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions, it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and —Duration.”
The dialogue points to what is, in my experience, a much overlooked idea: that there is an interesting constraint applied to time by the first three spatial dimensions. When we look around, we don’t see triangles, we see things that look like triangles. This is the sort of thinking that led Plato to the idea of universal forms and the allegory of the Cave. The dialogue points out an interesting question: Supposing that one can obtain, say, a platonic solid, what if it exists only for an instant —that is, no duration at all? I don’t see this question come up often in the more academic forums; maybe it does and I am just missing it. Continue reading
It should be common knowledge that it isn’t wise to accept, without air of caution, someone’s opinion on a matter as absolute fact, if that person is not an expert in the given field. Consider popular physics, for the moment. What field is it that a physicist (or, as will be the case in the blog post, a mathematician) is expert of? That’s one question. Another is: What does the composition of works in popular physics entail? If the answer to the former is not the answer to the latter, then there is something wrong. I believe something is. Continue reading
I am not going to go too hard on him, James S. Trefil, because he is such a fine author and I enjoy his work; but I must address an error that this physicist makes in one of his books, From Atoms to Quarks: An Introduction to the Strange World of Particle Physics (1980). (See my review of the book by clicking on this sentence.) I have chosen Trefil’s error for discussion, because he is a fine physicist, which makes for a good mark in proving a point, namely, that physics needs philosophy of physics to mind a number of problems that are not central to advancement of the science. These problems include the kind of conceptual one that will be mentioned —one that I hope other physicists do not err on— and conceptual problems in foundations, metaphysics, and so forth. Continue reading
Within the physics community, there seems to be a problematic mode of thought, in trying to figure out how to unify quantum mechanics (QM) and general relativity (GR). Moreover, this mode is pervasive, unfortunately. The thinking goes like this: Given QM’s overwhelming success —it is often hailed as the most successful physical theory, to date— GR must be forced into a theoretical and mathematical vessel that exactly reflects QM. The subtlety contained in this thinking is that the interpretation of QM is independent of the endeavor to unify QM and GR, and, therefore, all problems completely reside in “fixing” GR. The problem with this mode of thought is that, among all problems, the greatest disparity in the realities of QM and GR resides in the mathematical divide, namely, that non-commutative algebras run rampant in one realm, whereas the other exclusively adheres to commutative algebras. Continue reading