Wittgenstein and Physics, Cross College Oxford one day seminar
Thu Feb 19, 2015
(image via peternijenhuis)
Last year I attended a one day seminar on Wittgenstein and Physics. It was held at Cross College Oxford and was the first in a planned series of talks on the history and philosophy of science. It’s been a long time since I’ve done physics seriously, and longer still since I took classes on the history and philosophy of science, so I attended very much in the mode of the interested outsider. As such my notes should be taken very much as a personal reflection on the talks, and I’m confident that I was missing quite a bit of underlying background to totally get everything that was being discussed. Nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed it. In the notes below I’ve pulled out quotes as they happened, and I don’t intend to weave them together at all into a coherent narrative.
Rupert Read - university of East Anglia - How to admire science and dispose scientism - scene setting
application of the scientific method outside it’s proper home is problematic
particularly problematic in the domain of philosophy
The alternative to scientism is that other disciplines should be seen to be something different. These other disciplines ought not to be assimilated by the discipline of science.
(There are a lot of “air quotes” going on, a visual counterpart to markdown, perhaps?).
(I have a lot of sympathy with most of the views outlined in this presentation, in regards to having a good and balanced and fair understanding of the correct domains to which the scientific method should be applied, there is no doubt but that science has led to great success. There is no basis to apply the scientific method directly to existential questions. These questions can be informed, but not resolved, with the information that is exposed to us through science. On the topic of mind and body, even this question is a specific and defined and outlined question. I believe that we will create consciousness of some bound or limit, within my lifetime. I’ve just read about the embodiment of a worm conciseness in a robot through the replication of the connectome within the robot - this has to be considered a stunning result, but it remains, in my mind tangential to the questions that I think are being raised by Wittgenstein’s concerns over the over-assimilation of the scientific methods into other disciplines - that deserves more explanation on my part, and I’ll have no time to expand on that).
(It concerns me to accept a phrase that states that philosophy is purely descriptive, while at the same pushing to move philosophy away from science, as to me much of science is so much about being purely descriptive of the world, especially in the life sciences.)
today scientism is as strong as ever, arguably stronger
the movement of geeks, humanists, skeptics look like a move towards worshiping science (note: my comment here is a very paraphrased version of what Rupert said.)
the move to evidence for everything.
the idea that art is nothing more than for entertainment
This comment about art has at it’s base that Wittgenstein could see how important art was, and we have perhaps lost that in modern times, relegating art to the domain of pure entertainment. (there is a robust discussion about this point in the Q&A session, and I had the thought that this line of argument it could be drawn out by looking at how research councils are increasingly requiring justification through an impact agenda, through the request to see outputs, outreach and impact criteria being met. I chatted very briefly to Rupert about this just before the lunch break. He made the good point that the impact agenda has the good aspect of urging the research community to connect more directly with the public, and I concur with that, but it’s interesting to me to see so many scientists seeking to make justification for what they would term blue skies research. In addition we know that there are distorting measures in place, such as the journal impact factor, and I feel that what we might need is a better language for the public discourse about the nature of the goods that the arts and sciences provide to society. In a way not only are the arts suffering from an acceptance of scientism in how we think of impact, but so are the sciences).
## Susan Edwards-McKie - Wittgenstein’s solution to Einstein’s problem: Calibration across systems. This is a deep piece of scholarship on the reconstruction of a manuscript version of the philosophical translations. The scholarship stands on it’s own, but the question that I’m interested in is how does this change our understanding? I believe the point being made is that this hidden revision provides access to more of Wittgenstein’s thoughts on topics of mathematics, physics, quantum mechanics and causality, than if you take the existing published work on it’s own.
It is also interesting to me that so much scholarship can go into understanding the minutiae of a manuscript. What is the future outlook going to be for digital scholarship and reconstruction of thought in a world of almost infinite versions (every keystroke of the document that I am writing is getting backed up and versioned).
I’m unfamiliar with Wittgenstein’s criticism of trans-finite mathematics. (I honestly don’t know what I think about trans-finite mathematics, but I do know that my own biases and intuitions are frequently confounded by both nature and my own understanding of nature). (Since the seminar I’ve found a good introductory article, and having read through it, I’m not 100% convinced by Wittgenstein’s criticism, but I feel can understand it).
Again this question of whether a machine can think comes up. Can a machine think? For a certain definition of thinking the answer is yes.
The idea of infinity as a property of space
space gives to reality an unending opportunity for division
Wittgenstein gives to space the property of infinite divisibility.
She mentions a 1929 article -
some remarks on logical form. I think it’s mentioned that this article offers some argument for the articulation of the infinite without an appeal to either infinitely large or an infinitely small numbers - and through this provides a critique of Cantor.
There is an in-depth conversation on the fragment that contains some diagrams of circles and squares, these are very rough sketches that are representing a system of thought from Wittgenstein, but it is difficult for me to appreciate this diagram, or the claims made about the diagram. When thinking about diagrammatic methods I’ve been a fan for a long time of some of the work by Penrose, and also some of the graph-theory decompositions, but they come with more infrastructure around them.
If we talk about heaps, and paths through them, and diagrammatic methods, then I find the work of Feynman with his diagrammatic method for QED calculations to be the benchmark here.
Wittgenstein’s’ system is never point based, it is interval based In a system like this one needs a different mechanism for coordination.
There is a mention of a universal oscillating machine, and it’s mentioned that this idea has been developed in late 20th century cosmology. I would like to get more references on this, as a naive participant in the meeting, and an ex-cosmologist its not immediacy clear to me what cosmological theory is being referred to here.
special relativity is a machine with a kinematic basis, general relativity is more of a geometric machine
(I think that is a spot on observation, however the geometry of physics approach of building up structure through the addition of geometric machinery allows one to have kinematics, electrodynamics and all of the known conservation laws just drop out from the machinery, so perhaps the fundamental distinction between these descriptions is not so deep)
There is a discussion in the Q&A on whether Wittgenstein really made claims on insights into quantum entanglement - which seems to be the claim of this talk. There is some push back from a person in the audience. There is some discussion on how intervals, metrics and points are described and determined. I would concur with the person asking the question, my own understanding of metrics comes from some courses on geometry and general relativity.
The speaker says that the hidden revision - with some fragments from Wittgenstein - forms the solid basis for Wittgenstein’s contributions to ideas about entanglement, but there is a case to be made that our current understanding of actual entanglement have evolved from a very concrete basis.
Overall this speaker failed to convince on the topic. It is hard for me to accept that an unpublished and minor fragment of a document on it’s own can be revelatory to the extent that it could support a new view on a topic - quantum entanglement - that now has a very solid basis in both theory and practice. For me it would need to provide a way to get to a critical experiment, or to put it another way, it would need to provide a way to produce a proposition that could be compared with truth states in the world around us, and it seems that there is not enough presented here to make that step.
Carlo Penco - Wittgenstein’s Mental Experiments and Relativity Theory
This is a great talk, you should go and watch it.
Einstein’s work can be seen as a work on the tools with which we describe and compare events - that is a work on the behaviour of clocks and rods in different coordinate systems
Wittgenstein’s work can be seen as a work on the tools with which we describe the world - that is a work on the behaviour of concepts in different conceptual frameworks
these tools must be … coordinated and rigid
Can we push this analogy any further? Alien language games are games where our intuitive rules break down, like where Einstein’s thought experiments pushed behaviour towards the speed of light to break our concept of clocks and rulers.
Einstein found the right invariants to make this work. Where can we find these kinds of invariants in Wittgenstein’s work?
There are different kinds of alien games
- different facts of nature
- 2+2 sometimes gave 5, sometimes 7
- different behaviours
- people gave different expressions of pain
- tribe sells wood by area of the pile, not the amount
There are relativists and anti-relativists in the context of Wittgenstein. How can there be such strongly divergent interpretations (one might say this is natural when we leave the interoperation to academics, much less than to philosophers)
Where are the invariants? We assume that aliens follow rules (Quine is mentioned).
If our concepts seem not to work properly then it probably means that our translation manual is wrong.
Transformations must explain the rule-following behaviour, the invariant is that the Aliens do follow rules.
This really is a lovely talk. The example given to demonstrate the talk is one of where a native culture uses a method for assigning a value to a pile of wood - they measure how long the wood is along the ground, rather than the sum total of the amount of wood. This is seen as backwards and odd behaviour by a colonist, who goes on to “teach” the natives the right method to price a pile of wood. What I loved about this example was one of the first questions form the floor. Someone suggested that had a native discovered how to arbitrage that large piles of wood could be laid out differently, then other natives would have discovered that this one person was getting rich, and they would naturally conclude that their system of valuing the wood was broken, indicating that there was indeed a pathology to the way that they did things. Carlo answered that what we really don’t know is what the term “value” means to the natives, is there a ceremony associated with the way the wood is laid out? Is there a moment in the calendar where the natives want to get rid of their money? Are there social contracts going on that we are not aware of. The questioner fell directly into the trap that Wittgenstein says we must avoid, by using a faulty translation, without understanding the entire system of use of the way the language is deployed by the natives, he came to the conclusion that there really is something wrong with the way these people are pricing wood, whereas what we perhaps ought to take away from this is that we probably just don’t understand enough yet of what is really going on.
## Introductory remarks to the afternoon session
It’s mentioned that Dirac and Dyson both met Wittgenstein and had little time for him, but Bohr disagreed with them deeply on this.
## Dr Chon Tejedor - Wittgenstein, induction and the principles of the natural sciences.
She has a book from Routlidge on this topic.
She starts by discussing a view of causality described at the natural necessity view.
There is a distinction between natural and logical entailment.
(I might say that natural entailment appeals to a law of nature to explain the relation between p and q, and as such provides a mechanism that might be said to be hidden to p and q, in contrast with a logical entailment the propositions are structurally related to each other, and the relations emerges out of the internal structure of the propositions).
There is an interesting discussion about how the applications of the rules of logic are independent of the facts of the world, as these rules are applied solely based on the internal structure of the propositions.
(This is where a naive reading of these topics can tie one into knots. I want to look at the boundaries and interfaces between what is considered reality and the logic operating within it, I want to imagine that for the example given of a natural law (magnetism), this law is indeed tied directly to the internal states of the objects forming the propositions (the pin, the magnet), but I have to leave that behind, and accept that, in the context of this talk, that I have to take the topic away with me and use it as a guide for whenever I may return to thinking about the ideas of Wittgenstein in more detail).
One of the things at the heart of the topic in this talk is our common everyday usage of logic in navigating the world, but I’m not at all sure how we do that.
The conclusion that we get to is that we need a non-NN understanding of scientific laws to have a credible view of induction and causation.
There is a positive view on scientific laws in the Tractatus, and we turn to that view now.
The purpose of a law is not to justify or ground a causation, but rather it is as an instruction within a system for the generation of propositions (One might say that propositions as described by Popper should be used to hit the hard bounds of that system, and to see if one can break that system).
it is the sign of a law being at work that our construction of propositions is constrained
the so-called law of induction constrains nothing: it is not a law.
(I wonder, would one say that a law of some systems of mathematics is that they are systems in which induction applies).
Dr. Richard Staley - Boltzmann, Mach and Wittgenstein’s Vienna.
This is a good talk, I’m enjoying this. I didn’t know that Wittgenstein had considered studying with Boltzmann. It was a call from Boltzmann for the need of a genius to help with the development of aeronautics that prompted Wittgenstein to take up aeronautical engineering.
There was a lot of detail about the thought of Mach, much more than I’d been exposed to, and it was a pleasure to listen to. I don’t have any strong takeaways from this talk, but when I get a link to the video I’ll post it, and I highly recommend a viewing.