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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2007 > Mar > Mar 28

Re: Defending The Indefensible - Reason

From: Cathy Reason <CathyM.nul>
Date: Tue, 27 Mar 2007 18:22:07 +0100
Fwd Date: Wed, 28 Mar 2007 07:36:16 -0400
Subject: Re: Defending The Indefensible - Reason

>From: Martin Shough <parcellular.nul>
>To: <ufoupdates.nul>
>Date: Mon, 26 Mar 2007 17:06:12 +0100
>Subject: Re: Defending The Indefensible

Hi Martin

>I've thought about this over the weekend, trying to
>understand/sympathise with your point of view on materialism. I
>haven't done very well I'm afraid. But, deep breath . . .

Indeed, we do seem to be talking past each other for some reason
I quite can't figure out.

Ok, I wrote out this reply very quickly last night and responded
to your points more or less paragraph by paragraph. This isn't
the way I normally write; usually I prefer to gather the material
together into coherent strands. As a result this may seem a
little disconnected and there are a number of separate issues
here which aren't all that clearly delineated. But as this is
supposed to be the last word hopefully this won't matter ;-)

I've also skipped some points which are really beyond the scope
of this discussion (mainly to do with philosophy of mind) and
which I simply don't have time to go into. Even so what's left
is still rather long and I would advise anyone who tries to work
their way through this to take a packed lunch and some warm
clothing, as it may take some time. Ok, here goes:

>I suspect you might feel less antagonistic to a physicalistic
>monism if it called itself idealism (perhaps along the lines of
>Jeans' "great thought"), but of course the question, "Is the
>monistic substrate material or mental?" turns out to be empty,
>because the world remains unchanged under the transformation.

Actually this isn't so. Ontologically the world would change
substantially (literally so) under such a transformation, even
if there were no observable consequences. And by no means is it
certain that the nature of the substrate will have no observable

But if the nature of the substrate had no observable
consequences, then as scientists we should ignore it, is that
what you are saying? I agree. Except... I don't believe that is
an accurate description of how scientists - physicists or
otherwise - actually deal with metaphysical questions. This is
really the core of my objection, Martin. There seem to be some
metaphysical questions that are just too tempting for physicists
to ignore - and because they are physicists, not philosophers,
they fall headlong into whatever pitfall lies in front of them.
This is what Bohr was warning about.

>So therefore I take it you are a dualist by inclination and are
>sceptical about the hope of physical completeness because of an
>expectation - derived in part from 20thC quantum philosophy -
>that the programme of physics will eventually encounter (if it
>hasn't already) mental entities or qualities that cannot in
>principle be represented in other than mental form - i.e, are
>not "material" in terms of your broad definition of

This is a complete non-sequitur. If you assume that physicalism
is indistinguishable from idealism, then why on earth should
either be distinguishable from dualism?

Yes, I do believe there exists some aspect of mind which is
ontologically irreducible - though not because of anything to do
with QM. I believe this should in principle be experimentally
testable. I don't believe the irreducibility of mental phenomena
should be assumed a priori, but neither do I believe it should
be rejected a priori. Neither do I believe it leads inevitably
to dualism, or idealism, or to any other -ism recognizable to us

As to whether mind is "material" according to the broad
definition of physicalism, well I've already indicated that I
regard that definition as pretty meaningless.

>It feels to me as though you are going to define as "material" -
>and thus by implication as straight-jacketed by an a priorism -
>whatever entities, actions etc constitute the scientific model
>of nature at any future time - unless it incorporates an
>irreducably mental substance or quality.

Now it seems to me here that you're looking for a rigid
definition of materialism, and that in itself indicates to me
that you're approaching philosophical concepts in the wrong way.
Philosophical concepts simply can't be defined rigidly. I'm
tempted to say they cannot be treated rigorously either, but
that would be somewhat misleading. Certainly they cannot be
rigorously developed in the way mathematical concepts are
developed; if they could then they would _be_ mathematical

I regard materialism as any doctrine which entails certain
assumptions about mind, notably that mind emerges from the
fundamentals of existing physical theory or of some forseeable
physical theory, and that mind is supervenient on those
fundamentals. I'm not particularly interested in how those
theories might develop a thousand years hence, because as you
say we have no idea what knowledge those theories will encode
and certainly no way of predicting what their fundamentals will
be. And I reject _as science_ any theory which incorporates
these assumptions in a way that is completely untestable.

>So, what has physics encountered? It is at the moment pluralist,
>unlike either materialism or idealism, and the parts of its
>ontology relate in strangely abstract and sometimes
>counterintuitive ways.

Whoa there - do you mean that physics is ontologically
pluralist, or just epistemologically pluralist? If you really do
think physics is ontologically pluralist, I think you're
probably in a minority of one - though you may have plenty of
company from the vast army of amateur philosophers who simply
have no idea whether they are talking about ontology or

>The conventional standard model contains
>a number of types of entities and qualities that may themselves
>have inimical dual characters and are in tension with one
>another. For example, we presently have particle/wave,
>boson/fermion, observer/observed (subject/object),
>particle/antiparticle, real/imaginary, categories which cut
>across one another in various ways. The term "matter" now sums
>over a rather complicated set of symmetry groups and categories
>of other kinds with multiple ambiguous and contingent quantum
>properties, set generally against the background of a currently
>still-continuous spacetime metric of unknown dimension and
>unknown topology in a way which is not at all understood
>(spacetime/matter or continuity/discontinuity) .

It's also a mathematical abstraction which has no obvious
ontological interpretation, nor indeed any ontological
interpretation which doesn't get instantly mired in metaphysical
confusion. Nor is this solely a result of QM: The mass-energy
relation from Relativity equates matter to a quantity which is
an abstract property of a system. This is fine for doing
science. But it is not fine if you want to engage in any sort of
ontological speculation or inquiry. My point is that you have to
choose which it is you want to do. If you just want to stick to
the science, then fine, just stick to the science and leave the
ontological questions to one side. This is the purely
operational approach which, in the case of the measurement
problem, is represented by the Copenhagen interpretation.

But you _cannot _claim to be doing pure science while at the
same time meddling with the ontology in a way which is
philosophically amateurish, slapdash and frankly embarrassing.


>But I
>don't see the possibility of ever proving a physical non-
>completeness theorem in the present.

And I can't see why anyone would even want to, since this
definition of completeness is completely trivial. It simply
asserts that everything in the universe is in fact a constituent
of the universe.


>I do see some cases of people defending what they see as
>established truths from the past, too important to their own
>philosophy to be exposed to challenge, but I don't think this is
>necessarily the psychology (in general) of those who are re-
>examining the issue of objective probability in QM. You take
>issue with this tendency as though it were a harking back to the
>19th C classical reductive causal determinism of Laplace, but I
>don't see that. On the contrary I see the possibility that an
>orthodoxy in which "hidden variables" seemed to become a swear
>word may be approaching a rebirth. With genuine respect, I do
>wonder if you are inclined to see it the way you do because you
>have a prejudice in favour of the ideal and this point of view
>retains a clearer form by perpetuating the dichotomy.

I'm sorry Martin, I just don't agree. I think a lot of this work
is simply rubbish. And for the same old reason - physicists
meddling with philosphical issues which they don't understand,
and can't be bothered take the trouble to try to understand.

It's not that I have a categorical prejudice against hidden
variable theories. I fully appreciate Bohm and Hiley, for
example - but's because they _knew_ what they were doing. They
knew they were going beyond what was observable, they had a
clear ontological principle, and they developed it.

By contrast, let's take simple decoherence. Does it remove the
observer from the measurement problem? No it doesn't -
decoherence is an observer-dependent process. Even if one
argues (which is true) that no macroscopic object could possibly
be coherent from the perspective of any conceivable real-life
observer, decoherence is still a _process_ . You still need a
collapse postulate to select a term from the superposition and,
being a process, decoherence tells you nothing about where that
occurs or even where it might be likely to occur.

All you get from decoherence is Copenhagen by another name - but
Copenhagen repackaged to make it look as though it solves all
the ontological problems instead of simply sidelining them. And
don't even get me started on De Witt and Many Worlds with its
meaningless probability "measure" and its a hoc selection of


>There is no reason in the world why we should
>think it creditable for physicists to suppress their
>conscienscious suspicions so as not to appear to "peddle" ideas
>that some people will find offensive. That would be just the
>sort of politically-correct self-censorship that critics _could_
>rightly condemn as establishment science gone bad.

Who on earth has suggested they should do anything of the kind?
What I object to is half-baked philosophical speculation by
people who quite plainly have no idea what they're doing.

>Physicalism assumes nothing a priori about anything - it is an
>abstraction ;-).

Is it? I was getting the idea that physicalism was some sort of
philosophical school of thought. If it's an abstraction, we seem
to have a hell of a hard time pinning down what that abstraction
actually is.

>People do, of course. But the point to hang on
>to is that neither they nor science can operate at all without
>doing so. It is inevitable that we send conjectures into the
>future and that they will be refuted. It is essential that
>people and science pursue ideas that are mistaken. What makes
>science possible is that we are ignorant. Omniscience would be
>the heat death of the intellect.

Please, save me from speeches at this time in the evening ;-)

But the key phrase is "...that they will be refuted". That's the
difference between science and philosophy. Ideas that cannot be
refuted are philosophical baggage.

>Well, people make individual assumptions. But insofar as the
>product of theose assumptions translates into some evolving
>thing we can call physics, my point of view is that physics
>makes only the assumptions connected with necessary consistency,
>integrativity, intelligibility, refutability, measurability and
>predictivity. Obviously consistency means that new ideas and
>entities must make contact with past ones, hopefully improving
>the whole (no sane person would envisage wiping the slate clean
>at each paradigm shift - this would defeat the whole notion of
>progress). So there is an array of tools and "materials" that
>serves as the basis state for each new adaptation and the
>adaptation can be dramatic but not arbitrary. Does this amount
>to "assumptions"? Yes. A priori assumptions? No. Individual
>attempts at a priorism do sometimes work, but only by rare

We all have to believe this is what happens eventually, Martin,
otherwise we would have to stop believing in science altogether.
But you're dodging the question, which is whether the community
of physicists working today are subject to a set of assumptions
in the form of a priori philosophical baggage. As I've said
before I haven't taken a poll, but I think the problem is more
widespread than you're admitting.

>But, although the
>decision to corral off measurable and predictable systems of
>observables as giving rise to a special type of knowledge is not
>justifiable a priori it is so far justified by its results.

This may have something to do with the fact that observables
which were not measurable or predictable, could never be
justified by any sort of results.

>area of experience incorporated has continued to grow before,
>despite periodic crises. I don't see any compelling evidence
>that the growth (of the whole process, of both conjecture and
>refutation) must stop at any point.

This is a bit melodramatic, isn't it? You seem to think of
science in terms of some sort of Chardinesque teleology, an
inexorable ascent to ever greater and more glorious heights.
Since when was any human institution ever anything like that?
Since when was human history - or, indeed, biology - ever
anything remotely like that? I don't see anything inevitable in
the perpetual continuance of scientific progress.

>Exactly. Which has been a large part of my point in objecting,
>since before you joined this thread, to an infantile conception
>of science that expects of it the whole Truth and wants it now,
>that screams "unfair" and "cover up" when all that is
>forthcoming is the imperfect product of conscientious human
>effort, and which seems to me to abuse the luxurious freedom
>afforded them by science to belabor it with cudgels of its own
>hard-fought making.

Why should the imperfect product of conscientious human effort
expect to be immune from the imperfect product of conscientious
human criticism?

>>And real-life human
>>beings are prone to all sorts of individual and social
>>prejudices and preconceptions, which predispose them to find
>>and invent what they want as much as what they need.

>This is to me so self-evidently and exhaustively true of all
>activities as to take the definition of "trivial" to a new
>level. The predispositions of human beings are involved in all
>their productions, good and bad, right and wrong, the conjecture
>and the refutation. "Character is fate". Individually,
>culturally and specifically we are in hock to our past.

It may be more than trivial, Martin, but it's also more than
occasionally overlooked. I have the feeling you're trying to
have your cake and eat it. On the one hand, you say that
scientists are imperfect but conscientious human beings. If one
suggests therefore they may be subject to arbitrary metaphysical
assumptions, you reply that scientists aren't interested in
metaphysics and what counts is only what works and is testable.

>But what you need to remember is that without our past we would
>have no ideas at all and any type of cultural progress would be
>unthinkable - literally.

Do you really think we are forgetting this?

>This is why we have no alternative but
>to put up with imperfect mental constructions, of which the
>inherited dualism of material and ideal substances, or the
>inherited monistic point of view towards which science tends
>because it believes it to be simpler, may either or both be

I question the idea that monism is "simpler" - this seems to me
a fallacy based on a misunderstanding of Occam's Razor.

>You seem to see what ought to be a smooth curve of advance
>towards your preferred destination having a kink put in it by
>the sheer perverseness and/or crudity of a generation of
>theorists unwilling to concede the completeness of the form of
>QM hammered out during the mid 20th C and disrespectful of
>received wisdom with no good reason.I disagree.

No. The last thing I expect is for science to advance in a
predictable direction. But neither do I expect the course of
science to be determined by arbitrary dogma. Determinism is a
dogma. So is materialism. These things may be right - or they
may be wrong. But they are not right just because people want to
believe in them. And whatever you say, Martin, people _do_ want
to believe in them.

>What I see is
>that the two-branched paradigm of 20thC physics (QM +GR) has
>failed to unify itself by internal means and the whole thing is
>jostling up against a limit to growth that causes friction
>points and and some questioning reflection. This questioning is
>natural and right when progress appears stymied. What happens if
>you tweak this? Has anyone really tried pushing that obviously
>wrong idea to the limit? What happens if we relax this
>condition? And it is most natural and most right that attention
>focuses especially on those areas which have widely been spot-
>lit in the past as extraordinary central characteristics of the
>old paradigm.

Yes, this is what ought to happen. But once again, Martin, we
are talking past each other. Because while this is what ought to
happen, I'm by no means convinced that it's what is actually
happening. There are a handful of physicists who are questioning
materialism - but they're a very small minority. And there are
even fewer who are linking up with neuroscience and philosophy
of mind. And almost no-one is addressing the basic question of
whether modern physical theory is actually compatible with any
sort of ontology whatsoever.

And I'll repeat this once again because I just don't think this
is getting through - _none_of_this_would_matter if people were
sticking to the science.

>We can ask why new physics should seem so difficult these days.
>I think much of it is an illusion born of unrealistic
>expectations on the part of the hugely swollen numbers of people
>following the activity as interested spectators and
>commentators. Physicists can become minor celebrities at a young
>age. More pressure for the new big theory, the new big book.
>Part of it is the speed of communication, the ease with which
>results and ideas are spread around in blogs and e-archives.
>There is an accelerated reaction rate and a certain febrile
>quality that couldn't have been there a few decades ago, so the
>clock rate is faster and the world of real change seems sluggish
>in relation to the information flow.

All this may be true, but I hardly think it explains thirty
years of theory (and not even particularly rigorous theory, if
Smolin is correct) without a single testable prediction.

>But underlying this it seems that the wagon train of theoretical
>physics has got itself into difficult terrain where the going is
>getting difficult and two lines of wagons are stuck in divergent
>ruts. As you say the appropriate thing is to ask how they got
>there, in order to be able to spot a route to some virgin hard
>ground. Unfortunately the hard ground is off the current map on
>the sheet that you haven't got yet. You don't know which
>direction it lies in and you don't know what the magnetic
>variation might be over there either. The only way to predict
>how to get there is to go back over the old ground looking for
>where you might have taken a different turning in the past. This
>is what I think is happening and will probably have to happen
>more radically yet. QM and GR might both have to go back a long
>way, in some sense, to go forward. Whether the old philosophical
>compass will still be useful when they set out across that
>unknown territory it isn't really possible to know.

Yes - did it ocur to you some of us might have figured this out
for ourselves ;-) The problem is, I'm used to dealing with
psychologists. And from them I have heard excuse after excuse
just like this for years, and after a while it all starts to
sound a little hollow.

>>The question is whether this is really what is happening or
>>whether latent or even unrecognized assumptions are restricting
>>the development of theory, not in the mainstram of science, but
>>at the very frontiers of knowledge.

>Well certainly they are.

Well that's something! ;-)

>I wouldn't know how to begin to
>converse with someone who held any other view. The implication
>that we might ever have unrestricted freedom to know inner
>nature in some way other than through theories which are there
>to be disproved as quickly as possible strikes me as

Um... what? You mean we have just spent how long and God knows
how many words talking about a priori assumptions and the whole
lot has just gone and passed you by?

It's not the theories which are disproved as quickly as possible
that are the problem, Martin. It's the a priori assumptions that
are never tested in the first place.

>Minds laced with latent assumptions generate all
>the successful theories as well as the dud ones. But which ones
>are the restrictive ones? At a point of paradigm shift it's
>possible that the bottleneck turns out to be not little
>assumptions around the edges but one at the middle so big and so
>much a part of the furniture that no-one sees it anymore. What
>might there be in QM, say, that has this character? Right away
>you'd guess it might have some connection with the measurement
>problem or the "actualisation of probabilities". Lots of people
>assume that already.

Well then, it's hardly an assumption that no-one sees anymore,
is it? And let's be honest, it never really was. Insofar as
Copenhagen was an orthodoxy, it was an injunction to keep to the
science and stay out of philosophical quagmires. The fact that
hardly anyone seems to have understood this warning for what it
was indicates just how clueless most physicists are about

If you want a candidate for an assumption so big no-one sees it
anymore, I'd suggest the assumption that physical theory can be
interpreted as some sort of ontological "map" when the very
nature of the mathematics screams out the reverse.

>No-one knows quite what has to be done. But
>you should perhaps anticipate that the issues surrounding our
>20thC framing of the measurement problem could change - and in
>particular that speculations about mental reduction of the
>quantum state _might_ one day become irrelevant. I would say
>this is as likely as anything else.

Or about as unlikely as anything else. This is complete
guesswork Martin and you know it. Not that there's anything
wrong with guesswork, especially if the guesses can be tested.
But this particular bit of guesswork is in danger of becoming an
untestable orthodoxy.

>Of course it isn't. And in Kuhn's "day" (c.1960?) it was very
>different from science in the days of Copernicus, Kepler,
>Priestley, Roentgen, Newton, Maxwell, Faraday, Einstein or many
>of the others whose work he uses to construct his thesis. A mere
>account of a particular scienrific event in Berkely in 1960
>would rightly have given Kuhn lasting obscurity. What gave his
>theory value and resonance was finding the universal in all
>these particulars.

This is verging on the unbelievable. I expect this sort of
nonsense from social scientists, but for heaven's sake...

Kuhn's theory is a mixture of observation and enlightened
conjecture, not a cast-iron law of nature. It has resonance
because a lot of people think it sounds right, not because it's
a rigorously formulated and tested theory of science. To refer
to Kuhn's model as "universal" is completely to misunderstand
what philosophy of science is all about - most of all the fact
that it _is_ philosophy.

>The implication that we live in a special
>time when the usual patterns of change have ceased to apply
>seems to me like special pleading and, when coupled with hints
>of the End of Science (title of an unintentionally amusing
>retrospective on the last days of a dying culture, published by
>John Horgan 10 or 12 years ago now) has almost millenialist

I find this naive in the extreme. The actual history of science
cannot sample more than a minute fraction of the space of
possible human collective experience. There is nothing at all
that justifies calling the observed patterns of change within
that microscopic range as in any way "usual".

>OK, but isn't it always a generational thing? Every major change
>starts as or becomes a generational thing. It might be possible
>to characterise someone's sticking up for the philosophical
>conventions established by the big names of the early 20thC as a
>generational reaction against those young whippersnapper
>"peddlers of dogma" seeking to undermine the great work of the
>past :-)

Except I'm part of the generation which supposed to be kicking
over the traces. But in fact it's not typical of any
generational conflict that I'm aware of for the younger
generation to be perceived as more dogmatic, more fuddy duddy,
more small-minded that the generation they are replacing.
Usually quite the reverse.

>It's usually difficult to tell what suggestions will work to
>solve problems until after they have been suggested. I see no
>alternative to allowing theorists and experimenters to put ideas
>before their colleagues and before nature to find out if they
>work or not. If you are in a better position than they to see
>that the problematical mid-20thC formalisations and explications
>of QM are bedrock for all time then you are clearly gifted in
>this area and I can only suggest that you redouble your efforts
>to persuade them.

This really is a spectacular piece of misunderstanding. First of
all, Copenhagen was not an explication - it was a non-
explication. It was designed that way to protect physics from
irresponsible metaphysical speculation. And the keyword is
_irresponsible_ metaphysical speculation - that is, speculation
and dabbling in philosophy by people who quite obviously have no
idea what they are doing. If we were dealing with testable
propositions, then this wouldn't matter - but in that case, we
would no longer be in the territory of philosophy and there
would be no need to protect physics from it. But what is
characteristic of the proliferation of attempts to interpret the
measurement problem is that not a single one is testable. And
many of them are not even philosophically coherent.

>I haven't seen the article so can't comment on your objections
>re decoherence, but note that Wigner's Friend was the product of
>a physicist who got his Nobel for fundamental work on symmetry
>groups in quantum theory. The Friend grew out of decades of
>agonising by physicist's about Schrodinger's cat paradox and
>that eminent physicist's own speculations about a unitary cosmic
>consciousness. And whilst we're on the topic of what "works",
>Wigner's original intention did _not_ work, as he proposed that
>his Friend required changes to the rules of QM, which if found
>necessary would have been evidence for his theory. But they
>weren't found necessary and I don't believe any experimental
>evidence has ever been inconsistent with the decoherence point
>of view.

Of course not, because any macroscopic superposition is
decoherent from the point of view of any conceivable observer,
as Wigner himself admitted.

>Nevertheless it was part of a highly influential strand
>of thought and the resulting cultural debate about the human
>significance of the QM measurement problem has come to represent
>QM in the eyes of the world. I can't for the life of me see any
>justification whatsoever for thinking that physics has been shy
>of these issues. On the contrary I don't see any evidence that
>the issues would exist for discussion were it not for physics.

They wouldn't. (Not in this form, anyway.) But in physics,
Wigner's interpretation is all too often presented as an
obsolete, discredited orthodoxy. None of this is true. It isn't
obsolete, there are no grounds for considering it discredited,
and it was certainly never an orthodoxy.

>The difficulty with Wigner's point of view is that although it
>has been analysed inside and out by some of the smartest people
>in the world for decades and has motivated huge changes in
>popular philosophy, it has not got anywhere concrete. It was
>developed in the context of a quantum theory which everybody
>agrees is difficult to interpret, not really rigorously well-
>defined, and is presently unable to cope with large areas of the
>world of our experience.

So Wigner's point of view is untestable? Yes indeed. But the
nature of the measurement problem is such that all of the
proposed solutions to it are untestable. Hence Bohr's warning -
 if you don't like untestable propositions, stay away from the
measurement problem.

>I may be wrong, but I don't think the "consciousness collapse"
>interpretation has since the 1930s been able (any more than
>"many worlds" has) to introduce a single change into the
>formalism of QM, or helped to explain or remove questions
>surrounding the use of renormalisation group methods (Feynman's
>"dippy hocus pocus"), or predict anything like a new effect or a
>new symmetry, or reconcile QM with general relativity. In short
>the topic of consciousness remains _in_ QM, but not _of_ QM.
>Should it be the essence of QM? Maybe it should. But we can't
>resort to established QM as authority for the claim that
>consciousness must be central to interpreting it, or for the
>even larger claim that physical coherence is unrealisable, if
>there are good reasons for believing that QM itself is not fully
>coherent. I think the issue is vulnerable to changes in the
>underlying theory that are not predictable but are inevitable.

In no way do I intend to be an evangelist for the "consciousness
collapse" theory, Martin. I cite it purely as an example of an
idea which has been marginalized because it doesn't suit the
prevailing dogma.

>Which brings us back to the question of whether this imperfect
>and changeable state of affairs is due to a conspiracy of
>suppression on the part of a corrupt and incompetent scientific
>establishment or whether it is because science is very
>difficult, because existence is very mysterious and because
>plateaux in the curve of advance are the natural order of things
>- in short because it is the human condition to do our best and
>find perpetually that it is not enough.

I'd suggest part of the problem is that physicists don't stick
to the science, but they think they do.

Ok, that really is enough I think. Enjoy the sunshine ;-)


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