The laws of physics determine the history of the universe given initial conditions. But the initial conditions do not have to be the initial state of the universe. The state of the world at any time, including the future, will do.
If we say that the past causes the future because of the dynamical laws, then these laws equally cause the past given the current state of the universe.
Yet events that happened in the past do cause the future, so we must be talking about something other than the dynamical laws — namely, explanations of emergent phenomena, like people.
People can create new explanations of what to do next and choose between them, which makes them inherently unpredictable.
Statements like 'the laws of physics made him do this' or even 'his mind made him do this' are not good explanations of someone's behaviour. People have genuine reasons for their decisions.
Sometimes people are just running on automatic, but whenever they are faced with a problem, they can be creative and invent solutions. Moreover, though problems are soluble, people can always fail to solve their problems.
This ability that people have to (fail to) solve problems and make choices is what I like to call 'free will'.
If this definition does not map onto your notion of free will, then we can call it something else. It just a word. But that is not an argument against any of the above.
When reading the Aeon article about constructor theory, I came across this comment:
Matthew, I think, is not understanding constructor theory as a new mode of explanation, one that does not rely on the dynamical laws and the initial conditions (what Deutsch and Marletto call 'the prevailing conception of physics'). As I understand Matthew, he is asking, 'why can't we just note that life exists and is allowed to exists according to the dynamical laws and initial conditions and then move on?'
The problem is that neo-Darwinian evolution belongs to the realm of fundamental physics, but the prevailing conception reduces it to a parochial fact. That is, fundamental physics is current unable to deal with neo-Darwinism as a fundamental theory. Here I'll explain why.
First of all, why does neo-Darwinism belong to physics? Because the laws of physics permit evolution by natural selection to occur. If the laws of physics had been different in the right way, then evolution by natural selection would have been impossible. Neo-Darwinism is contingent on the laws of physics.
So neo-Darwinism is part of physics. But the prevailing conception of physics, which explains the world in terms of dynamical laws and initial conditions, does not deal well with neo-Darwinism. Within the prevailing conception, neo-Darwinism is a parochial idea. Life exists in much the same way as, say, a dust cloud in space, which was also brought about by the dynamical equations and the initial conditions. But neo-Darwinism is universal: the existence of objects that appear to be designed is explained in terms of neo-Darwinian evolution.
The resolution that constructor theory proposes is: throw out this idea that the equations of motion are fundamental and replace them with an explanation of what tasks are possible, what tasks are impossible, and why.
Within this new framework (well, 'framework' is really the wrong word: constructor theory is a new kind of explanation and a new theory of physics with its own laws, but I digress), the laws of motion take a backseat; they are not fundamental. In fact, it is expected that the equations of motion will emerge from constructor theory, and not the other way around.
Moreover, constructor theory naturally incorporates Neo-Darwinism. A replicator is a constructor with the task of copying itself, and what is being copied is the information in the replicator, and information is not understood outside of constructor theory. So the conflict, as mentioned earlier, between fundamental physics and neo-Darwinism disappears when we introduce constructor theory.
Now, I can imagine a further objection: 'yeah, okay, but was resolving this conflict worth the trouble of throwing out the prevailing conception of physics for?' YES IT WAS! Constructor theory is not just a way of making biology appear unproblematic to physicists; it allows us to solve more problems!
Constructor theory is a new theory, which will hopefully replace the prevailing conception as the new most-fundamental mode of explanation in physics, and in doing so absorb neo-Darwinism into fundamental physics in the process.
Because science educators don't explain the history of physics in terms of problems, it's easy to underestimate how huge the shift in understanding was that Maxwell brought about with his theory of electromagnetism. Here is a short blog post about Maxwell and some of his contributions to physics.
In the 19th century, Newtonian mechanics was widely accepted to be true, and physicists believed the world to consist of masses and forces, which moved around in space and time---that was their 'ontology'.
Now, the world of Newton forces was oxymoronic: masses exert forces on each other locally by pushing against one another or non-locally and instantaneously through gravity. The latter force was more fundamental but lacked the critical property of locality.
Locality is nice because it solves a problem. Namely, how does a mass know that it needs to move? How does it know that there is another mass in the universe that it needs to respond to? This problem in Newtonian mechanics was solved only after Einstein introduced general relativity.
At the same time, physicists were starting to grapple with electricity and magnetism. These phenomena were partially understood, but physicists were unsure what electricity and magnetism WERE. They wanted to know they were made of. Their best guess was that electricity and magnetism emerged out of some kind of all permeating liquid known as the aether.
Maxwell was a firm believer in the Newtonian worldview and thought, like his fellow physicists, that electromagnetism had to be explained in terms of an aether. But at some point, Maxwell decided to describe electromagnetism in such a way that the underlying mechanism did not matter. In doing so, Maxwell introduced into fundamental physics the notion of a field: a quantity that assumes, for example, a numerical value at every point in space and time.
Fields were puzzling to physicists because they were a new kind of 'object'. It is not divisible into smaller things like a fluid is, nor does it consist of something more fundamental. Fields were real, physical 'objects' in their own right; this took researchers years to grasp.
The introduction of fields were a game changer for physics. First of all, Maxwell's fields lacked the oxymoronic property of Newtonian mechanics: electromagnetic forces are transmitted by the electromagnetic field locally, and if a body exerts a force on another body, the electromagnetic field has to transmit this force from one point in space to another.
So Maxwell showed that forces could have this nice property of locality if they were transmitted by fields, which he did by accident: his explanation had reach! Einstein's general relativity also has this property as do all other theories of fundamental forces, which, in a sense, they all borrow from Maxwell.
Furthermore, Maxwell showed that light is a wave in the electromagnetic field---another example of the reach of his theory. In fact, this is really the same property as locality: light carries the electromagnetic force from one location to another. This concept of a force carrier is another feature that is now universal among the fundamental forces of nature.
Not only did Maxwell change our understanding of nature by introducing this concept of fields, electromagnetism also provided new criticism of old theories. For example, Maxwell's theory contradicts Newton's idea of a static space and time because light, according to electromagnetism, has a constant speed for all observers.
Naturally, some physicists thought that Maxwell was wrong since Newtonian mechanics were so well established. Einstein did not take this position and instead, thought of Maxwell's equations as being more fundamental than Newtonian mechanics. In other words, he saw that there were new and deeper problems because Maxwell was right! So he set out to solve them and did so with his theory of special relativity. I think that much of the progress in physics in the early 20th century is a result of these fresh problems that Maxwell gave us.
Nowadays, all fundamental particles and forces are understood to be (quantum) fields, so we owe in a big way, perhaps even more than we owe Newton, our current understanding of the world to Maxwell.
Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the limitations of the laws of nature. He argued against the idea of a 'perfect' law of physics, i.e., a law of physics which has no exceptions. I disagree with him and here I will explain why.
First, let me clarify my friends arguments. According to him laws of physics are not neatly obeyed: energy is not conserved in certain physical processes*; quantum field theory stops working at a certain wavelength; and all around it is a messy business doing physics.
I think he is wrong. My friend is essentially proposing a new principle of physics. Here I will understand a principle to mean a law of nature about the other laws of nature, a kind of meta-law. His principle states that principles of nature cannot be exact and as such we might call it the "Inexactness Principle".
This principle is of the form "all rules have exceptions", which cannot be logically true: according to the rule it too must have some exceptions, for otherwise it would hold perfectly, which is not allowed. That is to say that, there must be certain principles of physics which do hold exactly for the Inexactness Principle to hold true. Thus, a serious interpretation of the Inexactness Principle leads us to a contradiction.
This refutation is at least somewhat general. My friend is what we might call an epistemological pessimist in that he argues against the power of ideas (in this case ideas about physics). But in doing so, pessimists needs to use ideas and theories to justify their pessimism.
It is for this reason that epistemological pessimism is inherently weak and contradictory. Those who value science and philosophy should be aware of this argument. I am optimistic about our ability to nip pessimism in the bud.
In the sixties a meme was born. The meme in question is 'the personal is political' and in 'current year' 2017 it keeps popping up in articles online. I want to push back against this meme somewhat because it is partly false and I think it can be harmful. Here I will explain why.
First of all, what is politics? Politics can be seen as a set of open problems as well as solutions to past (political) problems. This is generally how we draw lines between disciplines. The same is true of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc. The problems that professionals in a discipline concern themselves with are what define that discipline.
As such, the problems that politicians and political scientists concern themselves with are what define politics. These issues are mostly about how to improve a society, e.g. how can life be made better for everyone involved in a society, what kind of institutions does a society need to have, etc.
The meme 'the personal is political' states that all personal problems are political and all political problems are personal; this is at least partly wrong. Political problems, it has to be admitted, usually cause suffering, and in this sense political problems can result in personal problems. Such personal problems can then justly be called political.
However, the reverse is not always true. There are personal problems which are not political. Consider something as benign as what to have for breakfast, or what movie to watch tonight. I think these problems are personal problems, in the sense that I alone will have to solve them, mostly because these choices cannot cause others to suffer. Therefore it is difficult to create institutions to solve such personal problems. In fact, there is a whole class of personal issues which cannot be solved by institutions. These issues concern the question how to be happy? (Utopian thinkers disagree with me here --- they think that institutions should be created in order to make a heaven on earth --- but they are wrong.) It would be misleading to call these problems political problems.
This distinction matters because telling people their personal preferences are a political matter causes suffering. For example, you should not have to change your movie preferences because they are deemed political. Do you have to stop enjoying House of Cards because Kevin Spacey turns out to be a child molester? No, you can keep on enjoying this tv series. You did not make Kevin Spacey do anything wrong; you did not enable him; you are not to blame for this issue. These kinds of preferences do not make you evil or 'part of the problem'. It could be that you can no longer enjoy House of Cards knowing that Kavin Spacey is a child molester, but that is a different issue.
The same is true for art. Recently, I bumped into this quote by Toni Morrison:
"All good art is political! There is none that isn't. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, 'We love the status quo'."
I think she is wrong. Art, like all other disciplines, is about solving certain problems. In this case: how to write a good story? how to engage the reader? how to make a beautiful painting or a good piece of music? Political problems can be mixed in, this could make the work of art more interesting, and a lot of good art is about politics. But not all art is. Otherwise, what would distinguish art from politics?
In fact, I am of the opinion that one should not have to think about politics. By all means, think about politics if you are interested in it. Make it your life if it makes you happy. But do not feel obligated to do so. Just like you should not feel obligated to be interested in physics, video games, or occult movies, we should all be free to think about the topics that interest use, and we should let others explore the topics that interest them. But let us not be coerced into doing so.
'The political is personal' blurs the boundaries between different disciplines, and it makes us feel obligated to change our personal lives for bad reasons. We can all be a little happier by realising that sometimes 'the personal is just personal'.
Currently I'm reading Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery and in the first chapter there is a rather beautiful refutation of induction which I thought worth sharing.
The problem of induction is the problem of how to justify our believes: why do I think that my ideas are true? Inductivism is the idea that our belief is based upon a generalisation of a finite number of cases, e.g. we see a couple of white swans and conclude that all swans are white.
Popper, following Hume, points out that the logical support* for induction is missing. Why do a finite number of observations justify general theories? What justifies this jump from the particular to the general? (In this case: why are we sure that no black swans exist?) In fact, the problem runs deeper, for even if there was some justification for the principle of induction then we have yet to justify that justification and this is the problem of induction all over again.
The same is true for all justifications of our knowledge; we can always ask: why is that justification true and not some other justification? Justifications are always easy to vary and easy to vary theories are "not even wrong", we reject them outright.
The idea of justifiable knowledge is refuted and with it the hope for certainty; but that is okay, certainty was not as interesting an idea anyway.
*As Popper points out, inductivism has to be either a synthetic or a tautological truth. It seems to me, as it does to Popper, that inductivism is a synthetic truth. Accepting this will lead to the above reasoning.
Recently there has been a growing sympathy for those hurt by offence. There seems to be a real need to take the offended seriously, to the extent that institutional efforts are underway to mitigate the effects of offence (for instance bill C-16 in Canada).
I find this incredibly weird; in fact, being part of what I consider a great liberal tradition, I’m offended that people would want to protect others from being offended! The question of what to do with people like me is a good prelude to the reductio ad absurdum that I have sketched out below.
I propose that it is never possible to protect people from offence. Here I will outline my reasoning as to why this is the case. First of all, I presume that:
Let us imagine that we want to protect victims of offence using legislation. This legislation will have to adhere to the above mentioned principles. If this legislation is to be any good it also needs to be free of paradoxes. But there is at least one paradoxical situation innate in trying to implement such legislation. The paradox is as follows. Consider a possible victim of offence named Charlie. Charlie is offended when people try to protect him. Charlie is capable of being offended by such actions under principle 2) and it is our duty to take seriously his offence under principle 1). How do we protect Charlie from being offended? One could propose to refrain from protecting Charlie, but this refusal to protect him stems from a desire to not offend. In fact, by refraining from protecting Charlie we are protecting him from being offended. Thus, we will offend Charlie and fail to protect him. Our only other option is to protect Charlie, but this also leads to Charlie being offended. A contradiction.
Any legislation that aims to protect the offended needs to either resolve the above paradox or find fault with either of the two proposed principles. I'm convinced that such a resolution of the paradox does not exists and consequently that the proposed legislation would not be worth considering.
Particle physicists have long been searching for a ‘theory of everything’: a set of equations that describes the behavior of matter at the smallest possible length scale. It is assumed that by using these equations one could, in principle, explain all phenomena in the universe — hence the name ‘theory of everything’.
Adherents of such a ‘theory of everything’ are reductionists, i.e. they believe that good explanations of the macroscopic world always consist of, or are dependent on, good explanations of the microscopic world. But – as I will explain in this post – this is a myth based on a fallacy.
The Aim of Science
Reductionists are confused about the aim of science. Following David Deutsch, I conjecture that the aim of science is to produce good explanations. An explanation is a statement about what is out there, how it behaves and why. One necessary criterion for an explanation to be good is that it must be difficult to vary: optimally, altering any part of the explanation must result in spoiling it. Easy to vary explanations are rejected outright; they need not be considered candidates for objective truth.
The supernatural is an example of an easy to vary explanation. The supernatural always lacks specifics and could be invoked to explain anything at all and because of this it explains nothing at all. Explanations of this type are of the form “a ghost did it”, without further mention as to what ghosts are, what they are made of and why they do the things they do. I shall use the term supernatural to denote the class of all easy to vary explanations, all of which are equally false*.
Definition of Reductionism
Reductionists implicitly accept a 'supernatural theory’, albeit in a peculiar way. Before I get to this I will elaborate on my definition of a reductionist. As far as I have been able to discern, there are two types of reductionist. They are both typified by their overemphasis of the importance of the microscopic world. I try to encapsulate both of the reductionist by distinguishing between two different reductionist principles**.
The first type of reductionist presumes that our best explanations refer to the smallest constituents of reality. Any good explanation of these constituents is also a good explanation of everything that is an assembly of these constituents. This I will call the weak reductionist principle. An example would be: if I know how atoms behave, then I will know how brains behave as well (by, for instance, simulating a brain consisting out of atoms).
I also propose a strong reductionist principle, which states that all macroscopic explanations are dependent on the microscopic physics. An example of this principle would be: my explanation of how brains behave will depend on my understanding of how atoms behave; when my understanding of the physics changes so does my understanding of the brain.
Whether the respective examples turn out to be right or wrong is besides the point here. It is primarily the principles that concern me for they are both false. This becomes evident when we consider that some of our best theories of the macroscopic world do not allude to microscopic physics at all.
Consider the computer you are reading this blog post on. Specifically consider the keyboard. Why is there this rich array of symbols on each of the tiny square objects in front of you? One could allude to the particles the keyboard is made up of in order to explain this pattern. Reductionists of both kinds would presumably argue that these particles were subjected to various forces at different times in their histories which eventually resulted in them being organized in their current configuration.
This is tantamount to saying: “the laws of physics did it”. It is a variant of the supernatural (although strangely enough a variant of the supernatural which refers explicitly to the laws of physics) and hence is a bad explanation for the same reason: it is easy to vary.
We might criticize the reductionist by asking why we see this pattern on the keyboard and not another. Was it by chance? This cannot be the case because there are many similar keyboards connected to other computes. So why do the keys look like they do and are organized as they are? Any good explanation as to why this is so will have to mention computers, humans and languages. Such things as atoms, electrons and photons need not be mentioned.
Here we see something remarkable and yet completely ordinary at the same time: a pattern in nature which is explained well in terms of macroscopic entities, but explained poorly in terms of microscopic physics. In fact, regardless of what the microscopic physics of my keyboard turns out to be, the macroscopic explanation will remain valid! The explanations are independent. Thus it not only refutes the weak but also the strong reductionist principle.
In fact, had the strong reductionist principle been true, the world would have been inexplicable. For people are macroscopic entities, with experiences of the macroscopic world. They would only be able to find out about the microscopic world through experiments relying on the manipulations (and thus on the explanations of) macroscopic entities. However, by assumption these macroscopic entities cannot be explained without an explanation of the — as yet — unexplained microscopic entities and thus we would be incapable of explaining anything at all.
There are, as it turns out, fundamental scientific theories which do not allude to microscopic physics at all. One such example is the theory of computation. Computations can be performed using circuits of logic gates, but the logic gates can be instantiated in many different materials. Another would be the theory of evolution; neo-Darwinism is formulated in terms of replicators, without specifying what the replicators are made of. These theories are independent of the theories that particles physicists are concerned with.
It is not to say that explanations of macroscopic phenomena can never depend on the microscopic details. The rigidity of crystals is understood through quantum mechanics. Nor does it seem possible to fully comprehend how the sun generates energy without considering the fusion processes that are occurring in its core. But the reductionist principles are false. They are based on the misconception that our theories of the world are hierarchical in nature