The Scientific Spirit and The Death of Absolute Objectivity

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A primary motivation for scientific inquiry has always been the notion that our scientific discoveries offer us transcendence from our subjectivity, that they give us access to absolute objective truths (or at least some approximation of it). Stephen Hawking’s famous line about knowing “the mind of god” captures both the essence and the intellectual history of this idea. Physicists, for example, frequently treat their discoveries as a secular analogue of divine wisdom, with the Einstein equation or Newton’s laws sacred to them just as scripture is to the pious. And this scientific spirit, as opposed as scientific culture currently stands to organized religion, grew out of western theology. It’s not an accident that Newton and Copernicus were devout Christians.

But the philosophers realized long ago that “God is dead.” The failures of centuries of metaphysics to rationalize Christianity failed and were abandoned. Nietzsche pointed out that without God, there was nothing standing in the way of a descent into nihilism. Much of philosophy became devoted either to resolving or confronting this new reality. Nietzche believed that this inconvenient truth was recognized at least subconsciously by all, but that Christians remained in a state of denial out of fear or angst.

The death of God presaged the death of the analogue scientific idol, absolute objectivity, which would come with the advent of Quantum Mechanics. The world can be understood, but, it turns out, according to the most straightforward interpretations of quantum theory this is a matter of being able to establish a consistent intersubjective reality more than one of accessing a single overarching objective one. As Niels Bohr said:

“Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience. In this respect our task must be to account for such experience in a manner independent of individual subjective judgement and therefore objective in the sense that it can be unambiguously communicated in ordinary human language.

“The Unity of Human Knowledge” (October 1960) (emphasis mine)

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…”

As quoted in “The philosophy of Niels Bohr” by Aage Petersen

The Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment makes a lot more sense once you’re willing to demote the wavefunction from a descriptor of some transcendent, objective reality, to an effective bookkeeping device for describing an (information theoretical) relationship that the observer has with the cat. Nowadays, physicists have taken many of these ideas even further, e.g. with Black Hole Complementarity.

This picture of science also resolves another paradox, presented in the first pages of Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality. It goes like this. The physical universe, according to the standard scientific picture, is a subset of all mathematical possibilities. In fact one could say the goal of science is to distinguish which subset is the correct one. Mathematics, on the other hand, is itself a subset of our mental activities. That is, our mind can in principle if not in practice access all of mathematical reality, but also is capable of non-mathematical things like emotions. Finally, our brains are proper subsets of the physical universe. This circular picture is paradoxical. Penrose did not claim to know the resolution.

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But the paradox dissolves if we embrace the view of science advocated by Bohr and based on the lessons of quantum mechanics. The realm of mathematical possibility is not an independent world, but a collection of methods available for relating our minds to the world. Mathematics is what connects our minds to the world, it isn’t a separate platonic realm of its own, independent of our minds and the physical universe.

One might argue that a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason bolsters this framework for science as well. We cannot access things “in and of themselves.” So this philosophy of science far predates quantum theory and was born in the aftermath of the original scientific revolution of Newton and his contemporaries. The quantum nature of the atomic realm merely reinforces it.

Nevertheless many or even most scientists have not accepted this paradigmatic change and properly confronted its implications. Almost all are aware, but like Nietzsche’s Christians many avoid or deny it, lest they fall into a kind of nihilism of the scientific spirit. (for a recent example of this, see the recent awakening of the great Steven Weinberg to the problem)

It may be that this sort of cognitive dissonance is what drives much of the research on alternative interpretations of quantum theory. Many people are drawn to science in general and physics in particular because of the desire to reach for absolute objective truth. It’s a psychological impossibility for them to accept that the findings of their pursuit undermine its original purpose. Famously, even Einstein could not accept these lessons. And how could he? His belief in “Spinoza’s God” had led him to General Relativity, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history.

But if we’re honest, we’re faced with a problem. How can we accept some of the more sobering lessons of fundamental physics without losing our sense of purpose in the process? If the moon isn’t there unless we’re looking at it, should we really bother to wonder about it?

There are of course technological reasons to pursue scientific research. The practical value of science is not diminished, and of course that matters. But what of the scientific spirit? Are we left with some form of scientific nihilism? An existential despair of the scientific spirit?

This is worth working through and worth being discussed. But I can offer a personal solution based on my own journey coming to terms with quantum mechanics. I’ve found that, for myself, connection can replace transcendence as a motivation for a scientific life. When I reflect carefully about what’s driven me to study science, it was really a desire to feel connected to the universe, and to broaden and sharpen my experience of reality. None of the revolutions of quantum mechanics need diminish this. I think there was always an unnecessary arrogance in the idea of an absolute objectivity, the belief that we could access a “view from nowhere”, that our minds could be mirrors for the world, that we could reconstruct the universe in totality in our heads. To instead treat science as more about connecting ourselves to the world around us, and about our relationship to it, feels more honest. It doesn’t diminish my motivation while having the added benefit of embodying a humility commensurate with the reverence with the world around us that all scientists feel.

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Debaters of the Lost Arc

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President Barack Obama, and the American left generally, have become fond of one of MLK’s more famous quotes:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

It’s developed into a kind of mantra in a year whose electoral outcomes have been easier to square with a quote attributed to the quantum physicist Niels Bohr:

“It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future”

It’s important to resolve the apparent tension between these two assertions. They are both true. If the left fails to appreciate this, they are likely to repeat their recent failures.

The President himself, the day after the election, took a stab at this modern theodicy:

“We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.”

“History doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags.”

Evidently we are to interpret the phenomenon of right wing populism as a statistical fluctuation, a temporary setback which will be set right merely by obtaining a larger sample size.

This is the wrong attitude. It’s implicitly founded on an overly literal interpretation of MLK’s quote. It’s true that, in some general sense, humanity succeeds over the long run in creating a world which is a better expression of our basic values. And that’s important. But this includes both liberal values like equality and freedom, alongside conservative values like order and loyalty. More significantly, it does not mean that some particular policy instantiation of these values is destined to be the law of the land, sooner or later.  It does not mean we are destined to have universal government sponsored single payer health care, or a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, more or less along recent liberal proposals, eventually, if we just wait long enough for history to surrender to us.

The reason the arc of history bends towards justice is that there are values that we all share. No one in their right mind, liberal or conservative, wants citizens to lack adequate healthcare, or to break up families by deporting people. But these values we all share have to be squared with one another. Often conservatives resist liberal policy solutions because there are other concerns, like economic efficiency and the rule of law, that need to be addressed as well.

We’re able to resolve these tensions through a commitment to dialogue and a confidence in human ingenuity. We bend the arc of the moral universe precisely BECAUSE we’re willing to be open to the uncertainty of human history. In this uncertainty is the hope we can resolve our conflicts in a creative and therefore a priori unpredictable way that expresses ALL our values.

Commitment to creative and collaborative problem solving is what fuels the fire of the engine of progress. When the left assumes its particular policy proposals are inevitable, or when it assumes opposition political movements like the current right wing populist uprisings are just statistical aberrations rather than an indication that further dialogue and conflict resolution are needed, it shuts down this process. Ironically, liberal faith in the “arc”, when misunderstood, can be its undoing.

It’s worth returning to the actual originator of the idea of the arc, the abolitionist and small d democrat Theodore Parker:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Note the humility. We can have faith that in the long run our values will obtain better and better expression in the world. But only if we’re open minded when it comes to the form this expression may take and about the need to reconcile our values with the values of others.

Liberals shouldn’t become less liberal (on the contrary, now more than ever they must stand up for their values), they should become more democratic. And they needn’t lose faith in their philosophy of history, they just need a better understanding of its mechanisms and meaning.

President Obama, at his best, has understood these subtleties. Aspects of his legacy like marriage equality, which were ultimately grounded in conservative values like tradition and order as well as liberal values like tolerance, are likely to survive and become a permanent part of our society. Other accomplishments, like the health care reform law, never achieved widespread support and were implemented with party line votes or by executive orders. It’s no accident these are the most likely to be undone.

On a foundational level, politics, and therefore our ability to bend the arc of the moral universe, isn’t about technocratic ability or skill in parliamentary procedure or being good at campaigning. It’s about building consensus. And achieving that requires flexibility and open mindedness.

Afraid of Nothing

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The International Conference on High Energy Physics met in Chicago earlier this month, and some heads are exploding in the aftermath. Portions of the particle physics community have gone a bit mental, and not because of any mind-blowing discoveries. On the contrary, the culprit is the seeming perpetuity of “null results” at the Large Hadron Collider, and at smaller experiments searching for dark matter or supersymmetry.

You might say these particle theorists have developed cabin fever.

First of all, some background. For a subject with aims as broad as physics, which seeks a framework of understanding capable of explaining both the large scale structure of the cosmos as well as the microphysics of the atomic nucleus, the current paradigm of empirical exploration has become remarkably linear. In effect, we just bang particles together at higher and higher energies and see what comes popping out.

The full story behind this linearity is complicated and rests on the achievements of 20th century physicists, who were so successful at unifying what was previously known into a single framework that (in an admittedly somewhat oversimplified sense) we only have one variable left to vary.

A short version of the story might go like this. Einstein’s relativity theories relate physics at different velocities, so that if we know how to describe the experience/behaviors of slow moving objects, we know how to describe physics at any other speed as well. They also relate energy directly to mass. On the other hand quantum mechanics unifies the notion of particles and waves in such a way that exploring the universe on short distance scales amounts to doing high energy physics experiments. This is because short wavelengths are needed to probe short distances, and short wavelengths correspond to high energy, just as ultraviolet light is more energetic than infrared.

Assisting this simplicity is what Gell-Mann, the discoverer of quarks, called the totalitarian principle: “Everything that isn’t impossible is mandatory.” Essentially, the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics aides our empirical searches. As long as sufficient energy is present, any possibility is a certainty given enough trials.

So in a (somewhat oversimplified sense), “all” physicists have to do is bang particles together at higher and higher energies and record the results. Particle physicists have become less like explorers of the Earth, with four cardinal directions to head off in and many continents to explore, and more like ocean divers, striving primarily to reach greater depths.

This game has worked for a long time. For the past half century, the deeper into the depths we’ve gone, the more we’ve found, culminating in the well-publicized discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.

But now it looks like that era may be coming to an end. The only hint of anything new at the LHC since the Higgs discovery ultimately turned out to be a statistical fluke. This while increasing the energy scale from 8 TeV all the way up to 13 TeV. So our best divers have nearly doubled our penetration down into the depths, and in their explorations they have found nothing but nothingness. This “null result” has left many physicists in fear, staring into an emptiness of unknown extent. They’re afraid of the nothing we’ve found.

And so heads are exploding. It’s being called the “nightmare scenario.”

But it’s not a nightmare, it’s just science. And the proper response isn’t panic, its diligence, and also a bit of a return to a broader exploratory framework.

The most important comment here is that this result, and “null results” in general, are not failures. In fact, it’s been widely acknowledged that a major problem with modern science is its refusal to recognize null results for the achievements they are, which has led to destructive research incentives. I would go so far as to say that anyone claiming the recent achievements of the particle physics community are actually “failures” worth lamenting is doing a grave disservice to science. The physicists at the LHC have accomplished one of greatest scientific discoveries of all time. We should celebrate their professionalism, precision, skill, and diligence in exploring deeper into the unknown than anyone who came before them. And we should be proud that our current theories are so stubbornly resisting falsification. It means they’re good theories.

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(Source xkcd)

In fact, there’s even a sense in which this “null result” provides more of a hint for future physics than a normal scientific non-discovery would. This is due to a physics principle called “naturalness.” Our current theories are incredibly successful at predicting experimental results, but their mathematical structure is puzzlingly awkward, “unnatural.” Some physicists have derided the naturalness criterion as philosophical or aesthetic in nature. I’d argue that even if that were true, it’d hardly be grounds for dismissal. Absent guidance from nature, we should look to whatever arbiters we can to help us find our way, as long as we never stop yearning for a final answer from experiment.

But naturalness is not just an arbitrary preference, it’s both a sound logical concept and a very physical insight about general tendencies.

On the simplest level, it’s just a matter of having a reasonable discomfort with improbable results. If a physical theory is able to predict that a variable X must be between 0 and 100, but cannot say anything else, we expect that most likely X will be greater than, say, 10. That’s just probability. If we then measure X, and find that it’s actually .00001, that would be an “unnatural result”: not strictly speaking illogical, but improbable enough to make us think we were missing something when made our prediction for X in the first place.

The mass of the Higgs boson is a little like our variable X. In principle, the Higgs mass could’ve fallen anywhere on the range from the electroweak scale, .2 TeV, to the plank scale (the expected scale of quantum gravity), 10^16 TeV. In fact, it turns out to be .246 TeV. Very unnatural.

On a deeper, and more physical level, the naturalness principle has to do with the relationships that exist between physics at different scales. Just as one would not expect, for example, the viscosity of water to be ultrasensitive to the electron mass, even though water is made up of atoms which include electrons, one does not expect physics at the LHC to depend too dramatically on the details of physics at the plank scale. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the implication of a lightweight Higgs boson.

An analogy with physical distances is useful. The sun, though far away, is very influential for the trajectory of the Earth through space, because it is very massive. But by “very influential” we mean that it determines the general shape of Earth’s orbit, not its every tilt and wobble. Likewise, it is the general form of the structure of the sun that determines the orbit of the earth. We do not worry that weather patterns on the sun may send the Earth suddenly careening into Mars.

Likewise, we expect the Higgs mass to be influenced by plank scale physics, but in a very general sort of way. The awkward issue is that, for reasons too difficult to explain precisely here, if it were influenced by plank scale physics in this generic sort of way, we’d expect the Higgs mass to be close to the plank scale, not the lower bound at electroweak scale. We expect the Higgs mass to be influenced in a large, but not precise, way, by plank scale physics.

It’s sort of like if the Earth’s trajectory were straight rather than circular, despite the existence of the sun. How could that be, given what we know about gravity? Tinkering with our models of solar structure won’t help much, sense as we said the details don’t matter. On the other hand one could speculate that there are other, unseen, massive objects in the solar system, which exactly balance the gravitational influence of the sun and allow the Earth to move unimpeded onward in a nearly straight line. For example we could speculate that the Earth lies at a Lagrangian point of the sun and an unseen black hole. But even though that would be logically sound, it would be an incredibly awkward explanation: how did that unseen massive object get itself into the perfect location to EXACTLY CANCEL the effects of the sun? And given this precise cancellation, the Earth’s trajectory now WOULD depend precisely on the details of the structure of the sun.

This is the issue with the Higgs mass. Its lightness is unexpected given the influence of plank scale physics. We may of course postulate a full circus of effects at the plank scale that could contrive to produce this result, but it is nevertheless unlikely. Unlikely results deserve explanations.

The unnaturalness of our physical theories, then, is fairly interesting in light of their tremendous empirical success. The more we verify these theories, the weirder it gets. All the more reason to continue patiently working.

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(You think Null Result sounds like a good name for a band? You’re too late apparently)

But there’s a larger point here. It might end up being that particle colliders just don’t have much more to offer us for a while. That wouldn’t be unusual. It’s rare that progress is so straightforwardly linear for so long.

Many particle physicists have expressed frustration at the increasing disconnect between theoretical physics and the empirical world it’s meant to explain. They’ve blamed this on some sort of imagined complacency on the part of theoretical physicists, especially string theorists. But it’s been fairly clear to me for a while that this disconnect is not borne of complacency but is just a reality of our time that we must contend with. The disconnect has been forced upon us by nature. We need to encourage an exploratory spirit if we’re going to overcome it. Attacking people studying String Theory or other ambitious attempts to provide a new framework of thinking isn’t helping provide focus, it’s narrowing our ability to innovate our way out of this impasse.

It might be that the immediate future of physics lies in studying condensed matter systems, or early universe cosmology, rather than particle accelerators. String theorists, for example, have had some (limited, but real) success in these areas, and with more abstract issues like relating gravitation and quantum information theory. On another front, observational astronomy is opening up whole new windows into the universe with LIGO, Icecube, etc. Obviously a need to reorient in favor of exploring these possibilities would be a disappointment to particle physicists, but this is just the reality of progress, scientific or otherwise. We don’t know in advance what will work and what won’t.

We should keep calm, keep exploring, and keep an open mind. This isn’t a nightmare, and admittedly it’s not a dream either. It’s the hard work of living and working and moving forward in the real world.

Concerning the Party Poopers

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A recent politico article argued that our two political parties, being as old and firmly established as they are, perpetuate a kind of ideological or institutional inertia, stifling our political imagination with their resilience. Many voters, dissatisfied with their two presidential choices, lament the lack of a viable third party alternative.

I would advocate a completely opposite view of the political parties: they adapt to, react to, and absorb whatever cultural or ideological realities are playing out in the country. To the extent that they coerce political discourse, it’s in the direction of compromise and synthesis. It’s only stifling insofar as our democratic institutions naturally are, and there’s a strong argument to be made that this is a feature, not a bug, in our system.

For example, why don’t we have a socialist party or a libertarian party? Is it because the parties squash those ideologies or cannot accommodate them? No. They couldn’t stop Trump, or Sanders, or either of the Pauls. As hard as it may be for many Sanders supporters to accept, the people decided the fates of these candidates in the primary elections. The voters, not the party machines, are primarily responsible for our ideological emphases.

Now you could say things like, who says business interests, evangelical Christians, and war hawks should all belong to the same party? Isn’t that artificial and stifling? I’d argue it’s just a compromise formed by a political system doing its job. The only thing it “stifles” is the chaos of having a proliferation of factions. Government, democratic or otherwise, requires consensus building, and our two party system plays an important role in this process.

Right now our political system is unable to resolve some of our political conflicts. The GOP is imploding, and the Democrats arguably only narrowly avoided a similar fate. The result is that some of the absurdities of the compromises that have been made in the past are on prominent display. This is awkward for a lot of people who aren’t used to consciously acknowledging the practical realities underlying a lot of our political discourse, but not really a sign of a problem with the two party system.

Eventually the two parties will reorganize themselves. Their resilience is borne of their adaptability rather than any kind of permanence.  It’s going to be a messy affair. It’s going to involve new compromises, and some unhappiness will result. But that’s ok. Democracy’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to work, and for the most part it does.

Disrupting Conventions

[Co-authored with tkgilbert]

The much anticipated RNC is over and the reviews are in. Reactions range from fear, to dismissal, to raw political calculation. Unfortunately absent is any attempt to actually understand and confront the political situation we’ve reached. This range of responses to an increasingly deranged conservative movement have become a habit on the left, a habit which has only served to reinforce destructive trends in our politics.

Let’s be clear. Donald Trump is a blatantly racist, sexist, narcissistic demagogue whose election would arguably be a threat to civilization itself. Fear, denial, and dismissal are psychologically reasonable reactions to his rise. Satire and a bit of levity would be healthier options. But none of this is sufficient as a political response.

Nate Silver outlined two options for Clinton: either accept Trump’s framing and paint him as unfit to lead us in chaotic times, or ignore/dismiss it and count on beating Trump by turning out the Obama coalition. Either of these tactics might work to beat Trump the man and win the battle in November, neither is a political strategy for winning the war against Trumpism in the long run.

Trump’s rise is fueled in part by a denial of 21st century realities: pluralism, globalism, rapid economic and cultural change. Dismissal is the appropriate response here, as these are realities we must live with whether we like them or not (and both the left and the right have reasons to celebrate or reject these developments).

But it’s also fueled by shortcomings in the way progressives and liberal elites have responded to these changes. The left has embraced cultural pluralism without making room at the table for the white working class.  It’s delivered economic prosperity, peace, and cultural progress without political empowerment or real economic opportunity.

And deliverance is the operative word here: the left is still locked into a semi-messianic notion of economic and political “deliverance.” The path to prosperity should really be a thoroughly collective enterprise.

We can attack Trump as incompetent or psychologically unfit to lead. But you don’t have to believe Trump is capable of solving our problems to support him, you just have to think he’s capable of “disrupting” or destroying a political system which has been paralyzed, which places emphasis on political correctness over problem solving, which is beholden to special interests. Trump has already proven he can do these things by defeating the Republican establishment. This is the only way to explain some bizarre but real sources of Trump support.

We can attack the picture Trump paints of America as factually unsound and overly pessimistic. But you don’t have to live in fear of being murdered by illegal immigrants to believe they’re making your life harder or drowning out your voice. You don’t have to believe the President was born in Kenya to feel alienated from a new cultural majority which seems to be planning a future for your country that does not include you.

Progressives are on the right side of history. But we need to find a way of welcoming the white working class into our 21st century vision of a pluralistic society. We need to deliver political empowerment alongside our legislative and legal accomplishments. We need to acknowledge that although the Obama administration has represented a huge leap forward compared with the America of 2008, his original goal of forging a new kind of politics remains entirely unrealized.

That won’t be easy, but there is historical precedent. During The Progressive Era a century ago we confronted a rapidly changing country marked by economic inequality and the suppression of issues of racial equality. We achieved a complete transformation of our civil society: women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, the introduction of political primaries and the defeat of big city political machines, mass expansion of secondary education, trust-busting economic policy, muckraking journalism. We massively widened the political field to include all sorts of people who were empowered in ways that were previously unimaginable. There’s good reason to believe a similar transformation could be achieved today. For example, smart phone users have become the new muckrakers.

When liberals react in fear to the conservative movement they forfeit any possibility of a proactive response. When any of us dismiss our political opposition we feed the very alienation that’s led to Trump. When elites succumb to tactical political calculation they reinforce the suffocating political system that has left people hopeless and spiteful.

As progressives (and as Americans more generally), we’re obligated to view politics as dynamic and inclusive. To quote the senator from Batman vs. Superman, “In a democracy, good is a conversation.” We should demand that any conversation be fact based. We should demand it respect democratic norms. But it also must involve an actual effort to understand legitimate grievances even when they are expressed dysfunctionally, and to address them.