Gabriel, Come Blow Your Large Hadron Collider

Oh, hi there. I was just reading Peter B. Gillis’ blog (as you all should be too), and something he said started me thinking. Boiled down into sound-bite size, it amounts to this:

I think a break point’s coming. Maybe not just yet, but soon.

But gee, what can I mean by this? Well, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, for the last couple of decades or so we’ve been living in a time of pretty profound materialism. Not a particularly controversial statement, I hope: after all, isn’t it clear that materialists are the Republicans of science?

But maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly; really materialists are the conservatives of science. It’s only when they embrace a dogmatic materialism that they become Republicans.

Let me expand on that slightly. You see, historically the term “conservative” refers to a philosophical perspective which is (at least, superficially) the enemy of dogma: the first conservatives so-called, whatever their underlying political motivations, were ruthless social realists — finding the idealistic generalizations so beloved of the Enlightenment philosophes abhorrent and dangerous, they insisted on specificity: how, for example, could there be any such thing as the universal rights of Man, when there is no “Man”? “Man”, they argued, was a pure abstract; because in the real world there are only men, and they’re all different. There was no Social Contract; there were no intrinsic attributes of any society but the characters of the individuals that made it up. “Reason” was going too far, too fast, when it claimed anything else.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. The dictionary definition of “conservative” as “lover of the status quo” cuts much more deeply into the heart of things than does my description above — though it, too, is a simplification. But I just thought I’d float the idea of conservatism as the foe of dogmatic theory, because that nuance is often lost, these days: in fact the only people who seem to remember it are our modern political conservatives themselves, who naturally wish to wrap themselves in that flag at every available opportunity…and yet it’s quite clear that they are at least as much the blinkered prisoners of dogma as any of their opponents on what we now like to call the Left. They’ve never read Candide, you see — so they don’t know that Voltaire comprehensively demolished that conservative position way back when it first buckled on its armour. And as he pointed out at that time, the notion of conservativism as a pure insistence on specificity was really always just as abstractly general and “dangerous” as the very thing it sprang up to combat. However! The nuance has still been lost, hasn’t it? That ideal of “conservative”, hypocritical as it may have been, was still an appealing one (well, after all it was supposed to be appealing!), and like Chesterton said of Christianity the problem with it wasn’t that it was tried and found wanting, the problem with it was that it was found difficult, and not tried. Certainly it can be a virtue to attend to the specific realities of life-as-lived, just as trying to imagine how life could be better is also a virtue, sometimes…and indeed there are people like this out there, people who are “naturally” conservative in the way they diligently attend to the evident meaning of real objects and their relationships, as found in the actual real-life world. Of course it’s rare you find any of them who possess easily-reducible political points of view: though both the Left and the Right are fond of claiming them as members of their “side”, more often than not this “true-con” style of thinking is impossible to paste onto the political compass we’re accustomed to employ as a crutch, these days. Such people are neither priests of order, nor ministers of equality — where they live in cities, the freedoms they care about are chiefly academic and artistic ones. In the country, they attend predominantly to matters of geography. So if you’ll take my word for it: politics and this sort of specifistic ideal don’t make much of a fit, but that doesn’t mean the ideal is of no value. Rather the opposite.

Little tangent, there. And I’m not saying a flexibly conservative dogma-hater is impossible to locate in the political milieux of the West — but the compass often imposes regularity more than it reveals it, and political parties willing to appeal to specificity, at least in my country, do a fairly half-assed job. Nevertheless, you might be lucky enough to unexpectedly chance on one of these idealistic conservative types, one of these days; and if you do, you may find that they practice a species of conservatism that’s worthy of your respect. At least, you may find they do a little bit more than just pay lip-service to the idea of resisting dogmatic ideologies.

You may.

Of course, they’re not exactly on every corner. Even the ones who wear their political motivations on-the-sleeve-but-under-the-sweater are a little less than common, these days. More often you don’t get a real conservative, but a real Republican — by which I mean, someone a lot like the current crop of American Republicans, who do a good job of exemplifying what conservatism looks like once you take out any unbiased suspicion of dogma from it. By any objective standard, it’s really the folks on the Left that have the advantage these days, in that department. Slight though it may be…!

But that’s really not got much to do with the break point I think is coming.

At least, not directly.

Back to materialists in the realm of science, that I’ve likened to Republicans — if only because their style of materialism is rather Friedmanesque. You can see it in neuroscientists and AI researchers: among these (very smart) people, there’s a reasonably large faction that believes (for example) that the phenomenon of consciousness is simply generated by reaching a certain threshold of complexity in a physical system, or by the brute application of autocatalytic feedback loops. But this is a rather intriguing species of religious belief, much like our modern Republican types and their uncritically reductionist Panglossianism regarding the “invisible hand” of the market…in both cases, a belief pretty dismissive of assiduous specificity. Where these political fellows seem to enjoy confusing a market with an economy, their neuroscientific cousins seem equally enamoured of confusing intelligence with thought — but if we can’t resist speaking of intelligence, in this modern age, as a term relating primarily to feedbacked behaviours that produce a certain type of sensitive problem-solving — and I’m okay with that, because we do need a word to cover that behaviour — that doesn’t mean we’re justified in saying a machine is “thinking”, when it’s really only running its program.

Now, the materialist reply to this contention of mine is obviously that when “thinking” is going on in the human brain (by now we can be pretty sure that a lot of it does go on in there, I hope!), that’s nothing more nor less than program-running too…and therefore a difference of degree rather than kind

However, that’s not actually been shown to be the case, so the retort’s not very effective.

In fact, if anything it has been shown not to be the case.

Despite being predicted by the model. Well, but the model’s just the model after all, isn’t it? The model is itself hypothetical, and therefore most definitely not “proof” all on its own. It can’t prove itself, for heaven’s sake! And really it’s faintly ridiculous to wish it would; because there’s no model that won’t eventually be thrown out, one day. One day, when we know more than we do now…

So let’s consider the possibility, right now: so far, we haven’t got anything like a “thinking” machine, and there’s no guarantee that we ever will. Every time someone’s predicted it, the prediction’s turned out to be plain-and-simple bunk.

So the model may already not be any good.

They used to have a similar problem in biology, you know, when it came to the definition of life — hard stuff to reduce to its essential components, but inarguably a thing, a qualitative difference between the various products of chemistry, that we see every day. And maybe we’re just kidding ourselves about there even being such a thing; however, I’d hasten to point out that we’ve got a word for it, and the word is pretty useful to us. And inside that word I’d argue there’s an implication, that you can’t have life without autocatalytic feedback processes. Hey, just like “intelligence”…!

But, does that make them the same thing?

You can see, I guess, how confusions might arise. We can produce “intelligence” using inorganic materials — not as easily, of course — so it seems like, well, that’s one item on the shopping list crossed off, right? Hey, that wasn’t too hard…and we’ve still got time left on the meter, let’s see what’s in the other aisles of this big-ass store. Oh, look, I found this Costco-sized container of mind-body problem! Say…you don’t suppose…

If we just got this

Well, can’t we bake a cake, with this?

I mean it says on the box, you just have to add water…

Now, I won’t go too deep into it — this is really just another tangent, you see — but there you’ve got some basic materialism going on right away. You just add water; okay, so it says you probably have to add a lot of water. But what’s the big deal about that? Lots of water it is! And if it doesn’t work out, we can always come back…or, you know, just add still more water...

Yes. But in biology, as I was saying, they eventually gave up on playing around with alternative recipes. Eventually, they figured they were just throwing good water after bad. To break out of the metaphor, eventually the definition of life fell by the wayside as a common theoretical obsession in straight-up biology. A lot more is known about life, now; life is extremely common, extremely interesting stuff…and if you spend all your time wondering if, in the absence of a perfectly strict definition, it can truly be said to exist…well, all that happens is that you waste time with the definition, that might have been better spent on studying the thing. Oh, a little bit of hearsay, there; that’s only what I’ve been told our modern biologists think. But it sounds eminently sensible, to me: if Wittgenstein were here (yes, him again), no doubt he would point out that “life” is not and never was a jargonistic term — and therefore it has no responsibility to us to yield a strict definition. Much as “soul” — no matter how much they argue about it on Star Trek, they fact remains that any word we’ve invented for the purposes of talking about ourselves and our inner states is not going to serve very well as a pair of reductionist tweezers. As I think I’ve pointed out before, it doesn’t matter if some folks deny the existence of “soul” in dogs or cats or gorillas — dogs and cats and gorillas aren’t the language-makers here, we are, and so they have “souls” if we speak of them as having them. It’s magic, really: behold, we say this, and thereby make it so! Abracadabra!

But, can we perform the same magic trick on a machine?

“Soul” means “alive”, doesn’t it?

Wittgenstein would probably frown: language may work magic, but even magic’s got rules. And assigning anti-meanings to established words does not really further the goal of perspicuous representation. Anti-meanings are interesting to play around with, absolutely, and they’re not unproductive of insight — but a begged question’s a begged question, regardless. The one thing the model can’t do is prove itself; that isn’t magic, that’s just incoherence.

And: whew! That took a bit longer than I was hoping it would, forgive me.

So on to the subject, now.

At last!

You know, just by looking at it, you might not think that the current state of physics is too influenced by the kind of dogmatic materialism I outline above. But, I think it actually kind of is…listen, don’t you smell that whiff of desperation on the breeze, coming from the approximate direction of the Standard Model? The thick, pungent scent…

Of fear.

In a reasonably short time, the Large Hadron Collider will come online. Physicists everywhere (plus amateur enthusiasts like me) wait for its arrival with hunger in their eyes and anticipation in their hearts. And, yes: fear too. Because it seems you can hardly find a physical or cosmological paper these days that doesn’t hobble across its finish line with the lame conclusion: “well, I guess when the LHC comes online, we’ll see if I’m just talking through my hat, or not”. Or, to parse it another way: “Jesus is comin’…better get right…”

Quite a pretty pass we’ve come to. We have so many theories these days, that have never had to stand up under the burden of even a molecule of proof. We have the Higgs Popularity Boson, we have extradimensional gravity, we have primal bottlenecks in universes that obscure those universes’ true ages, we have a hundred exotic theories all clamouring to be Saved on that tremendous day of days, when the LHC finally opens its massive throat and speaks.

And yes: appearances perhaps to the contrary, I’m saying that these theories all have a curious component of dogmatic materialism in them, not dissimilar to the idea of the “thinking” machine.

Because, what is it, that they all rely on?

This is a little hard to get to, so please bear with me. Over the course of the last several decades, a certain style of thinking about physics has come to the fore. No disrespect intended to anyone, but I’m going to call it the style of the engineer — if something doesn’t make sense, you damn well make it make sense: hammer it into shape, glue a piece on the top of it, move the goalposts on the problem if you have to. If you’ve got a bug, find a way to call it a feature. Think outside the box, so you can save what’s inside the box.

In the old days, they called these epicycles. Nowadays we might call it the death-throes of an old Kuhnian paradigm, that doesn’t want to go. Of necessity, any physical theory worth the time spent on it has to concern itself with saving the phenomena, with accounting for real-world observations…but there’s a big difference between saving the phenomena, and rescuing the phenomena. Copericanism saved ’em; epicycles tried to rescue ’em. That’s what we saw the last time an old paradigm went down under the sea.

Is it really too much for me to hope that we’re seeing another one go down, as we speak?

Rooting for icebergs, I guess. Not really fair of me. But suppose for a second this loudmouthed assertion of mine might have the tiniest bit of validity to it: if we are seeing the passing of some old paradigm, what’s its flavour? So happy you asked: in this bound-to-be somewhat controversial view of mine, the dominant flavour in these paradigmmatic End Times is the flavour of simplicity, of standalone entities whose intrinsic meanings are set in high contrast to the weaker, secondary, or even totally absent meanings that form their contextual background…standalone entities and actors that, if they can only be defined, numbered, and labelled, will sum to Total Description. And it’s a mechanistic mode that’s been under attack for a long time now — so long, in fact, that it’s learned to seize some of its besieger’s weapons and turn them back around on him. And you say that’s old news, very old news…but I say, look: isn’t there some real epicyclical flailing going on here? Well, what is the Higgs boson but a simplistic “bestiary” solution to the very mystery that inaugurated the science of physics itself? Flailing, perhaps…anyway it’s a quite fabulously presumptuous idea: all this mystery is really no mystery at all, see I fixed it! It has to do with particles, or something. Now what on earth were you old farts getting your knickers in such a twist about, my God it’s like you never heard of duct tape before. Oh, and you can stop all this wittering about gravity, too — I just moved it over to another universe. See? Problem solved. As to EPR, look, it isn’t that this problem even needs fixing, we just have to say it’s no problem. There, see how easy that was? And now the only thing we have to do to make sure this all passes inspection is to get one little shred of contributing evidence for it. Just ONE. Little SHRED! And then we’re home free.

(…So come on, Large Hadron Collider…gimme that shred, baby…)

It does sound a little bit like going all-in on those poker shows, doesn’t it? Bluffing behaviour, while you wait to see if your negative election ads worked. Or perhaps, while you wait to see if the economy picks up after that big tax cut you threw at it. Or even, waiting for your computer to pass the Turing test you’ve rigged up for it, and possibly address you as “Dave”?

Only problem is…

Have you read Alan Turing’s famous test questions?

They’re really quite ingenious.

And again, it’s a matter of specifics. They are specific questions, and they’re ingenious, and I don’t know if the type of computers we’ve got now could ever pass that test. Not if they were as big as a planet. Because we should face facts: we don’t know how to make a computer that thinks. We only know how to make bigger computers, with more “intelligent” behaviours loaded into them. The computational power of the machines we’ve got now already puts our human powers of intellection to shame in some areas, and may soon eclipse us in the others as well, and eventually the question becomes…

Jesus, how advanced does one of these things have to bloody well be, anyway?

Man, what’s it gonna take?

In my view, it’ll take nothing less than an actual, specific, theoretical breakthrough. But the important thing about that statement, is that what it really means is “I have no idea what it’s going to take.” I mean it’s all very well to say “breakthrough, breathrough…all we need is a breakthrough“…but there’s that Inner Engineer talking again, I’m afraid. Breakthoughs aren’t things; you can’t go down to the butcher’s and order half a pound of sliced breakthrough, for heaven’s sake…

That is…not unless the name of your butcher is Large Hadron Collider, right?

So much validating proof required, from such a ridiculously powerful Big Machine…just as though the more powerful it is, the more productive of breakthrough it’s bound to be. But this is like saying that you wouldn’t bet double-zero on a roulette wheel unless the potential winning payout was five times as big…in other words, if the odds of winning were five times worse. This kind of thinking, by the way, is a pet peeve of economists the world over…

So, make of that what you will, I guess.

In any case, since we’re talking about thinking, we should probably be willing to allow that, like “breakthrough”, it is not a generic product. Whereas “intelligence” arguably is…it seems likely that the common sense of intelligence these days has a lot to do with behaviour that is anticipatory, if not always genuinely adaptive, and that seems to indicate that the goal of designed intelligence is to become as independent and broadly-applicable — as generically useful — as possible. Now, the good thing about this goal is that you can easily whip up about a hundred-thousand pretty decent yardsticks for measuring it. So hurray! But thinking, being quite a non-generic activity, is much harder to prop up against a yardstick. In fact it’s entirely possible that thinking isn’t, strictly speaking, good for anything. Sure, Archimedes sat up yelling “Eureka!” in the bathtub…fine. Well, great! And I thought of dipping a banana into my lobster bisque the other day. Archimedes and me, we’re clearly both geniuses. But are our ideas, strictly speaking, “good for anything” in and of themselves? The original inhabitants of Tasmania (I believe it was) stopped bothering to make fire after a while, and so the skill was not preserved — and you never know, they might’ve had their own Archimedes. Maybe they even had a couple of them. But the fire never came back.

And do you know how to make fire?

Or even…a cake?

But maybe you don’t like cake.

The neuromaterialist clique, as I mentioned, will tell you that thinking is just your brain “running its program”, just like a computer runs its program, like the phone system runs its programs, like everything runs its programs…and that the basis of all phenomena lies in computation. In an abstract way, superficially, that may be true. But having said that, have we really said anything at all? “In the abstract, these things kind of look the same.” All right…but so what?

So what?

Lining up to use the Large Hadron Collider, and dying to try to prove themselves true, are a bunch of theories that, for want of a better usage, I’m going to say look like physics. They may not be physics, but they could be physics. They look like it; they use the same toys. They follow in the same path.

But it’s my belief that real physics is already quite a ways down the path in front of them.

Well, I can hope.

Proof’s in the…uh, pudding, I guess. Yes: pudding.

Why not.

My, what a relief it is to get back to a real (if slightly scatterbrained) post! I think I went a little post-happy over the last few days, just yanking stuff out and slapping it up there. I feel rather like I’ve been lining up to use the LHC myself.

Ha ha ha.


29 responses to “Gabriel, Come Blow Your Large Hadron Collider

  1. Well, a number of things …

    I don’t think you’ve made a very accurate definition of “materialist”; so I don’t know what alternatives a “dogmatic materialist” is closing his mind to, or what kind of theorist you’d consider a radical. Do you just mean “reductionist”? If so, there are three alternatives at least: (a) a holism, claiming that no phenomenon you can reasonably call “matter” can be fully understood in isolation; (b) a historicism, claiming that matter really has to understood as evolving; (c) a Chain-of-Being theory, that matter is informed by something non-material, and can’t be understood without that. And maybe more.

    But it’s a bit hard to see how LHC observations are going to shoot any of these four positions down. The LHC will be our most extreme attempt yet, to produce a phenomenon in isolation from anything else. The collisions it creates will be too brief for anything else to have time to affect them. The whole mighty effort has basically been in order to strip reality down to two quarks and a vacuum. If that results in any surprises …

    (a) Well, reductionism will say that the surprises indicate a level of structure that we haven’t seen up till now. Structure inherent in the nature of being a quark in a vacuum. It will turn out to be more complex than the Standard Model would have it.

    (b) A holistic theory would say that the colliding quarks are involved with the larger world. For this to be demonstrated by the collision, though, the results of the collision would have to be shown to provide information about the larger world. Now that would be a shock, because as I say, the instant of collision is so brief as to distinguish itself thoroughly from anything that’s been happening to the particles on a more laggardly scale. Further, to the best of my understanding the mechanics of accelerating the particles will have erased any coherent “entangled” relationship with any other particles. We would have to be careful to confirm that a connection with external phenomena really was occurring, but if it were, it would imply a communication process which was both non-classical and non-quantum.

    (c) A historical theory would say that surprising results were due to some historical record or “memory” which the particles were carrying with them. This too would be a shock. There’s a name for particle memory and that’s “hidden variables”, and so far in subatomic physics everything has been consistent with a QM in which particles are innocent of history … pristine … so completely identical that two of them could change places without it making any observable difference. It would be hard to show that an LHC surprise was due to particle memory, when particle memory has never otherwise been observed.

    (d) A Chain-of-Being theory would suggest that a surprise result was due to intervention from without. Cue spooky theramins. Here’s where we get into (d.1) Sheldrake’s morphogenic field, (d.2) operation of the computer on which the universe is being run, (d.3) God at Work. And such. The criterion for taking any of these as a hypothesis has to be an LHC surprise result where there is definitely more non-random information coming out than we put in.

    I mean, I’m a dilettante in fundamental physics, albeit one who’s done a unit or two in it; and I can make a start at circumscribing the paradigm (a) with the challenges the LHC might raise, in a few short paragraphs. Anything from (b) to (c) would be revolutionary to physics, but it wouldn’t be anything traditional reasoning couldn’t identify.

    I suspect, from what Peter B. says, and what you say about the “engineering mentality”, that what you’d really fancy is to get out from under the shade of Mach and Popper and their damnable pointer readings. And back to where a man could talk about what things really are. But were we ever in that happy position, really? “I see, Thales! Everything is water. But, heh-heh, what is water?”

    Now where I’m with you is in hoping for something radically new out of the LHC. Something that revolutionizes the ontology. And that means, yes, I think that despite Mach, fundamental physics hypotheses are ontological in kind, always have been and are now; even though the evidence for them is all pointer readings. The key is the mathematics. I don’t think it’s true that maths only leads to more maths; I think that (quoting Douglas Hofstadter) isomorphism induces meaning. If you study it, it eventually makes a more than formal sense.

    Kind of groggy now. Will try and address more of what you’re saying tomorrow.

  2. Drove a tank over the Sultan’s cricket pitch! Painted a moustache on our portrait of the Queen! By God, these Gerries have got to be stopped!

    Er, sorry.

  3. Quite all right, Jonathan. And, sorry about that, Madelay.

    Okay, now let’s see if the coffee’s started to work…

    Well, I’ll go around the outside of it a bit, first: I think, while most people are looking to the LHC to provide reductionist insights — and the point about very small time intervals isolating phenomena is a good one, strangely I’ve never thought of it in precisely that way before — cool! — there are many as well who are looking for option D. There’s more than one lover of string theory and its offspring who’s a covert close cousin to Sheldrake, in these woods! Not that I begrudge the String family their right to contend, but many of them have put a great deal of effort into claiming that posterity will vindicate them…and the LHC (I think unreasonably) has been repeatedly announced by them as the first step in that vindication process. Unless, you know, it turns out not to be. Among the adherents of Stringyness both simple (!) and complex (!!), there seems to be a type of Millenial Madness that’s taken hold — the end is nigh! — and you’re right, that doesn’t really look like “materialism”.

    Which just goes to show that I didn’t make my point very well!

    Let me try again, though the point may in fact be un-make-able:

    What I’m attempting to propose, or at least noise about, is that materialism of the old familiar “matter, motion, and that’s it” variety, while strongly entwined with reductionism most of the time, has nevertheless had its own unique impact on science…and that when these two things are confused, a somewhat inconsistent set of scientific objectives is produced. I’m going to try really hard to keep this both a) brief, and b) clear — my own little Venn diagram, if you will — but if I mess it up, I’m sure you’ll let me know. And, I’ll probably know I’ve done a good job if you find something to disagree with more strongly!

    So here goes. Brief sketch of an old paper:

    We start with the old mind-body problem (though we might start earlier, but we won’t) — basically with the idea that it’s ridiculous to talk about a “ghost in the machine”. What we can observe and measure is what counts, and makes a sufficient explanation all on its own: all else is irresponsible and unjustified flim-flammery, a distraction from the point. There’s no mind, no soul, no higher self; there’s only wheels and cogs, discrete entities and their describable interactions.

    Sorry; I already have to re-write…

    So materialism in this sense amounts to a disensoulment of matter, freedom from the ineffable goop that’s always been really rather unscientific. Moving quickly, I’ll make a link to QM, here: where the contention is that there’s no point longing for a “Real” that can’t be demonstrated, so we should accept what we’re given to work with as the only “reality” we’re gonna get. So the particle does not itself know exactly where it is, until it’s observed, and that means entities are not quite as discrete — as visualizable — as Real — as we would perhaps prefer, and that’s too bad but that’s the way it is. The atom isn’t a solar system in miniature; paticles simply have interactions with each other.

    To psychology now, where “materialism” and “realism” and “mechanism” are perspectives not easily prised apart — and now even more swiftly, over to the engineering perspective: but now wait, let’s do sociology first, where “mechanism” is present as “cultural materialism”, or more broadly as the functionalist perspective…but generations of conflict theorists will tell you that’s anything but realistic: just as the philosophes vs. the conservatives, they don’t declare “eppur si muove”, but instead ask “cui bono?” But more on that in just a moment. Now it’s time for the engineering perspective, where what counts is what works (eppur si muove?), and everything else is hot air. To this point of view, there’s perhaps nothing quite as validating as the neurobiological conclusion that the wiring of the brain is all there is — even “consciousness” isn’t ineffable, it’s just the illusory product of the meat machine’s function. There’s no love, there’s just sex; there’s no emotion, there’s just motivation. Subjectively-felt meanings and distinctions are merely the by-products of evolutionary processes. It’s all mechanical, and all materialistic. Statistical. Functionalist.

    Great stuff! Fits with everything! It’s like a worldview, or something.

    Meanwhile over in Physics we’ve got a situation where realism has been prised away from materialism rather effectively: the little intense guy is saying “this is how it works, goddamnit! Stop looking for the Ghost in Physics’ Machine!”, and the old violin-playing dude is saying “I don’t believe it, it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t make sense“, in effect arguing against the implications of his own theory. So who here is talking about “what works”, and who’s spewing out the hot air? Do you go Realist, visualizer? Or do you go with the materialist guy who oddly doesn’t seem to believe in “material” that much, but who’s got the math on his side?

    Or: to world-view, or not to world-view? I guess that’s the question.

    Okay, so here’s where the inconsistencies start to creep in: all these things eventually turn around on each other. That’s when (I maintain) the embroideries of both QM and neuroscience start to get disturbingly ornate — and the shouted warnings of people like Turing and Einstein begin to be more aggressively disregarded. Materialism — “dogmatic” materialism (something I now wish I hadn’t said) as I’ve attempted to define it — starts to push out now as an historical bias that would ideally like to preserve a smoothly-functioning disensouled universe with discrete objects and reasonably simple interactional rules — a simple universe — an elegant universe? — but which seems willing to tack on any sort of theoretical duct tape to achieve this goal. And then sit back and wait for the LHC to tell them the thing will do, that it hasn’t defeated its own goal of simplicity in the act of trying to attain it. This reminds me rather strikingly of Kepler, who desired to see harmonious symmetry in the character of physical law rather too much, and ran out of ways to look for it. Likewise many of the Stringfellows, Higgs-ites, and others I forget now: who seem to want (if I may) to instantiate a Spirit of the Laws that rises above mere phenomena, and have put all the hip-check action they can into QM to get it started up. You want explanations to do with particles? We got those. You need crazy new fields to make them work? We’ve got those too. Having trouble with expansion? Just change the age of the universe. Inflation seems a little too perfect? What you need, my friend, is to cram a few more universes into the Bulk. And then let’s test ’em all, and let the LHC sort ’em out.

    Reductionist it ain’t.

    But, is it really this “materialistic bias” that I’m claiming it is? Hey, it’s all kind of almost working: paradoxically everything functions much more smoothly in this big Machine so free of Ghosts (though again paradoxically, now rather Ghostly on its own account) when for example the absence of messy “intrinsic” meanings ensure that one photon is precisely the same as any other photon, except for its quantum state…which as we’ve recently seen can be detached from it. In other words the particle is not “ensouled”, it’s just a computational node! As the human brain is not ensouled, human society is not ensouled, interpersonal behaviour is not ensouled, cultural folkways are not ensouled, the market is not ensouled, etc., etc…

    But, what if none of it was really true? Is what I’m saying. What if it was all just postponing the examination of existing theoretical problems, until someday after the end of the world? A neat, tidy, smoothly interfunctional cosmological structure, that proved we can have our cake and eat it too, would be gratifyingly beautiful…but the desire for this, and the attitude (that I believe I detect) that we can well afford to wait for the LHC to come along and point the way to it, seems to me to paper over a lot of assumptions about what’s been gotten right in physics, and what’s been gotten wrong, over the last Quite Long Time. A lot of current theories one hears about seem daffy to say the least — seem a bit like attempting to do away with QM’s implications by saying “okay, we’ll remove the intrinsic-ness and the discrete-entity-ness…we’ll just put them somewhere else, out of sight, where they won’t bother anybody.” Hey, it’s not just physics! Neuroscience is also very busy sweeping its unwanted ramifications under the carpet, you know, and so are a lot of different theories, in a lot of different disciplines, all over. And what are they hoping to accomplish? What are they hoping it’ll all achieve, what are they all waiting for?

    Option D, maybe? Intervention from outside; where we’ve put all the stuff our current theory can’t really tolerate, but we haven’t gotten rid of it, we just want it…you know, outside.

    I mean, maybe it’s time we either got rid of it for good, or got a bigger place.

    Hmm, now I’m just full-on ranting, aren’t I? Damn. And haven’t come close to proving any point. As before, I wish I could point to all of this blather and say “see? Paradigm shift!“, but naturally I can’t quite pull that off. All the answers are quite beyond me, here; likewise all the questions.

    Well, maybe not all the questions. I guess I can probably think of one question…

    Cui bono?

    Um…sorry again, Madelay.

  4. In the wake of Steve Gerber’s passing, I’m going to leave this be for now. When you want to pick it up, I’ll be ready.

  5. Righto, clear the decks.

    My first try, I found I was starting to unravel the scientific method back to Francis Bacon, so as to contrast him with Goethe, Bergson, Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Prigogine, Sheldrake, and my pet mavericks Colin Wilson and Robert Pirsig. All these cats who’ve seen an impoverishment in empirical or analytical science, and thought we could benefit from an enriched mode of investigation.

    And that was in order to fish up their various intuitions of what we might hope to find through this enriched science; so that we’d have some vocabulary for discussing what we might hope to find now.

    But it was getting turgid, and you know about those cats anyway. Most importantly though, there are all these other sciences – biology, neurology, evolutionary study – to which the intuitions they were developing – organic, holistic, gestalt – would naturally apply much more directly than to high-energy particle physics.

    (And I really think that HEP is the wrong place to go looking for a break point on science, although quantum mechanics might be a good place.)

    So I’m starting again from a new place, my own interpretation of things.

    I am the dialogue in process between my anatomy and my circumstances.

    Every physical object has an inside and an outside; and a boundary between the two, at which internal and external forces are more or less in balance, but waver back and forth. As they waver, they inscribe a partial record of their interaction on both the inside and the outside. These records constitute the network of communications between things, which bind things, loosely and on numerous levels, into complex systems of cause and effect.

    To take extremes: things like flames and water-eddies have weak internal forces compared to their surroundings; when their sources fail, they soon lose their identity. Things like rocks have stronger internal forces, and endure; but even they have markings and shapings (records) from their interactions with blown sand and water, if these weak external forces just keep going long enough.

    That’s enough for a rough classification of things, but with living things it gets more interesting. Living things are sensitive. They respond to brief and delicate changes in the balance of forces; that is to the temporary records which the changes leave behind; and they adjust their internal forces accordingly, to present an appropriate face to the world. So they resist the inimical, but incorporate the beneficial; and thus last longer than we’d expect. And this basic mechanism is elaborated, as you know, through cell membranes, tropes, nerves, eyes etc; until we come to the peacock.

    Now I consider that the peacock’s tail is a symbol in the true sense. It is an A that means B, and because it means B it causes C. A is a conspicuous exception in the usual pallette of visible light; it means (to a peahen) the opportunity to mate; and C is the engagement in mating behaviour. What’s amazing about this is that there is almost no material difference between the peacock’s tail and any other collection of feathers or fur; and the material trigger of the response B is nothing but some retinal cells firing. And yet the whole crucial mating episode depends on it.

    This says to me that we’re seeing here the difference between adaptive response based on relative force, and adaptive response based on signal. And I’m suggesting, the beginnings of adaptive response on the basis of meaning. Now the meaning is very crude, and one might argue that this could just be a completely mindless trigger mechanism. But I’d argue that since the result C is such a radical somatic response to A, that (1) one should ask, why? (2) one may properly compare it with signals we encounter in our own lives, which result in strong somatic responses. And I claim that the structure of receptors in the peahen’s brain, or in ours, is the encoding of really-truly meaning. That’s where B is physically embodied.

    Now my interpretation of things is that I am B writ large. The dialogue in process between my anatomy and my circumstances. This explains to me why I seem to be here, and why I seem to be now. It’s because a large portion of my brain is focused on the rapid assignment of meaning to signals, and behavior to meaning. It’s because my brain knows its business …

    And the business of the animal brain is to come up with an appropriate response to its immediate circumstances.

    Where “appropriate” means, “addressing the proper nature of”. The actual, objective nature; the reality.

    So it would follow that the animal brain is an aggregate of meanings which are actually true of the world. They are, within their limits, objective. And in the aggregate they comprise a partial model of the world, and that model is the world I seem to be living in at this moment. And also, in the aggregate they are the me who seems to be living in it.

    This possibly sounds deadly dull. I sort of hope so; because what I want to get at is that even just this fulfills most of the requirements of our post-Baconian cats upstairs. Our immediate lives are organic, holistic, dynamic, and within a boundary zone which is both objective and subjective without being perfectly either of those. And they are in Husserl’s sense “prehensive”: they are a reaching out into the stream of incoming signals, in the expectation that we will find them meaningful.

    All right; consider this Part 1. I’m expecting phone service to be cut off pretty soon, and then I’ll have to see what happens in the next few days. What I’m doing is setting out my starting point; and from here I’ll try and say what there might still be left for the sciences to do.

  6. I’m looking forward to that.

    Just wrote a big thing here, but had to delete it: I’ll wait for your continuation before I respond, you have the floor. Good stuff to read.

  7. Hoggoth knows how long these people will take to get my broadband on, so I’m in an intercaf for a short update.

    I share the sense of irony in…

    * Neuroscientists and philosophers: There is no (need for a) ghost in the machine.

    while …

    * Physicists and logical positivists: There is no (need for a) mechanism behind the observations.

    Wouldn’t it be just the sweetest set of Borromean Rings then, if we could retort …

    * But no observations without US GHOSTS!

    But it wouldn’t be honest, because in QM an observation is just an irreversible recording. As long as a system under investigation can be prevented from making a permanent record on exterior stuff, the best predictor of what the record will finally turn out to be, is that the system has all the potential outcomes superimposed. No conscious observer required.

    I’d be startled by any change on this front. But it’s curious, therefore, that some of my supposings aren’t all that far away from there.

    I’m glad you’re hip to Prigogine. I don’t think he’s offering the Third Ring, but his concept of structure emerging spontaneously in irreversible processes rings true. Prigogine allows me to be a reductionist in respect of matter, and a holist-historicist in respect of mind.

    That is, I think there is potential for a mind to work with, and there might even be a mind present, wherever there are records being made, and there are records being made wherever there’s a physical object with an inside and an outside.

    I say this because I was arguing before that as mind, I’m basically made of records. And I know at first hand that I’m aware of the most recent records as they’re made. For lack of any real distinction, then, I ought to hold open the case in general, that other physical interfaces have their own first-hand awareness too. Yes, I’m a pananimist on reductionist grounds.

    How do you know
    but every bird that flies the airy way
    is a world of sweet delight
    closed to your senses five?
    — go, William Blake!

    Now that doesn’t mean they have the same kind of mind as us. I mean, they are differently constituted interfaces, they won’t have the same kinds of instantaneous meaning, they don’t have the same anatomy, and my take is that basic meaning is somatic. Nonetheless, if I propose that something of the mental kind is there, however dormant, however intermittent, then I don’t see that anyone can correct me, without opening themselves to the argument for solipsism.

    Another possibility that would be very neat: Matter is at its simplest when it is most analysed into separate bits. But this doesn’t justify an analogy with mind. Maybe mind is at its simplest when it is most integral, most connected and connecting. Certainly that’s where it’s most evident, n’est-ce pas?

    If that’s true, the LHC is totally the wrong way to go. What we ought to be inventing is The Lens. My requirements are lenient, but at least some extension of the human senses, so we can incorporate some of the external recording processes as if they were our own. It wouldn’t be a direct mind-to-mind connection, rather it would be an extended sensorium with which we might choose to identify.

    (And I reckon we identify to some extent with everything we encounter. The moment we discover somehting new, we rush to build it into our personal world model. From which we, as the person living in that model, are not distinct. I used to say, “The mind is a slut!”)

    All this probably seems to be pushing resemblances way too far. I can’t pretend to be conclusive – after all, I’m as subject to the same arguments for solipsism or being a brain in a vat etc, as anybody. There is a method in principle for deciding these issues, however – find out how the sensory nervous system works, and bolt some protheses on. Build the damn Lens! And then let people see for themselves if there’s anything mindlike in birds and bats and wildflowers.

    Just about enough on this tack. Probably a lot of philosophers have said something like this. They probably weren’t present at a neurophysiological revolution, though, and we are.

    Now, a far-fetched twist on it. I hope I can say it so it makes sense.

    Remember I stressed the necessity of irreversible recording in quantum mechanics. That kind of “observation”, however unconscious, is continually chopping the universe into alternate slices. If I measure “spin = up” on my apparatus, I know I’ve been severed irrevocably from histories in which any possible partner with an entangled apparatus measured “spin = up” as well; and I’ve been welded to histories where in principle some observer out at Betelgeuse could yet measure “spin = down”.

    Well, what this means is that, being in essense a stream of recordings, every physical object defines sort of a shape or scale on which the future is being split into alternatives. Some objects are iron ploughs, and some are micron-edge scalpels. All by itself this is somewhat awesome to contemplate. But okay, so what?

    In textbook QM, we get to study two extreme forms of measuring apparatus. One is essentially a collection of dissociated particles, like a photographic plate, and it allows recording of particle behaviour. The other is essentially a regular grid, like a diffraction grating, and it allows recording of wave behaviour. In the extremes, an ideal of location, and an ideal of periodicity.

    However, we are interested in those two cases mainly because they are mathematically simple. We’ve needed that, because QM has to be clear enough to teach, and because there are still arguments about QM interpretations.

    But! (finally) Most quantum-scale interactions are not like those. The world is not made of ideal lattices. It’s mostly made of molecules, which, certainly are not good recording devices, on the whole. But some of these molecules are big complex biological things, which when they shift state, are likely to transfer energy in irreversible ways.

    Now I’ve thought about this on and off for years, without much progress: What kind of information is registered by biochemical systems? It’s not pure wave information, nor pure particle. It’s some kind of instant-wavelet-with-colour-and-chemistry information, which is too complex for us to calculate at present.

    Thing is, whatever it is, it’s what our senses are made of, at the point of contact with the world. Presumably our sensory nerves further in are not processing that kind of information directly, but they are processing some sort of analog.

    I once thought about the possibility that the colour red, and I mean, as actually perceived and experienced, was literally identical with the state transition of the visual rhodopsin molecule. You’ll seewhat’s wrong with that from your own synaesthesia, I guess: red can come from other places than vision.

    Look, time up, and I don’t have another hour. More anon. It’s all a disucssion worth having. All the best.

  8. You too, man.

    I’m thrilled by the idea of the rhodopsin molecule literally “creating red” — and as far as I can make out by feel, synaesthesia does come from vision, is linked into the systems of vision and the visual cortex, so as the kids say these days: it’s all good.

    Unless I’m wrong. But it feels like what’s involved in vision. Just without culminating in actual vision. So.

    Meaning as somatic: check. I subscribe to this as well.

    “Mind” in the material: also check. In fact as long as we’re talking about vision, in an evolutionary sense there is no quality “vision” just as there is no organ “eye” — there are sensory (call them “interactional”) registers that develop, and that’s what they are, and that’s all. The sight of the eye is a human interpretation — an interpretation that maps nicely onto phenomena, but still an interpretation. “Organ” is an invented category: look at the word.

    I have a lot to say about all this, but I may not get to it all in the next few minutes as I have to get to bed. However I’m struck by the passage that concludes “So it would follow that the animal brain is an aggregate of meanings which are actually true of the world. They are, within their limits, objective.” Indeed; and that’s a fascinating point, but I’m not as sanguine about the inside/outside thing as I am about the recording thing — not that I should come across as a believer in loss-less “recordability”, because I ain’t — because isn’t this too a human interpretation? I wouldn’t argue that skin isn’t skin, but I might argue that the distinction between organism and environment is a slippier one than the last couple hundred years have persuaded us it is…oh, and here we enter into my own personal Kuhnian craziness, so never mind, I’ll get to that later, but — inside/outside, hmmm. Of course where once we thought ourselves lonely mountains of identity, now we understand what’s inside our skin as being also inside the world, so…

    That Lens of yours is a charming thing — ha, I just read a couple of those books, appallingly influential and I mean that as it sounds…

    Okay, back soon!

  9. Okay. Briefly, about the Lens…

    It sounds like science fiction, but that may be a good thing: in principle I can’t think of any good reason why a sensory prosthetic couldn’t be crafted, although I think it would probably require a massive physical plant to make it run. And what an interesting experiment it would be! Albeit one where (it seems to me) the sensory “result” would be preconditioned: yes, we’d see mind in milkweed and mushrooms. Of course we would: if we meditate long enough we can see that already, after all. “See” it…and thus theorize profitably about it? Well, I can’t go too far down that path because it touches on story ideas in the works, but all we really need to do is look at Roger Penrose to see a physics justification for that seeing, without which it might just be classified as hallucination or religious epiphany: to understand consciousness as the interaction of brain with environment on the level of the quantum fizziness, as much as makes the fizziness consciousness’ most important raw ingredient — a consciousness field, that needs a particular sort of molecular tuner or collector, for which organic molecules are the best construction materials. As much as this idea of Penrose’s makes neo-materialists howl with rage, as far as I can see it contains no real outrages — it isn’t difficult to say, already, that consciousness is a function of spacetime, seeing as how it’s not hard to argue that any individual consciousness must depend on physical separation from the “mind” next to it. A rock may sit in the very surf of the consciousness field, without actually partaking of it much — meanwhile that same surf soaks the skins, and gets up the noses, of living organisms.

    But this is a model that it’s hard to make artificial consciousness out of, of course — and so it flies in the face of the materialist hope.

    Me, I don’t think it’s at all as crazy as some seem to think it. If we can tolerate speculation about holding wormhole mouths open with exotic matter (a truly mad thought!), then why can’t we tolerate calling the quantum vacuum the surf of consciousness?

    But, onward: the LHC is just a big machine, but in the neo-materialist imagination Big Machines are all that there is…so it’s no wonder those who can’t imagine holism and reductionism as anything but an opposition look to it to show that interpenetrative descriptions of Nature are unnecessary. I go back to the Higgs boson: mass as mere calculable “interaction”, like a stock market of bids and buys, that can be tracked? After Newton and Einstein playing so delicately with the idea of knowing the physical substrata through theory, this seems tremendously crude — like going to another country and declaring the local divinities there just “versions” of your own. De-emphasizing epiphenomena, de-empahasizing the complexity that simple interactions build up: “oh, all this needs is a different kind of field-stuff, with a different set of mediating particles.” To my mind, this is question-begging on a cosmological scale…and it certainly doesn’t allow any room for your wise observation that nature isn’t predominantly the land of Ideal Lattices. Huh, it’s a hint of Prigogine in there, isn’t it? So to the extent that the Higgs boson is dependent on the LHC to give it some traction, it betrays its fundamental inadequacy as a theory: to my mind, it’s at once a Hail Mary pass, and an attempt to move the goalposts at the same time. A way of saying look, there’s nothing wrong with the theory…it’s just that we have to find more exalted phenomena to apply it to. Now I’m not a rabid Popperian, but I’m enough of one to say that this is a damn waste of time and money — because we are not at the stage yet where anyone is talking about the desirability of using the LHC to weed out such theories, and so I suspect that if the Higgs boson finds no traction it will only be said that a yet bigger machine is needed, to supply it.

    But what are all these models of particle-reality for anyway? Hit a proton hard enough, and all kinds of weird charismatic fauna fall out of it…but so what? If string theory has an inarguable appeal, it’s just in saying that adding to the bestiary may not be quite the same thing as adding to our understanding; surely if there’s one thing the Higgs boson could never do, it’s get one inch closer to explaining the mystery of matter and motion. It’s like asking someone how leverage works, and having them tell you “because of the mechanical advantage”. Or, asking someone why objects at rest tend to remain at rest, and having them tell you “because of the inertia”? Obviously I am arguing that that’s exactly the maximum potential explanation that the Higgs field offers, a difference strictly of degree, and not at all of kind…

    Meanwhile string theory has its blind spot too, which is: so what are we supposed to do with all this “elegance”? What, finally, does it explain? Talk about Popper, I can’t even attack string theory, as I can the Higgs boson — we’re just not there yet at all. I can’t say more than “I’m unconvinced”. And is that physics? Clearly nothing that comes out of any LHC experiments is going to deflect the progress of stringiness one iota: even string-skeptics won’t get any ammunition out of the LHC. No one will even be able to insist that the LHC just isn’t good enough to prove/disprove it — we are, as I said, simply not there yet. Because, as I also said, what’s being looked for here is really your Option D: proof from outwith. So as long as LHC experiments fail to give us a comprehensive explanation of quantum gravity, for example — and it is not Deep Thought, it’s just a big particle accelerator, so it can’t — then there will be no effect whatever on the string family.

    So why even talk about it?

    Because both stringiness and the Higgs field are after something not quite as closely allied with what “physics” in general is after, as might be supposed on the basis of surface details. Physics and reductionism are allied in the effort to “drill down” into more fundamental explanations and isomorphisms, and at first blush what strings and Higgs want is that too…but there’s a place where their ambitions diverge, because what those latter searchers are after too is Simplicity Now!…Apocalypse Now, revelation now. String theory is obsessed with finding unity above all…well, they say that all the time, and in so many words!…and the Higgsites are after removing the biggest boulder that’s ever sat in physics’ stream, apparently because it irritates them to have to keep looking at it. And (at least to me) this does not seem like the spirit of investigation, this seems more like the wish to bridle the spirit of investigation: to pre-emptively abort the collision with a necessarily messy future physics that may eventually have no choice but to claim (for example, in Einstein’s phrase) that matter is subtle…or that meaning is somatic, if you’re a neuroscientist (I’d like to link that better, but I hope you take my meaning)…or indeed that out this way there’s a place where reductionism can explain no further without first going through an epistemological crisis.

    Therefore: let’s try some bigger machines, keep adding more water to the cake mix, etc. But I guess my contention is that the epistemological crisis can’t be averted this way.

    Sorry, that didn’t follow on very well from what you just said, Jonathan, so I guess I should come back in a while and take another run at it. I’ll wait a bit to see if your broadband has reappeared first, though!

  10. We’ve got a lot of balls in the air. Another fragment here.

    I think there is a certain fear among physicists; not that their pet theories are on the line, but the reverse, that the LHC won’t be able to test them. I mean what if, when the smoke clears, it’s all just more Standard Model stuff? What the string theorists and such are really afraid of, is that they’ve put all their effort into pure theory which can’t ever be tested. They really need something radically new, allowing them a better target to aim for.

    Okay, the Higgs. All right, I have seen something a bit Ptolemaic about it, I grant. It’s less jarring, perhaps, if you’ve wrestled with Quantum Field Theory a while, and are used to the idea of the electron picking up extra mass from all its potential (“virtual”) auxiliary arrangements of particles (“interactions with the vacuum”). I can see why QFT people would go for the Higgs as an explanation for why particle masses are what they are.

    I think the farthest-out thing I’d like to see from the LHC, would be CPT Symmetry Violation. I remember the shudder that went through the scientific press when Wang and Lee proved the violation of parity (P). What the particle physics community would like now would be CP (= T)violations which would explain why the universe is so biased against antimatter. But CPT is a foundation stone. If it goes, then either special relativity goes, or the whole QFT edifice does.

    I’ll be back on the mind-body tack in a while. Meaning one to several days.

  11. Whoops … that should have been Lee, Yang and Wu. The last being Madame Chien-Shiung Wu, she who said:

    “… it is shameful that there are so few women in science… In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments — yet she retains eternally feminine.”

    And of whom it was said:

    “She is a slave driver. She is the image of the militant woman so well known in Chinese literature as either empress or mother.”

    The woman rocks. I want to read her Mad Scientist’s Exposition. Anyway, she was the one who organized the crucial Cobalt-60 experiment that proved the upset of parity.

    Following up last fragment: it turns out there are people anticipating the LHC as a test of CPT symmetry … I think there’s probably someone covering almost every base.

    Going back a couple of steps. Suppose we could ask Newton, “What is mass really?”, he’d probably give the concept he wrote down in fact: – a hierarchy of ever-smaller, ever-lighter particles, bound by ever-stronger forces. Maybe terminating with atoms, or maybe not. Very prescient. Suppose we asked Einstein. He would have given his best guess, that in a complete general relativity it would turn out that some tiny regions of high curvature are stable, like solitons. There wouldn’t be any mass distinct from the twists and turns of the spacetime manifold.

    At least, they did have theories of matter consonant with their theories of motion. But the latter didn’t tell them how to test the former, other than to experiment at higher and higher energy.

    Ooops again. Café nearly closing. More soon.

  12. Mass, now. Exerts a force between separate masses (Newton)? Tells spacetime how to curve (Einstein)? Certainly very elegant answers. (“Elegance equals content over complexity.”) But what is it? And how does it work? Even admit these questions and you forfeit the elegance, because then you’re asking for an underlying structure and a mechanism. If so, I don’t think the Higgs is too Ptolemaic; anyway, it’s mainly a mechanism for calculating how much mass, not for accounting for it in principle.

    A deeper cutting question, which would affect principle, goes: Can we prove that the expectation value of mass in QFT calculations is identically equal to the GR stress-energy tensor?

    You’d expect the theoreticians to have answered that one conclusively, but as I understand it, there are problems. For one thing, QFT is defined on a flat spacetime. If we answer that the expectation value (let’s call it “Q-mass”) and the stress-energy value (“R-mass”) are the same, then we’ll have to do QFT in spacetime which obeys Einstein’s equation.

    The string theorists say they do it. They’ve been saying since 1984 that Einstein’s equation follows from strings. I haven’t set myself to following their reasoning, yet. I’d like to know what their theory of spacetime is.

    Now I can’t tell how likely LHC results are to make progress on this one. If we find evidence of a new force, acting like the intensified gravity which one theory predicts, that will be revolutionary. If the LHC only provides a more specific target for the string theorists to aim for, it will still be valuable.

  13. At least, they did have theories of matter consonant with their theories of motion. But the latter didn’t tell them how to test the former, other than to experiment at higher and higher energy.

    Well, I’m not sure we’re entitled to hope for anything more than that, really…and I’d quibble that any “test” of Einsteinian mass, no matter what energies are employed, would rely upon developing a coherent idea of what kind of observed phenomena would represent a defect (I tend to use “defect” interchangeably with “gap”) in the theory. So already right there, you have the ordinary bias of hypothesis creeping in (as of course it must, it must!), but then for me the question must follow: if you can’t test relativity without having a competing theory in hand as your instrument, then mustn’t the rigour of the test depend on the rigour of your hypothesis? Naturally there are always things to be found out from pure experimentation anyway, even without a scheme such as this, but if what’s wanted is to knock Queen Spacetime off her throne, in order to substitute King Particle, clearly mere “energy” isn’t enough to do the job. The mystery that stands behind “sufficiently high curvature = mass” remains a mystery, even if you say things about it like “mass is best understood informationally, as the product of particle interactions”. This is not quite the bridge between Einstein and Newton that many take it to be, I think — this doesn’t answer any “whys”, it’s just the road to solipsism. And I believe string theory arises to address that very inadequacy: because what strings do is replace the substratum completely, so that we can stop fiddling with it in the same old way. And doesn’t Higgs seem like a step backward, in this light? One theory says “let’s say we can understand mass basically as the effect of a force…if that’s true, then there must be a boson out there for it somewhere“…to me, that sounds a bit too much like just nailing stuff on top of other stuff in the hopes that the structure will get so big it’ll pull itself up

    Meanwhile the other theory says “if we just get rid of this fixation on particles, maybe we can get some real work done at the fundamental level.”

    Well, but that’s about as good a defence for strings as I can muster — unfortunately once you kick that door open, you’ve got a very wide-open door! Either one of these invites a Godelian critique of its aims: Higgs seems to strive for tidyness at the expense of explanatory power, while strings are wonderfully productive of explanation, but unfortunately soon depart from explaining anything we can actually see or touch. I mean, if I had to choose between one or the other, I’d choose string theory — Higgs seems to me (as I was saying before, way up there), like a stubbornly neo-materialist retort to complexity — oh, sure, well there must be a particle available to explain everything, I suppose! The “time” particle; the “soul” particle. Look, the gearing we have now works perfectly, you just have to commit to it more fully! Maybe I’m being unfair, but I don’t think so…broadly speaking, I think you can boil down cosmological enthusiasms into three parts: anthropic, mechanical, and intrinsic. Many-worlds is obviously the handiest example of the anthropic cosmological enthusiasm (although there are others — I seem to recall someone publishing something about a physical multiverse some time ago, like a bubbling pot of porridge, and the bubbles are “universes” rising out of the Universal Medium), basically as close as you can get to Option D without turning your physics into flat-out religion…meaning is “outwith”…meanwhile the mechanical cosmological enthusiasm is looking for an “invisible hand”, to prove complex phenomena subordinate to simple and readily-observable forces in a simple and readily-observable way…and finally the intrinsic cosmological enthusiasm is looking for a superior Elegance that drives simple forces and complex phenomena alike. Well, we know which one of these has been the dominant enthusiasm since Newton’s time! But QM’s given a lot of aid to both the mechanical and the anthropic enthusiasms over the last few decades, and I think they’d each like to make a real contest of it, at this point.

    I do an injustice to most scientists with this structure I’ve invented, I know. But I can’t help it, I’m suspicious of the overtones of “competition” I think I detect out there! And the idea that scientists operate inside a set of social rules, assumptions, and objectives isn’t a very controversial one anymore, I think…

    Oh dear, I’ve wandered from my point again.

    Let’s see…what was it…

    Ah. I was going to say something about Emily Noether and inertia, but exactly why I don’t remember…

    Running up on coffee time, must dash!

    More later!

  14. Ah, yes, Noether. Noether and symmetry, obviously — and among other things, an explanation for inertia that presages GR, and thus the benevolent rule of Queen Spacetime herself. Not to mention, a very “intrinsic” kind of cosmological insight: since Noether, how can we possibly abide a universe full of anisotropies?

    That’s my restatement of your “foundation stone”, kind of. Still, the problem here — it seems to me — is that as neat-o as it is to see symmetry and inertia connected, it’s still not a…um, a positive explanation of matter and motion. Constants are symmetries, fine, yes, YES! HALLELUJAH!…but in a way it leaves us no further ahead than Newton’s “black magic”. No further ahead than GR? Me, I’m a dedicated intrinsic: I love a Noether-flavoured explanation for why c is the value it is — i.e. it’s just another variety of “straight line” (Q: “why are straight lines straight? A: because they’ve got no reason to be anything else”) — but at the same time I want to look for the causes of symmetry itself…to be able to see, in a Feynmanesque way, the milling of symmetry. Often I play around with this by wondering if c extracts its value in km/s from the size of the universe…crazy things like that. Not that I think that daydream can stand up very well, but I just give the example to show my own bias. However, even as a flimsy daydream, in a world of cosmological inflation, quantum fizziness, and free-roaming black holes I think the idea of constants/symmetries as outputs can’t be considered utterly fantastic! After all we already know that Queen Spacetime’s cloak has threadbare patches in it, if not out-and-out tears…

    Still, without the cloak, we’ve got no protection from the elements. We must have symmetry, mustn’t we?

    But at the moment symmetry’s a rather embattled concept, I think. On to CPT: my intrinsic bias wants to know why the “extra transformation” exists in the Cobalt 60 experiment, and it’s not satisfied simply with finding a driver for the matter/antimatter imbalance. (Although that is undeniably cool.) So I would actually welcome some further evidence of CPT violation at this point, in fact I’m hoping for it…because it would be good to be forced to accept the thing that we now fearfully suspect anyway: that relativity and QM both contain within them the necessary implication of a successor theory.

    But of course the question is: which of these is to be master?

    Whew, talk about fragments! Apologies, Jonathan, I’m just spitting this out at the moment…but yeah, spitting or no spitting, is this not what’s largely taken to be “at stake”, in the operation of the LHC? Ammo for successor theories against their parent — and at the very limit of anticipation, the possibility of vindication/salvation for one successor at the expense of the other.

    But that’s all too political, for me: and I don’t believe Queen Spacetime can be dethroned so matter-of-factly. Because that would be easy, and if it were easy wouldn’t that mean that a critical step had been skipped? The step called why, obviously…

    Ooooooh, I should not write these things before having coffee.

  15. Also, I should probably beware of my infatuation with saying “Queen Spacetime” and “King Particle”…can’t help it though, oh no! I am digging my own metaphors too much…!

    I’ve long thought that the filmstrip of the universe doesn’t run backwards properly in the vicinity of a black hole, by the way…

  16. Well, if nothing else, we’ve established that we’ve both covered the usual physics topics, and several of the philosophical ones.

    My pessimistic worry: LHC makes no difference. (The headline no pop science mag wants to print, huh?) That is, the results are just more Standard Model, with nothing new and conclusive enough to justify further efforts. And no guiding stars for the quantum gravity guys either.

    The last stand of Big Science. And this as the US space program faces compounded US financial crises. It would be formidable – as the combination of Challenger and the abandonment of the Superconducting Supercollider was. It could mean widespread disenchantment with the whole strain of 20th Century exploratory science. (Which some would cheer, not without reason, but not me.)

    That’s what’s at stake. Now I’m a bit more optimistic that that. I think there will be enough new physics in the results to keep us all excited; and who knows, the headlines might read, new particle, new force, new theory!

    But that’s the ignoble public relations angle, isn’t it? Between us, the real common concern seems to be something like this: This expansion of high-energy particle physics is having the claim made for it, that its latest results will be the final breakthrough; validating supersymmetry, string theory, or the Theory of Everything in one form or another. But dammit – HEP is a kludge! Not a theory. The only theory it could be is quantum field theory – and QFT isn’t even formulated on a rigorous basis, as its experts often lament. In its predictive arsenal, it has too many equations that just happen to work, with no adequate justification. So any layman who starts to do their homework can see that there is still a long way to go before this strain of experiment makes any contact with the TOE ontology (whatever that may be).

    So it is cleaner not to oversell the LHC results in advance. The TOE – Now!!! is not necessarily on the cards this time, and Science will not have come to a dead end just because we don’t get the TOE this time.

    Which is more public relations thinking; sorry. Now I’m going away for a few hours, and having a think about the real question: What principles would we demand to be taken account of, in a decent summary of results?

    Well, for one thing: Noether; and therefore, Hamilton. In the new trail of theory that’s supposed to be blazed by the LHC, what is the status of the Principle of Least Action? And how is the quantity Action now to be defined?

    Deep into the fundermould of the complicatin’ forry…

  17. Deep into the fundermould of the complicatin’ forry…

    Hey, I don’t know that one! What is it?

    And: just more Standard Model, out of the LHC? I’m hopeful that won’t be the case — I mean, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that we’re going to get some unexpected data shaking out of this Big Machine enterprise. A little Michaelson-Morley for the QFT set, maybe! We need something like that, I think: if there’s one thing there’s no doubt about, it’s that this isn’t The End Of Science (though you wouldn’t know that from some), and that there will be a successor theory, one of these days. I’m just hoping that it’s once again a theory who’s basic elegance is visual…I’ve been known to bang on a fair bit about the Realism at the heart of relativity and the Romanticism at the heart of QM…about how the key insights of QM, like those of its literary protege Deconstruction, are structured around <auditory processing instead of visual processing…and though I’ll admit the connection’s perhaps a bit tenuous, I haven’t yet encountered any really good reason to give up thinking it’s there. Here’s some RADICAL post-Kuhnianism for you, Jonathan: paradigm shifts have a sensory component. Right now we’re on our way to a tactile cosmology — effervescent vacuum that makes God’s nose sting like Coca-Cola, forces that push, particles that carve out new space from a 5D Aristotelian Bulk. We’re about to be past all the muttering about mirrors and reflections — through the looking-glass, if you will…!

    Okay, that’s probably just the wine talking.

    But man, we need some new data. One almost can’t help but admire string theory’s willingness to abandon itself to tactile notions (picture an animation: the big ghostly hands of God lazily wrapping string around His forefinger, giving it a flick, and sending each coiled piece vibrating off into the Cosmic Dark like a Glo-Stik firefly…oh no, that’s the wine again), but as I said, unlike you I don’t think there’s anything that can possibly come out of the LHC that will affect stringiness one way or the other…everything will be hailed as a vindication by the few, and a non-result by the many. I would be SHOCKED to hear of any validation for the Higgs, and decidedly un-shocked to hear of a thorny CPT problem arising from the LHC’s results — I mean we are living in one of those times where the End Of Science is busy being foretold, are we not? History therefore instructs us to prepare for an experimental result so fundamentally irreconcilable with our present theory that it smashes it to bits. Personally I feel like we’ve had that already, but too many people are unwilling to look at it: fundamental objections like EPR (still a paradox, no matter how current dogma tries to hang a lantern on it), or Godel’s interpretation of GR (indeed, Godel’s interpretation of what an axiom is) have been effectively whisked aside Scarlett O’Hara style…but if we consult Kuhn, we see that’s to be expected. Smashing comes later, after the groundwork’s been laid.

    Sigh. But I guess maybe I don’t expect the Smashing Result just yet, now that I think about it with my Social Scientist hat on my head. Surely a better Model’s a more resistant Model, and after all part of the smashing must come from the inside, not just the outside.

    Okay, more wine: I’m not making little enough sense, yet.

  18. Deep into the fundermould of the complicatin’ forry…

    Hey, I don’t know that one! What is it?

    Aha. That is out of “Happiness Stan”, from Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake – perhaps the apex of the nursery rhyme sensibility in Swinging London rock’n’roll. As spoken by the unaccountable Stanley Holloway, who holds a minor place in my collection of the Great British Nonsense Men from Lear to Python.

    I grant that strings might be too low-level to touch with these trifling energies. Tho’, if so then there’s a remarkable gap between the forces we see – which span energy ranges far broader than any family of particles – and those which can be derived from string theory (i.e. a handful of obscure possibilities out of a multitude of possible vacua).

    This, by the way, brings up one of those features which gives me a rash, that is the invocation of broken symmetry, seemingly ad hoc. Possibly I don’t understand its proper use, but it seems to be used without providing a mechanism. If anything is going to be changing the nature of the vacuum, then don’t we need some explicit degrees of freedom for a vacuum dynamics? And don’t we ever worry that one of the things we could materialize in a particle collision is a region of vacuum which breaks the other way? (Come to think of it, yes we do. People talk about “domain boundaries”, such as cosmic strings, which might be left over from the Big Bang. Would be great to start getting these from the LHC.

    Fashions in theory from sensual metaphors? Well, I did launch into my own mind-body thing by placing Self right where the senses come in. That was trying to define what sort of reality could be said to be “ensouled” on clear evidence. When I try to generalize it to the whole universe, though, the best I can offer is that everything is dialectic of separation and communication; so, if the QM/GR/thermodynamic detente is going to break, it will break in terms of defining what kinds of “thing” can be separated or coupled.

    Lee Smolin has been stating things in those terms – event horizons, the “holographic principle”, and some ruminations I just don’t get, about how different observers are limited in their ability to deduce the same past. Dunno, yet.

    Thinking about Noether and Action. One of the neatest things I’ve seen was Feyman’s sum-over-histories: the most likely trajectory for a system to take is then one that satisfies the Least Action principle, because it’s the one where neighbouring alternatives reinforce rather than cancelling out. Aesthetically, I want that still to be true, but I can’t see it in Smolin (et Penrose et al)s’ ensembles of alternative spin graphs. If we’re going to recast dynamics, I want to keep Noether and Feynman, or else get something as comprehensible.

    And I’d like to keep QM in some form. I too have a romantic slant on it – I think that anything which can encompass

    both the discrete and the continuous

    both the local and the global

    both the predictable and the random

    and both the actual and the possible

    is telling us something too deep to relinquish, when it comes to casting round for new dynamics.

    Till later, possibly several days. Do tell me when you’ve had enough of this; I’m still having fun, but seem to be getting further from conclusions.

  19. I will pick up some of these themes, before long. I’m afraid just now my serious-thoughts theatre is being taken up with some high-anxiety math and coding stuff. But online soon, I think.

    Now that we’ve beaten the bounds of the territory a bit, do you think the same about the LHC, particle physics in general, and okay, the theoretical scene, in terms of honest and hard, Einstein-level re-conception?

    My feeling is that we (in general) still haven’t properly digested special relativity and quantum mechanics. There may yet be something (Noetherian?) about dividing the world into Past, Future and Meanwhile, which we haven’t expressed, because being in someone else’s Meanwhile is uncomfortably like being in someone else’s past. Or because as far as I can see it, Meanwhile on Mars is part of the world wavefunction which we haven’t collapsed, and is full of the superimposed worldlines of cats live and dead.

    Do we yet possess a vocabulary for things like the “holographic principle” they talk about? Assuming I’m on the right track with my “dialectic of separation and communication”, if we were to see evidence of some new kind of communication, or separation, would we recognize it and be able to describe it?

  20. I think more likely we’d see something that just doesn’t compute, period. Like you say about needing rules for vacuum dynamics — I would be unsurprised to see something that just plain appears to violate the hell out of our (necessary) established symmetries. Something to put the cat so thoroughly among the pigeons, that they can’t just claim it’s yet another type of pigeon. But, if it comes down, it cannot and I expect will not be a simple matter: if you look at how deeply and how desperately broken symmetries obsess us now, I think with your Social Scientist hat on your head you must find it all quite suspicious…why the absolute panic about it all? Only because without symmetry-breaking there is no excuse to think a TOE must be imminent, you see? So, yes, I agree with you, I definitely don’t think we’ve even thoroughly digested SR, yet. Let alone QM. I don’t even see anyone working on this from a serious philosophical intention, and that is a huge blind spot: a huge giveaway about intention, I believe. And, why are we even talking about any TOEs, when even the cosmological recessional velocity is in question? I don’t know, as appealing as a holographic universe is, I just can’t credit it with too much coolness at the moment…I would have rather not heard of it until there was something approaching evidence for it, actually.

    I think the point is that we must have some things intact, to argue about: Noether, Einstein, Heisenberg, Feynman, Gell-Mann, Hawking, etc. Our key arguments seem to be centred on coupling, irreversibility, virtuality, and symmetry…but of course an argument must be more than just two people holding their ground, or even reversing themselves. I’ll go along with the dialectic of separation and communication, for sure: but perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s so dialectical

    Um, time for a beer. More later! I think I may have just repeated myself, there…

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