"Shut Up and Calculate" Bad Mojo

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Success in Circuit lies...

Tell all the truth but tell is slant - Emily Dickinson

Sean Carroll would like his fellow physicists to stop belittling philosophy.

Stephen Hawking believes philosophy is dead, an opinion shared by compatriot Lawrence Krauss, who says that introspection alone "is incapable of addressing... the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence." Neil deGrasse Tyson recently wondered aloud in this podcast about the contribution of philosophy to science. Do philosophers, he asks, really "believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature?"

Entering the fray, Carroll has had his say at Preposterous Universe, suggesting that the benefits of "shut up and calculate" only extend so far, at least if one's goal is a deeper understanding of the world at hand. Naturalists should stop saying "silly things" about philosophy. Carroll:

The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.

I certainly haven't the faintest idea what collapsing wave functions actually are or how they capture reality, or what further insight might lead science there, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone outside physics offers up that vital lead.

It seems to me that the charge made against philosophers could be made against librettists, against poets. They are members of one-half of two indissoluble domains, one imaginative and introspective, relying the belief that our private thoughts correspond to the world as it is (and, in point of fact, often wrong in that belief) and appealing to the wholly subjective and singular individual experience, the other with demonstrable third-party access to nature, which can describe matter on vanishingly small scales and use Newton's mechanics to guide metals among Saturn and its moons.

But the observed and transmitted reality of nature, is, after all, observed and transmitted by humans, biological paupers, the nervy embodiment of ancient metallic rains. It is staggering to me that the inheritors of those rains can fashion the remaining littered material into reporting automa, sending machines back to the void billions of years later with questions, questions, questions.

We understand everything in terms of other things. We also know the things that we know, which is the difference between your intelligence and the intelligence of the silicon ordinator you are using to read this blog post. The phenomenal "collapse" of innumerable neural connections in our brains and bodies that produces the experience of the color red is another data point added to red's chroma in a Jackson Pollock painting or its shift as it would appear on an astronomer's spectrographic prints. The sight of a bed of nodding roses, or the scent of orchard pears, or the felt embrace of a child, is absolutely singular. When we describe these things to each other we describe what these things are like, not, materially, what they are. With all due respect to Krauss, the problem is one of translation, not transcription. I can scarcely imagine how an intelligent entity without self-report might meaningfully address the perplexities. Yes, there are immensities folded into wave functions. There are infinities in your private experience.

And yet, I know. The truthers are out there. Notwithstanding my objections to to the objections of materialists, spare me the Moon landing hoaxers and climate-change deniers. Their potted minds grow nothing. "Shut up and calculate" is bad mojo for the same reason all absolutes are corrigible. Any conclusion that sums to "nothing but" should let you know that nothing, eventually, is on offer if what one seeks is understanding.

Carroll touches on an interesting philosophical question near the end of the video posted here, which was recorded just after his IdeaFestival presentation on the arrow of time: since time and space can be traced back to the Big Bang, is asking "what happened before the Big Bang" really nonsense? Is it really like asking "what's north of the North Pole?" Cosmologists, he says, are increasingly investigating scenarios that could make sense of the question. While it's true that a philosopher is unlikely to mathematically theorize about the possibilities, or propose an experiment that might offer empirical hints, she can still raise deep questions. She might, for example, ask if science is capable of proving that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Unlike, Hawking, Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I certainly have my doubts.

Stay curious.