Physicist Adam Frank: The closer you look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to r

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Sciborg_S_Patel

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The closer you look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground

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Adam Frank

is professor of astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York and the co-founder of NPR's blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture where he is also a regular contributor. He is the author of several books, the latest being About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang (2011).
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When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo’.

It’s hard not to feel the intuitional weight of today’s metaphysical sobriety. Like Pickett’s Charge up the hill at Gettysburg, who wants to argue with the superior position of those armed with ever more precise fMRIs, EEGs and the other material artefacts of the materialist position? There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#2
Some other essays by Adam Frank:

Has Physics Gotten Something Really Important Really Wrong?


...Even the laws of physics themselves must be subject to change. That is the most radical of Unger and Smolin's radical ideas.

Developing an account of how the laws of physics change, however, also means understanding how it must all play out as a one-time history. From their perspective, physicists can't imagine the universe as one of a vast "ensemble" of universes where different "structural" options (different laws) can be explored. Instead, the Cosmos happened just once and it led to what we are today.

As Unger and Smolin put it: "Cosmology must be a historical science if it is to be a science at all: a historical science first, a structural science only second, not the other way around."

This emphasis on the reality of time takes Unger and Smolin into new and interesting philosophical territory...

Was Einstein Wrong?


For Bergson, and others at the time, there was a difference between the mathematical physics/data and the higher-order interpretation — the philosophy — you glued on it. It's in this way that Einstein could be right and wrong at the same time. He is clearly right about the science, but he could be wrong about the interpretation of time attached to that science.

Now, what are we to make of Bergson's claims?

I don't know enough about Bergson's explicit philosophy of time to take a stand one way or another, but I do think his separation between valid scientific theories and the metaphysics that grows around them is worth considering.

The physicist David Mermin once pointed out that we physicists have a way of turning our mathematical equations into "things" existing in the world. We take their success at describing aspects of the world (like the behavior of read-outs in an experiment) to mean the equations are fully interchangeable for real things (often unseen) existing out there independently in the real world.

But for Mermin, the equations are always abstractions. They are immensely powerful and immensely useful stories we tell about the world that capture some essential truth but not all truth.

And in spite of what one may think of Bergson's specific ideas about time as an "elan vital" driving life and evolution forward, there are other philosophical perspectives that take experience to be irreducible.
A Resources thread on Bergson can be found here.
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
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#3
This is, of course, all very interesting. But I'm not sure how appeal to complexity helps any other metaphysical proposals.

"From their perspective, physicists can't imagine the universe as one of a vast "ensemble" of universes where different "structural" options (different laws) can be explored. Instead, the Cosmos happened just once and it led to what we are today."

I don't think that's a correct statement of physicist's thoughts on the matter.

~~ Paul
 
#4
This is, of course, all very interesting. But I'm not sure how appeal to complexity helps any other metaphysical proposals.

"From their perspective, physicists can't imagine the universe as one of a vast "ensemble" of universes where different "structural" options (different laws) can be explored. Instead, the Cosmos happened just once and it led to what we are today."

I don't think that's a correct statement of physicist's thoughts on the matter.

~~ Paul
Explain why
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#7
The quote is:

"From their perspective, physicists can't imagine the universe as one of a vast "ensemble" of universes where different "structural" options (different laws) can be explored. Instead, the Cosmos happened just once and it led to what we are today."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse

~~ Paul
I feel like you are mistaking what the "their" I put in bold refers to? Their refers to Smolin & Unger, not to physicists as a general category.

It's not descriptive of the nature of physicists, it's the assertion of Smolin and Unger.
 
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