The articles and essays in this blog range from the short to the long. Many of the posts are also introductory (i.e., educational) in nature; though, even when introductory, they still include additional commentary. Older material (dating back mainly to 2005) is being added to this blog over time.
Thursday, 21 September 2017
The Scientific Problem with Panpsychism & String Theory (With Lee Smolin) (1)
words “string theory” are used in the following. One of Lee
Smolin's main arguments is that there are many string theories. Not
surprisingly, some/many string theorists dispute that.]
Smolin's book book, The
Problem With Physics,
upon in all the parts of this piece .It's
relied upon because Smolin's views parallel (at least in part) my own
on panpsychism. However, I certainly wouldn't have relied on
Smolin's book if it weren't for his strong and detailed emphasis on
string theory. It's this emphasis on string theory which ties in
strongly with my own positions against panpsychism.
personally don't have a firm position on string theory. I certainly
don't adopt Smolin's strictly scientific positions on it. That's
primarily because any position (at least of a scientific nature) on string theory must – almost of necessity - involve complex
mathematics. Yet I'm neither a mathematician nor a physicist. Indeed
I'm not even an “amateur expert” on string theory. However, it's
also the case that nothing said in the following depends on my
knowing the complex mathematics required for string theory.
Everything I say should stand without such scientific and
mathematical knowledge. Despite saying that, I'm well aware of
the possible objections – from string theory acolytes
- to my position. Smolin himself brings up such objections. He
theorists prefer to believe that string theory is too arcane to be
understood by human beings.... One recent posting on a physics blog
laid this out beautifully: 'We can't expect a dog to understand
quantum mechanics, and it may be that we are reaching the limit of
what humans can understand about string theory. Maybe there are
advanced civilizations out there to whom we appear as dogs do to us,
and maybe they have figured out string theory well enough to have
moved to a better theory...'...”
Czech string theorist (or perhaps I should say physicist),
Luboš Motl, even comes
close to saying all this (in his review
Problem With Physics)
about Smolin himself. He
statements [of Smolin] are of mathematical nature, we are sure that
Lee is wrong even in the absence of any experiments.”
if some string theorists believe that Smolin is an (mathematical) “outsider”,
then you can be sure that they think the same about everyone else on
the outside. As Smolin puts it:
“The views of
outsiders must be disregarded because outsiders are not skilled
enough in the tools of the trade to evaluate evidence and pass , of
insider-outsider situation is also, of course, the case with
philosophers; as well as with all other specialists (or professionals). And
in both the case of string theorists and philosophers (perhaps also
panpsychists), there's much justification for this insider-outsider mismatch.
that, string theorists still find themselves in an extremely neat and convenient
position. That position is expressed by William Poundstone in his book, Labyrinths
(Poundstone puts thequandary
the mouth of Sherlock Holmes.) Thus:
“'I subscribe to
several esoteric journals to ease the tedium of the apiarist's life.
I was reading in one of them that William Shanks, a mathematician of
our fair island, has recently computed pi
to 707 decimal places. It took him twenty years. His result filled a
whole page with quite senseless, random numbers. Should anyone doubt
Mr. Shank's result, he would have to budget an equal amount of time
and duplicate his work. In that case also, verifying the answer would
be precisely as difficult as coming up with the answer in the first
place – the very antithesis of an obvious solution.'....”
Holmes, of course, was a layperson when it comes to higher
mathematics. However, even within mathematics and mathematical
physics, some such professionals are essentially laypersons
when it comes to the domain of string theory. Indeed, if we split
string theory up into its many sections, then some string theorists will be (almost) laypersons when
it comes to the work of other string theorists.
course what's been said is also partly true of all physics. That is,
the entirety of physics includes mathematics which laypersons won't understand. Nonetheless, such areas of physics don't
– one can argue – suffer from the same problems which string
theory faces (i.e., the problems discussed in this piece).
said all the above, and also having read The
Problem With Physics,
I'm still not entirely sure what Lee Smolin's final stance on string
theory actually is. Obviously it's true that he has very big problems
with it. (E.g., the fact that it offers
no predictions; has no experimental input; has no precise mathematical formula
which is systematic and works for all string theories; has an
unhealthy academic hegemony; etc.) Though, despite that, Smolin also
seems to argue that string theory may well still be
true/correct/accurate. He definitely does say – in accordance with
his Feyerbendian theoretical pluralism (see later) – that string
theory has both a value and an important role to play in physics.
Indeed he spends much time making precisely that point.
also stresses his string-theory credentials. For example, he writes:
“.... there have
been periods when I avidly believed in string theory and devoted
myself to solving its key problems. While I didn't solve them, I
wrote eighteen papers in the subject...”
relevantly to this piece, Smolin says:
“Nor am I for
anything except science, or against
except that which threatens science.”
quote gets to the heart of the matter. Smolin believes that string
theory is, in many ways, unscientific; or, at the least,
non-scientific (see later). This is where philosophy comes in. That
is, in order to claim that x
is non-scientific, one has to advance philosophical arguments in
order to justify that claim.
sum up Smolin's positions on string theory, it can be said that his
two main (scientific) claims are the following:
i) String theory
makes no testable predictions.
ii) String theory
has no accepted or systematic mathematical formulation. (This claim
is far less relevant to this piece.)
it's of course ironic that in the review of The
Trouble With Physics mentioned
earlier, Luboš Motl
also turns on Smolin's claim that string theory is non-scientific by
saying that "the concentration of irrational statements and
anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations”.
Motl's hyperbolic statement, and as previously said, Smolin also says
that string theory may still be at least partly true/correct/accurate
without thereby also abiding by (all of?) science's rules... That's
if science has any rules! I make this point because there's an entire
chapter (called 'What
in Smolin's book which is devoted to Paul Feyerabend . This American/Austrian
philosopher” rejected the very existence of a “scientific
method”. He also argued that it would be counterproductive for
science even if it the scientific method did exist. And Smolin seems
to at least partly endorse Feyerabend's position. This, at least
seems to work against Smolin's strong position
on string theory's non-scientific nature. Indeed, when speaking
against string theory, he does so by saying that it goes against thescientific
method. (Incidentally, Motl too says that Smolin is both "anti-scientific" and "against the scientific method".) For example, this is Smolin on Fotini Markopoulou's results
on quantum gravity. He writes:
it shows promise of leading to unique predictions, which will either
be in agreement with experiment or not. Most important, this
obviates the need to revise the scientific method.... Science done
the old-fashioned way is moving ahead.”
course it may simply be the case that Smolin accepts Feyerabend's
theoretical pluralism (or theoretical “anarchism”) and rejects
his positions on the scientific method itself.
The relevant - and obvious - point here is that panpsychism is
a philosophical theory; whereas string theory is part of science.
Nonetheless, some of the philosophical (i.e., not scientific) problems
which both face are very similar.
any case, panpsychist philosophers don't claim that panpsychism is a
science or even that it's scientific.
philosophy itself isn't a science. And that must mean that
panpsychism isn't a science.
many panpsychists (as do various “analytic
claim that panpsychism must still be beholden to science.
Alternatively, they say that it shouldn't (directly) contradict
anything in science. (David Chalmers, for example, classes himself as
a “naturalist” - actually, he calls his position “naturalistic
Indeed because panpsychism deals with “intrinsic natures”, then - almost by definition - it can be said that it can't contradict anything in physics.
this parallels – at least to some extent - the Wittgensteinian
claim that science and religion don't contradict each other because
they're dealing with different phenomena. (Alternatively,
Wittgensteinians claim that science and religion sometimes deal with
the same phenomena; though in different ways.) Thus science and
religion are – in the language of Steven Jay Gould -
(There will be more on the overlapping-worlds idea later.) This may
also mean that panpsychism and physics are non-overlapping worlds.
And, if that's the case, then how they they contradict one another?
other point which has to be made is that the scientific criticisms of
panpsychism can also be applied to many other philosophical theories.
Indeed the entirety of metaphysics can be said - and has been said - to be suspect from a
scientific point of view (at least according to some scientists).
Thus panpsychism's relationship with science is far from being
Yet philosophy can indeed be
rather than simply non-scientific.
So is panpsychism unscientific or non-scientific? What about string
theory? Is it – at least partly - unscientific or is it
simple - and perhaps naive - example of this problem relates to the
question as to what is and what isn't observable. If what can be
observed – or can be in observed “in principle” (as it's often
put) – is ignored or rejected, then that would be an unscientific
position to take. However, even within science many things are unobservable (e.g., quarks, protons, the iron core at the center of theearth,
distant galaxies, fields and forces, etc.). Some things are even
past, numbers, laws, universals,perhaps
minds, etc.). That clearly has relevance to both string theory and
in terms of most/all of the claims of metaphysics (even those claims
about things which are observable): they're still primarily about
things which aren't observable.
a quote from the English philosopher C.D. Broad will help here. (As
found in his paper, 'Philosophy',
in Inquiry I.) Thus:
distinguish between being non-scientific and being un-scientific.
What I have admitted is that philosophy is a subject which is almost
certainly of its very nature non-scientific. We must not jump from
this purely negative statement to the conclusion that it has the
positive defect of being unscientific. The latter term can be
properly used only when a subject, which is capable of scientific
treatment, is treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the
principles of scientific method.”
Very controversially, it must be said here that Broad might well have had telekinesis,
mind-reading and even backwards causation in mind when he wrote the
above. That alone shows us how problematic the distinction between x
being unscientific and x
being non-scientific is. That is, that distinction may simply allow
too much even when it comes to what's non-scientific: never mind
any case, if we forget telekinesis and mind-reading, it's feasible
that both string theory and panpsychism can be non-scientific without
also being unscientific. However, there's an obvious difference. As
stated, string theory is a science and panpsychism isn't. Thus if
string theory is either
non-scientific or unscientific, then that's a problem. Panpsychism, on the other hand, is only problematic if it's unscientific.
Thus if we say that panpsychism is non-scientific (to quote Broad
again), “[w]e must not jump from this purely negative statement to
the conclusion that it has the positive defect of being
unscientific”. The same can't
also be said of string theory.
last statement from Broad is very helpful in this context. Let me
“The latter term
['unscientific'] can be properly used only when a subject, which is
capable of scientific treatment, is treated in a way which ignores or
conflicts with the principles of scientific method.”
means that if panpsychism deals with a subject “which is capable of
scientific treatment” (and which “is [also] treated in a way
which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific
method”), then we may have a philosophical problem. (We certainly
do if we're naturalists.) The point here is that panpsychists will
simply claim that panpsychism – or at least most/all of the claims
from panpsychists – have nothing whatsoever to do “with the
principles of scientific method”. Philosophers may again claim –
in the Wittgensteinian sense - that panpsychism and science are
That claim, however, may be both too convenient and simply false.
After all, take the following:
states that there are no “intrinsic natures” (certainly if it
claims that micro-entities don't have “phenomenal properties”),
ii) then panpsychism
does indeed “conflict with the principles” of physics.
problem is, however, that some/many panpsychists claim that physics
intrinsic natures. That is, it has no position on them. As the
philosopher Philip Goff puts
[panpsychist] argument presses us to the conclusion that there must
be more to physical entities than what they do: physical things must
also have an ‘intrinsic nature’...”
elsewhere he says:
“... given that
physics is restricted to telling us only about the behaviour of
physical entities – electrons, quarks and indeed spacetime itself –
it leaves us completely in the dark about their intrinsic nature.
Physics tells us what matter does, but not what it is.”
on the other hand, will simply claim that intrinsic natures don't
exist. Thus we can conclude
by saying that physics as a whole – as stated - doesn't have a
universal or systematic position on intrinsic natures (or on
also means that if science/physics has no problem with panpsychism
(or even accepts the fruitfulness of research into it), then that
would also fit in well with Smolin's Feyerabendian theoretical
what about string theory and the non-scientific/unscientific
can say that because of the current state of play, many of the claims
and theories of string theory aren't (to use Broad's words again)
“capable of scientific treatment”. (Though not only for reasons of the
brought about by deficiencies of contemporary technology.)
Nonetheless, that doesn't necessarily also mean that string theory
also “conflicts with the principles of science”. Of course it can
now be said that if string theory's claims aren't capable of scientific treatment,
then how can they also be scientific? Though this, of course, would
also render very many 19th and 20th century theories (in physics) and statements (from
physicists) non-scientific. That is, many claims and theories were
made before the evidence or experiments were in. Does that mean that
such claims or theories were non-scientific or even unscientific? If the
experiments and evidence came to be available, then surely we can't say that
such claims and theories were unscientific. Thus they were non-scientific, rather than
unscientific. Indeed perhaps they weren't even non-scientific: they
might have simply been (as it were) protoscientific.