For those who followed the long debate about quantum mechanics and the paradigm shift from Newtonianism to the post-Einstein world of physics that I proposed in Part 4 of my opening lit theory lecture, I’d like to recommend David Lindley’s book on QM and on the emergence of “decoherence” as the current standard interpretation. (That discussion follows Part 4 under Pages.)
Lindley seems (to me) to line up precisely with what Gavin tried to explain to us more recently, about why decoherence is “in” and David Bohm’s hidden variables theory is “out.” He explains the history of QM and the Copenhagen interpretation in its original form (Niels Bohr) and in its current form, updated with decoherence. I now understand why working physicists don’t expect a deeper underlying theory to emerge here to account for the seeming anomalies of QM. I see how and why these QM problems aren’t like the late 19th-century “anomalies” that led to Planck’s constant and a whole new theory (special relativity). So this helps me with Roger Penrose too.
I will try to post some excerpts here, because, as Gavin struggled valiantly to do, Lindley responds to the more philosophical questions we all have about QM and in the process manages to account for the working QM physicist’s disquiet with the way that we “innumerate humanists” seem to be running away with QM implications in half-baked ways….
Lindley is not argumentative or polemical and his accounts are amazingly readable. He manages to be explanatory on a high level in a manner graspable by the reader who is not up to all of the intricate mathematics. Most of all, he fills in for us with perspectives and outlooks that speak to the inevitable philosophical questions that humanists and theists will have.
For instance, I now understand that Niels Bohr did seem to suggest a certain mysticism about QM “measurement” (as I thought I had learned 15 years ago) but that it is no longer applicable today, because quantum decoherence expands “measurement” to being a constant natural process in the physical world.
I think everyone should read this book (instead of those Stanford Philosophical articles so dissed by Gavin!) Thanks to Jennifer for this recommendation!
9 thoughts on “David Lindley’s “Where Does the Weirdness Go?””
I’m glad you found LIndley’s book useful. It clarified several difficult issues in QM for me when I first encountered it several years ago… :)
I really see why you recommended it, Jennifer. It has helped me more than any other published source.
For what it’s worth, I should note that Lindley seems to agree implicitly with Gavin and others who’ve commented here that while QM is weird (“but not as weird as you think”), on the other hand special relativity is not weird but even quite classical.
So most physicists do actually “get” relativity — get their heads around it comfortably so that it isn’t paradoxical, I guess.
However, Lindley upholds my historical sense of the depth of the shock of QM to classical physicists. And the depth of the philosophical questions QM raises but cannot answer, even though at the same time he heads us off from taking certain tacks. His even-handedness is really admirable, I think. But so is his clarity, combined with his philosophical sensitivity.
I don’t think that anyone was arguing that QM and relativity were not shocking. What makes scientists uncomfortable is when non-scientists who don’t understand the science take the implications of QM and relativity too far and make statements that are exaggerated, misleading, or simply wrong. Even someone like Janet, who is better informed, has made some statements that I and others didn’t agree with.
I finished reading Lindley’s “Where Does the Weirdness Go?” about a week ago, before being distracted by Thanksgiving break to comment on it. Lindley explained some of the important topics very clearly and made very good points about their implications. I liked that he articulated things that I wanted to say (to Janet) but was not able to do due to lack of writing skills or expertise in QM. I think it is a nice book to clear a lot of misunderstandings about QM. And it’s great that it worked for Janet.
On the other hand, I don’t think I learned anything new from reading this book. In particular, I was disappointed by his treatment of decoherence. I was expecting to gain a better understanding of decoherence, but it didn’t present anything deeper than what I already had in my mind. I was surprised that he likes decoherence yet is dismissive about the many-worlds interpretation. It’s not that I necessarily support the many-worlds interpretation, but I had thought that the many-worlds view is gaining more popularity among physicists because of decoherence. That was the impression I got from reading the July 5 issue of Nature, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the many-worlds interpretation, and also what Gavin was arguing. Lindley’s treatment of decoherence was also different from his treatments of other topics. On other topics, Lindley gave historical background including who originated the idea and how it was accepted. But for decoherence, he didn’t mention any names and treated as if it is a widely accepted idea, even though he mentions the existence of its critics in “Bibliography and notes.”
Now, it is interesting to talk about Bohm’s theory, as it is a topic that came up in our conversation recently and Janet should have a better idea about it after reading Lindley’s book. It is possible to preserve “determinism” in QM the way Bohm did. But most physicists don’t find it attractive. You might be able to call it “determinism”, but it is a departure from determinism in the classical sense. And it has a disadvantage of making the theory messy. The important thing is that the QM world is different from the classical world and manipulating the theory the way Bohm did does not change that fact. And I wonder how your effort to preserve “god” differs in spirit from Bohm’s futile effort to preserve “determinism.” The fact is that the world view we have now is different from that of early Christians. You seemed to argue that the open-mindedness of ancient Greeks (and somehow also of early Christians?) was superior to the Cartesian view and in more accord with QM and relativity, but I think that is giving too much credit to the Greeks (and Aristotle was spectacularly wrong) while not giving enough credits to the people like Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, not to mention many scientists in the last few centuries.
Perhaps I should also say something about Endo’s Silence. But seeing the kind of things that are being discussed there, I don’t think I belong.
Hi, how lovely to hear from you!
I’m composing some detailed responses to the important issues you raise. Thanks soo much!
As for Silence, I’m still hoping to hear from various readers about what other journeys through the book were like, including different ones from the ones theists not born in Japan might have, and reactions to how Inoue views Japan…. (And I’m really curious if the two fathers seemed different to all of you out there, at the end, or not?)
Hi, I think you are right in your caveats about David Lindley’s treatment of decoherence. Lindley did help me to understand decoherence better, but nothing he said suggests in any way why decoherence would cause physicists to tend toward the “many worlds” interpretation, as Gavin for instance clearly does. Lindley has written a more recent book on the historical QM controversy as it unfolded over those crucial decades in the 20s and 30s and 40s, which I haven’t read, and which got very mixed reviews and was criticized for not treating the theories deeply enough. I wonder if anyone else has read it?
As for your deeper questions, I’m almost done with my response, and also, I still want to get back to Maria’s insistence on discussing the ways in which linguistically-named “things” such as electrons or John McCain “exist” — topics closely related in my mind to Hi’s challenges and to the fundamental question (for me) of how human beings come to know things and the vision of the arts & sciences….
Oh, one other note. When Hi says that “no one is saying QM wasn’t shocking,” I have to mention that Gavin and David and others actually were very critical of my characterization of relativity and QM as being shocking and revolutionary, in the discussion of Part 4 of my literary theory Session One (under Pages). I am now, after much checking and additional reading, pretty confident about my historical correctness with regard to QM, but physicists today do seem to deny that relativity was that shocking….
From a cultural standpoint, however, the idea that there is no absolute “time” or “space” or “simultaneity” and that these depend on the situation of the observer, this cracked the Newtonian clockwork universe wide open…along with the idea that matter is a form of energy! These advances in physics had the unintended effect of destroying the previously held Enlightenment distinction between physical matter on the one hand and the life of the human mind or spirit on the other, a radical dualism that Descartes had insisted upon, in order to promote the rise of a classical science that could be purely mechanistic and mathematical, and that could be applied to a static universe that theoretically could be gridded out on a monolithic graph paper, so to speak, in three dimensions plus a fourth dimension of absolute time. All of this also went against the cultural assumption that Western science was the ultimate common sense and self-evident truth of the rational man. Absolute objectivity has seemed to entail absolute universality. What if the same things could look different from different frames of reference? What if one day Newtonian mechanics was the absolute truth, and the next day it was limited and inexact? So culturally, at least, relativity was pretty darn shocking too….
The problem here, of course, is that classical 17th-century mechanics had developed by opposing itself to any kind of “vitalism” and to medieval “metaphysical” attitudes toward the physical world derived from Aristotle…. But as science developed from physics to chemistry and biology, we did eventually have “life” coming strongly into the scientific picture, and for a long time science did everything it could to prevent us from thinking about life as being anything other than strict mechanistic determinism, just like the original Newtonian laws of motion. This is why I once said that right now, the physicists and the biologists are no longer on the same page. A strong group of contemporary physicists cling to the classical assumptions that a complete description of physical reality will be accomplished, once and for all, and they are still vehemently opposed to anything that smacks (to them) of vitalism or metaphysics.
But the neoDarwinians, as represented by successful popularizers like Dawkins and Dennett, seem to have bitten the bullet of a “living” organization of nature. They seem to have come to believe that as living organisms come into being, the universe comes to contain more and more higher-order organic wholes that do exercise options as to their behaviors. As Dennett so astutely puts it, “freedom evolves.” By the time biologists today come to dealing with human mental phenomena and volitional behaviors, they are taking them very seriously on their own levels of organization, and not merely reducing them to the levels of the underlying mechanistic processes of physics, chemistry, and basic biology. From the earliest one-celled organisms, organic life exhibits responses to the environment that can be studied statically and normatively but that depend on so many factors that they are not strictly determined in a rigid chain of cause and effect.
So in the study of evolution and in attempts to deal scientifically with the higher-order biological phenomena of consciousness and mental processes, the neoDarwinians seem to accept and speak of long-taboo notions such as “purpose” — that organisms “strive” for survival, that nature “designs” very well, and that higher animals are not the strictly programmed machines devoid of mind and choice and emotion that they were depicted as being by Skinnerian behaviorism. We’re even learning now that organisms can develop adaptive responses that can become genetic legacies through the phenome — and attempting to describe other highly flexible “mechanisms” that are so capable of exercising options that they are anything BUT rigidly deterministic ….
These trends in biology are anti-reductive and anti-dualistic. They challenge the old-school separation of matter and mind. They deny strict determinism reigns everywhere in the natural world. But even while these changes show that mental and physical processes cannot be neatly separated from one another, they may seem to open the door, scientists fear, to upsurges of vitalism, mysticism, and metaphysics.
Obviously, living organisms constitute far different problems and require far different understandings of “determinacy” than were involved in order to develop the laws of motion in the 17th century. “Life” obviously involves very complicated and interactive relationships between matter and energy, and involves the emergence of new “wholes” that are organized very differently and structured in complicated hierarchies that do not exist in the world of classical physics, so that “life,” including mental life, cannot be strictly separated from the material world, as in classical science and culture, but neither are the biological sciences simply continuing to reduce everything, including the ways organisms exercise options, to underlying strict determinisms and mechanistic laws. There is much more to “animateness” or “vitality” or organic “life” or “mind” than can be reduced to the inanimate mechanisms that underlie them, but science was not originally founded to deal with any such picture of the universe.
Now you readers know that I am not going to claim some occult or “spiritual” phenomenon going on here, or that God had to specially intervene in order for organic life or human consciousness to emerge. Far from it! I never accepted the idea that “mind” was separate and apart from matter, as its own radically separate “substance,” in the first place, an idea that came in with Descartes and the rise of science. But what our current Big Bang universe and the dynamic story of evolution gives us is a universe that contained the inherent POTENTIALITY — inherent in its elements and laws — for life to be able to emerge, just as it has done. Not strict determinism, as in Newtonian mechanics. It may even be possible that life might NOT ever have emerged in our universe. (I don’t think we really know this yet.) But it was certainly inherently POSSIBLE for our universe to develop in such a way so as to produce life, either from the singularity, or from some point in cosmic history after that, when our universe had “fallen out” in the way it did fall out within its inherent perameters — in terms of the actual historical options that were actually taken at each point in the process after the very first nano-second and at every point onwards.
This is the unexpected and startling cosmic picture that quantum indeterminacy gives us. Not a universe ruled by randomness. Not a picture of chaos. Not a situation of utter unpredictability. Not a situation so disordered that it could never be meaningfully studied. No, we have a universe manifesting physical order and design, and generally determined processes, but yet a universe capable of a unique history depending on the indeterminate options that turn into the one way that it took in its own history at every point in its history. Our universe is inherently determined, but not strictly or absolutely. It develops only along certain lines of possible trajectories, and as each instant recedes into the past, some of the options have closes and new ones may emerge. Yet the underlying processes obeys a degree of determinacy but one that is not an absolute chain of cause-and-effect.
Now this kind of determinism, a probablistic determinism rather than an absolute chain of cause-and-effect, was not something that classical physics needed to deal with or think about. Natural philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries dealt with the material realm of physical Necessity and predetermination. Religion and politics could deal with the other realm, the realm of absolute freedom, specified as “mind” and as “God.” Necessity or Freedom. Strict determinism or free will. The Necessary or the Non-necessary, we might say, and the latter was simply “randomness” in the eyes of science.
But not so the Greeks. They thought a great deal about all those kinds of formal organizations and processes that were determinative but not strictly deterministic. For the Greeks there was a huge and significant realm lying in between the Necessary and the Flux: this was the realm of what Aristotle called the Possible-Probable, in which certain determinate events “would” typically occur, GIVEN what was already in place. This category of connectedness or coherence through time INCLUDED the kinds of processes that do exhibit absolute necessity as a sub-class, but for the most part, the Greeks saw various kinds of process of development going on around them in the world that were patterned and predictable and that offered themselves to formal study — WITHOUT being rigidly determined or Necessary the way geometry, for example, was.
For Aristotle, the paradigm for all those non-Necessary but still organized and coherent kinds of formal Probability was the biological species. He wanted to account for the way a seed will become an olive tree or an embryo will develop into a mature member of its species, and then decline and pass away, while all the time remaining the same kind of thing that it always was. He wanted to study and formalize the way in which olive trees or fishes remain the thing that they “are” at every stage in the process of their development. What guides or determines the individual through the very different appearances or “stages” of its development, and how can we know that each individual belongs to the same continuous “whole” at every point in its history and evidences the same species at every stage.
Aristotle was interested in that recognizable identity that we see in every member of the species, despite the fact of individual variations, and that recognizable pattern of development that each species follows, despite the fact that each organism has its own unique history in time.
These are philosophical questions that are no less relevant today. Plato’s focus on the Eidos or “kind of thing” or Form that each individual thing “is,” and Aristotle’s focus on the continuous internal coherence of developmental processes, as we watch each of them unfolding through time in its own characteristic way, are both rooted in the insight that the human mind focuses on the recurrences and the samenesses and the identities of things and not simply on discrete empirical objects in all their infinite difference. Human consciousness, through language, uses names to keep categories and all the other identifiable wholes distinct from one another and to “gather” together the defining characteristics of each, whether the name is “puppy” or “senator” or “justice” or “summer” or “washing the clothes” or “making bread.”
For human beings, “Knowing is always OF THE UNIVERSAL,” said Aristotle, in a translation that now means almost nothing to us. What he meant, though, was that organized or formal knowledge always comes from attempting to describe and know more fully something that exists for us on the level of the eidetic (something that is “of the eidos”). A specific kind of formal elegance, persisting recognizably through many different things, and met with on many different occasions, constitutes various recognizably coherent and internally patterned wholes, wholes marked out for us by determinative characteristics.
Now, this was NOT the response to Hi that I have been working on, and I have NOT managed to bring this impromptu stream of thought to its proper conclusion, either, but I have to quit for now. So please stay tuned for more later.
Oh, the big point is that since the 17th century we have thought about how our observations of nature are related to time quite differently than the earlier Greco-European world had. We lost the mental category of the Probable or the Possible, lying as it had done between strict determinism and mere randomness. Scientific and mathematical modern logic would define the “Possible” quite differently, as being any proposition that can be said without contradicting the denotations of the terms used, entirely regardless of the truth of the proposition or its actual physical possibility. “Superman flies faster than the speed of light” is perfectly possible, LOGICALLY, as Dennett explains, in accordance with analytic philosophy. He then goes on to define biological or evolutionary possibility in terms that Aristotle would indeed understand. But he has to work at it.
So we have no familiar and respectable vocabulary for describing the way a structural category persists or the way a structured process proceeds through time, unless they do obey strictly deterministic laws of cause and effect. The puzzles of quantum behavior brings this to light. It is hard to talk about the quandaries QM presents because we have no vocabulary for referring to the everyday occurences of the fact that multiple “options” are collapsed whenever one options is taken. The collapse lies in the sequence of the units of time. The future is always more “open” than the “past.” Yet the future is not usually random. Typically the past lies within the present (Husserl, Heidegger) in such a determinative way for each human consciousness that the immediate future is already cast into a number of determinative possibilities, among which one will become the newly recent past of the person involved. This vanishing of options at each moment, as we move through our “nows” into a future that is almost at once sliding into the past, is so well known to us that we may not think about it at all.
Now collapse of the wave function is both like this everyday phenomenon of human consciousness in one way, and very unlike it in a number of other ways, again very hard to specify because we don’t have a current familiar vocabulary for it. But I suspect that both processes would have been thought of by Aristotle as belonging to the category of the Probable-Possible. (There is no English word that does justice to this fundamental Platonic/Aristotlian kind of elegant determinacy. But it is the kind of determinacy that artists work out in whatever media they are working in, beginning with the state of the art, as they find it, and carrying that same art on into the future in ways both determined by the tradition and moving it forward — always in a discontinuous way, or it wouldn’t be a new “now,” but that is also part of a larger continuity.)
Okay, now I quit for today!
Sorry, I greatly expanded the previous comment, when blog ettiquette requires that I should have started a new one. But it IS mostly new….
Just so’s ya know.
Janet, I have to very strongly disagree with you on many points.
“What if one day Newtonian mechanics was the absolute truth, and the next day it was limited and inexact? So culturally, at least, relativity was pretty darn shocking too….”
It is true that Newtonian mechanics is not the absolute truth. But you have to keep in mind that that doesn’t mean that Newtonian mechanics turned out to be house of cards. Things are not black and white. We still use Newtonian mechanics. It is still very reliable, as long as you know its limit. So, I think it is wrong to think that we will have to question everything. It is wrong to think that our foundation was destroyed. Newton famously wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I don’t think there is any question that QM and relativity stand on the shoulder of Newtonian physics.
Long before QM and relativity showed that Newtonian physics was wrong, Galileo showed that Aristotle was wrong. And I think that Aristotle was wrong on a more fundamental level than Newton was wrong. Of course, what was wrong was just Aristotle’s science. It doesn’t mean that his philosophy was wrong. But let us be clear. The Greeks didn’t anticipate QM and relativity. QM and relativity are not vindication of the Greek philosophy. If QM and relativity seem to support the Greek philosophy (and I’m not sure if that is true), that is a coincidence and not necessity. The Greek philosophy should be valued on its own merit. Don’t they get enough credits for that already?
“But as science developed from physics to chemistry and biology, we did eventually have “life” coming strongly into the scientific picture, and for a long time science did everything it could to prevent us from thinking about life as being anything other than strict mechanistic determinism, just like the original Newtonian laws of motion. This is why I once said that right now, the physicists and the biologists are no longer on the same page. A strong group of contemporary physicists cling to the classical assumptions that a complete description of physical reality will be accomplished, once and for all, and they are still vehemently opposed to anything that smacks (to them) of vitalism or metaphysics.”
This is contrary to almost everything I believe as a biologist. Biologists don’t want vitalism any more than physicists. I am really shocked and disappointed that you believe this. The only point that has some merit is that there are some physicists (mostly of elementary particle-type) who think that what they are studying is the most fundamental and everything else is applied science.
Stop worrying about QM all the time and try to learn a little biology once in awhile. For instance, I think you will find immunology interesting.
“By the time biologists today come to dealing with human mental phenomena and volitional behaviors, they are taking them very seriously on their own levels of organization, and not merely reducing them to the levels of the underlying mechanistic processes of physics, chemistry, and basic biology.”
It is true that understanding of higher-order phenomena are not achieved merely by reducing them to more basic levels. (And I think the error of Penrose is instead of taking the mental phenomena seriously at their own levels he tries to rethink the physics at the deepest level.) But that doesn’t mean that such higher-order phenomena are not governed by the laws and principles at more basic levels. Let me repeat. We don’t need vitalism and there is no fundamental disagreement between physicists and biologists.
“So in the study of evolution and in attempts to deal scientifically with the higher-order biological phenomena of consciousness and mental processes, the neoDarwinians seem to accept and speak of long-taboo notions such as “purpose” — that organisms “strive” for survival, that nature “designs” very well, and that higher animals are not the strictly programmed machines devoid of mind and choice and emotion that they were depicted as being by Skinnerian behaviorism.”
Oh boy. I think that the source of confusion and misunderstanding is that we often use language that implies “purpose” and “will” even when we don’t even intend. Shouldn’t you be aware of that of all the people? And “purpose” for whom? Even physicists would say something like “the system tries to achieve the lowest free energy” even though thermodynamic systems don’t have a “purpose”. That “organisms “strive” for survival” may be appropriate as a description of behavior of organisms. But let us not mistake that evolution is a result of such “will” of the organisms. It is completely the other way around. The organisms behavior to “strive” for survival is the consequence of evolution. (And it’s not always true that organisms “strive” for survival anyway.) The relationship between evolution and behavior is complicated. Why do we crave for foods that will make us unhealthy? What is the “purpose” of having sex? Is it to have offsprings or is it to have pleasure? Evolutionary, there is no advantage in having sex if it doesn’t result in having offsprings. But at individual level, wouldn’t you agree that it is mostly for pleasure?
“I never accepted the idea that “mind” was separate and apart from matter, as its own radically separate “substance,” in the first place, an idea that came in with Descartes and the rise of science.”
I imagine that in Descartes’ time it was difficult to think that mind can arise from matter by laws of physics. So, he had to separate mind and matter. But now we have good reasons to believe that mind can be explained by (if not be reduced to) matter. This is a triumph of science. So, why should science (and scientists) today should be blamed for dualism? In today’s world, it is the theists who want to separate mind and matter more.
“But what our current Big Bang universe and the dynamic story of evolution gives us is a universe that contained the inherent POTENTIALITY — inherent in its elements and laws — for life to be able to emerge, just as it has done. Not strict determinism, as in Newtonian mechanics.”
It is true that this world that we know is not deterministic. But why “potentiality” and determinism should be mutually exclusive? And why is “potentiality” not merely a restatement of laws of physics that govern the time evolution of everything in this universe?
Hi, I agree with everything you say. I think once or twice you have misunderstood me. I am trying to RE-think the issues here — to introduce NEW categories that are NOT vitalism or strict determinism — and to find a new way to frame the issues besides the ones we already have available.
I am NOT wanting to return to vitalism! But I am saying that the development of the sciences has led to a recuperation of some insights about the world that were too quickly dismissed during the rise of the original strictly deterministic classical science. Especially the ability to deal with various systems that are internally cohesive and evolve over time in their own various ways, instead of imagining a SINGLE universal determinism controlling the entire physical world all at once.
I am so interested in the historical developments in our thinking and in our framing of issues, Hi, while you are thinking, naturally, about the specific scientific finding themselves. Yes! I fully agree and know that the new physics stands on the shoulders of Newton! I am simply pointing out how very, very important and salutory it has been for our historical desire to find truth that current science has loosened up and become comfortable with the creative play and the partial fallibility of the scientific process. This is so much to the good, in my mind. It is not to the detriment of science, but to the advancement of understanding in all fields.
I don’t want to return to the specific FINDINGS of classical natural philosophy. I want us to return to the freer and more inspiring vision of all the ways of knowing, including the sciences, that I find in the West prior to the advent of strict determinism in the 17th century and prior to a theory of knowledge that assumes it is building from the ground up on absolutely indubitable foundations.
I don’t want to go to cultural relativism either. So I’m talking about a paradigm for knowing that keeps the solid gold of the scientific method for the sciences, but requires that non-scientific ways of knowing are essential also for citizens in self-governing politites and for the pursuit of understanding concerning the complicated interplay of various kinds of truth.
Hi wrote: “This is contrary to almost everything I believe as a biologist. Biologists don’t want vitalism any more than physicists. I am really shocked and disappointed that you believe this. The only point that has some merit is that there are some physicists (mostly of elementary particle-type) who think that what they are studying is the most fundamental and everything else is applied science.”
Okay, I think I wasn’t clear about where I was going with my comments on the biologists vs that group of old-school physicists. I was trying to use the physicists of that school as an example of what used to be the dominant approach in all the sciences — that there is a fundamental universal determinism, but more importantly that we humans can build up a once-and-for-all “final” account of physical reality.
It would be very nice to do so! But instead of knowledge being acquired this way, it turns out in all the disciplines that the process of discovery is more open-ended and unpredictable than this and that reality is so complex — and that so many DIFFERENT KINDS of determinisms are operating — that all the disciplines are necessary and each delves into a piece of the picture while the “big picture” is always evolving.
This is wonderful! But most students in our universities don’t know this. They still think the way those old-school physicists think, and our GE programs aren’t inspiring them toward pluralism in the ways of knowing, Instead we have these monolithic adherences to one reality and one way of finding a changeless truth, whether religious or scientific…. We need a vision of the ways of knowing that inspires students to challenge their own fundamentalisms without giving up on the pursuit of truth. We need a vision that challenges them to develop a more complicated picture of reality and a respect for the various disciplinary conversations and a willingness to hold their commitments with an openness to the other pursuits of truth.
I was praising the neoDarwinians for not letting their scientific orientation prevent them from dealing with the reality of internally coherent systems that do not obey strict determinisms. I was NOT advocating vitalism! I was trying to say that the prejudice against anything that SEEMS to smack of vitalism was standing in the way for a long time in the 20th century, and the neo-Darwinians have smashed through that prejudice to begin to describe scientifically parts of the natural world that have their own internalized potentialities and (non-rigid) determinisms.
In terms of the theory of knowing, this means that they are asserting the existence of spheres of reality in the natural world very different from those ruled by classical mechanics. This is a movement toward pluralism in the ways of knowing that reminds me of the original Greek vision of the arts and sciences.
Hi writes: “It is true that this world that we know is not deterministic. But why “potentiality” and determinism should be mutually exclusive? And why is “potentiality” not merely a restatement of laws of physics that govern the time evolution of everything in this universe?”
Hi, this is exactly what I was trying to say. Potentiality and determinism are NOT mutually exclusive. There are many kinds of probabilistic determinisms operating in complex systems and in organisms when they are taken as independent wholes functioning in the world. The fundamental laws of physics are such as to give rise to higher-order organisms and we do see that a kind of “freedom” evolves. I was not saying that the language of “striving” and “design” should be taken literally.
But some such words are necessary to deal with biological organisms, and this is what we see in Aristotle with his concern about the functions of the parts in relationship to the whole and the degree of play and variation in the way the parts mesh together. This is why he emphasized Potentiality and the Probable-possible as a a kind of real determinism requiring scientific study every bit as much as strictly necessary determinism. There is a powerful force involved in biological organisms in relation to their function as wholes (and as partially self-determining wholes as far as their behavior in the larger world goes). These are the kinds of realities for which Aristotle developed his philosophical language of “potentiality” and the kind of determinisms he called the Probable-Possible as opposed to the Necessary. He saw a world in which all kinds of different degrees and kinds of “determinisms” are operating simultaneously in the world, requiring their own separate kinds of studies, instead of one monolithic LaPlacean world of one single clockwork determinism.
Now you may say, “of course,” to that! But this is new and a marvelous opportunity for educators! Our theory or vision of the liberal arts today is severely anemic and old-school and it still intimates that the mathematical sciences disclose a monolithic objective truth and that, relative to that, the inquiries in other fields are window-dressing or for personal enrichment. Or worse — they are purely subjective or irrational.
I still have to insist on how liberating for us right now might be the Aristotelian principle that rational thought adapts itself to the kind of formal organization it studies, and that all of these different kinds of reasonings and accountings for various kinds of things are just as important to education and to the commonwealth as the kinds of things themselves are important to the citizenry at large. We need thoughtful interpretation and a humble recognition of limits in the sphere of religion as much as in the other spheres, because religion is very important to many people and the inability to deal with various ways of knowing has terrible results in religion as in science or any other pursuit of understanding.
Whenever any approach to knowing reality can be thought of as an exclusive belief-system — and whenever a person thinks that every other approach can be judged by the standards of the first approach — then we are in big trouble. And this is the whole point of the liberal arts.
This is why Richard Dawkins seems to me to be just as illiberal as the religious extremists he combats. He thinks that it is responsible and intelligent to judge every sphere by a single standard of what to him is self-evident common sense and rational thought, but that is marked through and through by the limitations of a certain school of scientific logic that proved to be rather irrelevant to the actual practice and development of science. But I wouldn’t care how wonderful his logic might be. You cannot think that one self-evident logic is sufficient for dealing with everything in the world and can be used to dismiss all areas and inquiries that disagree with one’s own ultimate world view, without being a fundamentalist. I don’t have any animus against the man himself. He is charming and remarkably frank and ingenuous in many ways. It is the assumption (by anyone) that a standard of rationality derived from one field is an adequate standard — or even the best standard — for all fields is what causes me distress. This reduces the complex realities of our universe to a monolithic universe offering a single kind of organization
I think world views are very important to human beings, and that the liberal arts should encourage each of us to embark on the lifelong journey of forming one. I don’t mind world views that clash with mine but I am terrified of using familiarity with one way of knowing to dismiss all the other routes humans pursue. It is hard to combat fundamentalism today in the liberal arts education because any challenge to scientific fundamentalism is interpreted as being cultural relativism.
This is why we need a whole fresh paradigm for the arts and sciences, based on a whole fresh new (old) paradigm of how human beings come to know, stressing the role of ongoing interpretation and dialectical conversation within the way of knowing. And then dialectical conversation and interpretations going on between ways of knowing.
We can’t get away from the difficult processes of (unending) interpretation and from the sense of humble limits and openness to the future that I find in all the texts we have from the older arts and sciences of the West, including the theological disciplines, prior to the rise of science.
Now science in its supreme honesty has revised itself — in the direction of the older view of the ways of knowing. Let’s seize the opportunity and offer a vision of inquiring thought in all the spheres of human inquiry. Let’s try the idea that each aspect of a complex reality may require disciplinary communities to develop their own standards of evidence and their own modes of thinking. Let’s reaffirm that music and the other arts are modes of thought; that knowing through the composition of artistic products and their experiencing fully also requires its own rigorous standards for knowing.
Let’s transcend the combative and unnecessarily polarizing assumptions of the Modern West (the 17th-19th centuries) and in the sphere of education let’s lay down our arms and beat our swords into plow-shares.
Christ is born!