Lost in 7

  • There’s a good interview with Lee Smolin at Quanta on his relational view of nature, which you can also find in his Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. His view is inspired by Leibniz’s metaphysics in The Monadology, and it reminds me of the Ladyman and Ross thesis that “everything must go” which is also a relational and naturalised metaphysics. I’ve got some sympathy with Smolin’s view, and it’s worth exploring as a hypothesis and seeing what insights it might provide us. Beware, though, that we’re in our minds but that doesn’t prevent us from doing cognitive science. Smolin’s view about being stuck in the universe is not unlike the impulse that drove behaviourist psychology. I’d slightly, perhaps you might say significantly, tweak the relational idea. Perhaps it’s better not to see it as an ontological or metaphysical theory, of how the world is, rather to think of it as an epistemological thesis. Science is relational, however the world might fundamentally be, to the extent that a lot of it is based on discerning mathematical relationships holding between entities, concepts, variables, and so on. It is that relational aspect that enables us to make predictions, even if nature is ultimately hidden from us. Say there are two physical entities x and y whose fundamental nature is mysterious, but the relationship between the two we nonetheless discern through mathematical and empirical reasoning. Knowing the relationship means we can make predictions, and even make applications based on that predictive power without ever really knowing what x and y fundamentally are. Recall the way Turing invoked applications in debate with Wittgenstein in favour of a realist view of science. Science is full of equations, and what do equations do if not relate one side of an equation with the other, so we’ve got “the unreasonable effectiveness of equations in the sciences.” Consider Wheeler’s famous pithy encapsulation of Einstein’s field equations of general relativity; “Space tells matter how to move. Matter tells space how to curve.” What’s space and what’s matter? The jury is still out on that, but we’ve got the relationship and so we can make predictions and develop applications. Question; is the relation thereby real? Good question, no answer I’m afraid. Our theories of nature are relational, and their relational because their mathematical, and it could be that it is our minds that are mathematical not nature. The inverse square law is a relationship, but it’s no longer the relationship fundamental to our understanding of gravitation. That also applies to Einstein’s field equations, presumably, given the overwhelming majority of physicists subscribe to the view that general relativity must make way for quantum gravity. Which brings us back to the question; are these relationships real?  The relational aspect to nature that Smolin sees could be an insight into how we construct scientific theories and how those theories come to make sense to us, which would be more an epistemological than a metaphysical philosophy. But relations, it seems, are not enough. For the mind to develop relations linking or networking concepts it first requires concepts, and I don’t see how a concept can be construed as a relation. I notice that Smolin has just published a book on quantum mechanics, where he defends a realist interpretation. I have not read the book but have seen a lecture he delivered at Perimeter. I have, however, recently read Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird which is one of those books that is so fuckin’ good it awakens one from one’s dogmatic slumbers. What a tour de force! I shall review it here at some point (alongside Karl Sigmund’s history of logical positivism Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science and Peter Hylton’s Quine both which I have also recently read). Consider the appearance of Einstein in Smolin’s title, which is often repeated in texts that take a realist view of QM. We should remember a simple point; Einstein was a man, not an angel, and that makes him fallible. Consider his “greatest mistake”, his words, namely the cosmological constant. That mistake came from a preconceived idea, or a prior intuition, of how nature ought to be. Einstein’s intuition was formidable but not infallible.
  • Massimo Pigliucci has just published a little essay on beauty in physics, and how it can lead us astray, at Aeon which reaffirms Sabine Hossenfelder’s popular thesis that “the trouble with physics,” to borrow from Smolin, is that it is “lost in math.” The trouble of which Pigliucci writes comes from theories that have no predictive power, even in principle, such as the multiverse or cosmic landscape but which provide a conception of nature that is mathematically beautiful and simple. Because we so cherish beauty and simplicity we too readily allow ourselves to be seduced and bedazzled by theories that show us how we think nature ought to be rather than how she really is. To paraphrase David Hume, one cannot derive an is from an ought as much as one cannot an ought from an is. The mathematician Peter Shor, however, has a good rejoinder in an interview with John Horgan at Scientific American I think that the physicists have been led astray, but I would disagree that what led them astray is their obsession with beauty. Rather, I think that what has led theoretical physicists astray is that they are no longer grounded in experiment.” Mathematicians have always been in this position and “they learned this over the years by trial and error, discovering that if you try to do mathematics without relying on rigor, you are likely to be led astray by your intuition.  The culture of physics doesn’t have this constraint.” This then leads to a cultural and sociological process, what Roger Penrose called “fashion, faith and fantasy,” and “this sociological process leads high-energy physicists to collectively accept ideas prematurely, when there is still very little evidence in favor of them.  Then the peer review process leads the funding agencies to mainly fund people who believe in these ideas when there is no guarantee that they are correct, and any alternatives to these ideas are for the most part neglected.” This is surely correct, and there’s a similar phenomenon at work, one with more obvious human consequences, that is in economics. Here you have highly mathematical models of general equilibria, closely connected to neoliberal ideology and policy, that are said to follow on from considerations of mathematical beauty and simplicity. Here we have rational and efficient markets, yet we know that markets are hardly rational or efficient. Economics, that is neoclassical economics, is thereby also “lost in math.” This is a criticism often made, but it’s fallacious all the same. The problem with economics isn’t that it is based on notions of mathematical beauty and simplicity, rather the issue lies in ideological preconceptions about the nature of capitalist society which themselves are reflective of the interests of the dominant centres of economic and political power. So, you end up having, to borrow from Shor, “funding agencies who fund people who believe in these ideas” whatever reality and justice might say of the matter. Pigliucci begins his article by arguing that Feynman was a bad philosopher. I rather think Feynman was a good philosopher, and one whose (reported) insights are too often neglected. Invoking Feynman in the context of “the trouble with physics” is at any rate odd, for Richard Feynman was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of superstring theory and that precisely on experimental grounds. Richard Feynman does not deserve to be put in the company that Pigliucci implicitly puts him.
  • The Hong Kong protests continue to attract attention, if only for their impressive scale and daring actions. The protest movement is clearly animated by ideas of democracy and freedom. It is a movement which opposes an authoritarian order based on a very tight nexus between centralised state power wielded by a political elite, beholden to the boss in Beijing, and large corporations owned and managed by an economic elite beholden to global capital. Nobody on the Left that values democracy can find themselves in opposition to the Hong Kong protesters. The Hong Kong protests are a very visible manifestation of a trend sweeping the world over, in both societies considered democratic and authoritarian. Don’t forget that a key feature of neoliberalism in practice is the reorganisation of society by a state-corporate nexus, which by design is reflective of the interests and concerns of corporate managers and investors. The opposition to all this, pretty much everywhere, doesn’t so much concern the material as it does democracy. That’s extremely interesting, and it tells you something about the nature of human beings. What is at the centre of concern is democracy, self governance, and dignity. People yearn to live in a world that is of their making, not one moulded for them by power in the interests of privilege. Neoliberalism can trace its origins to the Manchester School of political economy, to the agitation of Malthus, Ricardo and others to repeal the poor and corn laws in the 19th century, rather than to Adam Smith and other pre-capitalist classical political economists. The Chartist movement, which arose in reaction to the ravages of 19th century capitalism, was an organised working class movement whose central concern, like today’s protest movements including that in Hong Kong, was democracy. It was the Chartists who invented the strike, especially the general strike, waged for political purposes. This is what we are missing today. We are missing Chartism. The democracy movements must think about opening a new front in the arena of struggle against state-corporate power, that is into the workplace through pickets, strikes and occupations that have essentially political objectives. Workers must strike a new charter for democracy. If you look at the pro democracy demonstrations and insurrections of today, you’ll see that the Chartist weapon of the political strike is sorely lacking. Imagine if, in Hong Kong, the same two million people organised and mobilised in a leaderless and decentralised fashion on the streets qua citizens were similarly organised and mobilised in their workplaces qua workers? We need a decentralised and leaderless working class movement striking for a democratic society. The established trade and labour unions are not up to the task, even if they wanted to be.
  • The protesters that stormed into the Hong Kong legislature can be faulted not for their forcible entry into the Legislative Council but for their leaving. A protest movement takes hold of a parliament to the extent that it is serious about revolution, anything less betrays uncertainty about both objective and strategy. This is the point the Serb sociologist, Jovo Bakic, made when protesters a couple of months ago stormed into the premises of the Serbian public broadcaster. The obvious lack of a political strategy let alone a follow on plan, enabled the regime of Aleksandar Vucic to engage in a propaganda offensive, which helped to take the wind out of the sails of an 8 month pro democracy movement. That movement diminished in scale not long thereafter (the storming and leaving of state TV was not the only factor), but it is picking up steam again and shows no sign of going away anytime soon. Dragan Janjic has a good article here on the protests, but there are two weaknesses to the analysis. Firstly, Janjic does not point out, in an article that speaks much of Bakic’s analysis of affairs, that an important factor accounting for the problems of Serbian society arises from its place in the periphery of the world capitalist system. Bakic is noted for seeing matters thus. Secondly, Janjic claims that the “international community” is opposed to Vucic’s rule. That is false. Indeed, one of the more important reasons why the pro democracy movement has struggled to achieve any real political change is because the “international community” supports Vucic. That too is a point often made by Bakic. Indeed, we can go one further. What we today call Aleksandar Vucic, the former ultranationalist turned Eurocrat that has learnt the errors of his ways, was created by “the international community.” It is well known that Western embassies, especially the German, helped to siphon Vucic away from Vojislav Seselj and his ultranationalist Serb Radical Party. The idea being that Vucic would provide for a more stable neocolonial dependency than then President Boris Tadic (a social democrat whose government engaged in Yeltsin style privatisations, even though he himself was and is clean). The Vucic regime is based, to an important though not total (see point above about privatisations), degree on the remnants of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The lesson learnt is pretty clear; just say yes to the boss without so you can do as you please within. That’s the essence of the contract. The remnants of the Milosevic era have retained their political culture, it is their stance toward what Janjic calls “the international community” that has changed.
  • The tax cuts of the Morrison government will now pass through both houses of Parliament, with the “Liberal” party securing the support of the crossbenches in the Senate. The Labor Party has hitherto opposed the last, third, tranche of the government’s tax cuts, however there has been more than a little wavering on their part. It is still not clear that they will firmly oppose the passage of the third tranche. This is the tranche that is by far the biggest, and which takes the most out of government revenue. It is the third tranche which seeks to fundamentally reform Australia’s income tax system toward a regressive flat rate regime that would further entrench rising inequality. Watching and reading Australia’s corporate media, but also the public broadcaster the ABC, has been an interesting exercise. The dominant position has been that Labor must support the third tranche, a good indication of how the corporate media in capitalist society is used as a tool to discipline Labor. For this reason the episode serves as a good indication of how friend, formerly comrade, Anthony Albanese’s leadership of the Labor Party will swing. Thus far the signs are that friend Albanese will be a good boy who’ll take his instructions from Bellevue Hill and Point Piper. That was the message of the 2019 Federal Election; class war is a matter reserved for the rich. On the third tranche specifically friend Albanese’s negative comments have been instructive. He has referred to them as the “triumph of hope” over experience. What does that mean? It means that friend, formerly comrade, Albanese hopes that the tax cuts can be delivered in full, however experience shows that it’ll probably lead to a budget deficit in future. See how the concern isn’t that the tax cuts are skewed toward the rich, and that they’ll entrench a regressive flat rate component to Australia’s income tax system? In fact, friend Albanese “hopes” that this can be done, but alas pesky experience suggests otherwise. There’s a good, critical, article at the ABC webpage today on the Morrison tax reforms, but notice it takes an Albanese character to it. Most of it by far is devoted to the likely effect on the budget bottom line. Only at the end does it begin to discuss how the tax cuts function as a form of tax reform in the interests of the rich. It’s buried at the end, “lost in math,” and has no bearing on the title. That’s as far as criticism can go in the mainstream media. The whole thing is like Bob Hawke and Brian Howe’s (of the “socialist left” faction) opposition to John Hewson’s Fightback! neoliberal reform package. Their criticism was that the “feral abacus” got his sums wrong. Presumably, if the feral abacus got his sums right the package had much to commend it. Yet Fightback! was a highly ideological vision founded for, of, and by the rich and that applies all the same to the Morrison tax reform (not tax cuts). But that’s not why friend Albanese opposes them (for now). Neoliberal reforms in Australia cannot take an indefinite and permanent form without bipartisan support, and friend, formerly comrade, Albanese shows little sign that Labor is prepared to withdraw that bipartisan support. Which, of course, brings us back to Chartism. It’s said that democracy in Australia, such as it is, came to no small degree with the Eureka Stockade. Don’t forget the Chartists were front and centre at Ballarat.

Update: As I wrote news broke that friend Albanese announced that Labor would not oppose the full tax reform aka tax cuts package in the Senate. What a fuckin’ turd.

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