Monday, January 17, 2022

Feyerabend was Driven Mad by Quantum Mechanics

Paul Feyerabend was an inflential XX-century philosopher of science. He is mainly known for anti-science opinions, such as denying that there is a scientific method, and denying truth, such as this:
And it is of course not true that we have to follow the truth. Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them. Freedom and mental independence are others. If Truth, as conceived by some ideologists, conflicts with freedom, then we have a choice. We may abandon freedom. But we may also abandon Truth.

Now a new paper explains that he did some serious quantum mechanics research, before going off the deep end. He joins a long list of scholars who went mad, after studying quantum mechanics.

It correctly explains that quantum mechanics was invented as a logical positivist theory:

The Goettingen-Copenhagen school of physicists developed quantum mechanics in remarkable concordance with the philosophy of positivism. ...

As a first approximation, positivism here denotes the project aiming to give an account of scientific knowledge as best exemplified by Logical Empiricism committing to an empiricist account of science rejecting transcendental-idealist accounts involving the synthetic a priori, while at the same developing a non-empiricist account of mathematics against earlier empiricists, lime Hume or Mill.

As the development of modern physics was propelled by inextricably combining physics and mathematics, the challenge to positivism was to draw a (reliable) distinction between the empirical and non-empirical components of physical theories, such that the only the former had any physical meaning.

This was very upsetting to philosophers. I could summarize XX-century philosophy of science by saying it mostly consisted of scholars concocting contrived excuses for rejecting logical positivism.

Now this evil has infected physics also, with many leading physics communicators rejecting textbook Copenhagen quantum mechanics.

Hardly anyone, outside of mathematicians, accepts the above crucial distinction between math and science. Max Tegmark even denies that there is any distinction at all, between math and science. So does this physicist blogger.

Rejection of logical positivism underlies much of what has gone wrong in physics and philosophy of science of the last 60 years. And for what? It was not proved wrong. The Copenhagen interpretation is much better than modern alternatives, like many-worlds. I think that it is all some soft of leftist ideology.

A modern philosopher says:

your insistence on a categorical separation between physics and metaphysics that is a hangover from logical positivism. Positivists believed they could make a neat distinction between what is “scientific” (meaningful) and what is “metaphysical” (meaningless, unscientific), based on their verification criterion of meaning. But that distinction has been abandoned at least since Quine, along with the criterion of verifiability. Most philosophers are scientific realists, even though “realism” would have been rejected as “meaningless metaphysics” by the positivists. By using inference to the best explanation, you can really support realism, or naturalism, or any other “metaphysical” view with scientific evidence. For non-positivists, “metaphysics” is just a word for science at a highest level of abstraction.
What he is saying here is that Quine wrote a silly straw-man attack on positivism in 1951, and every since philosophers have refused to distinguish what is meaningful from what is meaningless. So they call themselves "realists", even though that means believing in things that cannot be supported by evidence. That is science at the highest level, according to them.

Curiously the above opinion was written to attack theism, but it sounds like a religious belief to me. He was responding as an atheist to a theist who was also relying on philosophers having denied logical positivism. The theist wanted to deny positivism so that he could believe in God without empirical evidence. The atheist philosopher wants to deny positivism so that he can believe in scientific realism, where realism is defined to include beliefs that are not backed by empirical evidence.  They differ in what they choose for their non-empirical beliefs.

This blog defends logical positivism. I feel as if I am keeping lost knowledge alive.

1 comment:

  1. According to a survey, your "modern philosopher" is distressingly right that most philosophers are scientific realists:
    Surveys are always problematic for the ways the sample is chosen, but it seems not so easy to ignore outright a 75%-11% split from a sample of 931 (the only more extreme split in quite a long list of questions is towards "non-skeptical realism" against "idealism" and "skepticism").

    I'm with you on empiricism in general terms, but I'm not sure exactly what I should take you to mean by "logical positivism"? I'm happy, for example, to say that an experiment produces a collection of lists of actually recorded experimental results, and from a detailed description of the experimental apparatus I feel more-or-less OK saying that we can algorithmically construct statistics from selected entries in those lists that I would call "measurement results", but I would call further conclusions progressively more tentative. The future might think of some of those conclusions as so useful in our time that it's understandable that we thought of them as forging a real connection between us and details of the world, but in retrospect nonetheless consider them not much more than castles in the air. That seems more minimalist than what I think of as "Logical Positivism".