Saturday


Illustrations from the early scientific revolution bear the stamp of an earlier and other civilization, as in this image, in which as much time has been spent on the trees and the clouds as the scientific experiment itself.

Illustrations from the early scientific revolution bear the stamp of an earlier and other civilization, as in this image, in which as much time has been spent on the trees and the clouds as the scientific experiment itself.

It is a convention of historiography to refer to the formative period of early modern science as “the scientific revolution” (with the definite article), and this is justified in so far as the definitive features of experimental science began to take shape in the period from Copernicus and Galileo to Newton. But in addition to the scientific revolution understood in this sense as a one-time historical process that would not be repeated, there is also the sense of revolutions in science, and there are many such revolutions in science. This sense of a revolution in scientific knowledge has become familiar through the influence of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn made a now-famous distinction between normal science, which involves the patient elaboration of a scientific research program, and revolutionary science, which involves the shift (a paradigm shift) from an established scientific research program to a new and often unprecedented scientific research program.

Thomas Kuhn changed the way that we think about scientific revolutions.

Thomas Kuhn changed the way that we think about scientific revolutions.

Some revolutions in science happen rather rapidly, and some unfold over decades or even centuries. The revolution in earth science represented by geomorphology and plate tectonics was a slow-moving scientific revolution. As long as we have had accurate maps, many have noticed how the coastlines of Africa and South America fit together (a sea captain pointed this out to my maternal grandmother when she was a young girl). When Alfred Wegener put first put forth his theory of plate tectonics in 1912 he had a great deal of evidence demonstrating the geological relationship between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America, but he had no mechanism by which to explain the movement of continental plates. The theory was widely dismissed among geologists, but in the second half of the twentieth century more evidence and a plausible mechanism made plate tectonics the central scientific research program in the earth sciences. I have observed elsewhere that Benjamin Franklin anticipated plate tectonics, and he did so for the right reasons, so if we push the origins of the idea of plate tectonics back into the Enlightenment, this is a scientific revolution that unfolded over hundreds of years.

Alfred Wegener recognized fossil patterns over now-separated continents, which suggested a different arrangement of continents in the past, but Wegener had no causal mechanism to explain the movement (map by jmwatsonusgs.gov - United States Geological Survey - http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/continents.htmlen:Image:Snider-Pellegrini_Wegener_fossil_map.gif)

Alfred Wegener recognized fossil patterns over now-separated continents, which suggested a different arrangement of continents in the past, but Wegener had no causal mechanism to explain the movement (map by jmwatsonusgs.gov – United States Geological Survey – http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/continents.htmlen:Image:Snider-Pellegrini_Wegener_fossil_map.gif)

In the past, when knowledge was disseminated much more slowly than it is today, we are not surprised to learn that the full impact of the Copernican revolution unfolded over centuries, while today we expect the dissemination of major scientific paradigm shifts to occur much more rapidly. Indeed, we have the recent example of the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe as a perfect instance of a major and unexpected scientific discovery that was disseminated and accepted by most cosmologists within a year or so.

'The data summarized in the illustration above involve the measurement of the redshifts of the distant supernovae. The observed magnitudes are plotted against the redshift parameter z. Note that there are a number of Type 1a supernovae around z=.6, which with a Hubble constant of 71 km/s/mpc is a distance of about 5 billion light years.' (quoted from 'Evidence for an accelerating universe' at http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/astro/univacc.html)

‘The data summarized in the illustration above involve the measurement of the redshifts of the distant supernovae. The observed magnitudes are plotted against the redshift parameter z. Note that there are a number of Type 1a supernovae around z=.6, which with a Hubble constant of 71 km/s/mpc is a distance of about 5 billion light years.’ (quoted from ‘Evidence for an accelerating universe’ at http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/astro/univacc.html)

The facility with which the accelerating expansion of the universe was assimilated into contemporary cosmology could be used to argue that this was no revolution in science (or it could be said that it was not a “true” revolution in science, which would suggest an application of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy — what Imre Lakatos called “monster barring” — to scientific revolutions). The discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe may be understood as an extension of the revolution precipitated by Hubble, who demonstrated by observational astronomy that the universe is expanding. Since Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the universe it has assumed that the expansion of the universe was slowing down (a rate of deceleration already given the name of the “Hubble constant” even before the value of that constant had been determined). Hubble’s work was rapidly accepted, but its acceptance was the culmination of decades of debate over the size of the universe, including the Shapley–Curtis Debate, so we can treat this as a slow revolution or as a rapid revolution, depending upon the historical perspective we bring to science.

Harlow Shapley (left) and Heber Curtis (right) debated the structure and size of the universe in a famous confrontation in 1920.

Harlow Shapley (left) and Heber Curtis (right) debated the structure and size of the universe in a famous confrontation in 1920.

While general relatively came to be widely and rapidly adopted by the scientific community after the 1919 eclipse observed by Sir Arthur Eddington, I have noted in Radical Theories, Modest Formulations that Einstein presented general relativity in a fairly conservative form, and even in this conservative form the theory remained radical and difficult to accept, due to ideas such as the curvature of space and time dilation. After the initial acceptance of general relativity as a scientific research program, the subsequent century has seen a slow and gradual unfolding of some of the more radical consequences of general relativity, which became easier to accept once the essential core of the theory had been accepted.

Einstein formulated his field equations for general relativity in 1915, and we are still deducing the consequences of the theory.

Einstein formulated his field equations for general relativity in 1915, and we are still deducing the consequences of the theory.

It might be hypothesized that radical theories are accepted more rapidly when a crucial experiment fails to falsify the theory, and the more radical consequences of the theory are fudged a bit so that they do not play a role in galvanizing initial resistance to the theory. If Einstein had been talking about black holes and the expansion of the universe in 1915 he probably would have been dismissed as a crackpot. Another way to think about this is that general relativity appeared as a rigorous, mathematically formalized theory with specific predictions that admitted of crucial experiments within the scope of science at that time. But such a fundamental theory as general relativity was bound to continue to revolutionize cosmology as long as later theoreticians could elaborate the theory initially formulated by Einstein.

Jan Hendrik Oort, for whom the Oort Cloud is named, and an early discoverer of the influence of dark matter on cosmology.

Jan Hendrik Oort, for whom the Oort Cloud is named, and an early discoverer of the influence of dark matter on cosmology.

This discussion of slow-moving revolutions in cosmology brings us to the slow moving revolution that is coming to a head in our time. The recognition of dark matter, i.e., of something that accounts for the gravitational anomalies brought to attention by observational astronomy, has been slow to unfold over the last several decades. Two Dutch astronomers, Jacobus Kapteyn and Jan Oort (known for the eponymously-named Oort Cloud, suggested the possibility of dark matter in the early part of the twentieth century. Fritz Zwicky may have been the first person to use the term “dark matter” (“dunkle Materie“) in 1933. Further observations confirmed and extended these earlier observations, but it was not until the 1980s that the “missing” dark matter came to be widely recognized as a major unsolved problem in astrophysics. It remains an unsolved problem, with the best guess for its resolution being the theoretically conservative idea of an as-yet unobserved subatomic particle or particles that can be located within the standard model of particle physics with a minimum of disturbance to contemporary scientific theory.

An elegantly simple demonstration of how dark matter shapes the universe: the rotation curve of spiral galaxies cannot be accounted for by the luminous matter in the galaxy.

An elegantly simple demonstration of how dark matter shapes the universe: the rotation curve of spiral galaxies cannot be accounted for by the luminous matter in the galaxy.

There are two interesting observations to be made about this brief narrative of dark matter:

1) The idea of dark matter emerged from observational astronomy, and not as a matter of a theoretical innovation. Established theoretical ideas were applied to observations, and these ideas failed to explain the phenomena. The discovery of the expansion of the universe was also a product of observational astronomy, but it was preceded by Einstein’s theoretical work, which was already accepted at that time. Thus a number of diverse elements of scientific thought came together in a scientific research program for cosmology — a program the pursuit of which has revealed the anomaly of dark matter. There is, at present, no widely accepted physical theory that can account for dark matter, so that what we know of dark matter to date is what we know from observational astronomy.

2) No one has a strong desire to shake up the established theoretical framework either for cosmology or for fundamental physics. In other words, a radical theoretical breakthrough would upset the applecart of contemporary science, and this is not a desired outcome. The focus on dark matter as an undiscovered fundamental particle banks on the retention of the standard model in physics. Much as been invested in the standard model, and science would be more than a little out to sea if major changes had to be made to this model, so the hope is that the model can be tweaked and revised without greatly changing it. One approach to such change would be via what Quine called the “web of belief,” according to which we prefer to revise the outer edges of the web, since changing the center of the web ripples outward and changes everything else. The scientific research program at stake — which is practically the whole of big science today, with fundamental physics just as significant to astrophysics as observational astronomy — is an enormous web of belief, and if you got down to a fine-grained account of it, you would probably find that scientists would disagree as to what is the center of the web of belief and what is the periphery.

I suspect that it may be the case that, the more mature science becomes, the more difficult it will be for a major scientific revolution to occur. Any new theory to replace an old theory must not only explain observations that cannot be explained by the old theory, but the new theory must also fully account for all of the experiments and observations explained by the established theory. Quantum theory and general relativity are the best-confirmed theories in the history of physical science, and for any replacement theory to supplant them, it would have to be similarly precise and well confirmed, as well as being more comprehensive. This is a tall order. Early science picked the low-hanging fruit of scientific knowledge; the more we accumulate scientific knowledge, the more difficult it is to obtain more distant and elusive scientific knowledge. Today we have to build enormous and expensive instruments like the LHC in order to obtain new observations, so each round of expansion of scientific knowledge must wait for the newest scientific instrument to come on line, and building such instruments is becoming extremely expensive and can take decades to complete.

The particle zoo of the standard model of particle physics: where is dark matter?

The particle zoo of the standard model of particle physics: where is dark matter?

Partly in response to this slowing of the discovery of fundamental scientific principles as science matures, we can seen a parallel change in the use of the term “revolutionary” to identify changes in science. It is somewhat predictable that if a new particle is discovered that can account for dark matter observations, this discovery will be called “revolutionary” even if it can be formulated within the overall theoretical context of the standard model, rather than overturning the standard model. In other words, less is required today for a discovery to be perceived as revolutionary, but, at the same time, it is becoming ever more difficult even to achieve this lower standard of revolutionary change in science. It is extremely unlikely that the macroscopic features of the contemporary astrophysical research program will change, even if the standard model were overturned by a discovery related to dark matter. We will continue to use telescopes and colliders to observe the universe and use computers to run through simulations of incredibly complex models of the universe, so that both observational and theoretical astrophysicists will have a job for the foreseeable future.

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Perhaps the most studied avenue to augment the standard model to account for dark matter is the supersymmetry (SUSY) approach, which posits a massive shadow particle for every known particle of the standard model.

Perhaps the most studied avenue to augment the standard model to account for dark matter is the supersymmetry (SUSY) approach, which posits a massive shadow particle for every known particle of the standard model.

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Wednesday


Sartre’s lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” has had a significant influence on my thinking. I’ve read it many times, and I have thought about its themes throughout my adult life.

Here is a passage from the lecture that has struck me in particular, where Sartre has just told a story of how a student came to him to ask whether he should stay at home to be a comfort to his mother or if he should leave to join the resistance:

“…I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

It was saying things like this that gave Sartre in particular (and existentialism in general) a reputation for being amoral. Is that all there is to say — invent?

Thinking of this recently I realized that a rough distinction can be made between what I will call existential choices and moral choices. Of moral choices we can reasonably (and coherently) ask whether the choice an individual makes is right or wrong. I will define existential choices as those choices of which it is not as reasonable, or perhaps even incoherent, to ask whether the choice, once made, was right or wrong.

An existential choice might fail to have a right or wrong response because there are moral (and presumably equal) reasons on both sides of the question. This is obviously an instance of moral choice and existential choice overlapping. It is important that we recognize such a category of choices, because so much of life consists of choices regarding which there are moral claims on both sides of the question, and no one side or the other is obviously the side of greater good or lesser harm. I will call these choices impure existential choices.

The scenario that Sartre outlines in his lecture is, as I see it, an impure existential choice. There are valid moral reasons for the student to remain to support his mother, and there are valid moral reasons for the student to leave to join the resistance. Neither the reasons on one side of the other, however, seem to preponderate.

Pure existential choices, on the other hand, are when moral issues are not at stake (or, at least, not so clearly at stake). Those pure existential choices that involve life-altering events are obviously of most interest to us. When you choose to marry, if you do so choose, and whom you choose to marry, is an existential choice. There is no right or wrong answer, and it would be misleading in most cases to identify marriage as a moral choice. But it is a life-altering choice, and that makes it an existential choice of some moment. And we can see from the example of marriage that trying to transform an existential choice into a moral choice is probably a mistake. Imagine saying to yourself, “I ought to marry this person,” rather than, “I would love to marry this person.” It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a marriage contracted under moral duress, i.e., obligation, could be a happy or successful marriage.

If you consider the possibility of self-imposed exile or of staying in your country of origin, this is a pure existential choice, and if you do choose self-imposed exile, you must then also choose a destination for your exile, and this is another pure existential choice. You will have a profoundly different experience of life if go to India or if you go to Peru, thus the choice marks a bifurcation in life, and it is difficult (or misleading) to invoke moral reasons for the choice made.

A pure existential choice is a bifurcation in life. A small bifurcation constitutes what philosophers formerly called the “liberty of indifference,” such as whether you sleep on your right side or your left side. Such existential choices may leave the rest of one’s life intact and largely untouched.

A great bifurcation changes everything that follows. A pure existential choice in an important matter sets the course for the rest of your life; it also turns aside from unexercised options in life that pass into the twilight of unactualized possibilities: experiences we never had, people we never met, places we never went, meals we never ate, music we never listened to. This is the domain of sentiment, of yearning, and of regret.

Pure moral choices do not preclude the possibility of pure existential choices, and vice versa: pure existential choices do not preclude the possibility of pure moral choices.

Most of the choices we make is life are mixed — so mixed as to make them impossible to classify. What I want to do here is simply explicitly recognize the possibility of pure existential choice as a domain of human experience.

It is perhaps paradoxical to point out that theory choice is often an existential choice. This is significant, not least because theory choice has come to play a significant role in philosophy at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions. One of the controversial conclusions that Kuhn’s theory was taken to imply was that choice among theories was essentially irrational. But if theory choice in science is arbitrary, how can it maintained that science is a more-or-less accurate explanation of the world? I hope that the paradoxical character of the assertion that theory choice is an existential choice will become obvious in what follows.

If a theory is chosen on the basis not of its truth but on its presumed moral merits (with “moral” understood in the narrow sense of virtues specific to human beings), we know intuitively that such a theory lacks the minimum theoretical legitimacy one would require of a theory. A theory must be chosen for theoretical reasons, or it is no theory worthy of the term.

This is an important point, because it implicitly plays and has played a prominent role in the political debates of our time. Social, political, and economic theories have been advanced and advocated on the presumed benefits of their moral merits, and not on the basis of the merits of these theories as theories. This has almost always been the case with theories of utopian social organization that in practice become dystopian horrors. Favoring a theory for its presumed (and narrowly defined) moral consequences may not be necessarily bad for theory and bad for the moral condition of humanity, but I can’t think of a particular instance when such a choice was anything other than bad.

However, we can say that a good theory is a true theory (or an objective theory, or that it possesses some other theoretical virtue), in which case a theory chosen on the basis of its moral merit — i.e., on the basis of its specifically theoretical virtues — possesses the theoretical legitimacy to pass muster as a theory. In recognizing this (if, in fact, one does recognize this), we recognize that theory choice is an existential choice, not a moral choice.

If we consider, for example, various theories of justice — retributive, distributive, procedural, restorative, organizational (which I would prefer to call institutional), and transformational — each has its advantages and disadvantages (moral and otherwise). It is very difficult to say, on the whole, whether any one theory of justice is morally better than another. So we choose our theory of justice on the merits, as they say.

This makes a choice of a theory of justice an impure existential choice, with moral considerations weighing in on both sides of any theory of justice, but no clear preponderance of moral weight on one side of the question of the other. Lacking clear moral preponderance, the choice of a theory of justice to adopt, while freighted with moral concerns becomes a de facto existential choice in which it is incoherent to ask whether the choice was right or wrong.

To sharpen the counter-intuitive paradox this can be made even more personal by considering theories of ethics: each ethical theory has advantages and disadvantages. Also, we cannot coherently step outside ethics and ask which of these ethical theories is right or wrong, for to ask whether something is right or wrong is to presuppose an ethical theory, and if we have presupposed an ethical theory we can, in turn, inquire about the choice of this theory.

Thus ethical theory choice is a pure existential choice. In so far as you choose a particular ethical theory (and in so far as you organize your moral experience you have a moral theory, whether or not you know it), you make an existential choice in which it is logically impossible to invoke moral reasons for the choice without becoming involved in an infinite regress.

When we move on to less personally poignant classes of theories — physical theories, mathematical theories, metaphysical theories, and so on — our choice of theory is only rarely (if ever) a moral choice. Theory choice is primarily an existential choice, and that is as much as to say that it is a rigorously amoral choice.

Theories shape our world. Theories organize our knowledge and experience, and in so doing organize our lives. In so far as theories shape our world and organize our lives, it would be difficult to name any more profound decision an individual makes than the theories that they adopt, and yet these theoretical choices are mostly existential choices.

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Tuesday


Day before yesterday in Philosophies of the Secret Garden I discussed a passage in Nietzsche where he compared his philosophical efforts to tending a secret garden, and I suggested that there are “secret gardens” in both science and philosophy that fall between Kuhnian normal science (or philosophy) and revolutionary science (or philosophy). Some of what I said applies to military doctrine, though the intrinsic properties of an essentially social experience make it a slightly different case that the essentially solitary activity of philosophy. This makes the example of science particularly interesting, since it occupies a position between philosophy and doctrine.

A philosopher and a mathematician can work in near isolation. Most, as a contingent matter of fact do not work in complete isolation, but prefer the stimulus afforded by interaction with like-minded thinkers, but some do in fact isolate themselves, and often this is purposeful. Descartes reputedly moved his residence repeatedly in order to avoid unannounced callers. Even today there are some well known thinkers who work in near isolation. Perhaps the most famous example in the present age is Grigori Perelman, the mathematician who proved the Poincaré conjecture.

Some creative undertakings demand the contributions of many persons and many talents. One cannot produce a show on Broadway or a film in Hollywood without the collective efforts of a great many people. One can write a screenplay in isolation, but it will never be produced as a film without the participation of others. Similarly, a visionary architect can design a building in isolation, but without the efforts and cooperation of a great many others, his buildings will never get built. The isolated novelist or philosopher or mathematician can hope that their work will survive and resonate with future ages, even if it falls flat in their own time, but the more that a creative expression is communal, like film or architecture, the less likely this will happen, or, if it does happen, that it will resemble the vision of the isolated visionary.

Military doctrine — whether strategic, operational, or tactical — is a social art, like film or architecture. As a social art, military doctrine is less open to the work of an isolated genius. There certainly is normal doctrine and revolutionary doctrine, parallel to normal science and revolutionary science, but there is far less latitude for a secret garden of strategy. Furthermore, doctrine is not only a social art, it is also an overwhelmingly contingent art that has little to do with necessary, a priori truths. Doctrine is learned from particular, empirical states of affairs. This knowledge can, of course, be acquired in isolation, like a knowledge of philosophy of literature, but the most recent developments are not likely to be widely available, and in fact most of the relevant details may be classified, or, if not classified, certainly difficult of access.

Having made the case for doctrine as a social art, and acknowledged the difficulty of acquiring knowledge of doctrine in isolation, not to mention the near impossibility of attracting any interest in such an effort, it remains to point out that, while difficult and rare, it still remains possible for there to be a secret garden of strategy, and the very possibility of this, as slim as it is, presents the possibility of a game-changing confrontation with established doctrine. No one can afford to neglect the possibility, since it presents the aspect of a strategic shock that could upset accepted calculations.

As I noted above, individual pursuits like literature present no great difficulties to the individual enthusiast. Science was once like this, and science was once primarily the pursuit of gentlemen amateurs. Some of these gentlemen amateurs made great contributions, and the greatest of them — Charles Darwin — not only made contributions, but probably changed the way that science is done and effected a conceptual revolution as profound as that of Copernicus. Elsewhere I have called this the heroic conception of science — an individual, working alone, on a project that would transform the world, knowing that if the project is made public precipitously, it will certainly invite ridicule rather than foment revolution. Darwin knew well, as Nietzsche counseled, how to keep silent long enough.

Today science is mostly Big Science, but it isn’t all Big Science. There remains the possibility of the heroic individual scientist going against the establishment, which pursues the iterative conception of science with an army of scientists, organized in a top-down hierarchical structure that resembles military organization more than it resembles the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.

One could say that the more institutionalized science becomes, the more resources it will have at its command, and therefore the more difficult it would be for any individual to make a meaningful contribution to science outside this structure. But at the same time as institutionalized Big Science has many resources and an army of contributors jointly pursuing the same end, the spirit of individual initiative is weakened and the institution becomes vulnerable to group think that simply dismisses anything outside its purview as irrelevant and uninteresting. Institutionalized power carries with it the ability to pursue and attain ends that lie far beyond the ability of the individual, but it also carries with it the risk of stifling innovation.

To return to my distinction above between social arts and solitary arts, what could be more of a social art that politics? And is not politics the very soul of institutionalized power, being institutionalized power in its purest form, unencumbered by any desire other than power? As a nearly perfect exemplification of a social art, it ought to be the case that only those with extensive knowledge and experience within the social milieu that defines the art of politics would possess the particular epistemic background that it would make it possible for such an individual to make innovations within the field. But what we find in fact is that politics is the most uncreative arts, in fact, nearly hostile to innovation, and those who have been in it the longest are the most impervious to new ideas. Thus in the case of the social art of politics, institutionalized ossification so dominates political discourse that trying something new has become a near impossibility — indeed, as I have observed elsewhere, it literally takes a revolution to effect political change.

Just as the intensely social milieu of political thought takes a revolution even to implement small changes, so too the intensely social milieu of military thought requires the military equivalent of a revolution in order to effect changes. However, while in politics social conflicts are primarily resolved within a single social system, military conflicts primarily resolved in a contest between different social systems, except in the case of civil wars. This is an important distinction. The political life of a political entity may become so institutionalized that change becomes unthinkable, but the military life of a political entity can be decided from without, but those who have no stake whatsoever in the welfare of that political entity, and may even seek the dissolution of that political entity.

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