Monday, January 23, 2012

The Philosophy of Cosmology

Tim Maudlin makes some interesting comments about the philosophy of cosmology. I have a few objections and observations. (See update at the bottom for an additional criticism.)

First, Maudlin claims that the universe is just "one huge physical object." This could be a significant conceptual error. I'm not convinced that "the universe" picks out a unique physical object.

I'm not a non-cognitivist about the universe. I do think "the universe" picks out a single, coherent idea. But I doubt that idea represents or corresponds to a thing.

I'm not an idealist, exactly. I'm a realist about everything that we say is part of, or constitutive of, the universe. But none of the objects of our experience--nothing we can conceptualize--fully constitute the universe. So "the universe" is an idea about something we never directly indicate. So I have this suspicion that when we conceptualize the universe, we are using a different logic than the one we use when we talk about things we can directly indicate and which play causal roles in the universe. Furthermore, considering that space and time are (according to Relativity Theory) functions of the universe, and considering that there is no privileged "now" which marks the present of the universe, it is impossible for me to conceive of the universe as a thing at all. But still, even if we go back to the time before Einstein and think of the universe as a set of all things which exist in space and time, I don't think the idea of the set of all things is itself a thing which could be treated like any other.

Next, Maudlin says, "Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn't do anymore. That it was something outmoded. And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that."

Maudlin's objection is to the idea that physics shouldn't be burdened with trying to make sense of its predictive tools. According to the Bohr-Heisenberg school (home to many renowned physicists, including Richard Feynman), we shouldn't try to translate fundamental physics into ordinary language, because we'll just end up with nonsense. Maudlin says that's just wrong. Maybe he's right, but I don't see any reason to think so.

The farther our physics gets from the frameworks of our everyday experience, the greater the gap between our physical theories and our common way of thinking about the universe. Why suppose that this gap can ever be filled? I'm curious to know Maudlin's reasons.

The final point I want to address is how Maudlin curiously frames philosophy as emerging from a single question. He writes: 'The basic philosophical question, going back to Plato, is "What is x?"'

I don't want to read too much into Maudlin's remark here, but it looks profoundly deficient. Sure, Plato's dialogues often focus on "What is X?" questions. But what makes the dialogues philosophical is not that question, but the way the answer to the question is pursued. Plato takes up such familiar and basic concepts as justice and beauty and shows that our understanding of them is not as clear or available as we might have thought. His dialogues explore and manipulate the way people think about their own understanding, forcing them to reflect on the form of their thinking and argumentation. That is what makes his work philosophical. It isn't that he asks "What is X?"

Update: I forgot to comment on Maudlin's remarks about evolution. This part is a bit over the top: "What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value."

First, who does he think hasn't noticed that humans are unique in our development of technology? Is that a serious criticism? In any case, the argument here is not valid. The fact that only one species has developed technology does not mean that it is not very useful, or that it is not of much evolutionary value. That's simply a non-sequitor.

I think Maudlin is probably right that we have no reason, or very little reason, to think that there is life on other planets which has evolved the ability to develop advanced technology. But that point does not depend on his curious claim that technology isn't very useful.