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Albert Einstein’s Sci-Fi Stories (2015) (newyorker.com)
64 points by Hooke 53 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 19 comments

“New Theory of the Universe,” a headline in the London Times crowed. “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” For a introductory but fascinating treatment of why this is wrong you should read Asimov's The Relativity of Wrong (https://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.ht...) In fact, this should be required reading for science journalists, which, by the looks of the current writing, is not the case.

Sad to read that the Nobel committee was so influenced by Henri Bergson's baseless objections. As a layman in both physics and philosophy here's my take: Philosophers play a crucial function in all science but especially in physics, which purpots to explain reality in bizarre terms. It's when they go beyond interpreting and assisting to actually predicting is when things go wrong.

For a well-known example of this consider Hegel's "proof" in his dissertation that there cannot be more than seven planets, based on idealistic analysis of gaps between planets (to be fair, in his later work he has said he no longer holds many views expressed in the dissertation).

For a discussion on why Hegel thought so see: http://hegel.net/werkstatt/english/hegel_and_the_planets.htm. For a more in-depth discussion see this article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2251262.pdf?seq=1#page_scan...

Note that the article fails to mention that rising antisemitism in continental Europe just when evidence for relativity started to come in also played an important role (https://hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/6106/why-didnt-einst...), this would have been an interesting point, given the discussions being held in the US today.

> It's when they go beyond interpreting and assisting to actually predicting is when things go wrong.

It seems like another way of stating that is that philosophy is useful up until it gets into the realm of falsifiable and then is falsified.

It makes me question, then, a lot of the usefulness of modern philosophy.

I'd say philosophy that is useful must show some provable improvement into a way of life - that could be a model that can make a person more happy/productive/whatever but the explanatory power of modern philosophy is bunk.

Physics takes what we know and extrapolates to what we don't. Logical conclusions based upon what we know, and what we assume must be the case.

The best philosophy seeks to do the same thing, and present logical arguments proving or disproving something. Each argument is ideally falsifiable, and like physics, any unknown knowledge is recognized.

And much of physics which though must have been the case has been proved wrong too. I'm looking at you, "Luminiferous Ether".

Particularly fascinating to me was the arguments of AI, and whether consciousness can really be achieved by a computer. I would start with Searle's Chinese Room: https://www.iep.utm.edu/chineser/

Searle's Chinese Room is really bad to give as a starting point for someone, it's basically just a homunculus.

The idea would be to grapple with the question, not just accept someone's answer, even if you agree with it in the end.

Scott Aaronson has what is in my opinion so far the definitive take on the subject in https://www.scottaaronson.com/papers/philos.pdf , section 4. It's not just a homunculus, it's an exponentially large one that can't fit into the universe as we know it. While that doesn't necessarily completely destroy the thought experiment, it does, I think, rather color the discussion, vs. the mental image of some small space we'd normally call a "room".

There is some irony in using ideas articulated by Karl Popper to criticize philosophy's contribution to the sciences.

The parent isn't criticizing philosophy as a whole, just most philosophy, especially continental philosophy.

It's also worth mentioning that if you assume P and then prove not P, you've proven not P. It's not a contradiction, it's proof by contradiction. If P is "philosophy leads to the right answers" and then you engage in philosophy, concluding "philosophy does not lead to the right answers," you have disproven the original statement by contradiction. It's kind of like how anyone who says they are a liar is a liar.

>It makes me question, then, a lot of the usefulness of modern philosophy.

A lot of it is bunk, but given it sometimes creates things like the groundwork for automated computation, which now means we can question the utility of philosophy on a globalised computer network, I cut it some slack.

The interplay between physicists and philosophers is particularly interesting here. Einstein himself mentions that reading Hume was helpful to him[1]:

"Your exposition is also quite right that positivism suggested rel. theory, without requiring it. Also you have correctly seen that this line of thought was of great influence on my efforts and indeed E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with eagerness and admiration shortly before finding relativity theory." - Albert Einstein

[Logical] Positivism, which he also mentions, was a contemporary school of philosophy very much inspired by the empirical skepticism of Hume.

But the influence goes both ways; P. W. Bridgman held Einstein up as an exemplar for his operational perspective[2] which is a very important (if problematic) idea in the philosophy of science that says we can have to define concepts in terms of the actual operation we will carry out when we measure it, for example measuring distance by attaching a mirror to it and timing how long it takes for a laser pulse reflected off it to come back to us.

I agree with your statement that things can go badly wrong when philosophers start making predictions. At that point they are no longer doing philosophy but actually doing physics or some other kind of science... and unfortunately they are often unqualified for that kind of work. Some philosophers are strong logicians or mathematicians but few, I think, have enough applied mathematics or domain expertise to succeed when they start doing science.

But this is also troubling in many ways. For example, there is no way that Descartes, merely by sitting in an oven and applying his method of skepticism, could have deduced special relativity. Indeed, if he had deduced it, he would have had to reject it (for the time being) as not parsimonious enough! The observations needed to even know that relativity is necessary (Michelson–Morley experiment, orbit of mercury, gravitational lensing) are so technical that you can't even make the observations unless you already have a fairly sophisticated theory of how the world works! For example, you have to know that light is a wave that can interfere with itself before you can build a Michelson interferometer. (This problem is sometimes called the theory-ladenness of observation[4].) We have to layer many models to reach the truth. For example, to conduct an experiment meant to verify some prediction of general relativity, I might design a instrument (such as a telescope) using classical physics. I would then operate the instrument using the intuitive model of human-scale physics learned in my childhood - turning knobs and reading dials. Should philosophy have to be consistent with all of these models and well as providing guidance about how to move between them? What exactly is the relationship between science and philosophy? I don't know if anyone has yet given a full account.

My tentative view is that philosophy has to play midwife to science (providing methods, inspiration, and analyses) while being very careful to avoid competing with science in its own arena, as Bergson did. Socrates may have been able to play the perfect midwife (or so we're told) but for most subsequent philosophers it has proven very difficult to do pure philosophy without also letting their own preconceptions about how the world works accidentally slip in.

[1]: https://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/papers/HumeMach.pdf

[2]: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/operationalism/

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson%E2%80%93Morley_exper...

[4]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory-ladenness

Bergson is pure woo: Nothing but completely subjective, baseless, pseudoscientific nonsense. Here is a sample of how he wrote:

"The intellect always behaves as if it were fascinated by the contemplation of inert matter. It is life looking outward, putting itself outside itself, adopting the ways of unorganized nature in principle, in order to direct them in fact." - Henri Bergson

"The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory." - Henri Bergson

"Fortunately, some are born with spiritual immune systems that sooner or later give rejection to the illusory worldview grafted upon them from birth through social conditioning. They begin sensing that something is amiss, and start looking for answers. Inner knowledge and anomalous outer experiences show them a side of reality others are oblivious to, and so begins their journey of awakening. Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of following the crowd and by choosing knowledge over the veils of ignorance." - Henri Bergson

And here are a few of the more pointed things Bertrand Russell had to say about him (from History of Western Philosophy[1], page 791):

"One of the bad effects of an anti-intellectual philosophy, such as that of Bergson, is that it thrives upon the errors and confusions of the intellect. Hence it is led to prefer bad thinking to good, to declare every momentary difficulty insoluble, and to regard every foolish mistake as revealing the bankruptcy of intellect and the triumph of intuition. There are in Bergson's works many allusions to mathematics and science, and to a careless reader these allusions may seem to strengthen his philosophy greatly. As regards science, especially biology and physiology, I am not competent to criticize his interpretations. But as regards mathematics, he has deliberately preferred traditional errors in interpretation to the more modern views which have prevailed among mathematicians for the last eighty years." -Bertrand Russell

"In that case, he may be tempted to ask whether there are any reasons for accepting such a restless view of the world. And if he asks this question, he will find, if I am not mistaken, that there is no reason whatever for accepting this view, either in the universe or in the writings of M. Bergson. " -Bertrand Russell

Why would anyone think he was qualified to discuss physics? Bergson wrote a book called "Matter and Memory"[2] and his thesis, Time and Free Will[3], where he presented a highly subjective and basically meaningless account of "time." Like others have said, it's sad that his pseudo-intellectual rock throwing was taken seriously. Einstein himself credits Hume and Mach[4] with helping him get past the notion of absolute simultaneity.

[1]: http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF Books/History of Western Philosophy.pdf

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matter_and_Memory

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_and_Free_Will

[4]: https://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/papers/HumeMach.pdf

That was a strawman Peeping Tom Bertrand Russell constructed. Henri Bergson based a large portion of his work drawing the distinction between functioning on representation versus functioning on cognition.

representation = passive; science isn't assertive. Science is purely passive which is why scientists can never assert something is true but only that it hasn't been disproven. A scientist can say "this is what general relativity says, this is how general relativity maps onto the bending of light, apply it to your work or not. Take it or leave it."

scientism = passive-aggressive; it is assertive by asserting "no metaphysical woo" passively using representations provided by science. They're like the coworker who passively expresses how he feels about his boss by little gestures.

cognition (what Bergson called intuition) = assertive; it reaches knowledge of truth which is why it can definitely assert something is true. But it isn't forceful so it can't convince other people which is why it only reaches up to your being.

Anyone or anything can definitely assert something is true. Here, I'll do it with a scientific proposition: "Humans definitely evolved from non-human apes."

One thing that distinguishes science from many other modes of thinking is that scientists have learned that things that seem definitely true sometimes turn out not to be, which is why carefully expressed scientific judgements don't go quite so far as I just did. "Our current best explanations for the way the world is have humans evolving from non-human apes, and it currently seems incredibly unlikely that any theory that doesn't have that feature will work out better than those do."

If you come to some intuitive judgement, you may "definitely assert" that it's true. If so, that isn't because intuition has some power to "reach knowledge of truth" that's denied to science. It's because, in the grip of that intuitive conviction, you aren't thinking as careful as scientists-at-their-most-careful do.

> Anyone or anything can definitely assert something is true.

No they can't because sophonts aren't voluntarists. Sophonts are intellectualists. Although judging by your advocacy of the otaku theory of biology you probably have a voluntarist personality.

By the good regulator theorem, human cognition (intuition is bergson's word not mine) must be just as good as scientists-at-their-most-careful or I and you would be dead.

I'm sorry, but this is nonsense.

1. It doesn't matter whether "sophonts" (whatever exactly you mean by that) are voluntarists. It might matter whether voluntarism is right, which is an entirely different question, but I don't think it's credible that even that is relevant here. Why should anything so broad as voluntarism be necessary for anyone to be able to "definitely assert" that something is true? (Note that I didn't claim, e.g., that anyone at all can sincerely assert that anything at all is true.)

2. "The otaku theory of biology"? Are you just trolling?

3. "Voluntarist personality" doesn't make any sense. Voluntarism is a philosophical position, not a personality trait. If you mean that I'm the kind of person who believes whatever they feel like, well, please go ahead and believe that if you feel like doing so.

4. There is no theorem that would make us dead if human cognition weren't as good as scientists-at-their-most-careful, and if you think Conant and Ashby proved anything of the sort then I think you are badly deluded. What might be true (though actually I don't believe any theorem comes close to proving this either) is that if human cognition weren't perfect then we would be mortal. Guess what? It isn't, and we are.


Reflect on this: there are at least 200 factual errors on the front page comment sections of Hacker News. Do you nod along while you read it being entertained, or do you pinpoint the errors?

I'm not even talking about nigling details. I saw one comment about relativity with a huge scientific howler right in the middle of it. And people upvoted it sky high.

The people who upvoted it were being passive. The users of this site receive a passive experience and generally speaking are too childish to handle asserting their own mind. Even comments are largely passive. People don't even reflect on the subject-verb agreement of the sentences that they write. They are so childish that asserting themselves by the tiniest amount on their writing is not trivial nor has it reached the point of automaticity.

How does science work? It's largely like reading Hacker News. Scientists download research papers, understand them, and test them... and occasionally come up with new directions and ways (equiv 2 commenting on the newslink).

None of that are assertive. When an assertive person presents himself on a subject, he causes a PARADIGM SHIFT. He doesn't go along with the presuppositions: he creates his own presuppositions. This is Thomas Kuhn's "groundbreaking" thesis on scientific progress: some people internalize other people's presuppositions until they are fossilized in their brains resulting in them kicking and screaming on their death bed when it's time to admit it was a bad idea... or some people are like creative genius Thomas Hobbes who said he didn't bother reading all the failures before him because he was too busy thinking his own presuppositions.

You seem to be arguing different things in every comment.

As I understand it, your thesis now is that most scientists most of the time accept things they hear from other scientists. That's probably true. And it's part of how science works -- which it does, rather impressively on the whole. But the paradigm-shifting stuff is also part of science, and a vital part at that, so if this is meant to connect somehow to your earlier remarks about science being passive, "scientism" being passive-aggressive, and "intuition" being assertive, you have more work to do to justify that connection.

(And, once again, if you want to claim some sort of superiority for "intuition", you need to show not only that intuition purports to assert things more definitely than science does, but also that it does so correctly. Mere overconfidence is not an intellectual virtue.)

Thomas Hobbes was a smart guy. But when he tried to do science and mathematics, the results were not good. The most infamous example: He thought he'd accomplished the so-called squaring of the circle and duplication of the cube. He hadn't. (They are impossible.) So far as I can tell, none of Hobbes's scientific work turned out to have any lasting value.

"Peeping Tom"? I assume you're gesturing towards some sort of accusation here; how about making it explicit (and maybe indicating why, if true, it would tell us anything about the validity of Russell's philosophical opinions)?

It's an allusion to a (not very serious) essay Russell wrote called "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish."[1] Like the much more famous "Why I am not a Christian," this is Russell at peak anti-theism. (Russell's most important work came early, on the foundations of mathematics and the theory of descriptions, but like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, he because an increasingly vocal critic of religion over time. This is apparently an occupational hazard for public intellectuals.)

The actual bit is quite funny and widely quoted:

"Although we are taught the Copernican astronomy in our textbooks, it has not yet penetrated to our religion or our morals, and has not even succeeded in destroying belief in astrology. People still think that the Divine Plan has special reference to human beings, and that a special Providence not only looks after the good, but also punishes the wicked. I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious-for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: "Oh, but you forget the good God." Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious." - Bertrand Russell

Although it can't be said to really present a cogent argument. I doubt such nuns exist outside of an urban legend.

I can't really follow ErotemeObelus's arguments, but he does seem to be familiar with Russell's work.

[1]: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~rmuhamma/Philosophy/RBwritings...

So you reckon EO's calling him "Peeping Tom Bertrand Russell" because in one of his essays he calls a particular view of God a "Peeping Tom"? That would be ... strange, but I suppose you might well be right.

(I'm familiar with that essay, but didn't make the connection because, well, the fact that someone uses a particular phrase once isn't any reason to apply it at random to them in turn.)

Incidentally, I'm not sure it's exactly right to say that Russell started out doing good technical work in philosophy and then turned later on to anti-theism. E.g., A Free Man's Worship (not exactly anti-theism, but in the same ballpark) is two years before On Denoting (the paper introducing his account of definite descriptions).

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