February 10, 2005

Superstring cultists--tough luck

Posted by Curt at 08:37 AM in Science | TrackBack

At the conjunction of this critique of reductionism in physics and this interview with Benoit Mandelbrot I think one sees the same basic dynamic at work: a devaluation of simplicity and generalization in math and science, what I suppose Mandelbrot might call “smoothness,” and a preference for the complex and the multifarious. To some extent this seems to cut against the basic scientific impulse to simplify, to generalize, which is what a law or an equation generally does. In Laughlin I think there is even a certain disillusionment with realism perhaps not totally dissimilar from that in the analysis of language by dear friend Wittgenstein. Although, by encouraging investigation of the specifics and intricacies of phenomena which seem to be superficially covered by the most general and basic laws and to give up idle speculation about the far nether regions of the universe in space and time which cannot in any way be corroborated, he seems to be trying to bring physics back into the solid world of relative certainties and reasonable evidence, it seems to me that this is a tacit admission that the theories which seem to cover and explain adequately all phenomena except for those extreme edges are in actuality insufficient to represent the richness of even the most mundane levels of reality.

Just as in the case of the over-heated discoveries of Wittgeinstein and Cambridge group, this sudden realization that the broad and universal physical laws established and the abstract shapes used to represent them don’t really reflect the full multiplicity of reality seems a little phony to me. I mean, isn’t that the entire point? Isn’t that abstractness and simplicity supposed to yoke all of that complexity within a reasonable level of comprehensibility sufficient to possibly predict other phenomena, or at least relate them to what we have already seen? Now maybe we see a revision in the valuation of these ideals, and in both Laughlin and Mandelbrot a movement away from final solutions, formulations and summations. Seemingly nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that, but if one ceases to regard oneself as capturing the essence of a phenomenon in an equation or image describing it, then that necessarily leads to a re-evaluation of the type of work one is doing and the standard by which it is judged. Let’s put it this way: although there are many rules which often govern both the form and content of a form (some, granted, quite idiosyncratic and individual), it would be quite ludicrous to suggest that a listing of those rules would be an adequate reflection or description of the poem, let alone itself be a poem, or equivalent to the poem.

Philosophically, I’m not troubled by this as many scientists seem to be. Despite the many declarations that Newton had discovered the very mechanism by which God controlled the universe, he himself complained famously that he felt like a dilettante on the shoreline picking up stones and shells that amused him while neglecting the vast ocean before him. This seems unnecessary if one regards theorems as essentially creations, not mirrors of nature, and hence judge the cathedral of scientific knowledge by its height above the ground rather than as an incomplete ladder to the heavens.


I donít have any problem giving up the clockwork world, which is quite boring. Also let God play dice. Who is to stop him? How long has it been since anyone believed you can predict the behavior of complex systems based on the understanding simple laws? Chaos seems intuitively more normal. The regularities in it are what are unexpected. Now if people should apply the same reasoning to world affairs. You would clear out a lot of useless space in many libraries and book stores, fire your stock broker and forgive a few presidents for a few things.

Posted by: Dave at February 10, 2005 10:34 PM