Category Archives: Philosophy

Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

One of my top books of the year. Hossenfelder brilliantly covers the intersection of philosophy, hard science, and social science. She has a lot of wisdom about certainty, error, doubt, and why quantitative analysis is important and useful, but also prone to abuse. Her thesis is that a scientist’s goal is understanding the natural world. In that pursuit, many scientists get a little too caught up in constructing elegant mathematical models. Models and equations useful when they add to understanding, which they often do. In fact, they are often vital to it. But models are a means, not an end.

To Hossenfelder, it is disconcerting how often scientists describe their models and equations as elegant. The word is everywhere. It is in scientific papers and conferences, in classroom, as well as popular-level books and magazine articles meant to inspire the public. Scientists sometimes even judge their theories and experimental results to be true or false based on whether they are viewed as beautiful or elegant.

This is a problem because the universe does not care if people think it is beautiful or not. F=MA is either true, or it isn’t. Ptolemy’s laws, or Keplers, or Newton’s, or Einstein’s, or the string theorists’ ideas, are all either true or false. The answers do not depend on whether someone thinks they are elegant. Rather than chasing elegant ghosts, a scientist’s goal should be to get as close to objective understanding as possible, given human limitations.

Hossenfelder is a deep enough thinker to realize that our aesthetic sense likely evolved in response to our universe; causality runs both ways. It is not a coincidence that our eyes are most sensitive to the very E-M frequencies the sun sends our way, or that our ears respond precisely to the most common sound frequencies around us. In addition to our sensory organs’ capabilities being determined by evolutionary processes, so too did the way we interpret those sensory inputs.

Aesthetically, people tend to find beauty and elegance in evolutionary success, and ugliness in threats or failures to reproductive success. it is not a coincidence that signs of beauty are almost universally signs of youth, health, and fertility. Most people consider symmetrical faces more beautiful because symmetry correlates with good health, and with good genes. We prefer cleanliness over filth because bacteria and disease are bad for survival and reproductive success. So it makes sense that scientists, as humans who evolved in just this way, both have the aesthetic sense that they do, and that they feel compelled to find it in physics and other sciences.

If a symmetrical face is elegant and beautiful, so is a scientific equation that exactly has a given symmetry, or exactly fits a certain exponent. e=mc2 is much more appealing than, say, e=mc2.1. Some laws, such as the exchange rate between matter and energy, do have this elegant precision. This is fortunate, otherwise humans might never have discovered them! Others do not, such as the law of entropy, the probabilism of quantum mechanics, or the way friction coefficients, alloys, or engineering tolerances often defy deep-decimal precision in practice.

Our search for elegance in scientific research is a longstanding natural impulse redirected in a new and foreign direction. Humans have been a species for perhaps 200,000 years, and scientists for just a few hundred years. It will be some time before evolution is able to address Hossenfelder’s concerns. Until then, the least we can do is be aware of our elegance problem.

While reading the book, I kept thinking it had just the sort of message that my former professor Russ Roberts would enjoy. One of the hallmarks of his approach is a conscious avoidance of certainty, and keeping in mind the difference between good and bad uses of statistics (Russ is also a keen and humble philosophical thinker). As it turns out, Russ had an excellent conversation with her on his EconTalk podcast. It’s worth a listen, especially for those who don’t have time to read the whole book.

Though Hossenfelder’s home is in physics, in several points during the book she acknowledges how her thinking applies to the social sciences. She’s right; economists in particular would do well to consider her arguments. Her arguments about the parallel uses and abuses of mathematical modeling has some intersection with Jerry Z. Muller’s recent book The Tyranny of Metrics, though Hossfender’s arguments are more nuanced and broader-ranging, and have a deeper philosophical foundation.

Lost in Math also reminded me of F.A. Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution in Science, which distinguished between science and scientism. As Hayek defines the terms, science is the process of learning about the universe and the beings who live in it. Scientism is more about method-worship, valuing mathematical elegance as its own end. When taken too far, scientism can color results and potentially stunt entire research programs and lines of inquiry.

This has happened in economics. Crudely, science and scientism can be personified as Adam Smith vs. Paul Samuelson–though again, very crudely. Peter Boettke contrasts mainline vs. mainstream economics to make a similar point. Smithian mainline economists are interested in the human condition; mainstream Samuelsonians are a little too interested in technical proficiency and elegant modeling. They would do well to focus a little less on Homo economicus, and a little more on the admirable and real, though admittedly less elegant, Homo sapiens.

Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Diderot is best known for editing the Encyclopedie, the first volume of which was published in 1751. Though little-read today, it was one of the most influential works of the Enlightenment. Other than that, most people pay Diderot little mind, aside from noting that he was more vocal about his atheism than most other Enlightenment thinkers, who mostly were, or pretended to be, deists. Curran shows that there was much more to Diderot.

He was a polymath, writing as many as 7,000 articles for the Encyclopedie on a wide variety of subjects. He also wrote plays, dabbled in science, was imprisoned for his beliefs, opposed slavery and advocated for women’s rights, befriended and then fell out with Rousseau, pushed the boundaries of sexual discourse, was a respected art critic, and spent several unhappy months in Russia in the court of Catherine the Great.

After his 1784 death at age 70, Diderot was, ironically, buried in a church. Perhaps fittingly, his grave was disturbed during the French Revolution, and though he is still somewhere in the church, nobody is sure quite where.

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

More philosophical than I expected. Panek gives an excellent history of gravity, from Aristotle on down through Philoponus, Galileo, Newton, and on down the line. Philoponus, an Egypt-born 6th century Byzantine philosopher, was someone I was unfamiliar with, and it was a treat learning about a new figure in the history of science. He figures prominently early in the story, and more or less came up with the modern understanding of inertia, which he called impetus.

Unusually for his time, Philoponus was not content to rely on Aristotle and Plato’s works as settled fact. He preferred some measure of empiricism. He did not go as far as Francis Bacon’s audaciously titled New Organon (intended to replace Aristotle’s Organon, which was all but an eternal sacred text), but Philoponus’ empiricism was still controversial.

While Panek ably explains the science of gravity at a popular level, he is clearly more interested in the philosophy surrounding it. In particular, if you ask a scientist not what gravity is, but why it exists, they have no choice but to tell you they do not know. That, more than anything, is what interests Panek, and what drove him to write this book.

A good scientist has no problem admitting they do not know something, of course. A lifetime of study and experiment tells even the most brilliant scientist nothing about why, only about the what. Maybe someday we’ll gain that level of knowledge. But after so many attempts from Aristotle to Philoponus through today’s sophisticated experiments, Panek is not optimistic.

Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus

There is value in engaging worldviews very different from one’s own. It is an exercise in empathy, and can also sharpen one’s own arguments and views. As for Camus, I genuinely wonder if he was more interested in fashion than he was in sincerity, wearing his ideas as though they were a costume in order to draw attention. It could also just be that I don’t understand him, or he didn’t want to be understood.

In Greek myth, Sisyphus’ punishment for his hubris against the gods was to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to fall back down at the end of the day. He was to repeat this punishment every day for eternity. For Camus, the goal of each day of life is a Sisyphean task of not committing suicide. Much of the rest of the book is as overly dramatic as it sounds. Maybe Camus was going through a hard time and needed to talk himself out of suicide, or maybe he just wanted to impress women at the local café by playing the brooding countercultural type. Maybe he was just a drama queen. It’s hard to tell. Camus does offer some commentary on Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and others, but I still can’t say I got more out of this book than the $1.95 I paid for it besides some insight into his boutique definition of the word “absurd.”

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

This Pulitzer-winning 1951 novel is starkly relevant today. When a commander is clearly unfit for the job, at what point is it ok to depose them, and on what grounds? John Locke wrestled with this question. So did the American revolutionaries he influenced—as did their opponents. This book, set in World War II, explores the same question onboard the Caine, a fictional World War II U.S. navy minesweeping ship. The main character, who is something of a privileged twit though with redeeming qualities, enlists in the Navy and finds himself aboard an old bucket of a ship near the end of its lifecycle. The Caine‘s captain is as mediocre as his ship, and is eventually transferred elsewhere.

His replacement, with the Melville-esque name Captain Queeg, quickly establishes his popularity with the crew with his attention to details the previous captain had neglected, and boosts morale. But after the initial wave of good feeling, the mood quickly shifts. He is indecisive and wavering during several critical points of action, and nearly loses the ship and its crew more than once. He isolates himself in his cabin, avoiding both crew and duty. When they enter his cabin to bring him news, he is nearly always asleep, undressed, or unshaven. Captain Queeg resorts to harsh, arbitrary discipline, such as cutting the crew off from all non-subsistence water rations for 48 hours while the non-air-conditioned ship is sailing near the equator. The crew had earlier exceeded their water usage quotas by ten percent. This and other nonsensical measures, along with another panic attack during action induce the grumbling, frightened crew to relieve him of command.

The book is interesting because the case is not so cut-and-dry. During the court-martial trial that follows the mutiny, Queeg never exceeded his bounds of authority under regulations, and gives decent justifications. Despite showing some signs of mental illness, doctors refuse to formally diagnose him with anything that would render him unfit for command. Queeg is also able to give plausible justifications for his command decisions. Meanwhile, the crew clearly had an animus against him. There is clear evidence they conspired against Queeg in a premeditated mutiny, which the crew members admit to. After the trial, both of the mutinying crew members find themselves captaining the Caine at various points before its decommissioning. They find their performance in that difficult job to be not much better than Queeg’s.

The Caine Mutiny presents more questions than answers, on purpose. That is what makes it both an excellent novel and a good lesson for today’s predicament with President Trump. There are clear signs that his temperament is not suitable for the presidency, yet it’s not so cut-and-dry in a legal case. He has little respect for the rule of law, has an arbitrary, uncertain approach to policy, is an alienating diplomatic presence, and deliberately polarizes the electorate. His age and mental state are also tempting to question. But at the same time, does he meet the threshold for 25th Amendment action, or for impeachment? It’s not black-and-white, and both sides have good arguments. Moreover, Trump’s potential replacements from either party don’t necessarily guarantee improvement.

The weighty matter of mutiny is both leavened and paralleled in the main character’s romantic subplot. He comes from an upper-middle class WASP-ish upbringing. In his first post-Princeton job, as a nightclub pianist, he meets a young singer of poorer Italian-Catholic background. They genuinely love each other, but the main character’s reticence to marry outside of his class and religion, along with some mommy issues, complicate things. They are a cute couple together and the reader naturally wants to root for them, but both external circumstances and mutual idiocy keep them apart—though far more his than hers. At the end of the book, as with the question of mutiny, their relationship is unresolved, but it seems hopeful that things will work out.

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

This 1967 book has long been a Cato Institute favorite, and had been on my to-read list for years. It was particularly influential on Gene Healy’s Cult of the Presidency, which makes a compelling case for reining in an executive branch that has grown proportionally too powerful compared to the legislative and judicial branches.

Bailyn is a very detailed writer; his more recent The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction is so filled with minutiae in its chapter-by-chapter crawl of the different regions of North America’s east coast takes almost as long as the actual journey. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is much livelier in comparison. It opens with a close look at the origins of pamphlets as a medium, in Bailyn’s usual microscopic detail, discussing everything from page size to word counts to stylistic conventions—yet it’s genuinely interesting, and difficult to put down.

Other themes get similar treatment, but Bailyn always keeps in mind the bigger picture; there is method to his madness. Along the way I was surprised to learn of John Adams’ skepticism of Montesquieu, who inspired many revolutionary ideas. Adams, ever practical, thought Montesquieu’s thought too theoretical and idealized. Bailyn also offers insights into the debates over when rebellion was a legitimate course of action (Locke was not the only inspiration); the rejection of rigid European-style social hierarchy and titled nobility; slavery; freedom of religion; and more.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

A big part of the process of modernity is widening one’s circle of concern. People have always looked out for themselves and their family. As trade grew, people’s circle widened from the tribe to include one’s trading partners, whether in a farm-and-village dynamic or including long distance traders. As the scale widened, people had to be more accepting of people who dressed differently, spoke different languages, and worshipped different gods. The process is not over. In the last 70 years or so, the circle of concern has grown to address racism, homophobia, transgender rights, and more. The proper size of one’s circle of concern is at the heart of today’s debates over issues such as LGBT rights, trade, and immigration. Animal rights activists are even trying to expand the circle of concern to other species.

What does the circle of concern have to do with a science fiction novel? A lot. In Children of Time, the first book in this series, a botched attempt at seeding an alien planet with Earth life leads to an advanced civilization of spiders and ants, instead of the intended apes (a literal barrel of monkeys burns up while entering the atmosphere). The nanovirus-enhanced intelligent spiders and humans eventually become allies, widening their circles of concern to include two very different sentient species.

This book is the sequel; I do not know if further volumes are planned in the series. It introduces a race of nanovirus-enhanced octopi as well as an alien life form that is something like a slime mold. Where the first volume was evolution-themed, this volume is about psychology and consciousness. It is more interested in exploring and understanding how different species think, feel, and communicate. It as though Tchaikovsky is expanding Adam Smith’s circle of concern as broadly as he possibly can, and seeing what happens.

Tchaikovsky’s spiders communicate through vibration and touch, and are unable to hear human speech. Both spiders and humans come up with all kinds of translators and ways to understand each other, and though their friendships are sincere, some differences are too vast for them to comprehend. Also of interest is the spiders’ own gender disparity, in which males are discriminated against and discounted as inferior, mirroring our own species’ issues. The spiders have even been making progress in recent generations, with male spiders advancing to prominent scientific research positions, though workplace politics are touchy.

The stars of this book are nanovirus enhanced octopi, who ancient humans seeded on one of two habitable planets in a different star system than the spider planet from the first book. Tchakivsky researched the subject, and the octopi in his book are impulsive, emotional, factional, and quick to change their minds as their emotions explore different sides of an issue. Not being able to use speech like humans or vibrations like spiders, octopi instead communicate by changing colors. Different feelings are automatically expressed in different colorations, which they are unable to hide. They almost literally wear their emotions on their sleeve, and their intellectual deliberations are plainly visible.

Also putting in a turn is an alien life form with a collective consciousness, kind of like an intelligent slime mold or a bacteria with a long collective memory and the ability to interface with and control other organisms. This lets Tchaikovsky explore a whole other form of consciousness, of which we don’t have any examples on Earth.

The plot throws these very different consciousnesses together and lets them try to sort out who is on who’s side, how to overcome communication barriers, and try to come to some kind of understanding. The extent to which they can succeed requires a circle of concern rather greater than most people on Earth have today.