Blogging live from the IAI – How The Light Gets In – conference at Hay-on-Wye. (Not to be confused with the contemporary and almost co-located Hay Festival of Arts and Literature.)
Well, I was live when I wrote that – but sadly teeming rain, muddy tented venues and lack of any safe power supplies, meant I lost the live aspect barely over an hour in.
So after blogging the rough notes on the first debate, the following is mostly edited / reconstructed from my manual notes. Actually five separate talks I wanted to record, though I have notes on a dozen more before I baled out on the Sunday.
Those I want to record are:
Bang Goes the Big Bang
- with Roger Penrose, John Ellis, and Laura Mersini-Houghton.
Philosophy Bites Back
- with Larry Krauss (on-line feed), Mary Midgely and Angie Hobbs.
Out of Darkness (Black Holes Don’t Exist)
- with Laura Mersini-Houghton.
Secrets of the Mind
- with Ian McGilchrist, Roger Penrose and Nick Humphrey.
The Limits of Logic (in association with BHA)
- with Simon Blackburn, Iain McGilchrist and Bea Campbell.
Meta-stuff first, as is my wont. I’m at least as interested in the process of dialogue as I am the content, The truth is rarely stated so much as approached or arrived at, if you’re lucky.
Full marks to facilitators in the last two session in particular, Joanna Kavenna and Shahidha Bari respectively, for demonstrating both the understanding and the skills to pull that off. Much appreciated.
Bottom marks to Larry for not being there in person, and more, see later. Removed any opportunity to join him up with Laura in a real conversation. One of my main justifications for making the effort (and expense) to attend this year.
Talking of which – OK, an early UK summer festival in a field. Can’t hold them responsible for the weather, but “hotel standard accommodation” – gimme a break. Could they not get more shelter up, slicker change-overs of venue seating, and more straw and matting down, once it was obvious we were in for a rainy weekend. (And were they honest about Krauss not actually being there before the final programme on the day – they certainly used his presence to advertise the full 12 days of events, even thought he was there for less than one hour by Skype link on the one day only. Just sayin’.)
Despite not seeing and/or recording specific talks with them, surreal to share the muddy byways with the wellies of George Galloway, Julie Bindel, Chris Huhne, Hillary Lawson, David Aaronovitch and more familiar faces, and many more I didn’t see – Laurie Taylor hosted 4 sessions, but I didn’t get to see him.
So here goes with the first debate,
Bang Goes The Big Bang
with Roger Penrose, John Ellis and Laura Mersini-Houghton – physicists all.
Penrose and Ellis fame precedes them. Mersini-Houghton is a favourite of mine, a multiverse cosmologist with an open-mind, not bound by the standard models and their singularities, gravitational mass & CMBR anomalies with their balancing (explaining away) “hacks”, but with first principles solutions to the wave equations.
David Malone hosts. “What is wrong with the big bang theory?”
John; Not much he says; as a theory it will outlast him. Contingent, like any theory.
Laura; it works well, but comes with a heavy price tag on boundary conditions, and whilst it does agree well with physics on earth scale – the standard model of cosmology is flawed, missing something, on the full range of scales, at higher energies. Initial boundary conditions are the critical hole.
Roger; It has problems with contravening 2nd law. Used to believe it was meaningless to think about “before” – but now believes this is a key thinking point -the initial state of entropy.
Turtles all the way down? asks John.
Roger is using eons for each universe – “inflationary” expansion is not right. Irregularities we see are NOT quantum fluctuations, but part of the boundary conditions from previous “eon”. Electron polarisation – B-mode “twisted light” – anomalies, pre-existing magnetic fields unrelated to matter in our universe – all current examples in recent reports.
Laura. Even time is an uncertain quantity – so before is a problematic concept. Matter and energy oppose – contraction and expansion. Fluctuations in pre-existing universe, may account for, certainly affect the probabilities, of a given universe emerging from its big bang.
My question – Given the anomalies – even “special” anthropic anomalies, hemispherical ecliptic CMB asymmetries – constantly arising in models of inflation to explain the structures in the current universe, is dark matter just a speculative hack, or is it a reality.
Laura’s answer; no such thing as dark matter, just matter not yet explained by the standard model, another feature of its incompleteness – it may not be the matter that’s missing, it may be another hole in the model.
Roger. Back to time, beginning of time, “nothing north of the north pole”. Nature of space time fundamentally. Geometry (conformal physics) says mass is irrelevant at high-energies near the big bang. Sequential, but not parallel universes
Laura – ie Multiple universes in space-time or just in time. This is the question the three of us are really debating. Predictions based on effects of pre-existing universe – classical, not just quantum entanglement – have been observed. Not 5-sigma yet, but you bet.
Roger agrees with Laura. Concentric echo-rings from cluster-collisions in the previous universe – another example predictable indicator of multiverses – will achieve 10-sigma standard.
My conclusion: Not so much “big bang” theory being wrong, but that the current cosmology and standard model physics underlying current big bang theories has many indicators that it is seriously flawed. The hypothetical predictions to be confirmed suggest significant alternatives, not just refinements of the current model.
[And - IAI have already uploaded the video of this talk.]
Philosophy Bites Back
With Angie Hobbs, Mary Midgley and (by feed) Larry Krauss.
Basic question – does philosophy have anything to teach or add to science?
Larry; Yes, sure philosophy adds something to some aspects of science. Particularly formulating questions where science doesn’t yet have clearly understood questions or hypothetical formulations. Physics is not one of those areas (!) – philosophy has nothing to add – the whole gamut from quantum to cosmic levels are already sorted.
Angie; Is cosmology physics?
The question is left hanging, but it’s a point I’ve made before too.
Mary; It’s not a question of adding philosophy to science. Philosophy is about many ways of thinking of which science is one. Arts, social, freedoms, history, and more. Physical science is only a small part of knowledge.
Angie; Aristotle. In science surely it is physics that is closest to need philosophical help with questions at its metaphysical boundaries. Think ontology – being vs beings, existence vs things that exist. Physics very doubtful on these questions at both extremes of scale.
Larry; Snigger – look at Aristotle’s mistakes – ancient lack of wisdom on causation.
Angie; No not a matter of being wrong, there is more to causation than efficient cause or a before / after view.
Mary; What bout questions that science cannot answer? Talking about the questions IS philosophy. Physics arose out of 17th century natural philosophy. Much current science is “Promissory Materialism” – ie yes there are gaps but we will have solutions tomorrow.
Larry; Even saying there are questions science cannot answer is a religious statement.
Angie; But there is more than questions of knowledge at stake. Getting from facts to values, from is to ought, does not come from science. And even with knowledge, the epistemic conditions for what constitutes knowledge is a philosophical question.
Larry; These are still empirical questions. Scientists can be “nice” people, religion has nothing to do with morality.
For a scientist Larry is rather obsessed with religion – he’s the only one talking about it and he’s mentioned it twice so far !
Mary; History is another kind of knowledge. Social facts too.
No, all still empirical says Larry.
Mary disagrees. Evolution is historical as well as scientific.
Larry; It’s creationist to say that. More than history, also predictive, testable hypotheses. It’s sound science, like economics – some tries to be scientific, which is often hard for it to be.
Angie; Episteme (again).
Larry; In science repeatable experiments lead to accepted facts. So for example, String Theory is not even a theory yet – it’s untestable hypothetical conjecture. Evolution and economics are sound theory.
Mary; What about Einstein’s ideas? They came from philosophical thinking, and they remain consequential and influential.
Angie; Physics and philosophy remain entangled – the language of facts and the science of stuff.
Mary; Issues like tolerance and freedom (eg Locke) nothing to do with science.
….. degenerates to repeat gain-saying, talking past each other.
My take on this debate. It was doomed to failure – failure to achieve any new agreement. Mary is the “doyen” of British philosophy, but being very elderly her ability to engage in the rhetorical cut and thrust is limited, especially in the mixed live and internet mediated (delayed) Skype context. Angie, still relies heavily on 17th C and earlier Greek sources, her specialist subject. Sure, I’m the first to agree there is nothing new under the sun, and all philosophy since has been footnotes to Plato, but that’s never going to impress the cock-sure Larry, who has all the skills of rhetorical come-backs with a side-order of flirtation. Yes even Angie couldn’t resist flirting back. Doomed I say, doomed.
My tactic with Larry is to (attempt to) draw his attention to actual physics that turns him on, and point out where some of the specific gaps have worthwhile epistemic questions, rather than get him interested in learning about epistemology per se. Being an influential “public scientist” Larry is worth the effort even if it gives him a breathtaking arrogance when it comes to listening.
Next, a surprise one-person event:
Out of Darkness
with Laura Mersini-Houghton
Laura; What I’m here to tell you today is news. The first time the findings I’m about to describe from my team have been aired in public.
First a little history of black holes – the stellar-massive and super-massive kinds. Oppenheimer and Schneider 1959. Singularities where physicists lose track of their models. Quantum gravity, Event horizons. Penrose & Hawking 1971. All evidence indirect. Hawking Radiation as particle-pair fluctuations are stripped of their partners near the event horizon. The Information Paradox – information about the prior structure of the universe is lost as the mass is consumed. Black holes have already been back in the news.
Today’s news is this; Black holes as defined by event horizons and singularities don’t exist. As sufficiently massive objects collapse under gravity and dynamic equilibrium is reached where the Collapsing gravity bounces back on the Hawking radiation. There are no singularities, no information losses, Einstein and classical physics are preserved.
The hypothesis already has several predictable observable elements to do with the frequency and dynamics of the bounce-back shock-wave. Watch this space.
The real lesson ? Dynamics. Evolution is ALWAYS part of the story. Paradoxes invariably mean something taken for granted as a static fact in the existing standard model is not statically true. What is observed is always “becoming” as well as “being”. All is dynamic. In this specific case the idea of a black hole as a thing, is really the process of gravitational collapse. The thing doesn’t exist.
My conclusion; Wow. As I suspected Laura is a proper scientist that talks sense. Compare Larry above. Such a pity my plan to get them in the same room failed to materialise.
Question – what about particle scale black holes? This new theory says nothing about these “primordial” black holes, but they are after all only hypothetical conjecture, not even indirectly observable. They probably don’t exist either, but this theory is silent on that.
Secrets of the Mind
with Roger Penrose, Nic Humphrey and Iain McGilchrist.
Joanna Kavenna; Are we about to crack the problem of consciousness?
Iain; What problem, there is no problem. We know and inhabit it, there is nothing we know more intimately, unlike the material world, which is an erection, a construct.
Joanna; But there are many who deny its existence or call it illusory, some who say it’s part of the universe rather than an emergent property, others who even say it’s the other way around, that matter is “phase” of consciousness.
Nic; Yes, there are many conflicting ideas, we are not close to agreeing the solution. The problem remains sentience, the so-called hard problem. The explanatory gap between neural correlates and the subjective experience of qualia.
Roger; No, there are plenty of clues where the solution lies. In understanding of numbers and computation. Turing was bugged by QM self-inconsistencies between the wave equations and the observer /measurement problem. But these are not so much unexplained inconsistencies as clues that we have the model wrong. Consciousness must in some way come about from QM … Penrose-Hameroff theory basically …. consciousness arises from QM-coherence in micro-tubules at the neuronal level. There are now empirical indicators.
Left hanging …. many attempts at expressions that attempt to define what consciousness is before we can agree an explanation.
Long story short … Nic sticking to his “Cartesian theatre” or evolved, emergent stage-show view. Iain and Roger seeing some more fundamental widely distributed connection between consciousness and matter – in that order.
Iain and Roger seem to be agreeing something like – the elements of consciousness exist in physics. The brain – and wider neuro-physiological system - is simply the most evolved “transducer” of consciousness so far.
Apart from that putative agreement, worth hanging onto, I didn’t hear a lot new there, certainly nothng more than restatement of differing views. I don’t yet buy QM-coherent micro-tubules (too convenient, and too classically scaled) it’s more fundamental than that. Even emergent, in a layered rather than historical timescale sense. I have my own models, closer to McGilchrist.
Finally, for this report:
The Limits of Logic
with Simon Blackburn, Bea Campbell and Iain McGilchrist
However important and valuable it is, yes, there are limits to logic – who could disagree.
I have yards of notes – too many to record here. I really got a lot out of this one for meta-reasons. [IAI have posted the video of this talk - and hey - that's the back of my head with the glasses perched on top. ]
Iain I already know and like – as you can probably tell from above – and I have many links to him in the blog.
Simon has been one of those “mainstream academic” philosophers I’ve never previously gotten into or found a distinctive voice or message – so it was good to see the common sense and humanity in his interactions at close quarters. Obviously as the philosopher on the panel, he wants to sell us the value of logic, as a tool for testing arguments, but he’s as sympathetic to the psychologist and the political activist views as the next human. I must find something of his to read.
Bea I’ve heard, but never listened or read. Her contributions were refreshingly different to me in this context. She spoke from experience – scars – of many different viewpoints to every issue – and we (all) listened. No-one needed to disagree.
Iain said applying logic can be part of the tick-box mentality, that misses the real point, which may be less than 100% logical but nevertheless meaningful. The obsession with 100% logic can be autistic. Simon said the same thing a different way. It is always useful to test any argument with logic, test it for logical consistency. But failing the test, doesn’t mean the sense is wrong. Obviously there is something wrong with the argument, but the conclusion, the action, may still be right. The error may just as likely be be in the model underlying the argument.