Smolin – Hoping for the Reality of Particles?

I’m into the final third of Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” – his summary of lessons learned from his thesis.

As Sabine Hossenfelder’s review points out, scientifically, the tone is speculative, suggesting more work and experimentation needed to complete the job. That’s true, he’s not making wild claims.

“He deserves applause for also mentioning the Montevideo interpretation and superdeterminism, though clearly he doesn’t like either. I have found his evaluation of these approaches overall balanced and fair.”

There are really two strands to Smolin here:

One is the “plea” for realism in science in the face of so much mathematical abstraction – in say Copenhagen quantum mechanics – that works but doesn’t even attempt to explain what might be real. (He calls it a monumental scandal that the unreality of this choice simply became the accepted orthodoxy – for many decades of science teaching and practice.)

The second thread throughout is positing Bohmian pilot-wave mechanics, Einstein, deBroglie, Wheeler, Bell (ie Paris) as an alternative to the Bohr / Heisenberg (ie Copenhagen) fan club. An alternative that is more “realist” in the sense that both wave and particle manifestations are “beable” rather than any uncertainty about one or the other. (Smolin – and Hossenfelder in her review and comments – dwell at length on the and/or both/either interpretations of superposition and wave-particle duality, location / momentum uncertainty.)

But he points out that both theories come with the baggage of infinite decision-forks of every possible evolutionary history somehow being “real”, not just the actual path(s) taken. If the Everett “many worlds” take on Copenhagen is just a fudge that permits anything and everything conceivable and therefore explains nothing real, then the Paris take on forking paths of pilot-waves might seem very similar.

“A perceptive reader might be troubled by this similarity”

Yes, I was well ahead of him before we got to this sentence. And also in the metaphysics of our demands for “reality”. Smolin clearly yearns for primary reality to be particulate matter with the wave functions simply as guides (pilot waves).

“This brings up a hidden, perhaps unconscious assumption made by adherents of pilot-wave theory [ie himself here] which is that the reality that we observers perceive and measure is composed of matter constructed from the particles [in this theory].”

“To make sense of pilot-wave theory we must privilege the particles and postulate that the world we perceive consists of the particles.”

Smolin has already dismissed epistemic models based on what we can “know” in favour of ontologies of what really exists “out there”. But this is where I still believe he is missing a trick.

The knowledge model is still about “knowables” in the same way as his “beables” – there is no subjective observer involved in making them real, there is no measurement problem, no distinction between detector ensembles and otherwise real ensembles. “Detection” is simply the relations of significant points of “knowable” information being new interactions / arrangements / patterns of information – whether the participating object is a detector / observer or not. They’re “interactables” maybe?

Information is itself the fundamental reality behind BOTH particles and waves (in my book).

[He makes much positive reference to erstwhile colleague Carlo Rovelli, though ultimately disagreeing with his conclusions – which, as I’ve reported before, seem much closer to mine. Like Rovelli he uses “atom” in the intended Democritan sense, not the unfortunate consequence of the last century of unreal physics. All good.]

Smolin is railing at the right problem and he’s so close to the right solution, but maybe missing a trick. Reading on …


Graham Farmelo’s review in Nature.

Smolin Completes Einstein?

Mentioned in the previous post that I had ordered Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” and today I picked it up.

Posting just some initial thoughts from the blurb and the preface, so that my prejudiced position is transparent.

“Humans … confuse our representations of the world with the world itself.”

Good to see this statement of the problem right from the off. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Our model (ie physics) is not reality.

Part 1, the first 6 chapters, is entitled:

“An Orthodoxy of the Unreal”

Again, this is my position. Scientists often reel at the suggestion they are following an orthodoxy, but many (most) really are despite their protestations of scepticism and empiricism. He goes on to invoke Feynman …

“I can safely say that no-one understands quantum mechanics”

… and points out the the orthodox descriptions and functional mathematical formulations of quantum physics have too many unexplained and inexplicable mysteries to count as reality held in any common sense “view” in the mind of anyone, scientist or otherwise. (He also points out that there has been since Einstein’s time, an alternative neglected formulation that holds out greater hope of instrumental realism, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I recall Goldstein pointing of that fundamental physics remains incomplete until hypotheical rubber hits the road of reality.)

He “tiptoes” past the hard problem of consciousness to establish his focus on realism. He makes the distinction between realists believing that the world out there exists objectively (ontologically) and those “anti-realists”  believing reality can only ever be what we can know about the world (epistemologically) and declares himself a realist at the outset. I personally don’t need this distinction – have the same criticism of idealists, like Kastrup. Given a metaphysical ontology whose fundamental quanta underlying physics are information itself, the two views merge to be the same in my book (*).

I’m not sure exactly where Smolin ends up yet, though obviously by hanging onto realism he is more likely to bring his scientific audience along for the full ride. I seem to recall from my previous Smolin read “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” that he was / is much closer to my position.

Let’s see.


[(*) It’s a pretty basic text so far – the orthodoxy – low on maths. He even explains that “>” means greater-than. After many allusions to cats, he eventually spend 3 pages explaining Schrodinger’s thought experiment? Interestingly he explicitly discounts fundamental-informationists like myself as anti-realists. But a good summary of the Solvay and Copenhagen sagas (see also Huw Price article in previous post, and I must digest Sabine’s review …]

Superdeterminism Sucks

Fascinating Aeon article from 2016 by Huw Price (someone I really ought to read more) and Ken Wharton. (Hat tip to Judy Stout for re-sharing and editor Corey Powell.)

I’ve probably read and been influenced by this piece before, but it’s fairly long (5300 words) and I did a thorough read through this morning.

First off, before we get to the point of the piece, the first half is an excellent, readable summary of the whole quantum vs relativity story, from all the usual new physics suspects at Solvay conferences, via Copenhagen and Bell’s inequality to the present. The story I tend to summarise as:

“Einstein was right
when he thought he’d been wrong.
But he failed to convince
enough of his colleagues
in the remainder of his life.”

[Post Note: Something Lee Smolin calls “Einstein’s Unfinished Project” – the title of his latest book, which I acquired since this post and will review shortly. Meantime I think Sabine Hossenfelder has already reviewed?]

And we’ve never really recovered from mathematical conventions that work at the human scale, but cannot possibly bear much relation to reality at any fundamental level. (Collapsing wave functions, entanglement, the shut-up-and-calculate Copenhagen meme, the lot.)

The main thesis is that all these fudges miss what is blindingly obvious, that there is retro-causation – a kinda reverse causation. Really. I say kinda (sorta, after Dennett) because it sounds bonkers with a too physicalist view of the fundamental reality of action-at-a-distance coupled with the undoubtedly psychological construct we call time. Information precedes all else and what is known in advance affects what happens in future.

Lots of confirmation bias in my agreeing with that, given my informational metaphysics. Doubly so in the fact that this piece also de-constructs superdeterminism – the prevalent scientistic idea that determinism is so physically embedded that our free-will is also pre-determined or epiphenomenal – hence bogging us down in observer and decidability effects (*1).

“Three decades of worrying about free will
turn out to have been a complete red herring”.


[Post Notes:

(*1) Knowledge doesn’t come from observation. Information processing is creative, everything comes from processing information, including the stuff we eventually observe. (Science itself is merely 20:20 hindsight – Pirsig.)

Great little video from Carlos de la Guardia reading Hofstadter’s seminal “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in an Artificial General Intelligence context where it is often presumed that new knowledge comes from algorithmic empirical feedback (*2).

Counterfactuals – alternative future possibilities – are created not observed. Put me instantly in mind of Hofstadter’s conceptual slipping, much documented in his Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies particularly Chapters 8 & 9.

Much referenced elsewhere in this blog – here specifically on this topic. And of course Hofstadter was famously critical of AGI hype when many of its prime movers, including Kurzweil, were present.]

[(*2) of course it does come from real algorithmic processing of empirical feedback – but many many layers of algorithms, continuously recycled over evolutionary time. There’s as much psychological feed-forward as physical feed-back (hence “kinda” retro-causality). The evolved intelligent mind involves creative slipping beyond blind causal processing – that’s THE point.]

Social Media in Moderation

All things in moderation?

When I say social media, I mean all media, since in the 21st C all media even long-forms depend on eyeballs and clicks for audience engagement. The issue I’m focussing on is the rapid and ubiquitous transmission of information, independent of its “honesty” or its content quality in general. (I call that memetics, but what I call it doesn’t really matter. It’s an ancient concept that bad information travels faster and wider than good information – rabbits run before common sense gets its pants on. If it bleeds it leads, you name it. Fake News is the catch-all term for the problem.)

Similarly, I’ve often suggested what we need in this frenzied information free-for-all is “moderation”, some management and control of information flows. As soon as I do, most people point out why they don’t like censorship and how it’s the thin end of some slippery slope to totalitarianism. Yeah, we know, none of us likes censorship.

And often it’s the same people who “wish” political messages and information communication generally (*) were all honest.

The slippery slope is no argument of course, since information flows have always been managed. In professional journalism it’s what journos and editors do. In any board or committee, minutes of meeting selectively publish what is considered significant and appropriate. As well as control arrangements on appropriateness, public interest, decency, incitement, etc on the publishing side, there are also public legal sanctions that transgressors might face. The slippery slope is a fear that control (censorship) falls into the wrong bad / state actors’ hands. But all social controls, not just informational media, are managed by our governance arrangements – the checks and balances of a functioning multi-layered democracy of some sort, we hope.

The management arrangements matter, we care what they are. How they are organised and in which bodies the responsibilities are vested.

If you’re going to reject all forms of moderation on the publishing side you are relying only on legal redress, so far as I can see. Slow, after the event, processes will never be the solution to problems with rapid universal “social” media. (See rabbits and pants and stable doors, and … nothing new under the sun.)

And it’s not just the speed mismatch that makes it fundamentally impractical, there are well-founded arguments why the law is the wrong solution to political and social behaviour. Recall that even Boris’ claim of £350m/day to the NHS on the side of a bus (ie a clear political lie) was thrown out of court. Read Kenan Malik on this, (on Fake News generally) (specifically on the Boris / £350m case and the ills of legal interference in politics) or more generally listen to this year’s BBC Reith Lectures by high-court judge Jonathan Sumption on legal interference in political life.

I have my own ideas on Moderation, expressed various places, avoiding institutional censorship except as a last resort in the process. Moderation by platforms themselves is clearly inadequate. Detail aside, I’ve yet to hear any other solution suggested by anyone, that doesn’t involve management & control arrangements on the publishing itself and/or legal redress after the event?

Shout up if you have alternative ideas, OR would like to explore next level of detail from the above.

[Like so many things aimed at improving democratic management of society, information moderation is another topic for Citizens’ Assemblies.]

(*) ALL information flows are political – communicated for a reason.

A Life of Maximum Mattering

In the previous post and the links within, it is pretty obvious that I love Rebecca Goldstein and her work. I’ve read (and loved) pretty much everything she’s published and I’ve seen her in person a couple of times. I watched a video of a second talk of hers at this year’s recent HTLGI2019 at Hay-on-Wye after the one I reviewed earlier, though I suspect the two were delivered in the opposite order.

I suspect that because in the one I reviewed first she makes a crack about the difficulties for women in philosophy, especially with a high voice in her case. In this one, despite the fact this is material she knows well, the delivery is indeed quite annoying in terms of the tone of voice and breathless pauses.

As far as the content is concerned, as well as her oft repeated references to the Axial Age rise of philosophy’s normative questions, she is right that in the same way today’s new science tends to look like magic until absorbed invisibly into tomorrow’s familiar technology, philosophy’s questions of the time tend to get taken-up empirically by the science of tomorrow, philosophy still has a purposeful future. The normative and existential questions never go away, they just turn up in guises of the new day. The fact the questions never go away doesn’t mean philosophy doesn’t make progress any more than science doesn’t make progress. For both, the answers change to address the prevailing problems of the day even if the underlying form of the questions barely change.

How do I / we matter once we’ve satisfied those basic Maslow needs?

I am a full-fledged, grown-up adult.
I’m tryin’ make a dent, tryin’ to get a result.
I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite.
Tequila to drink and avocado to eat.

I can imagine anyone not already in love with her finding this not the easiest talk to listen to and pick-up on her message, but she’s worth it.

Navigating Tribal Truth

I’ve been a regular at the IAI’s “How The Light Gets In” (HTLGI) festival at Hay-on-Wye in recent years, but was unable to attend this year (though I may make it to the London event later in the year). They’ve started putting-up the video recorded sessions since the May bank holiday weekend event.

As a fan of Rebecca Goldstein, this is one I was looking out for, with Hilary Lawson (an integral part of IAI and HTLGI) and Homi Bhabha hosted by Rana Mitter.

After Post-Truth
How do we navigate a world where truth is tribal?

Apart from a slight blip (where Mitter raises a rhetorical question about Heisenberg and Nazism!) and a digression (on whether to “blame” post-modernists), it’s a very good session. Proper dialogue closing in on points of agreement, so much so that Lawson is required to add some disagreement barb for effect in his own closing remark.

I have lots of notes on what each says, but just watch it. Summarising the overall discussion:

All assertions are somewhat “tribal” from a position of identity of the person making the assertion, even a scientist making a would-be scientific assertion or a philosopher analysing its truth value. That’s nothing new, even if the social-media “post-truth” world seems to exaggerate and more transparently expose such tribal positions.

We shouldn’t abandon capital-T objective Truth of the real world out there as a concept that is the focus of science, but we should abandon it as the privileged form of truth in human discourse in general. In discourse all truths are in some sense perspectival and metaphorical, and the focus should be the process of the discourse. Rather than the objective truth, the focus is epistemological; how we get to know. The process must include looking and listening with respect for the other and giving credit for some recognisable version of their position (some minimum form of Rappaport or Steel-Man). Part of what Homi Bhabha calls “Interpretational Good Practice” (and I call Rules of Engagement). Even as a philosopher of science, defending the objective truth of realism in science, Rebecca Goldstein the fiction author majors on affect and love in human relationships. Attention to the other in the moment.

(Aside – tickled to notice that Lawson tags himself PoPoMo, exactly as I do.)

Watch this one, here.

Citizens’ Assembly

This topic is doomed to forever remain a stub for a more complete piece as it is continually added to by events.

Whatever we call it the Citizens’ / People’s Assembly (aka Standing Constitutional Convention) is an old idea whose time seems to have come.

Citizens’ Assembly is the term Rory Stewart is using in his latest high profile moves to highlight his credentials in bringing the country together as party leader (Tories that is, but it hardly matters.) He’s used it for both getting agreement on breaking the Brexit deadlock and to resolve resource priorities in Adult Social Care.

Previously any number of other topics have suggested the same idea: Lords Reform, Voting / PR reform, National & local devolution, Inter / Super-national federation, Lobbying rules, any number of constitutional changes. The point being with subjects that underlie our political processes, as opposed to the content of parliamentary business, it is easy to agree that something’s wrong and needs reform but almost always impossible to agree which solutions we should adopt. When the process is simply one of competing ideas criticising each other in a debating chamber until no single idea can “win” outright …. the status quo remains unchanged, and often the level of division, confusion and frustration has simply been increased.

We need a standing convention – and assembly that convenes on topics like these, but whose own constitution and make-up has been predefined independent of the particular topic. And it needs to be an assembly whose make-up is representative in ways different from partisan politics of Westminster and more importantly it delivers not legislation – that still the job of the legislature – but proposals framed as tractable motions to be put to the legislature. And whilst it would be a “parliament” – a talking shop – in a literal sense, it would not be a debating chamber. Debate is the too-limiting model that gives rise to deadlock in the meta-business underlying existing processes. It would be more like “committee” room business on a larger, publicly engaged scale. (Some have pointed out that set up this way the assembly itself would fulfill the original intended role of the second chamber and its own reform would be a natural outcome.)

The big risk in setting up the assembly is in getting its own constitution wrong too quickly and living to regret another broken piece of democracy. It must have limited immediate power and it must have values-based rules that permit their own evolution in specific mechanisms and procedures. Less is more when it comes to its constitutional definition.


[And within minutes, …

The partisan debating gets further polarised by social media sound-bites and memes reducing arguments to slogans and …. nothing gets done. We need the combined “committee” approach whose job is to produce a balanced proposal BEFORE it gets to the legislature.]


Ain’t That Queer?

Queer Theory – A new one on me, something I know literally nothing about, but I’ve been following an interesting series of social media threads from @Glinner (Graham Linehan) doing battle with the more PC extremes of gender and sexuality “terminology” – particularly the “self-identifying trans” debate – and getting inundated in trolling and flak attacks for his efforts. He’s on the right side of this, but …

Things we need to recognise as binary-distinct for good reasons and the terminology or taboo / lack thereof that limits our ability to talk about them is pretty central to my epistemological – “how do we know?” – thesis. However, I do defend PC considerations in their place, using PoMo philosophers to support my arguments where appropriate. It’s the extremes that kill us, especially when bureaucratically (autistically) enforced. Rules are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools – especially when it comes to language and terminology. (I call myself PoPoMo.) Language is useless without wisdom.

My ears pricked-up when @Glinner shared this short video of Derek Jensen with a class of students talking about “queer theory” and Foucault gets a mention (along with other founding proponents of its ideas) – basically using the theory to justify paedophilia (!)

[The clip is actually fascinating from the whole safe-spaces / trigger-warning perspective – on who’s allowed to say what in an educational environment – and how Jensen handles his jeering students. A exemplary lesson in teaching practice I’d say – but that would be to digress for now.]

Foucault is well known as one of the “foggy froggie” PoMo’s and controversially extreme on his rights, freedoms and equalities agenda in sex & gender and on society & crime – about which I know little beyond “controversial”.

He is however an interesting philosopher from a fundamental metaphysical perspective. Foucault is someone I’ve used explicitly.

Again it’s about the need to make distinctions – choose distinct words – whilst nevertheless understanding their proper dynamic relations. If we set the distinct items up as “objects” in their own right, we end up fighting battles over how definitive they are. This is necessarily polarising between extremes unless we apply PC rules that “ban” certain distinctions, limit meaning and flatten the dialogue. A choice between polarisation and meaninglessness. It’s “Identity Politics”, but we need distinctions to function. However distinctions need to have “good fences” because good fences make good neighbours and meaning is allowed to flow across them whilst we nevertheless respect their distinction.

For me this is another whole example of the populism problem when it comes to accentuating extremes. Explicitly here the idea that Foucault was controversial therefore to be condemned as entirely bad unless you’re agenda is to defend some specific political aim. Whereas like most human thinkers, good in parts but whacky, speculative, mischievous or plain wrong in others. Take care not to selectively misappropriate sound-bite quotes that can only ever make sense in some more nuanced context, and may not have been that good in the first place. The immediate preceding post was another example – whereby “pop-psychology” turned left-right brain considerations into caricatures too toxic for serious scientists to risk talking about.