Our Physicists Fetish

This week I’ve been enjoying listening to the latest Massey Lectures, a series of talks by the physicists, Neil Turok. For at least a certain segment of this blogs readers,these lectures are worth checking out. You can do so by clicking on the picture above. In his talks,Turok provides an overview of the history of humankind’s quest to understand the universe in which it lives from the ancient Greeks to our own day.

He also provides a vision of what he calls “our quantum future”. Turok states in his lecture and its accompanying book “We are analog beings,living in a digital world,facing a quantum future.” I was intrigued by what this phrase meant and was lucky enough to find an pre-lecture interview of Turok by the ever excellent Paul Kennedy of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful program- Ideas.

Turok’s point is that human beings have an analog form of intelligence whereas the current generation of computers that surround us are digital. (A distinction I touched on briefly in my post Turning and the Chinese Room 2 .) Turok sees digital computers and how they process information as essentially “stupid”. Our analog intelligence is built on a much more simple “digital” DNA, and what we’ve done in moving to the digital world is in some sense an evolutionary step backward.

Quantum computers, however, which Turok finds inevitable, will be an evolutionary advance of a whole different order, a new,and yet more natural form of intelligence. I am not quite sure how to imagine this, but my intuition is to imagine an intelligence that could write every possible book,compose every possible piece of music, solve any solvable problem in mathematics.

Turok seems to think that this new kind of intelligence will lack purpose and intentionality which will be the role of our analog minds that will exists within this sphere of quantum intelligence with us playing a role that is somewhat analogous to the role our genes play to our much more complex brains. Our genes provide us with imperatives “eat, mate, acquire, rule” and our brains are tasked with the particular job of figuring out how to do this. We will give quantum intelligence its intentionality, direction, purpose, the “what” it is to do, but the new form of intelligence will provide us with the how.

All fascinating stuff!

And yet, as I was watching Kennedy’s interview with Turok I found myself getting a little annoyed. A former student of the brilliant Marshall Mcluhan,Kennedy kept trying to have a conversation about how specialization had made it impossible for people of different knowledge domains to talk to one another, that the university had become a “multiversity” with people cordoned off into strict domains. Turok didn’t really seem to want to engage in this line of conversation and muttered something about an intellectual diversity of perspectives being good, but physics had to be “in the lead”, which sparked an association for me of how philosophy used to be called the “handmaiden” of theology. And that’s when I started to wonder if we were all, myself included, under the spell of what was little more than a new secular priesthood.

Why do we turn to physicists for meaning? Why are the religious views of an eminent scientist considered major news? Why do we think physicist are somehow able to divine the human future? Perhaps its because physics has taken over fundamental questions that used to be the domain of religion and philosophy: “how did the universe begin? how will it end?” Perhaps we are contaminated by a kind of intellectual radioactivity from that generation of scientist during the Second World War that, with the bomb, gave us the capability of destroying ourselves. Perhaps we are so overawed by the technology and rise in the standard of living science has given us that we think the intelligence behind this must be able to answer the existential questions of the human condition, must have access to some sort of divine wisdom.

I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that even the most brilliant of physicists have had a horrible track record when they stepped outside their domains. Isaac Newton’s intelligence was a gift to humanity, but he was nevertheless a horrible human being. His view of the future was based on his obsession with counting down the days to armageddon by applying numerology to the Bible. Einstein thought global catastrophe was imminent unless a world government was established immediately after World War II. The only surviving genius from the generation of scientist that gave us the bomb is Freeman Dyson who thinks global warming is nothing much to worry about.

Few of the most renowned scientists have been great in other domains of human thought and expression great philosophers, religious thinkers, poets, writers,composers or painters. Perhaps the only ones that fit the bill are Davinci and Goethe. The former a great anatomist, engineer and artist, the latter both a great scientist and a great writer. Human thought and expression is multifold and no domain should have a monopoly on meaning or purpose.

Physics here isn’t in the lead so much as it provides the background for the world we live in: “what is it?” “ how did it come to be?” “how will it end?” “what is possible within it?” Given the vast differences in timescales between human life and civilization and the “life-cycle” of the universe itself, the question of our future and role within the universe is not one that physicists are anymore qualified to answer than the rest of us.

Far too often, and Turok is as guilty here as any, physicists use the same deterministic language to describe the future of civilization as they do for the universe itself. Yet there is no real way of knowing this. Perhaps intelligent civilizations follow different paths and end up at as many different destinations as are possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics and biological evolution. This to me seems a more interesting prospect than every world following the same damned deterministic course to the Omega Point or Quantum intelligence or whathaveyou.

In any case, this speculation about the human future is a parlor game that all of us are free to play, but presenting a personal preference for a particular outcome for civilization as physics isn’t science- it’s setting oneself up as a modern day arbiter between us and the gods physicists have shown us are not there.


12 comments on “Our Physicists Fetish

  1. In general I think much of physics has too great a focus on reduction to the simplest description, rather than seeking to find insights into life and meaning. Where physics appears to be most busy is looking for the smallest components of matter and their properties, or looking for fundamental laws that govern the universe in the large and small scale. I’m not aware of physicists going in the opposite direction and investigating increasing levels of informational complexity and representation, which typically start being labelled as a different discipline. Biologists of various sub-fields look at the complexities of life, but still seem to focus mostly on describing properties and behaviours as well. It seems to me that it’s really an exercise in philosophy to go back up the ladder of the finer and more detailed descriptions that physics has provided, up to their arrangement as biological organisms and further to the conscious entities we appear to be. It’s not as much a matter of describing, as ascribing meaning. Ironically, it’s something we have done with our minds all along to even create descriptions in the first place.

    On a related but lighter note, check out this xkcd comic on the purity of different sciences:


    Where do philosophers fit? 🙂

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hey Toby,

      Loved the cartoon. Like I think you would as well, I am glad other fields- especially biology and the social sciences have finally gotten over their “physics envy” and realize that the complexity of the living and social worlds can not be reduced to the models of the very big and very small that have worked so well for the physicists.

      I think what I was trying to challenge most in my post wasn’t physics itself-which has worked miraculously-but physicist “jumping over” the kinds of levels of knowledge you lay out, for instance, Neil Turok presenting his ideas about the destiny of intelligence in the universe in the same breath that he talks about the “plank constant” or the second law of thermodynamics or whathaveyou. What I am hoping for is a greater level of self-awareness on the part of physicists and a little more skepticism on the part of the media and the public, so that someone like Turok would say “here’s where the physics stops my own imagination begins”, or someone like Turok’s interviewer Paul Kennedy would have said to Turok “well tell me how much of what you just said is scientifically certain and not merely your own views on the history of science or future of technology”, “or how do you answer so-and-so whose views are different from your own” and that we would, all of us,realize that the physicist speaking is only human, their insight likely as flawed as ours- they just know how the universe works on a more detailed level than we do, and have some talents when it comes to advanced mathematics.

  2. Charles says:

    I don’t think physicists ‘take the lead’ in answering life’s major questions especially pertaining to humanity’s future. I would argue the other sciences have encroached on this domain. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett come into my mind almost immediately.

    However, I would agree that physicists are probably more respected within the academia and to the masses because of the kind of work they do which requires advanced mathematics, postgraduate education and specialised expertise. Perhaps, that might explain why some of us would tend to pay more attention to their philosophical opinions when they speculate on such matters.

    Certainly, physics has answered a lot of questions whether on the quantum to human and large scale. Philosophy has somewhat been sidelined on these domains. Partly, because philosophers themselves are either not equipped or confident enough and hence, am reluctant to comment on such matters. Perhaps philosophy is retreating into academia as it is increasingly seen as less useful to society. More often than not, the people who do philosophy of sciences are increasingly scientists.

    I am unsure if that is a positive development. I am unsure if physics will answer humanity’s major questions. But I am quite certain of this: if philosophers from non-scientific backgrounds don’t start to learn their sciences, they would be further ostracised from such discussions.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi Charles,

      It’s funny you should mention Dawkins and Dennett- I have a post planned on a talk by the two of them I will post in the next week or two.

      I totally concur with your view that philosophy has destined itself for irrelevance if it does not try to address the fundamental questions it has retreated from, and that philosophers need to become scientifically literate.

      Based on your comments though, I may have failed to elaborate my essential point which was to ask the question why we (the general public) seem to think physicists offer some fundamental insight into the meaning of existence beyond the questions of what the universe is, how it developed, etc. As long as a poet, a philosopher, a theologian, a science-fiction writer, a historian of civilization etc has a basic understanding of the physics behind the universe they are as qualified to consider its meaning and destiny as any physicists and their opinions or imagination is as valid. Many people, I think, treat physicists as modern day shaman as evidence for which I cite: the physicist, Paul Davies, writing a book “God and the New Physics”, Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time saying that we were coming to know “the mind of God”, the furor over when Hawking declared there was no such thing as God, and the recent most misnamed discovery in the history of science the “God Particle” or Higgs Boson.

      I my view the best way to approach the wonderful discoveries physics has provided us with isn’t ala Neil Turok to write a version of your own personal philosophical or religious theory and gift wrap the thing in a a popularized version of physics, but to sit down at a table where science can present its truest- map-we-have
      model of the world and then have poets, theologians, authors, historians sit down and most especially common every day folk and to talk about what it means and where we want to go given our current knowledge.

  3. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the reply. I probably should have started with that I agree with everything you’ve said in this post. 🙂 Yes, physicists (and scientists in general) not applying the same sort of rigour to their philosophical pursuits, but implicitly associating their scientific credentials to their claims, is troubling. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. In my opinion Dennett has some reasonable authoritative grounds for making the claims he does, since he is a professional philosopher. But Richard Dawkins does seem to overreach his field of expertise on philosophical matters. I also think Sir Roger Penrose is another example of a very well regarded physicist who happens to holds fringe philosophical/scientific beliefs, in his case about consciousness being a result of quantum effects.

    I think it’s good if physicists take up the challenge to place their technical understanding of the universe in relation to deep philosophical questions. (And it would be good if philosophers became better acquainted with science.) But it seems we both agree that they do need to better acknowledge that the beliefs they espouse in these matters have much less of a firm scientific basis their professional work. You’re probably on to something too: since scientists, physicists in particular, have come up with answers in competition to God, people may just expect them to have answers to all the related questions.

    In all this, the media are partly (largely?) to blame too, for taking things out of context, using misleading terms and phrases to grab attention, and possibly not conveying the extent to which scientists hedge their claims with an appropriate level of humility and doubt. It’s harder to blame the media for twisting their views, however, when physicists make the outlandish claims directly or simply don’t have the humility and uncertainty they ought to. From what you’ve said about Neil Turok seeming uninterested in working with other disciplines and saying physics should “be in the lead” seems to suggest some overconfidence. Or it might imply that he is unsure if his less scientific ideas would stand the scrutiny of domain experts.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I think I’ll probably do the post on Dawkins/Dennett next given that both you and Charles have mentioned them now. Not sure if you (or anyone for that matter) will agree with my take on the two. And that’s okay- I love discussion and debate- if everyone agreed with me there’d be no reason to write at all.

      To give you a preview: Like you, I find Dennett to be the more reasonable of the pair, but I think their shared view of religion lacks much historical basis or philosophical logic. That by taking what amounts to a political stand against religion both their philosophy (in the case of Dennett) and science (in the case of Dawkins) has suffered.

  4. psriblog says:

    I agree that we have elevated our physicists to the status of high priests. And as the xcked strip indicates, mathematicians carry an even bigger chip on their shoulder. Broadly the accusation can be made of scientists – and EXPERTS – in general. But the fault is ours, the paying public’s, not theirs. Of course everyone thinks they have the answer to life, the universe and everything. My barber thinks that. Every cabby in New York city can solve the world’s problems in the time it takes to drive a city block in peak traffic. The point is the un-skeptical view we take to the opinions of acknowledged experts.

    Any toothpaste manufacturer knows that the best way to sell an extra tube or two is to have an ad involving people in lab coats spouting something that sounds vaguely scientific. Ooh, and some bar graphs with phrases like “20% more than competing brands”.

    Think of the very recent facebook meme about posting a long paragraph on your status, that references some Berne agreement and Rome Statute. The number of highly educated people who fell for that was astonishing. And all because it sounds all legalese-ish and official.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi Sriram,

      Building on your point about our lack of skepticism being the heart of the problem: what hit me was watching Ideas host Paul Kennedy, who I like a lot and think usually does a great job, being just totally non-critical against Turok, who I have nothing against except that, like most people, “he does not know that he does not know”. So there was a dual failure of skepticism- the interviewer wasn’t skeptical regarding his guest and the interviewed wasn’t skeptical about the extent of his own ability to explain the world or predict the future.

      For a moment they even had me. Turok was blithely telling Kennedy about the future evolution of intelligence and the cosmos and I was believing every bit of it. You or I can learn a lot from our barbers or cab drivers- hell-we can even learn a lot from Turok- as long as theirs are taken as what they are- just one perspective in a world in which all of us have one.

  5. monnoo says:

    Well observed!! :))
    the major (only?) riddle regarding physics and physicists is whether there is some kind of necessity between the brilliance within physics and the stupidity outside of it. Physicists never understood, and probably never will understand what a pattern is, or a mechanism, or immanence, all this neat implications of LIFE.

    Also great: your new secular priesthood… Michel Serres mentioned precisely the same long ago. Yet, it is not a movement of our days. Actually, it took place as a consequence of the coincidence of secularization by Napoleon and his French colleague revolutionists and the surge of engineering, or techno-science.

    And then this ridiculous quantum computing. Douglas Hofstadter (author of gödel, escher, bach) long ago recognized the actual problem, by means of a very simple example: the SpaCo. Never heard of it? it is the spaghetti computer (probably used by the Spaghetti monster 🙂 . The SpaCo is incredibly fast, even in typical computing tasks like sorting. Take 500’000 Spaghettis, put them at once to the table, and they ALL will be immediately sorted. Well… you probably already recognized the problem… it is encoding and decoding: first you have to mark all spaghettis with a number, then you have to decode the physical order into a symbolical one.Both steps are incredibly tedious for a SpaCo! Yet, precisely the same is true for a quantum computer. We will never be able to do general purpose calculations, because the whole experimental setup will represent the calculator. Only for very special and extremely valuable task such like encryption it COULD pay.

    And then, right at the bottom of the stupidity pot, of course intelligence. They never will understand that a (contemporary) computer is NOT doing the calculation. The programmer does it. (see Wittgenstein). And nothing prevents me to create a computer program running on a digital computer that behaves in a non-turing manner, it is even indistinguishable, because even the digital computer consists of matter. And of course, there is nothing “analog”. The continuum is a newtonian phantasy. Why? because things interpret each other, and beyond a certain level, everything becomes “digital”, latest at the Planck length.

    Besides enclosing stupid physicists into their quantum tower, however, we also should enforce some philosophy for journalists…

    Hey, you are really brave to dig this, but thank you!.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks Monoo,

      I thought your recent post on different patterns of growth from the crystalline to the animal was great- heavy, but great. Love the way you are able to tie different phenomena and disciplines together. Love the visuals.


      Also thanks for bringing Koolhass to my attention.

      What bugged me about Turok wasn’t his epistemology-
      physics works where it works and doesn’t where other models are necessary because of the complexity of the system- biology, the study of human societies etc, No, what bothered me was his CERTAINTY (and you’re right this arrogance of physics is as old as Laplace, or older still). Turok spoke about our “quantum future” as if it was as predictable as the death of our sun. He doesn’t know this it’s just a hypothesis- and an untestable one at that. It’s better for all of us to treat what we know or think we know with requisite humility.

  6. James Cross says:

    Another prime example is Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, Afterword by Richard Dawkins) who has the rather bizarre idea that he has explained why something rather than nothing exists. yet what he derives the universe from is the quantum void which to my mind, at least, is something not nothing. Dawkins, who I mostly agree with on many topics, chimes in that this eliminates the need for God. Now I think you might make the argument that God is unnecessary part of the argument about why anything exists since you are still left with the problem of why God exists; however, Krauss has the identical problem of explaining why the quantum void exists. So the book’s purpose really just becomes an overreach by a physicist trying to do metaphysics.

    Physicists, probably more than other scientists, seem to have a blind spot about their particular place in history. They seem to think that the way their science is done today is not only a mechanism of knowledge superior to any others but also it will never get any better in the future. The scientific method will not change. We will only do more science and learn more. It will be just an incremental growth with a few discontinuities until we arrive at the Theory of Everything from which the explanation for everything else can be derived. So naturally they seem to believe they are in an especially privileged position to comment on everything whether it is part of the legitimate realm of physics or far afield in biology, sociology, religion, or philosophy.

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