Sunday, 26 May 2013

Marilynne Robinson in conversation

This conversation, billed as "The Mystery We Are", was recorded in 2012.
It's on the Internet.


I have just listened to and enjoyed this conversation between alstro-physicist Marcello Gleiser and writer Marilynne Robinson, conducted by Christa Tippet. I found the podcast having already discovered Marilynne Robinson's book "Absence of Mind", which I return to often.

At one or two points in the conversation, the physicist Richard Feynman is mentioned. Marilynne Robinson refers to writing by Feynman in which he wonders how it is that my self can persist, and I can have memories of my self, when over the course of time the atoms of my brain are replaced. Robinson reminds us that the English empiricist philosopher John Locke arrived at this thought in the 17th or early 18th century, to reiterate, I think, that thought is capable of reaching places from a time many would regard as pre-scientific, or at least backward in some sense, compared to the present. Marcello Gleiser refers to Feynman as one of his personal heroes. 
There was also some discussion of the role of the words "describe" and "explain" as used in popular science, and a consensus seemed to be reached in this conversation that describe is the better word, because it preserves a notion of incompleteness to our thought.

While I listened I was reminded of a wonderfully entertaining lecture given by Richard Feynman which I think illustrates both the tendency of popular science to want to diminish mind, and also the awareness Feynman had of treating mathematics as descriptive while also being mindful of the "explanatory power" of any physical theory.  The lecture is called "The Relationship Between Mathematics & Physics", from 1965, and is on YouTube and other places.

It is Feynman's closing statement to this lecture that has interested me, in which, really I think out of a feeling of frustration or even inadequacy, he wants to admonish people of what he calls "the other culture" (by which he seems to mean philosophers) who wonder how or why it is that our thinking, our mathematics, should, so to speak, fit the world. Feynman says, with not a little.force and even animus, "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest in man".

Given M Gleiser's view that science needs a kind of aesthetic shift towards recovering human "centrality" in the universe, and his admiration for Feynman as a scientist, I think Feynman's statement, and it's context, is interesting here. From Marilynne Robinson's side, she has been concerned to show the ways that the style of thinking evinced by popularisers of science, in their writing, tends to close down questioning in advance. So again, I think Richard Feynman's performance of this lecture, and his closing statement, is interesting and relevant.

Feynman's lecture was given at a time when there seems to have been a considerable cultural stand-off between the disciplines of scientces and humanities. When Feynman refers to the "other culture" I think he has in mind a book called "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" by CP Snow, which was published in 1959. This book shows a personal attitude (on the part of Snow) hostile, for various complcated interesting reasons, to the kind of things valued in humanities academic disciplines. I think it is a book which contains many of the "declension" Marilynne Robinson describes as common to what she calls "para-scientific" literature.

I wonder if Feynman would have been quite so antipathetic towards those of the "other culture" if he had been alive to the importance to Einstein of Kant's attempt to answer that very question of why our minds seem to fit the universe such that we can have knowledge of it? It seems to me that Karl Popper was driven to develop his adaptation of Kantian epistemology and philosophy of science in opposition to the attitude that mathematics is in direct contact with the world. He is the philosopher of science who would be at pains to support the use of the word "description" in preference to "explanation", precisely to deter the feeling underlying scientism or positivism that we have achieved complete knowledge. Again, I wonder if Feynman would have had any interest at all that people like Popper, or Kant or Einstein for that matter, could have found interesting any kind of problem to do with why our mathematics works. My feeling is probably not.
I write because I listen to a conversation like this one and come to anticipate mention of, say, Kant, or Popper, or Heidegger, or Wittgenstein. Popper seems important to me, because he makes explicit the quality of science that makes of it an outgrowth of mythical thinking, and of the same character as mythical thinking. For Popper there is no cognitive divide, as Marilynne Robinson speaks of in "Absence of Mind", that elevates our thinking so greatly that we can be dismissive of the past. His work is quite deflationary in that sense.
At the beginning of the conversation, Marcello Gleiser refers to the centrality of the notion of conflicting values in the work of the one-time linguistic philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin. Not long ago, I was very motivated to research and get to the bottom of what I had come to regard as a characteristic antipathy towards, or blindness for, the kinds of thing valued in humanistic or humanities learning. It was because I had found this antipathy in myself at a young age, and it has had a huge impact on my life. So I was very grateful to come to (not long before finding Marilynne Robinson's book) an essay by Isaiah Berlin called "The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities". I think Berlin locates a time and a place, after Descartes, when certain human studies are preserved from the limitless domain of mathematics, in the person of the Italian philosopher Vico.

I am very concerned about the closing-down quality of thinking that goes into the "para-scientific" literature, because it comes from people who are popularly regarded as thinkers par-excellence when, even before any thoughts are put down, the tone of presentation is already conveying to the reader or listener that all the thinking has already been done and "he has it". It is not from science that we acquire the ability to understand the significance of style in communication, but from attending to qualities of feeling. Yet, armed with facts and bolstered by prestige and plaudits, what para-scientific thinking seems to push onto impressionable minds is that there is nothing for me to learn. The reader finds himself participating in the writer's assumption of completeness. An opening into what could possibly make of my style of presentation, of my voice and tone and choice of words, anything remotely significant is closed off in advance, always in advance. Becoming aware of this in oneself is disquieting. It is painful to find great insight in an essay like "Modern Science, Mathematics and Metaphysics" by Martin Heidegger, only to find that the "scientific world view", sanctioned by virtue of its success, and pressed into one, casts those insights as meaningless.



Sunday, 19 May 2013

Anthropogenic Global Warming - Two Scientists Speak

Here is a link to a very good presentation by prominent US climate scientists on different viewpoints on climate sensitivity (to forcing mechanisms) and the consequences of increasing CO2 emissions. It's quite short, interesting and enjoyable.

Dr Roy Spencer believes there are natural mechanisms (such as the cooling influence of clouds) which are not well accounted for in present climate modelling and which will prove to be more important in determining global temperatures than human production of CO2. Dr Scott Denning stresses the effects of increases of non-CO2 greenhouse gases (i.e. water vapour) that arise once the earth starts warming that will intensify warming n a process of positive feedback. Dr Denning is already persuaded that global warming is being strongly affected by human activities and that large-scale impacts will come about. Dr Spencer is not.

 
Dr Denning's viewpoint is based on an established correlation between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the amount of energy trapped by and radiated back the ground by CO2 molecules (rather than radiated out into space). According to this correlation a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere results in an extra 4 Watts (i.e. four Joules of energy per second, i.e. four Newton-metres per second, i.e. four kilogramme-metres-squared per second per second) of power striking every square metre of the earth's surface every day, all day for as long as the CO2 remains in the atmosphere. This extra power causes (according to some predictions) the durable temperature increase that is being called anthropogenic global warming. Dr Denning draws attention to the transition to developed world living standard in India and China, and the construction of many new fossil-fuel burning power stations in those countries, which he projects will result in a quadrupling of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 in the coming century. (We are nearing a point at which atmospheric CO2 levels - at 385 parts per million - will be double the quantity present in the atmosphere before the onset of industrialisation). Dr Denning is optimistic that enterprise and scientific development in a free market will produce technologies that will enable a transition away from fossil-fuel-based energy production in the coming century or centuries. But he points out that the CO2 that is produced in the meantime will stay in the atmosphre for a very long time, and certainly long enough for the slow-responding oceans to warm up along with the land surface. He projects that the climate in the USA will be radically altered, and he draws attention “your $410k” (which I think refers to the average property value in the US) and what it will mean when “your” home loses value because the climate is no longer pleasant or even hospitable. (“Forget polar bears”, he says, “what about your $401k”).

The dispute between these two scientists is simply over the degree to which the climate is sensitive to the forcings imposed by human activity. The warming effect of adding CO2 to the atmosphere is not disputed, only its relative importance to climate compared to other factors.

These two men were making presentations of their work to a scientists'  conference on global climate change.
They both take opportunities to show their primary concern for human, rather than non-human, life (to set them apart from environmentalists who often come across as simply misanthropic).
This is important.

Where peole express concern about human population, Dr Roy Spencer reminds us that population growth rates are highest in parts of the world which have not industrialised. We will do well, therefore, he says, to encourage as-rapid-as-possible industrialisation of un-developed nations. His view is that there should be the maximum possible acceleration of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels to generate the wealth (for him the link is direct, which may be a big gloss) to raise as quickly as possible the global industrial-technological capability of humans which, stimulated by global free-market competition, will enable the soonest-possible emergence of the non-fossil-based technology of energy production that will enable us to move out of fossil-fuel dependency. I think there is much to agree with in this viewpoint. Of course, it depends on a belief, a faith, that there will be a technological breakthrough in energy production which is less likely to happen without a free-market global economy.
Of course, I certainly would reject any kind of poltical solution that enforced upper limits on the number of children people can have, or any other coercive method.

But I am disquieted by facets of the presentations of these two scientists.

Dr Spencer, I think, glosses pretty heavily over what will surely be massive harmful impacts of his desired accelerated extraction and burining of fossil fuels (to generate wealth). The Iraq War (2003 -) was surely as much an oil-grab on the part of the US, as an opportunity to depose a WMD-wielding secular dictator and “spread democracy”? More of the same (by which-ever nation) is likely to be accompanied by enormous conflicts, blighting millions of lives. And what is Dr Spencer’s response to Dr Denning’s point about the fact that CO2 will remain in the atmosphere long after the hoped-for and anticipated technological breakthrough comes about? One feels he’s not too concerned. (Just move north, where the new, cool jobs will be). He conceded that he would re-consider his “What’s the problem?” stance if the global warming trend seen between c.1970-1998 re-starts and continues to 2050-ish.

Dr Denning has more concern that significant humanly-disruptive climatic changes will occur. But he too seems to gloss over the impact of climate change on bio-diversity, for example. At some level our way of being on earth depends on non-human life. If Polar Bears go, maybe we go too? Eco-systems are present. We seem to have our place at the top of every food-chain, but I think we are wrong to assume we don't need a bio-sphere of greatest diversity. (On the other hand, the bio-sphere certainly does not need us). Eco-systems and species are lost with our population growth and the giving over of available land to cultivation to produce our food. Apparently, land in Africa is being leased or purchased today by industrialised nations in order to produce foods which can no longer be produced in enough quantities within their territories. I personally find this kind of thing troubling, even though it may be part of the industrialisation of African nations which the citizens of those countries want.

I couldn’t help feeling that the sheer scale of open space in the US was a factor in the “I’m ok” quality of the two scientists’ presentations. They have their product (climate science) and it's doing ok. Good for them. One can imagine that climate changes of the kind Dr Denning supposes may happen in the US post-China and India development (if Chicago gets the climate of Tallahasee, for example, what will Tallahasee be like?) will involve big migrations of people. In the US perhsp this doesn;t look too bas, because migration is all within the bounds of one nation. What if migrations cross national boundaries? It's significant that Dr Denning made his point to this conference showing only the map of the US. What about the populations of the central- and south-American states?

But there we go again. That recent and ongoing climatic warming is being forced more by human activity than natural processes is not currently proven. The projections can be too alarming to comprehend. It is a one-way experiment. We are probably heading for a stable hot state, and natural climatic processes will take over what our activities are probably forcing. As James Lovelock put it recently “We just pulled the trigger”.



Monday, 13 May 2013

Richard Feynman's "The Relationship Between Mathematics and Physics" (1965)

Richard Feynman, in 1965, at the height of his powers and recognition, was moved to decry those who wondered "Why" a physical theory worked. He concludes this justly famous lecture with the following declaration: "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest is man!"
It could equally well be said that the horizons are limited which permit people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest is not man. 


__________________________________________________________________________________

It's 95 years since the birth of the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman.

In the past what we now call "physics" was philosophical speculation and commonly known as "natural philosophy". By the time Feynman was in his prime, it seems that physics was widely felt by its leading exponents to be a self-contained enterprise not connected with philosophy, at least to the extent that they need not be troubled by any supposed interface between physics and philosophy.

This is in evidence in Richard Feynman's entertaining and informative lecture on "The Relationship Between Mathematics and Physics", one of six "Messenger Lectures" he delivered at Cornell University, USA, in 1965. This lecture is, brilliantly, available to watch on youtube, and elsewhere, for free.

The lecture is punctuated with moments when Feynman appeals to his audience not to be tempted to ask why the mathematics that describes the phenomena works.

In his closing statement there is a clear note of exasperation with those of the "other culture" (a reference to C P Snow's Rede Lecture of 1959, "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution"): "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest is man!"

When I came across this lecture four or five years ago, I was very alert to the seeming cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities, and I was interested to find out how it surfaced and how it origintaed. (My interest was fuelled by a problems that emerged in my working life and personal life that I think began with a kind of over-extension of scientific thinking into realms outside science. I think the problems I met are not unusual. I have been glad to find writing on this phenomenon, even very recent writing, such as that of Marilynne Robinson in “Absence of Mind” (2010)).

Richard Feynman was evidently frustrated with the very idea of people, philosophers, setting out to ask why mathematical descriptions of the universe work, seem to give the “right” answers. When he presented this lecture, there was probably a good deal of academic debate, even within the world of theoretical physics, generated by the 1962 publication of Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. That “it" works was enough for Feynman. Yet I wonder if he might have been less averse to philosophical reflection if he had been given to appreciate the actual philosophical problems that had prompted people to ask these questions so persistently, not just in the 1950s and 60s, but ever since the time of Newton. Probably not, I feel.
Philosophy is not idle thinking, and there are such things as philosophical problems. My guess is that Feynman would simply not have been interested in them. 

Meaning is the concern of disciplines in which "the centre of the universe of interest is man".

It is meaningful for humans if, as Hume showed, certain knowledge of the world is not attainable through our senses, because a world that is purely contingent and governed by laws is emptied of meaning.

In the 18th century it was held that true knowledge had been attained in science through Newton's mathematical theories of dynamics, gravitation and light. This attainment of true knowledge had been anticipated ever since Descartes set down his method in pursuit of the indubitable ground of knowledge, fifty years before Newton.

Martin Heidegger wrote an essay on the development of Aristotelian into Cartesian metaphysics and Aristitelian to Galilean and Newton's mathematical descriptions of the universe, called "Mathematics, Metaphysics and Modern Science", which I recommend to any reader. I think this is an important essay because it offers a window onto what Heidegger outlines as the culmination of metaphysics in moden mathematical science: not modern science is free of metaphysics, but that the modern science is the culmination of metaphysics, which is to do with its mathematical character. 

Immanuel Kant saw that the attainment of precise warrantable knowledge of the world based on mathematics contradicted Hume’s argument that no such knowledge can be had through our senses. The rationalism of his time, the belief that truths of the world, and of God, can be attained through reason alone, was supported by Newton’s achievement. Hume’s argument placed rationalism, and metaphysical speculation in total, in doubt. That this was a real philosophical problem is something that Karl Popper sought to defend against the programme of logical positivism. I suppose a stepping-off point for someone who might be interested by the philosophical problem, is the notion that a completely law-bound universe includes human minds and so seems to contradict the supposed human capacity to will freely.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

"Night Mail" ; documentary ; privatisation ; Thatcher

"Night Mail" was a public information film made in 1936 by the GPO film unit (General Post Office) and directed by scotsman John Grierson. Eighty years ago.

You can see it on YouTube.

Wikipedia says that Grierson coined the term "documentary" in a film review of 1926.

This sort of film was still being made and shown when I was at school in the late 1970s and 1980s, as introductory to kinds of work and career that could be entered on leaving school or university.

I'm writing and even coming to mind is the TV advert (for what?) that appeared in early Thatcher years depicting a man climbing into his range rover, declaring to his wife that he and his partner are going into business. It wasn't a Range Rover advert though, was it? It was around the time that the first of the big privatisations were happening, BT or British Gas.

The presentation of the world of work that these films conveyed was deeply influenced by the documentary public information film. I imagine participants (employers, workers) more-or-less self-directing in front of the camera with these very films of the 1930s in mind. Oxbridge accents, saturated in an atmosphere of progress, all for the greater good. Or was it my feeling found in them? British steel had not become Corus. I don;t remember feeling the pressure of brands coming through the films. They were more like descriptions of what went on in this or that industry.

Something in me wanted to see industry and people at work all participating in a whole. And I believed that there was such a whole. I believed the responsibility born by the industry process manager was not merely for the industry process but for the idea of a community. More than this, the industry process manager seemed to me then to be a kind of guardian. I'm aware of how close this comes to the heroic image of a worker in socialist states (tghis was before the wall came down in 1989).

That these feelings and ideas were very strong in me was perhaps not unusual. What could have caused Mrs Thatcher to feel the need to declare that "There is no such thing as society" if not the use of the idea of "society" in argument against moves towards privatisation.

I was struck by statements made by Shirley Williams (on "This Week", BBC TV, 11th April 2013, soon after Mrs Thatcher's death) that Mrs Thatcher regarded many or most politicians (mostly men of course) as simply playing a game, being in a club, which is precisely how many people would describe the world of work. Mrs Thatcher was, according to Williams, committed to a programme of radical political and social change because she felt that the situation facing the UK was so "grave". No-one on that politics punditry programme seemed to want to disagree that the situation was indeed grave, neither Williams nor W Self, A Campbell, nor M Portillo.
Everybody on that panel knew that the changes Thatcher brought about destroyed her own political tradition: there is no Tory-ism without some notion of an "order" of people in the world.

There was a contradiction between Thatcher's nationalism (the "greatness" of Great Britain, Falklands factor, etc.) and her declaration of the non-existence of society. This contradiction, and all the tensions surrounding it, were manifesting in my life in the early 2000s. The writing of cultural historian Patrick Wright was a great help to me then, in particular his "On Living In An Old Country" (first published in 1985, when I was fifteen years old).

The introduction to that book (in which Wright offers his theoretical underpinnings to the essays of contained in the book) was the first piece of writing through which I could connect existential life with social or political life. In it he describes his debt to a Hungarian philsopher called Agnes Heller, who was a pupil of Georg Lukacs. (These names were completely new to me when I read this text, as were virtually all the other political-philosophical references made). Since then I have read Lukacs' "History & Class Consciousness" (1923), perhaps the most difficult philosophical text I have ever attempted. (The question in my mind at that time, 2007-8, was why I was not a Marxist. I concluded I am not a Marxist).

The point is that a contradiction was present in Thatcher's, and the Conservative Party's, programme of the 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s. It surfaced in my life and mind, and I am sure in thousands and milions of others'.

I will come back to this.