Monday 31 March 2014

Why do we take physicists seriously?

My undergraduate degree was in physics, at Imperial College which is/was the centre of logical positivist applied physics: when students went to Oxford to do a PhD in physics we thought they were "dropping out".  Today most of my non local academic interactions are with sociologists and theologians, the younger me would think I had dropped out, fallen through the floor and turned into a homeless drunk ranting incoherently and beyond help.  Things change.

I have recently had a couple of lunches with Paolo Quattrone, a finance professor, and Michael Northcott, a theologian.  The focus of our conversations have been around representing value (values).  My involvement is centred on my interest in the nature of mathematics.  Specifically, is financial mathematics a "truth-bearer" or is it a mechanism of discourse.  The dominant philosophical paradigm sees language as being made up of statements that are either true or false and complex statements are valid if they can be deduced from true primitive statements. This approach is exemplified in the standard mathematical technique of axiom-theorem-proof. Habermas, in the Theory of Communicative Action,  replaces this paradigm with one that rests on a Pragmatic theory of meaning that shifts the focus from what language says (true or false) to what it does. Specifically, Habermas sees the function of language as being to enable different people to come to a shared understanding and achieve a consensus, this is defined as discourse. Because discourse is based on making a claim, the claim being challenged and then justified, discourse needs to be governed by rules, or norms. The most basic rules are logical and semantic, on top of these are norms governing procedure, such as sincerity and accountability, and finally there are norms to ensure that discourse is not subject to coercion or skewed by inequality.  I have come to believe that reciprocity is important in financial mathematics because it is a norm that enables market discourse which seeks the truth (consensus) on value rather than it determining what is true.

Paolo is interested in how company accounts are used.  My understanding of his position is that contemporary accounts are presented as a representation of truth, but their genesis was as focuses of reflection: you accounted for your actions. This was exemplified when I recently started reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (a trilogy I strongly recommend - it covers some of the same themes as this blog but with more pirates and sex, what more could you want?) where Stephenson describes Isaac Newton writing down, accounting for, his sins one night.  When I first read this section it passed me by, but Paolo has enlightened me as to the depth of Stephenson's story.

When we were having lunch, Paolo and Michael were discussing the fact that while today accounts are "annual" the original accounts were an "open book", they never "closed" the account.  Michael is interested in this because it represents a theological conception of time that impacts on ethics.  Specifically, modern business practice, built on science, rests on the distinction between now and then, here and there, a distinction that does not exist for believers in a transcendental deity.

I was immediately interested in Michael's position, which motivates his interest in environmental issues, because it is very different from mine.  The topic that most interested me at school was entropy and how we know time moves forward: because things become disordered.  As a teenager I justified my messy bedroom to my mother as a consequence of the indubitable laws of physics.  Interest is charged because the lender is uncertain if the borrower will repay in the future: time exists in finance because there is uncertainty. Believers in a transcendental deity see uncertainty as a subjective problem, the deity does not experience it.  I think this could explain why mathematical probability was developed by Augustinians (Calvinists/Jansenists) such as: Pascal, Huygens, Bernoulli, Montmort, de Moivre and Bayes; and not by Anglicans (Newton) or Lutherans (Leibnitz).  Augustinians believed that, like time and space, there was/is an absolute measure of chance.

While modern physics accommodates uncertainty it does so in a statistical context.  for example, PoincarĂ©'s recurrence theorem theorem states that any bounded system (i.e. a bounded universe) will eventually return to its original state, and because the laws of physics are deterministic, it will repeat its evolution: while a gas looks random, it can be considered a (statistically) deterministic system.  A simple solution to this paradox is if we introduce 'radical uncertainty' and consider the universe as a non-ergodic system.  The fact that no one thinks this is the obvious solution probably indicates it will open a much nastier can of worms for physics.

Noah Smith has argued that 
Physics intuition is all about symmetry, and about finding elegant (i.e. easy) ways to solve tough-seeming systems. In econ, that rarely matters at all; the intuition is all about imagining human behavior.
This is all true and also explains why physics intuition is often unhelpful in an economic setting.  When physicists talk about symmetry they are talking about something being invariant under transformation, i.e. there is something unchanging in nature that can be fixed upon and there is something being conserved (Noether's Theorem).  The issues I have with economics adopting physicists intuition will evaporate when someone can identify, and justify, what it is in economics that is invariant: what quantity is being conserved.  The reason why economists focus on human nature is because human nature is inconstant.

Time is important in theology, finance and physics. I don't understand, or even know, the details of what the current consensus on time in physics is, but my intuition is that time in physics does not generally have a direction, and while there is a thermodynamic arrow of time (entropy; modulo recurrence) at the quantum level, dominated by uncertainty, time is symmetric.

Where I have a real problem with physics is in the area of multiverses, particularly the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.  As far as I can tell, the many worlds interpretation exists because physicists don't like the idea that when a wave function collapses it collapses simultaneously across the universe, information is transmitted at a speed faster than that of light.  We mock medeival scholastics for having (apparently) argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin: yet we take physicists and their multiworlds, employed to address a technical issue internal to physics, seriously.  My issue is that they appear to resolve their problem, of having to deal with a probability distribution, by replacing a difficult issue related to time and radical uncertainty with an "ensemble" interpretation.  My frustration with Ole Peters is because physicists believes in the ensemble approach to uncertainty (that there exist an infinite collection of paths and the universe is on one of these paths) and then suddenly realise it is a bit meaningless in economics.

In the aftermath of the discovery of evidence for gravitational waves the theologian Giles Fraser has argued that science is becoming like religion: it argues that asking what came before the Big Bang is a non-question, just as monotheists argue the question who created God is a non-question.  A response from the physicist Jon Butterworth is that physicists deal with the nature of the universe while theologians address the meaning: a fact/value dichotomy.  While Butterworth acknowledges that there is an interplay between fact and value, I actually think the interplay is far more important than Butterwoth implies.  My case in point, time, clearly demonstrates this.  The problem Michael, theoretical physicists and I have with time is that, for me at least, there is no clear demarcation between the nature and meaning of time.  In fact the nature and meaning of time could well be ambiguous, even within physics, and scientific integrity demands we take this possibility seriously.

Thursday 27 March 2014

The Republic of Science

I do all my teaching in the Spring and am finding I have no time to blog or tweet.  This has given me some insight into my old tutorial colleague Felicity Mellor's thesis about scientists keeping quiet, since my social media silence has enabled me to fix some ideas.

When I returned to Twitter, apart from being amazed at the continued quantity and quality of Arthur Charpentier's tweets, I read an article in Nature by Roger Pielke Jnr celebrating 75 years of J. D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science.  I had never heard of the author or the book, but what caught my attention, following my spring hiatus, was the following passage
Bernal's great intellectual adversary was Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist who was opposed to Soviet ideals. Polanyi's classic 1962 journal article 'The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory' (Minerva 1, 54–73; 1962) posits that individual scientists pursuing truth led to the most efficient social outcomes. The parallels with Adam Smith's “invisible hand” guiding capitalist economies could not have been accidental.
 Pielke creates a demarcation between socialist and capitalist stances on science, and I sense he uses Bernal to characterise socialist science with Polanyi characterising capitalist science.  Pielke's penultimate paragraph is
Although Bernal lost the intellectual battle over cold-war politics, his ideas on the social function of science have triumphed on nearly every count. The larger and more significant effect of The Social Function of Science has been to anticipate and help the ideal of 'pure science' to reach mythical status, ushering in an era of science focused on societal needs, today characterized as 'grand challenges' by scientists and politicians.
Passing over the fact that , as a mathematician I do not associate 'pure science' (pure mathematics) with societal needs, I think Pielke's analysis is simplistic.

 Michael Polanyi was the brother of the economic historian Karl Polyani.  Karl's reputation was built on his book The Great Transformation that described how the modern (British) capitalist system emerged in the nineteenth century.  Karl was not opposed to socialism,  The Great Transformation was based on lectures given  for the Workers' Educational Association and his marriage to a card carrying communist prevented him living in the US when he was at Columbia.  I am interested in Karl's work because he considers the decline of reciprocity in exchange in The Great Transformation, a theme of interest to me.  The association of Adam Smith with 'capitalism' is modern, Smith was interested in the process of commercial exchange, which he studied in the context of Aristoelian ethics: reciprocity/fairness.  Smith distinguished commercial exchange from altruism on the basis that it was fair exchange, as Aristotle observed "there is no giving in exchange", but just as there is no charity there is no theft in commercial exchange.

Our contemporary understanding of Smith is clouded by the competitive metaphors that emerged in the early nineteenth century.  When Michael Polanyi  speaks of "free cooperation of individual scientists"  I would suggest that he considers exchange in the context of the doux-commerce thesis that dominated the Enlightenment.  A 1704 technical text on commerce argues “Commerce attaches [men] to one another through mutual utility”; while in The Rights of Man (1792) Thomas Paine writes “commerce is a pacific system, operating to cordialise mankind”. In the intervening years Montesquieu, Hume, Condorcet and Adam Smith all agreed that commerce was a powerful civilising agent, promoting honesty, industriousness, probity, punctuality, and frugality, in contrast to the excesses of absolute monarchies of the preceding centuries.  When Michael   speaks of The Republic of Science I would argue that he is thinking of Res publica, 'the public affair'.  So for me, Polyani is concerned with the role of science in the life of the polis.

A contemporary of the Polanyis and Bernal was Franz Borkenau, another Marxist but unlike Bernal a Marxist who was opposed to authoritarianism.  Borkenau is important to me because he first identified the origins of western science in the scholastic analysis of exchange in The Transition from the Feudal to the Bourgeois World View (1934).  I think Borkenau is relevant to this discussion because he encapsulates the point that the demarcation is not between socialist and capitalist stances on science but between democratic and authoritarian stances on science.  Unfortunately, Bernal appears to sit on the 'authoritarian' side of the fence.

This is significant in my spring hiatus which has been dominated by reading Cheryl Misak's Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and deliberation, which was recommended to me by Matthew Festenstein in response to his reading my paper on reciprocity (revised in light of this reading).  Misak's theme is “Why must we value cooperation and equality” in politics and argues we can only be sure of the validity of our beliefs by putting them up for criticism and offering reasons to justify them. This is an epistemic argument that she claims justifies democracy: if in politics we seek the best policy we must allow our decisions to be challenged and be in a position to defend the decisions without resorting to authority; this requires that we are cooperative. In my mind, there is a correspondence between Polanyi's and Misak's cases and it is opposition to Bernal's (apparent) endorsement of authoritarian science.

I am no expert, but I doubt the claim that The Social Function of Science has ushered in an era of science focused on societal needs, today characterized as 'grand challenges' by scientists and politicians.  The basis of my doubt is my intuition that Vannevar Bush and other mid-twentieth century US science policy makers were guided by the Pragmatism of American democrats like Peirce, James and Dewey, and not those of a British communist.  I have two criticisms of Pielke's article, in associating contemporary science with socialism he is asking for trouble, when he could more meaningfully associate it with democracy. Secondly, I am a bit queasy about Pielke's "Pure Scientist" who confines themselves to presenting the current state of knowledge.  As a Pragmatist, following Susan Haack,  I cannot accept that scientists can be so, 'Pure', and objective, and to suggest they can is disingenuous.  I do not think that Pielke would be happy with me suggesting that his model implies a Pure Scientist is more authoritative than others, as Brian Cox advocates, but I also think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Anyway, Felicity, Roger and I are all speaking at the Circling the square: Research, politics, media and impact conference in May, so maybe we can discuss all this over a  Burton Ale?