Philosophy Has Made Plenty of Progress


I have never bumped into Tim Maudlin, but I have felt his gravitational tug. A Reddit discussion of "heavy hitters in philosophy" called Maudlin "probably the most influential person in philosophy of physics." Someone chimed in that Maudlin, whose books include The Metaphysics Within Physics and Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity, is "without a doubt an intellectual beast." Maudlin impresses even science writer Jim Holt, not an easy feat. When I asked Holt "What’s your utopia?," he replied "arguing eternally about gauge theory" with Maudlin and a few other pals. To get a sense of Maudlin's style, read "The Defeat of Reason," an essay that covers truth, quantum mechanics, Einstein, Bohr, Bohm, Kant and Kuhn. It ends by suggesting that we "shorten the dignified designation Homo sapiens to the pithier and more accurate Homo sap." Ouch. Maudlin and I crossed paths online after I posted an old profile of Karl Popper, in which I poke fun at the philosopher and his formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Mew. Maudlin commented on Facebook that he couldn't decide who was more obnoxious: Karl Popper, Mrs. Mew or John Horgan. That made me smile. I emailed Maudlin, and he agreed to answer some questions. The timing was fortuitous, because Maudlin, as he details below, is creating a philosophical mini-utopia. Maudlin also vigorously defends philosophy against ignoramuses who ask, Why do we need philosophy? –John Horgan

Do you ever regret having become a philosopher? Like maybe when someone like me asks you questions like this?

No, never. It is not really possible to regret being a philosopher if you have a theoretical (rather than practical or experiential) orientation to the world, because there are no boundaries to the theoretical scope of philosophy. For all X, there is a philosophy of X, which involves the theoretical investigation into the nature of X. There is philosophy of mind, philosophy of literature, of sport, of race, of ethics, of mathematics, of science in general, of specific sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology; there is logic and ethics and aesthetics and philosophy of history and history of philosophy. I can read Plato and Aristotle and Galileo and Newton and Leibniz and Darwin and Einstein and John Bell and just be doing my job. I could get fed up with all that and read Eco and Foucault and Aristophanes and Shakespeare for a change and still do perfectly good philosophy.

I once read about a survey where they went to one person and asked what job she or he would like to have, and then went to someone with that job and asked the same, and so on. The chain finally ended with a professor of English at a fancy research institution with a low teaching load. That person said that she had the best job in the world, and would not change for anything. And among all the departments in which one can be have a fancy research position you can’t beat philosophy if you have a theoretical bent.

In Book X of Republic, Plato tells the myth of Er. Er was a warrior who was thought to have been killed in a battle and went down to the underworld and saw the afterlife. In the afterlife people are rewarded or punished for the life they have just led and then, at the end, get to freely choose their next life. Most change to a new sort of life: Odysseus, for example, was last to choose among the available lives, but searched and searched and found a quiet and uneventful life, completely unlike his own, and said he would have chosen it all the same if he had chosen first. And some people choose lives with power and fame but later notice that they end up devouring their own children and regret the choice. Even good people choose bad lives if they were only good by habit because they lived in a good society. Only the philosophers always make a good choice, because the ultimate thing they study, at the end, is the Form of the Good itself. Philosophy, in its purest form, contains the study of what it is to live a good human life. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being. What other discipline has a founding figure who literally preferred to die than to stop practicing his métier?

I know people who are experimentalists or mountain guides or run coffee shops who would not trade their job for mine. So pure theory is not for everyone. But if you love theory, philosophy is the top of the heap of all the disciplines.

Karl Popper once told me that most philosophers “are really deeply depressed because they can’t produce anything worthwhile.” Was that fair?

Nope. See above. Popper was kind of an egocentric jerk.

Filmmaker Errol Morris hates Thomas Kuhn. What’s your take on Kuhn?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions contains some nice observations on the nature of what Kuhn calls “normal science”, which makes it out to have none of the heroic aspects that Popper insisted on. But when Kuhn goes beyond normal science to “revolutionary science” the book is a disaster. It promotes an irrationalist view of scientific revolutions that is both false and pernicious. The Copernican Revolution is a lovely book, much needed at the time. Planck and the Black Body Discontinuity is a mixed bag: some good historiography and some poor analysis.

Your colleague David Chalmers has fretted that “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy,” such as God, free will and consciousness. Does this lack of convergence bother you?

I disagree with Dave here. Overwhelmingly most philosophers are atheists or agnostics, which I take to be convergence to the truth. Most are compatibilist about free will and believe in it, which I also take to be convergence to the truth. Almost all believe in consciousness and most don’t have a clue how to explain it, which is wisdom. It is not that there isn’t convergence, it is that the outliers who do not converge get much more attention than the great mass of convergers, who don’t particularly stand out.

John Wheeler once wrote: “Someday surely we will see the principle underlying existence as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, ‘How could we all have been so stupid for so long.’” Do you share this vision? 

Depending on what he meant by “the principle underlying existence” I would answer differently. If he meant answering the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then I think it is a silly question which obviously has no satisfactory answer if you convince yourself there is a sensible question there. For to “explain” existence you either cite something that exists or you don’t. If you do you have begged the question, and if you don’t then you haven’t provided an explanation. It’s a mug’s game.

On the other hand, he could have meant that the fundamental physical law—when presented in the right mathematical language—will be so compellingly simple that we would think that any other structure would be unnecessarily complicated. This I do believe, but have no proof.

Hasn’t quantum mechanics demolished the hope that science will make reality intelligible?

Not in the least. As Bell said, study Bohm’s pilot wave theory and you see that everything can be explained perfectly well, with no funny business at all logically or conceptually. We are stuck with non-locality, as Bell proved, but maybe in the end you need non-locality for the deep simplicity of law that I anticipate.

So you like David Bohm’s interpretation of quantum mechanics. What’s the appeal?

See above. In the non-Relativistic version you just postulate some point particles, and a single universal quantum state (represented by a mathematical wavefunction) and two simple dynamical equations: the Schrödinger equation for the wavefunction and the so-called guidance equation for the particle motions. You could have guessed both equations easily, and you get out all of the iconic quantum behavior: two-slit interference effects, violations of Bell’s inequality, decoherence due to observation or more generally due to coupling to the environment in the right way, etc., etc. What’s not to like?

The only sticking point is the Relativistic version, but there I hold a minority view and would happily violate fundamental Lorentz invariance, explaining observational Lorentz invariance by appeal to what is called quantum equilibrium. There is a lot you just can’t do in complete thermal equilibrium, such as extract useful work from heat and send signals. Something you can’t do in quantum equilibrium is experimentally access a preferred “frame of reference”. C’est la vie.

Do you think a solution to consciousness, if it can be solved, will depend on quantum mechanics?

 Since I can’t see how it can be solved, I don’t see how quantum mechanics can help. But I am not a dualist, and our conscious states clearly depend on the states of our brains somehow. Since our brains are physical objects and physics is quantum mechanical, I suppose quantum theory must come into it. But that gives me no clue about how the thing is done.

What’s your take on multiverses and strings and the problem of testability?

Some people have been mesmerized by fancy math. It is not interesting physics in my view, and has had a very, very bad effect on the seriousness of theoretical physics as practiced.

If one could get a particular kind of multiverse—one where all the different possible combinations for the “constants of nature” obtain in one region or another—then one could appeal to an anthropic principle and avoid the fine-tuning problem for the “constants” (which would only be locally constant, not globally). That would be real theoretical progress. But the mechanism by which the “constants” come to have different values in different places would have to be natural and compelling.

What’s your position on the status of ethics? Do any moral rules have the same status as mathematical truths? Do you believe in moral progress?

Yes (with qualification) and yes. Already in Republic (Plato again!) we have an argument—a clear and compelling rational argument—that even the highest political office should be open to women. The argument? List what it takes to be a good leader of the state, then note the conditions that distinguish the sexes. There just is zero overlap between the two lists. That is as compelling as a rational argument can be, and it follows that opening all political offices to women (much less acknowledging in law that women should have as much right to vote as men) is objective moral progress. Similarly for invidious legal restrictions by race. The civil rights movement was strict moral progress. That’s as true as 2 + 2 = 4.

Do you believe in free will? Does an ethics without free will make sense?

Yes and sort of. I think Locke and Hume nailed free will, and since then there has been no interesting debate about it. People are free when they are unconstrained and can act as they will to act. And some (but not all) acts are voluntary in the relevant sense for ethics because they have been chosen after due deliberation and consideration of alternatives. I think Brett Kavanaugh freely and voluntarily lied under oath. He knew he was lying, but he wanted to be a Supreme Court justice and lying was the only way to achieve that so he lied. We call that perjury. It is unethical.

If there were no free will then there would still be good and bad, but no moral responsibility. Our dog has done some bad things in his life involving the destruction of headphones, and he was free, but he did not deliberate about it the right way (viz. considering alternatives in the light of ethical considerations) to be held morally responsible. If human behavior were all like that, large chunks of ethics would have no application. But since that is a counterfactual, who cares?

Does Gödel’s incompleteness theorem have implications beyond mathematics? Is it a worm in the apple of rationality? 

No. Absolutely no one should have ever been surprised that mathematical truth cannot be equated with theoremhood in some finite axiomatic system. An infinitude of mathematical truths are uninteresting trivia, with no obvious route to being proved. Example: let’s say that the decimal expressions of the square root of 17 and pi to the 27th power “match” just in case either they have the same digit in the tenths place, or the same two digits in the next two places, or the same three digits in the next three places, etc. If we treat these decimal expressions as essentially random sequences of digits, then the a priori chance that these two numbers match is one out of nine.

Now: how do we tell if they match or not? Well, we can just calculate out the sequences of digits and check. And if they match we will eventually find the match and prove that they match. But what if, as is likely, they don’t match? No amount of just grinding out the digits and checking will ever prove it: there are always more digits to check. And I see zero prospect of any other way to prove that they don’t match. So if they don’t match, that is an unprovable mathematical fact. It is also a very, very, very uninteresting one. All Gödel did was find a clever way to construct a provably unprovable mathematical fact, given any consistent and finite set of axioms to work with. The work is clever but in no way profound. It should have come as no surprise at all.

Socrates seemed to believe that doing philosophy, thinking hard about life, will make you happier and more ethical. Do you think that’s true?

I think it is if you do it right and have the self-discipline to live by the ethical facts you discover. Not everyone can.

Is it possible that the chief value of philosophy is to dismantle rather than construct truth claims? 

 No. See above on Plato and gender equality. He proves an ethical truth.

What’s your utopia?

In the utopian tradition that goes back to Plato (again!) utopias are not supposed to be real places. In Republic, Socrates says that it does not matter whether the ideal state actually exists: it is a pattern by reference to which one can judge the present situation and how it can be improved. There is a reason why Butler’s Erewhon is about a place called “Erewhon”. But as it happens my present not-yet-in-full-existence utopia is well on its way to full-blown reality. It is called the John Bell Institute for the Foundations of Physics, a non-profit institute formed to promote the study, teaching and investigation of the foundations of physics. So far we have our Faculty and Honorary Fellows and Bell Fellows and regular Fellows, and we have identified where our European campus will be (in Bojanić Bad, Hvar, Croatia) and are seeking an American campus in the Rockies. This is putting my views about utopia to the acid test.

Good luck with the Bell Institute!

Addendum: To learn more about the John Bell Institute, check out its website, www.johnbellinstitute.org.

Further Reading:

David Bohm, Quantum Mechanics and Enlightenment

The Paradox of Karl Popper

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

Did Thomas Kuhn Help Elect Donald Trump?

Was Philosopher Paul Feyerabend Really Science's "Worst Enemy"?

What Is Philosophy's Point?

How Physics Lost Its Way

See also my Q&As with Scott Aaronson, David ChalmersDavid DeutschGeorge EllisDave Farber, Gabriel Finkelstein, Marcelo GleiserJohn Halpern, Robin HansonNick Herbert, Jim Holt, Sabine Hossenfelder, Stuart KauffmanChristof KochMichael Lemonick, Garrett LisiTheresa MacPhail, James McClellanPriyamvada NatarajanTed Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Naomi Oreskes, Martin ReesCarlo Rovelli, Andrew Russell, Rupert SheldrakeLee SmolinSheldon SolomonPaul SteinhardtGary Taubes, Philip Tetlock, Tyler VolkJames Weatherall, Steven WeinbergAlex Wellerstein, Edward WittenPeter WoitStephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.