This is the 18th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
The last speaker for the first day of the conference was David Albert, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the M.A. Program in The Philosophical Foundations of Physics at Columbia University.
I have a problem with Albert’s presentation in that he does not seem to present much of an argument for his position. It is difficult to find a set of premises leading to a conclusion. What we seem to have instead is a stream of conclusions with very little support actually being exposed in the presentation.
Albert, like Sean Carroll before him, wants to argue in favor of the Enlightenment idea that everything in the natural world can be reduced to physics – including morality, love, and universities. He wants to argue that the position that had been the received view for the past 70 years in science, that science has fundamental limits that restrict not only what we can know about the world, but in describing the world.
This idea of the limits of science is one which is commonly used by a wide variety of the critics of science. Religious fundamentalists believe that they can use the limits of science to make room for a God. New-age post-modernists try to argue that the limits of science make room for whatever the observer or agent wants to put there – that we (in a sense) create our own reality.
Albert’s view is that this problem does not exist.
There is, indeed, a problem concerning the limits of observation. Albert does argue that observation itself, particularly at the subatomic level, is “an absolutely unavoidably violent an disruptive process.” As such, we cannot oserve things as they would have been in the absence of observation. However, Albert wants to deny that this is a normal scientific problem – not some special problem that calls the whole scientific process into question. It is a limit in our ability to conduct experiments and to make observations that is, at root, no different than the problem with taking measurements and making observations that scientists have always labored under.
This is one of the areas where Albert tends to make assertions rather than arguments. He claims that this view came from Bohr and others who wanted to defend quantum mechanics from certain objections in the early part of the 20th century. To do so, they argued that what appeared to be problems with quantum mechanics was, in fact, problems with the limits of science. The fact that quantum mechanics could not explain certain types of outcomes was not reason enough to question quantum mechanics (as we would have questioned other theories). It was reason enough, so these theorists argued, to to hold that science itself will remain perpetually unable to answer these questions.
To counter this view, Albert asserts that there are now theories on the table that suggest that the original problem was not with the fundamental limits of science, but with quantum mechanics itself. The reason that quantum mechanics fails to answer particular questions is because quantum mechanics needs to be replaced by a better theory that can answer these questions.
For the most part, I have no way to assess his claim that there are these alternative theories exist and that they have the implications he attributes to them. The only way that I have to assess whether his claims have merit is whether the members of the audience (who know more than I do) will accept them or reject them. Even that is hard to determine.