Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The 'Irrationality" of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics

If you search the net a bit you can find many claims for the "irrationality" of relativity and quantum mechanics. I've just picked two at random here, but there are thousands like this:

"Near the origin of relativity is the claim that the velocity of light is determined by the receiving point. Effect supposedly precedes cause. Everyone knows something cannot be caused after it occurs. That claim is not allowed anyplace."
-- Here.

"The Natural Philosophy Alliance (NPA) is devoted mainly to broad-ranging, fully open-minded criticism, at the most fundamental levels , of the often irrational and unrealistic doctrines of modern physics and cosmology; and to the ultimate replacement of these doctrines by much sounder ideas developed with full respect for evidence, logic, and objectivity."
-- (The group's site is down right now, so no link!)

Now, certain "Austrians" have, quite detrimentally to the greater acceptance of Austrian economics, linked such crank physics to the Austrian programme in economics. This rejection of mathematical or physical findings due to their "irrationality" is a phenomenon which has arisen again and again in the history of science and mathematics. In every single case given to us by history, it later became clear that the "irrationality" was entirely that of the "rationalist" critics, who were unable to extend their own thought processes to embrace the rationality of the new mathematical or physical findings.

Here are just a few cases which some advance in physics or mathematics was deemed "irrational" by numerous "rationalists" at the time it occurred:

Irrational numbers: It is said that the Pythagorean who first discovered that the square root of two is irrational drowned himself.

Negative numbers: How can there be less than zero of something?

Imaginary numbers: Hey, they're imaginary, aren't they?

Heliocentrism: Critics of Copernicus said his model was crazy -- which, from the point of view of Aristotelean physics, it was.

Action at a distance: Huyghens and Leibniz, amongst others, chided Newton for re-introducing "occult" forces into science.

What is quite striking is the each new wave of critics of the advance of science and mathematics holds as 'a priori' conditions of 'rationality' precisely those physical and mathematical findings of earlier generations that were previously held to be the height of 'irrationality'! Surveying this process, we can easily discern what is occurring: for many people, intellectual growth has ceased by, say, 20 or 25. Whatever concepts they have absorbed by that point in their lives are deemed 'rational'. Any new concepts they encounter after that point are 'irrational'.

Relativity and quantum mechanics, as shown by the great Ernst Cassirer in what is, perhaps, the best book on the philosophy of science I have read, entitled Determinancy and Indeterminancy in Physics, are as fully rational as -- and, in some ways more rational than -- ealier paradigms of physical investigation. What's irrational is to reject the findings of modern science because they strain your brain.


  1. Gene, this is an astounding post, inasmuch as I didn't even endorse any of the revisionist physics. I'm actually reading Little's book now, which was just published. I've found his and other theories, such as Petr Beckmann's Einstein Plus Two, to be fascinating and provocative, but am not sure what to believe. You'll note that many prominent physicists, including Einstein himself, had trouble with some of the modern interpretations of quantum physics.

    Little's approach may or may not be right; but it (like Beckmann's) does not reject any experimental evidence we have. How you know Little is a crank is beyond me.

    Your last sentence is unfair and unjustified.

  2. Apparently deviating from modern interpretations of quantum physics is impermissibile. Deviationism!

  3. Stephen - I doubt you were meant by this (though I may be mistaken). Gene, it has been one of my long-standing pet peeves that social scientists unjustifiably refer to the physical sciences to justify whatever idea they happen to agree with, and to refute whatever they happen to not like. The most common of these is the reference to Heisenberg in the works of so-called 'critical theorists', though Schrodinger's Cat is another one that tends to crop up.

    The tendency to refer to the physical science when discussing human affairs is the greater the less the writer/speaker happens to understand about the physics in question. Sokal parodied this pretense quite nicely many years ago.

    But I don't think that Gene is unfair and unjustified in his last sentence, as long as it is understood that he is implicitly referring to people who do not happen to be well-versed in the mathematics of theoretical physics.

    As a rule, non-experts should discuss the findings of experts with the continuous and always understood provisio "as far as I understand." After all, the experts tend to treat all their findings as tentative, so maybe we should, too.

  4. Gee whiz Gene, don't you realize what an awkward position your anti-LRC posts put me in? Please consider me before expressing your views in the future.

    Anyway, I side with Stephan on this one. No matter what, Gene, where do you come up with putting "Austrian" in quotation marks? Don't you see how hilariously ironic that is, given your post of about 44 minutes ago criticizing Karen De Coster for booting people from the Rothbard cult?

    I was all set to argue the difference between experimental prediction versus philosophical interpretations (regarding two-slit experiment etc.), but I think that would muddy the waters.

    I rest my case on your use of "Austrian" in this post, coupled with your rip of Karen in the previous post.

    So which is it? Was Karen wrong to link views on guns with whether someone is "really" a libertarian, or are you wrong for linking views on quantum physics with whether someone is "really" an Austrian?

  5. Oops I should have made the tradeoff in the end: "Was Karen right to...or were you wrong to..."

    I.e. if you are going to stick to your guns on this post, I think by consistency you have to concede that Karen is not proving anything "cultish" in her LRC post.

  6. Good point in general, I don't know enough about the links to take a side on this internal skirmish.

    I will say, though, that a lot of the passionate discussions that surround the interpretation of science center on the story that is implicitly being told in the popular science magazines, which oftentimes is quite ridiculous. A lot of the struggles with certain theories originate, I think, by exicting (and philosophically sloppy) models promoted by physicists that are in reality much more boring conclusions.

    There is miscommunication, at the very least.

    There are times, where in mathematics for instance, there are theorems whose major assumptions are demonstrably false, but whose acceptance allows remarkable predictive power. An outsider is correct to point out that the model is built on bullshit, but the results are there for everyone to behold.

  7. Anonymous12:27 AM

    Actually, the instantaneous action-at-a-distance implicit in Newton's Law of Gravitation didn't just bother Huygens and Leibniz, it bothered Newton, too! Not that Huygens and Leibniz did not accept the validity of Newtonian mechanics. Newton pretty much shrugged off the problem with "we'll figure that out later. Newtonian mechanics turns out to be merely incomplete, in that it does not incorporate either relativistic or quantum considerations.

    Novak completely misunderstands Special Relativity. The speed of light doesn't depend on the receiver of the light at all: it's always the same, regardless of the relative motions of sender and receiver!

  8. Novak completely misunderstands Special Relativity. The speed of light doesn't depend on the receiver of the light at all:Right! I once read someone saying Einstein should have called it non-relativity, because the point was that the speed of light didn't depend on the viewer.

    I was going to rip that guy too but I was too busy brawling with Gene.

  9. Gene, here is the link for the NPA:

    If I may venture a few thoughts, let me note that cognitively we are naturally "conservative" in the sense that, (1) individuals appear to have some inherited patterns of perception and thinking and (2) once we`ve done a bit of learning to flesh out our maps of reality, that learning frequently subconsciously affects our perceptions, in ways that tends to both ignore conflicting information and to affirm our existing views.

    This has long been remarked - as the basis for the adage attributed to Niels Bohr and others that "science progresses one death at a time" - and is increasingly understood by cognitive scientists (who, with hard work, are applying reason to understand some of man`s irrational behavior).

    The inclination to reject quantum mechanics is understandable; Einstein himself didn`t like it and declared that the God he didn`t believe in "does not play dice with the universe".

    While I`m not quite sure how the linked post by Stephan has "quite detrimentally" affected the "greater acceptance of Austrian economics", this reminds me of how Austrians frequently throw aside principles about the importance of property rights in plan formation whenever climate change comes up, in favor mutually contradictory "skeptics" and armchair experts. Far easier to dismiss lightly widely held concerns than to grapple with difficult issues of how to manage open-access commons while checking rent-seeking.

    Finally, it`s irrational to expect that humans will ever be fully rational; we cannot, after all, change our own nature. The best that we can hope for, in others and ourselves, is a willingness to struggle constantly to be rational, and to be humble and tolerant of failure.

  10. Anonymous6:19 PM

    Just to finish up on my 12:27 am post: consider two spaceships traveling from points a to b and points b to a, respectively. Their speeds are irrelevant, but for convenience we'll make them the same. By previous agreement, when they cross each other, each fires a laser pulse of the same previously agreed upon frequency both towards their respective destinations and back to their points of origin. Observers at points a and b will see the laser pulses. One, from the spaceship traveling away, will be Doppler-shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. The other, traveling towards the observers, will be Doppler-shifted towards the blue, so the observers will be able to tell the two pulses apart. Which one arrives first? The answer is, the pulse from the ship traveling away from the observers arrives at the same time as the one traveling towards the observers!

  11. This is what happens when economists wander outside their zone of expertise. For whatever reason, Austrian economists have a bad habit of doing this.