Saturday, November 19, 2011

Scientists use inaccurate and inappropriate philosophical terminology

The experiment at the particle physics laboratory, CERN, in Switzerland, which showed the neutrinos -- subatomic particles -- to be travelling faster than the speed of light, has certainly altered the picture presented by Albert Einstein where he had assumed that the speed of light is to be treated as a constant because it travels faster than any known particle. If the neutrinos travel faster than light, then it would require the equations to be changed of the special relativity theory to be adjusted, and if need even be replaced by a new set of equations which would then have to assume the speeding neutrinos to be the constant in the configuration of equations. The same kind of adjustments had to be made with regard to Newtonian gravity and Euclidean geometry when Einstein proposed his theory of relativity. There is no metaphysical rigidity about the constants, which is only a convenient way of making sense of a dynamic set.

But the writer in his excitement in reporting the dramatic news of neutrinos beating light in the speed race, fell into fuzzy philosophical language: "The finding by the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tracking Apparatus) collaboration, released on 22 September, has the media abuzz with talk of a century's worth of physics upended, starting with Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity. This sets the velocity of light as the inviolable and unattainable limit for matter in motion, and links it to deeper aspects of reality, such as causality." (Speedy neutrinos challenge physicists in Nature of September 27)

It seems to be the fact that scientists are not much good at grasping philosophical concepts, including the present-day geniuses like Roger Penrose and his student Stephen Hawking. As a matter of fact, Hawking comes off much worse compared to his teacher.

Modern physics -- atomic physics, relativity and quantum theories -- are trying to explain the behaviour of matter -- or events as Bertrand Russell had tried to describe because matter had dissolved because of atomic physics and Einsteinian relativity -- at the macro and micro, the mega-macro and sub-micro levels. This is part of reality but it does not in any way touch the issues that philosophy deals with like time, space, causality. These are much too difficult for the best of scientists to grasp. They are not trained for it. They have to focus on the nuts and bolts of the small corner of the universe that we are living in and that is accessible to their study. Metaphysics, as the word implies -- begins where physics ends, and philosophers have to work hard at that end of the universe which is not amenable to experimental verification.

Causality is philosophy is quite simple -- that which makes the connection between what has gone before to what is and what it could be. And this is dealt at the ultimate level of what is behind the universe and what causes the universe. Cosmologists in the hunt for the beginning of the universe and the rise of light and matter and all that stuff we see around are not really looking for causality in the philosophical sense. Even if scientists can know the first three seconds after the Big Bang which have rise to the universe will not be able to explain whether there was a universe before the Big Bang and what whether another universe would arise after the universe collapses as a result of the Big Crunch. Penrose seems to have realised the conceptual problem though he has no ready answers. But he is willing to reach back to Plato in the western tradition to talk about our state of knowledge. Hawking grappling with cosmology is again interested in what is in the universe and rules of its functioning rather than the reason for its existence or the possible source of the universe. Einstein knew that all that the scientists can hope to do is to study the universe as it is.

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