Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blood from The Stone

The Stone is one of the greatest threats to intellectual discourse since the invention of the blog.
“I can’t answer ['What is philosophy?'] directly. I will tell you why I became a philosopher. I became a philosopher because I wanted to be able to talk about many, many things, ideally with knowledge, but sometimes not quite the amount of knowledge that I would need if I were to be a specialist in them. It allows you to be many different things. And plurality and complexity are very, very important to me.” (Alexander Nehamas)
Nehemas became a philosopher in order to further his desire to talk out of his ass. I think that about sums it up.

Luckily for us, there was an example of this from earlier in the month.
Take for example mathematics**, theoretical physics, psychology and economics***. These are predominately rational conceptual disciplines. That is, they are not chiefly reliant on empirical observation. For unlike science, they may be conducted while sitting in an armchair with eyes closed.
Ok, I'll bite. theoretical physics is not based on data.
As such, whereas science tends to alter and update its findings day to day through trial and error, logical deductions are timeless(**). This is why Einstein pompously called attempts to empirically confirm his special theory of relativity “the detail work.” 
Ha ha. Einstein is pompous. Wait; I thought you said theoretical physics is not based on empirical observation?
Indeed last September, The New York Times reported that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) thought they had empirically disproved Einstein’s theory that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, only to find their results could not be reproduced in follow-up experiments last month. Such experimental anomalies are confounding. But as CERN’s research director Sergio Bertolucci plainly put it, “This is how science works.”
So now theoretical physics is based on empirical data? I pause to note that these are two consecutive paragraphs.

I have two subsequent points.
  • This would not have "disproved" Einstein's theory. It would have meant that Einstein's theory was some approximation to some underlying theory. GPS, which uses Einstein's General Relativity to work, would keep on working. Muons generated from cosmic rays would still make it through the atmosphere.
  • It wasn't that their results couldn't be reproduced. There was an error that didn't take into account the difference in clock speeds at different points in the Earth's gravitational field of some kind. (Per Student, a loose cable.)

Talking out of one's ass indeed.

** "However, 5 plus 7 will always equal 12. No amount of further observation will change that." Except in modular arithmetic. Or any other redefinition of the binary operator "+". Or in different bases. Or adding 5 mL of isopropyl alcohol to 7 mL of water. The reason you can be sure of, snarking aside, the constancy of the underlying claim is that it is arbitrary. It is a small step from the Peano axioms to 5 + 7 = 12 and therefore it is as arbitrary as those axioms. Timeless, indeed. We see the fallacy of the preeminence of human thought again.

*** I don't think it was an intentional hit on economics, but I like it. They do make charts with empirical data in them. So does psychology.


  1. I think the latest on the faster-than-light neutrinos is that they had a loose cable that caused a timing error. No relativistic effects necessary.

    Also, their results were conspicuously not reproduced :

    1. Apparently I haven't been keeping up with this closely enough. Well, it had to be something. Ha ha!