April 18, 2012

Many Worlds In One

Since Thomas Kuhn and the post-positivist horde invaded analytic philosophy, talk of scientists inhabiting different worlds has attracted attention. It is premised on a plurality-of-phenomenal-worlds thesis (PPWT), “grounded in the experience of the historian of science”[1]. This is sensational stuff.  Clearly, practitioners of widely different disciplines like string theory and economics work by different rules premised on different assumptions about what makes the world what it is.  However, given that they study fundamentally different things (energy packets versus economies) the mystery would be if they did share a worldview.

Therefore, PPWT is stunning not for applying across disciplines but within one. Consider the case of physics. Kuhn holds that, “Einstein’s theory can be accepted only with the recognition that Newton’s was wrong”[2], thereby rejecting the common view that Newtonian mechanics is a special case of a more general relativity theory. By this logic, the passage from one stage of a discipline to the next is not via conjunction or accumulation but rather via disjunction. New questions arise about why and how a community transitions from one specialist worldview to another, and how to reconcile disjunctive logic with progress. Isn’t scientific progress an established phenomenon at the basis of our modern way of life?

Paul Feyerabend tried to soften the blow by suggesting that there are many ways in which, “the Newtonian and the relativist can and do converse”, so that, “the relativist can say that the classical formulae, properly interpreted (i.e. interpreted in the relativistic manner), are successful, but not as successful as the full relativistic apparatus”[3].  This is the case, for instance, with low velocities compared to the speed of light (here, the Galilean transformation equations disappear). Kuhn would have none of it and retorts that this does not diminish the revolutionary character of Einstein’s achievement but simply shows why, “Newton’s laws never seemed to work”[4].  His point is that although relativity statements Ei can be reduced to Newtonian statements Ni by restricting v to low velocities relative to c, Ni can certainly not be derived from Ei due to the fact that while, “Newtonian mass is conserved; Einsteinian mass is convertible with energy”[5]. The relativist engages with classical science as one does with a foreign language … never really getting the nuances and always translating into one’s native language. 

The worry is then that full communication across the chasm between worlds is not possible.  Kuhn called this impossibility the ‘incommensurability’ of the worldviews. But I think that this kind of talk is a symptom of a metaphor overstretched. In another context, Jonathan Hope offers a meditation on “a particular form of human vulnerability”[6], the vulnerability that comes from the fact that human beings inhabit a way of life. It is the vulnerability of cultural devastation or “things ceasing to happen”[7].  Hope uses the transition of the nomadic Crow First Nation to reservation life to exemplify this phenomenon.  On the reserve, even basic goals lose their appeal: “A crucial blow to their happiness was a loss of the concepts with which their happiness had been understood”[8].  Does this kind of analysis even make sense when applied to physicists? Did Newtonians inhabit a way of life that was devastated by the advent of the relativists? I think this is ridiculous. Unlike the Crow, Newtonians may still thrive, and even their use of technologies like GPS premised on a different world theory doesn’t amount to cultural devastation. 

Perhaps transitions between phenomenal specialist worlds can be better understood against the background of their relation to the social world shared by all.

[1] Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolution, 38.
[2] Kuhn, Structure, 98.
[3] Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason, 271.
[4] Kuhn, Structure, 102.
[5] Kuhn, Structure, 102.
[6] Jonathan Hope, Radical Hope, 8.
[7] Jonathan Hope, Radical Hope, 8.
[8] Jonathan Hope, Radical Hope, 55.

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