Tag Archives: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Why Quantum Gravity needs Operationalism: Part 2

(Update: My colleagues pointed out that Wittgenstein was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century and I should not make fun of him, and anyway he was only very loosely associated with the Vienna circle. All well and true — but he was at least partly responsible for the idea that got the Vienna Circle onto Verificationism, and all of you pedants can go look at the references if you don’t believe me.)

“Where neither confirmation nor refutation is possible, science is not concerned.”    — Mach

Some physicists give philosophy a bad rap. I like to remind them that all the great figures in physics had a keen interest in philosophy, and were strongly influenced by the work of philosophers. Einstein made contributions to philosophy as well as physics, as did Ernst Mach, whose philosophical work had a strong influence on Einstein in formulating his General Theory of Relativity. In his own attitude to philosophy, Einstein was a self-described “epistemological opportunist” [1]. (Epistemology is, broadly speaking, the philosophy of knowledge and how it is acquired.) But philosophy sometimes gets in the way of progress, as explained in the following story.

A physicist was skipping along one day when he came upon a philosopher, standing rigid in the forest. “Why standeth you thus?” he inquired.

“I am troubled by a paradox!” said the philosopher. “How is it that things can move from place to place?”

“What do you mean? I moved here by skipping, didn’t I?”

“Yes, sure. But I cannot logically explain why the world allows it to be so. You see, a philosopher named Zeno argued that in order to traverse any finite distance, one would have to first traverse an infinite number of partitions of that distance. But how can one make sense of completing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time?”

“Well dang,” said the physicist “that’s an interesting question. But wait! Could it be that space and time are actually divided up into a finite number of tiny chunks that cannot be sub-divided further? What an idea!”

“Ah! Perhaps,” says the philosopher, “but what if the world is indeed a continuum? Then we are truly stuck.”

At that moment, a mathematician who had been dozing in a tree fell out and landed with a great commotion.

“Terribly sorry! Couldn’t help but overhear,” he said. “In fact I do believe it is conceptually possible for an infinite number of things to add up to a finite quantity. Why, this gives me a great idea for calculating the area under curves. Thank you so much, I’d better get to it!”

“Yes, yes we must dash at once! There’s work to do!” agreed the physicist.

“But wait!” cried the philosopher, “what if time is merely an illusion? And what is the connection of abstract mathematics to the physical world? We have to work that out first!”

But the other two had already disappeared, leaving the philosopher in his forest to ponder his way down deeper and ever more complex rabbit-holes of thought.

***

Philosophy is valuable for pointing us in the right direction and helping us to think clearly. Sometimes philosophy can reveal a problem where nobody thought there was one, and this can lead to a new insight. Sometimes philosophy can identify and cure fallacies in reasoning. In solving a problem, it can highlight alternative solutions that might not have been noticed otherwise. But ultimately, physicists only tend to turn to philosophy when they have run out of ideas, and most of the time the connection of philosophy to practical matters seems tenuous at best. If philosophers have a weakness, it is only that they tend to think too much, whereas a physicist only thinks as hard as he needs to in order to get results.

After that brief detour, we are ready to return to our hero — physicist Percy Bridgman — and witness his own personal fling and falling-out with philosophy. In a previous post, we introduced Bridgman’s idea of operationalism. Recall that Bridgman emphasized that a physical quantity such as `length’ or `temperature’ should always be attached to some clear notion of how to measure that quantity in an experiment. It is not much of a leap from there to say that a concept is only meaningful if it comes equipped with instructions of how to measure it physically.

Although Bridgman was a physicist, his idea quickly caught on amongst philosophers, who saw in it the potential for a more general theory of meaning. But Bridgman quickly became disillusioned with the direction the philosophers were taking as it became increasingly clear that operationalism could not stand up to the demanding expectations set by the philosophers.

The main culprits were a group of philosophers called the Vienna Circle [2]. Following an idea of Ludwig Wittgenstein, these philosophers attempted to define concepts as meaningful only if they could somehow be verified in principle, an approach that became known as Verificationism. Verificationism was a major theme of the school of thought called `logical empiricism’ (aka logical positivism), the variants of which are embodied in the combined work of philosophers in the Vienna Circle, notably Reichenbach, Carnap and Schlick, as well as members outside the group, like the Berlin Society.

At that time, Bridgman’s operationalism was closely paralleled by the ideas of the Verificationists. This was unfortunate because around the middle of the 20th century it became increasingly apparent that there were big philosophical problems with this idea. On the physics side of things, the philosophers realized that there could be meaningful concepts that could not be directly verified. Einstein pointed out that we cannot measure the electric field inside a solid body, yet it is still meaningful to define the field at all points in space:

“We find that such an electrical continuum is always applicable only for the representation of electrical states of affairs in the interior of ponderable bodies. Here too we define the vector of electric field strength as the vector of the mechanical force exerted on the unit of positive electric quantity inside a body. But the force so defined is no longer directly accessible to experiments. It is one part of a theoretical construction that can be correct or false, i.e., consistent or not consistent with experience, only as a whole.” [1]

Incidentally, Einstein got this point of view from a philosopher, Duhem, who argued that isolated parts of a theory are do not stand as meaningful on their own, but only when taken together as a whole can they be matched with empirical data. It therefore does not always make sense to isolate  some apparently metaphysical aspect of a theory and criticize it as not being verifiable. In a sense, the verifiability of an abstract quantity like the electric field hinges on its placement within a larger theoretical framework that extends to the devices used to measure the field.

In addition, the Verificationists began to fall apart over some rather technical philosophical points. It went something like this:

Wittgenstein: “A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is conceivable for the proposition to be completely verified!”

Others: “What about the statement `All dogs are brown’? I can’t very well check that all dogs are brown can I? Most of the dogs who ever lived are long dead, for a start.”

Wittgenstein: “Err…”

Others: “And what about this guy Karl Popper? He says nothing can ever be completely verified. Our theories are always wrong, they just get less wrong with time.”

Wittgenstein: *cough* *cough* I have to go now. (runs away).

Carnap: Look, we don’t have to take such a hard line. Statements like `All dogs are brown’ are still meaningful, even though they can’t be completely verified.

Schlick: No, no, you’ve got it wrong! Statements like `All dogs are brown’ are meaningless! They simply serve to guide us towards other statements that do have meaning.

Quine: No, you guys are missing a much worse problem with your definition: how do you determine which statements actually require verification (like `The cat sat on the mat’), and which ones are just true by definition (`All bachelors are unmarried’)? I can show that there is no consistent way to separate the two kinds of statement.

(Everybody’s head explodes)

So you can see how the philosophers tend to get carried away. And where was poor old Percy Bridgman during all this? He was backed into a corner, with people prodding his chest and shouting at him:

Gillies: “How do you tell if a measurement method is valid? If there is nothing more to a concept than its method of measurement, then every method of measurement is automatically valid!”

Bridgman: “Well, yes, I suppose…”

Positivists: “And isn’t it true that even if we all agree to use a single measurement of length, this does not come close to exhausting what we mean by the word length? How disappointing.”

Bridgman: “Now wait a minute –”

Margenau: “And just what the deuce do you mean by `operations’ anyhow?”

Bridgman: “Well, I … hey, aren’t you a physicist? You should be on my side!”

(Margenau discreetly melts into the crowd)

To cut a long story short, by the time Quine was stomping on the ashes of what once was logical empiricism, Bridgman’s operationalism had suffered a similar fate, leaving Bridgman battered and bloody on the sidelines wondering where he went wrong:

“To me now it seems incomprehensible that I should ever have thought it within my powers … to analyze so thoroughly the functioning of our thinking apparatus that I could confidently expect to exhaust the subject and eliminate the possibility of a bright new idea against which I would be defenseless.”

To console himself, Bridgman retreated to his laboratory where he at least knew what things were, and could spend hours hand-drilling holes in blocks of steel without having to waste his time arguing about it. Sometimes the positivists would prod him, saying:

“Bridgman! Hey Bridgman! If I measure the height of the Eiffel tower, does that count as an operation, or do you have to perform every experiment yourself?” to which Bridgman would narrow his eyes and mutter: “I don’t trust any experimental results except the ones I perform myself. Now leave me alone!”

Needless to say, Bridgman’s defiantly anti-social attitude to science did not help improve the standing of operationalism among philosophers or physicists; few people were prepared to agree that every experiment has to be verified by an individual for him or herself. Nevertheless, Bridgman remained a heroic figure and a defender of the scientific method as the best way to cope with an otherwise incomprehensible and overwhelming universe. Bridgman’s stubborn attitude of self-reliance was powerfully displayed in his final act: he committed suicide by gunshot wound after being diagnosed with metastatic cancer. In his suicide note, he wrote [3]:

“It isn’t decent for society to make a man do this thing himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself.”

Bridgman’s original conception of operationalism continues to resonate with physicists to this very day. In the end he was forced to admit that it did not constitute a rigorous philosophical doctrine of meaning, and he retracted some of his initially over-optimistic statements. However, he never gave up the more pragmatic point of view that an operationalist attitude can be beneficial to the practicing scientist. Towards the end of his life, he maintained that:

“…[T]here is nothing absolute or final about an operational analysis […]. So far as any dogma is involved here at all, it is merely the conviction that it is better, because it takes us further, to analyze into doings or happenings rather than into objects or entities.”

Bridgman2

[1]  See the SEP entry on Einstein’s philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/

[2] SEP entry on the Vienna Circle: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vienna-circle/

[3] Sherwin B Nuland, “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” Random House 1995

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