Philosophical transactions: science, physics and the dearth of philosophical debate

The putting into action of the Large Hadron Collider last week caused an enormous wave of interesting writing in the regular media. It also caused your regular joe to pause for a moment and really seriously consider the implications of the project. It has been an opportunity for people to realise that they can understand rudimentary elements of particle physics; more, perhaps, than they thought they could.

The entire Large Hadron Collider project, and its potential for eliminating earth and the human race is, to my mind, very Zen. The notion that humans, arguably Earth’s most intelligent creatures, could destroy their home (and their fellow creatures) through an imperfect understanding of what they are dealing with is somehow faintly ironic: humans will try to live no matter what (a fact that makes torture particularly awful), and yet they are possibly faced with some rather difficult problems to solve if chaos theory takes the LHC experiment by the hand.

Lest it be otherwise known, I do take issue with the LHC experiment. A great analogy I read recently was that allowing the experiment to continue is like packing six billion souls into a huge van, and trusting the dude who’s been at the party all day to drive them home safely. You don’t know if he’s been drinking, or if he’s capable, or even if the vehicle is roadworthy: you just have to trust him because you are not given a choice.

Another writer commented that while science is progressing at an astonishing pace, and while there are amazing things in progress, where is the international jurisprudence that ensures the responsible use of scientific knowledge, and the conduct of responsible experimentation? It’s a good question, and one that cannot be answered because there isn’t any.

Various companies and organisations will yell from the rooftops that it’s ok: they have ethics committees. Well, I’m sorry, but as a researcher myself I know that ethics committees are (generally) a waste of time and bureaucracy, especially in the arts. I also know that ethics committees are comprised of people from various fields, which is excellent, but that their understanding of most theoretical knowledge in specific fields is very poor. These types of committees are excellent for evaluating impact on humans in a very traditional study, but beyond that is where I question their applicability.

The notion that the Large Hadron Collider could – it’s a very slight could, but it still exists so we must acknowledge it – create microscopic black holes, vacuum bubbles, strangelets, or (the worst-case) proton decay, is troubling. As is the fact that to run the machine takes more energy than the city of Geneva uses to heat itself. As is the fact that if one magnet fails, an incredible amount of energy (equivalent to something like 320,000 tons of TNT if I remember correctly) will hit the wall of the tunnel. To put this into perspective, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima yielded approximately 13 kilotons (13,000).

There is an incredible dearth of philosophical writing in this field, or any other applied scientific field, and that bodes ill for people generally, but is particularly worrying for the intelligentsia. It has recently struck me in a significant way that while people require food, money, and basics to exist, they also require intellectual stimulation. To a very large degree, for enormous numbers of people in the West, intellectual stimulation has been replaced by an insidious form of passive absorption. Of course, weight gain goes along with this (but let’s not remind ourselves that using your brain uses energy too… that’s another topic).

Researchers and students, and yes the intelligentsia, are currently a very long way from the philosophical academie that we used to take for granted. Philosophical studies are not undertaken, schools of philosophy have closed down across the world, and this very basic but essential field has been cut down at the knees.

This is partly due to the fact that philosophy is not seen as an ‘applied’ art, or an ‘applied’ science. Yes it is, but the primary problem with the field is its reliance on expert knowledge.

To be considered any type of person worth discussing in the field of philosophy, you must be completely au fait with the Old Boys: the philosophers of old. It does help to a certain extent, to have the knowledge of ancient and modern philosophies in order to give depth to any argument. But there is a dire need for fresh, innovative philosophies from people who are not friendly with the Establishment. A usual outcome of writing in a philosophical field is that a writer is naturally drawn to the old philosophers, whose works can then be re-thought as needed. It’s a better way of thinking, rather than getting stifled by the idiosyncratic syntax of philosophy, the result of which is not philosophical writing but so-called philosophers arguing about semantics.

Deep independent thought needs to be encouraged. The blogosphere could meet this need, but it is still very shallow. While the blogosphere can be critical, can be timely, it is generally commentary without the depth of thought required to be considered philosophy.

Philosophical thought from young and new writers is essential if we are to come to terms with such enormous scientific projects as the LHC, especially if those writers are unfamiliar with the Establishment. If a writer is not aligned with a particular school or academy, he or she is less likely to form his or her ideas around the notion of a particular theoretical or philosophical framework. It creates free-form philosophical writing, and encourages creativity of response.

The current trend for democracy and capitalism – most especially capitalism – and its resultant deadening of the intellectual psyche of the majority of Western civilisation, has resulted in a situation where there is no longer a culture of intelligent and critical, and philosophical, thought. It is not considered a Good Thing to be a Thinker: you can’t get a job in that field for a start. However, it is becoming essential that people re-grasp their abilities of thought in order to evolve effectively. We can all cope with climate change, for instance, if we think creatively and stop allowing the mass media, and corporations, to guide the movement (and reactions and attitudes) of the population.

We have come so far from a culture of thought or philosophy, or critical engagement that I strongly doubt we can go back to it without experiencing some form of catastrophe. A wind-down began to occur before the first World War, and the philosophical and creative output after that catastrophic event (the first ever global-scale war) was prodigious.

Perhaps the LHC experiment might cause a renewed vigour for philosophical thought. If it results in a catastrophe like an explosion, it might well do. If it results in proton decay, I doubt we’ll be around to see it, let alone write about it.

So, it’s a serious question: where is the rigorous international jurisprudence to cover the strides people are making in scientific knowledge? But more importantly, where is the independent philosophy going to come from, that will allow us to continue making sense of – and critically evaluating and engaging in – these questions?

Philosophy is more than morality or ethics: it is a critical engagement with the bigger ideas surrounding the untouchable issues – of which particle physics is one. If you’re not a particle physicist then you need to stay off that turf, because you can’t argue physics with someone who has studied it until they are more physicist than human. You can engage with the issues philosophically, however, and that is potentially more important.

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