Whereof One Can Speak 🇺🇦 🇺🇦 🇺🇦

Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

Would an Assassination Help?

According to news reports, someone violently assaulted Paul Pelosi, the 82-year old husband of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House (who is second in line for the presidency). Mr. Pelosi survived, but got a fractured skull and other injuries. The person arrested for the assault appears to have been seriously delusional:

The San Francisco Bay area man arrested in the attack on … Nancy Pelosi’s husband filled a blog a week before the incident with delusional thoughts, including that an invisible fairy attacked an acquaintance and sometimes appeared to him in the form of a bird, according to online writings under his name.

[He] also published hundreds of blog posts in recent months sharing memes in support of fringe commentators and far-right personalities. Many of the posts were filled with screeds against Jews, Black people, Democrats, the media and transgender people [Washington Post].

We can assume the attacker was intending to injure or assassinate Nancy Pelosi, since he apparently asked her husband “Where’s Nancy?” She wasn’t there, she was in Washington. But that’s probably why her husband was allowed to go to the bathroom, where he happened to be charging his phone. That allowed him to call 911. The 911 operator then heard conversation between Pelosi and the other man. That led the operator to alert police, who responded within a couple minutes and witnessed the assault [Politico]. I suppose, understanding that Nancy Pelosi wasn’t there, and seeing that he was about to be arrested, it seemed like a good idea to eliminate Pelosi’s husband instead.

Nancy Pelosi has been demonized for years by the Republican Party and right-wing propaganda outlets like Fox News (Vox has an historical summary). It’s not surprising that somebody who’s been told over and over that a powerful woman, in league with various dark forces, wants to destroy America decided he had to do something about it. Given the intensity of right-wing attacks on Democratic politicians in recent years, it is surprising that there haven’t been more assaults and assassination attempts.

One question this episode raises is whether the assassination of a high-level official like Nancy Pelosi or President Biden would tone down right-wing rhetoric. Could it even break the hold of the most extreme Republicans on their party? Would it be a sufficient shock to the system that some voters — possibly the so-called “moderates” who have trouble deciding which party to support — would turn away from the Republican Party?

For a time, people thought the January 6th assault on the Capitol was bad enough to make people switch sides. But it doesn’t seem to have had that effect (otherwise the polls wouldn’t be so close). For one thing, the insurrectionists walking the halls calling out to Nancy Pelosi weren’t able to find her and bludgeon her to death. They didn’t find Vice President Pence, one of their other targets, either.

The early indications are that Friday’s attempt to maim or kill the Speaker of the House by someone steeped in right-wing propaganda won’t have much of an effect. An alternate reality is already being created:

An online forum devoted to former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s right-wing radio show alerted its 78,000 subscribers to “very strange new details on Paul Pelosi attack.”

Roger Stone … took to the messaging app Telegram to call the assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband an “alleged attack,” telling his followers that a “stench” surrounded mainstream reporting about the Friday break-in….

The skepticism didn’t stay in right-wing echo chambers but seeped also into the feeds of popular online personalities, including Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk.

“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” he wrote Sunday morning, pointing his 112 million followers to a sensationalist account of the episode published by a site known for spreading right-wing misinformation. 

The rush to sow doubt about the assault on Pelosi’s husband illustrates how aggressively influential figures on the right are seeking to dissuade the public from believing facts about the violence, seizing on the event to promote conspiracy theories and provoke distrust….

These merchants of misinformation, said Carl Cameron, a former longtime Fox News political correspondent, deceive their massive audiences using rumors and lies about everything from the integrity of elections to the details of a police report. “They are creating a dystopia wherein lying and physical violence become part of our politics,” he said.

Dinesh D’Souza … aired falsehoods and innuendo in a viral Twitter thread suggesting the attack on Paul Pelosi was a form of intentional misrepresentation sometimes referred to as a “false flag”…. “The Left is going crazy because not only are we not BUYING the wacky, implausible Paul Pelosi story but we are even LAUGHING over how ridiculous it is,” he wrote early Sunday morning. “What this means is that we are no longer intimidated by their fake pieties”….

Musk [Twitter’s new owner] also appeared unconvinced by the official story… In response to a tweet from Hillary Clinton condemning the attack and claiming it resulted from “hate and deranged conspiracy theories” spread by Republican politicians, he pointed instead to a story in the Santa Monica Observer claiming without evidence that Paul Pelosi was drunk at the time of the assault and “in a dispute with a male prostitute.” Musk, who later deleted the tweet, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The website of the Santa Monica Observer, described by fact-checkers as a low-credibility source favoring the extreme right, was offline Sunday morning. But an archived version of the story promised to explain “what really happened early Friday morning in San Francisco”. It unspooled a lurid tale about nudists and a tryst gone terribly wrong….

Apart from our personal experience, we all learn by paying attention to trusted sources of information. If your sources of information are corrupt, you get a skewed view of reality. That’s why it will take more than an attack on the Capitol or a botched assassination attempt — or something of world-historical importance like the climate crisis — to change some people’s minds.

Ethics as a Very Serious Game

What are we doing when we say that an action is morally right or wrong? That’s one of the questions philosophers try to answer when they do “metaethics”. In metaethics, the question isn’t whether a particular action, like stealing candy from a little kid, is right or wrong. That’s a question for ethics. Metaethics concerns the nature of ethical judgments themselves. Is an assertion like “stealing candy is wrong” true or false, or is it more like saying “Hey everybody, don’t steal candy!”

Here’s part of a metaethical article by a University of Miami philosophy professor named Richard Chappell. It’s from a series of articles he wrote about the highly influential British philosopher Derek Parfit:

J.L. Mackie famously objected that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities… of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Parfit seeks to defang such metaphysical qualms by denying that objective values (or normative properties more generally) would have to exist “in the universe” at all. Nor do they exist in some separate, ghostly Platonic realm. That is still to treat them too much on the model of concrete objects that exist in space and time. Instead, Parfit suggests, abstract entities like numbers and objective values exist in a “non-ontological” sense. True claims about numbers and values are as true as true can be, but—Parfit insists—these truths “have no positive ontological implications.” This is Parfit’s Non-Metaphysical Cognitivism in a nutshell.

Parfit thus hopes to secure the best of both worlds: the objectivity of robust non-naturalist normative realism, without the ontological costs. Whether this is a coherent position is, unfortunately, less clear. Parfit claims that abstract entities “are not a kind of entity about which it is a clear enough question whether, in some ontological sense, they exist, or are real, though they are not in space and time”….

Some skeptics have thought that objective values would be more problematic than other abstract objects. Mackie supposed that they must be imbued with a kind of magical motivating force…. [Parfit responds that] normativity is causally inert: it marks what truly ought to be done, but it cannot push us to do it. Their causal inefficacy makes Parfit’s non-natural properties more metaphysically innocent (being compatible with the principle that physical effects can only stem from physical causes), but perhaps more epistemically puzzling.

If abstract objects cannot causally influence physical objects such as our brains, how can we possibly know anything about them? … Parfit suggests that the necessary truths of logic, mathematics, and philosophy are self-evident in the sense that full rational understanding of the claim in question gives one sufficient justification for believing it: no causal interaction or external evidence is required.

To appreciate that 2+2=4, or that pain is bad, you don’t need to run a scientific experiment to better reveal the causal structure of the world (and indeed, doing so wouldn’t help). Once you’ve acquired the relevant concepts, you just need to think clearly. Not all self-evident truths are so obvious as these examples, and we are all fallible, imperfectly rational beings. So people may disagree about what is truly self-evident, and sometimes get it wrong. But the core suggestion is nonetheless that careful thinking may see us right (and at any rate is the only hope we have, so we might as well give it our best shot).

Non-cognitivists hold that our moral judgments express (something like) desires rather than beliefs. The early emotivists claimed that “murder is wrong” meant, roughly, “Boo to murder!” Contemporary expressivists and quasi-realists are more sophisticated, but Parfit notoriously dismissed their developments as mere window-dressing for a “bleak view” that is ultimately “close to Nihilism”. For Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover.

It can be difficult to pin down the disagreement between realists and expressivists, however. For expressivists can affirm normative truths (given a minimalist theory of truth, on which “it’s true that murder is wrong” is just to affirm that murder is wrong). And they can even affirm objective, stance-independent normative truths, for they can affirm norms opposing murder without condition. The affirmed norm thus negatively evaluates murder even in those possible worlds in which the expressivist comes to adopt pro-murder norms.

So we cannot straightforwardly assert that only realists can hold murder to be objectively wrong, independently of their attitudes. Expressivists may endorse that same norm. They, too, can disapprove of their pro-murder counterpart. And of course even the moral realist could have counterparts that believe murder to be good. So: what’s the difference? Parfit insists that moral truths are true in a way that goes beyond minimalism. He isn’t just re-affirming his preferred moral norms, but claims that some norms are right in a way that goes beyond merely affirming them.

Of course, if expressivists insist on reinterpreting this claim as just yet another norm affirmation, then I’m not sure how to stop them. But it does seem clear enough that there’s a distinctive claim here that the rest of us can grasp, even if they refuse to admit it!


I’ve been thinking about metaethics off and on for more than 50 years. I’ve never thought metaethical questions are easy to answer. But after reading Professor Chappell’s article, it all became clear! Eureka!

No, actually, that’s a lie, but I did reach a tentative conclusion.

I think ethics is like a game, a very serious game. And ethical statements can be true or false in the same way statements about the rules of a game are.

Chess is a game. Some people take it extremely seriously. Chess has official rules:

The rules continued to be slightly modified until the early 19th century, when they reached essentially their current form. The rules also varied somewhat from place to place. Today, the standard rules are set by FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), the international governing body for chess [Wikipedia].

If ethics is like a game, does it have any official rules? According to some people, it does (see The Bible), but I think it’s more like chess before people accepted the creation of a governing body. Everybody who played the game correctly in the 17th century agreed that the queen could move in any direction, but not everybody everywhere handled promotion the same way (that’s when a pawn is replaced by a more powerful piece).

So, like the statement “the game always ends before a king is taken” is true in chess, “everything else being equal, keeping promises is the right thing to do” is true in ethics. “The queen can only move in one direction” is false in chess, while “it’s fine to make random people suffer just for the hell of it” is false in ethics.

There are obviously big differences between ethics and chess. Ethics is practiced or  “played” much longer than chess and by more people, apparently in every culture. There is more disagreement about what’s permissible in ethics than in chess. Everybody who plays chess thinks it’s a kind of game; very few people think ethics is (although that will depend on how many people read this blog). The scope of ethics is much broader than the scope of chess; what’s at stake is usually more serious in ethics; we engage in ethics to get along with other people or be a good person or maybe go to heaven, not to have fun, pass the time or defeat an opponent.

But like in chess or baseball or roller derby, rules aren’t “discovered” in ethics. This is a controversial idea. Quoting the article above, “for Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover”. Parfit and other “ethical realists” think ethical rules weren’t created by human beings; they were discovered, as if they existed independently, waiting to be found.

I don’t think ethical rules or norms were discovered. Scientists, mathematicians and detectives make discoveries. You make a discovery when you find your keys. You could make a discovery about the rules of chess by looking in a chess book. But the rules of chess weren’t “discovered” the same way the Pythagorean theorem or the chemical composition of water were. The rules of chess developed through the years as people decided how the game should be played. Some rules were probably discarded; others were added; some were revised. I think ethics works that way. Ethical rules or norms were developed over thousands of years as people decided how to live, in particular, how we should behave toward each other. Chess was presumably improved when its rules changed, when it became true that chess is played a certain way. People’s behavior was presumably improved when ethical norms changed. It became true that ethical people behave in certain ways.

It’s a Global Problem — They’d Make It Worse

I’m avoiding polls and speculation about the upcoming midterm election and don’t see political advertisements, but political news and commentary does get through. Today, Paul Krugman discussed the state of the economy and pointed out that Republican politicians don’t have a plan to address what they say is the country’s biggest problem (since the climate crisis isn’t real, women shouldn’t have equal rights and democracy is overrated):

Few things I’ve written in recent years have generated as much hate mail as a relatively low-key, somewhat nerdy newsletter I put out just before the release of data on gross domestic product for the second quarter of 2022. In that newsletter I explained why, despite a lot of misinformation in the news media, a recession is not defined as two quarters of declining G.D.P. and the first half of 2022 was unlikely to meet the actual, multidimensional criteria used by the committee that determines whether a recession has started.

The reason for the hate mail was, of course, that Republicans were eager to declare a “Biden recession” and falsely accused the administration of a double standard when it said that we were not, in fact, in a recession.

Well, Thursday’s advance G.D.P. report for the third quarter of 2022 showed why a recession call based on two quarters of somewhat bizarre data would have been all wrong. Economic growth has rebounded, back up to 2.6 percent at an annual rate — putting G.D.P. back in line with strong employment growth, which has continued throughout the year. Do you really want to say that we were in a recession from January through June but have miraculously recovered?

… Suffice it to say, we weren’t in a recession earlier this year and aren’t in a recession now, although we could find ourselves in one in the future as delayed effects of rising interest rates kick in.

Politically, however, it may not matter much, because Republicans have largely given up on the recession story. Instead, their economic attacks, in both debates and campaign ads, have been focused overwhelmingly on inflation, especially gas prices.

It therefore seems worth pointing out that the Republican Party doesn’t have a plan to fight inflation. Actually, it doesn’t have any coherent economic plan at all. But to the extent that Republicans have laid out what they will try to do if they win the midterms, their policies would make inflation worse, not better.

When pressed about how, exactly, they would reduce inflation, Republicans often fall back on some version of “Gas was only $2 a gallon when Trump left office!” So let’s talk about that comparison.

First, it’s remarkable how the right has reimagined January 2021 as a golden moment for America. At the time, about 20,000 Americans were dying from Covid every week; there were still nine million fewer jobs than there had been before the pandemic. Indeed, the still-depressed state of major economies, including that of the United States, was the main reason world oil prices were unusually low, which in turn was the main reason gas was cheap.

A better comparison would be with 2019, the year before the pandemic, when gas averaged $2.60 a gallon. Bear in mind that average wages have risen about 15 percent over the past three years, so gas would be as affordable now as it was in 2019 if its current average price were $2.99. As of Wednesday, it was $3.75. So yes, gas has become less affordable, but not by nearly as much as Republicans claim.

And despite Republican rhetoric, Biden administration policies have had little impact on gas prices, which have been driven by events affecting world markets — notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and to some extent by bottlenecks in refining, which grew worse for several weeks starting in mid-September but have eased again.

So what is the Republican plan to bring gas prices down? There isn’t one.

What about inflation more generally? You can make the case that large deficit spending early in the Biden presidency fed inflation (although it had little effect on the most politically salient prices, for energy and food, which have soared around the world).

If you’re worried about the inflationary impact of budget deficits, however, you should know that almost the only concrete economic policy idea we’re hearing from Republicans is that they want to extend the Trump tax cuts, which would … substantially increase the deficit.

It’s true that many Republicans adhere to an economic ideology that doesn’t see deficits caused by tax cuts as a problem, either because they believe — in the teeth of all the evidence — that tax cuts somehow pay for themselves, or because they believe that government spending, not deficits per se, is what causes problems.

But if you believe that cutting taxes without any plausible plan for offsetting spending cuts isn’t a problem even in a time of inflation, markets beg to disagree. Look at what happened to the pound and British interest rates after Liz Truss, the quickly deposed prime minister, announced an economic plan that, broadly speaking, looks a lot like what Republicans are proposing here. (There’s more to it than that, but still.)

The bottom line is that while the G.O.P.’s election strategy is all about blaming the Biden administration for inflation, the Republican Party doesn’t actually have any plan to reduce inflation. To the extent it has an economic plan at all, it would make inflation worse.


I’ll add that inflation is a global problem (it’s higher in Europe than in the Us) and oil companies are making tremendous profits with gas prices this high. What would a Republican Congress do to restrain oil company profiteering? The question answers itself.

A Constitution Set in Stone, or the Beating of a Dead Horse

The historian Jill Lepore has a long article in The New Yorker entitled:

The United States’ Unamendable Constitution: How our inability to change America’s most important document is deforming our politics and government.

It deals with topics, mainly the Constitution and the Supreme Court and the anti-democratic features thereof, that have come up here many, many times. I read the whole thing anyway. This is a lot of it:

It’s always been hard to amend the Constitution. But, in the past half century, it’s become much harder—so hard that people barely bother trying anymore. Between 1789 and 1804—fifteen years—the Constitution was amended twelve times. Between 1805 and 2022—two hundred and seventeen years—it’s been amended only fifteen times, and since 1971 only once.

The Framers did not anticipate two developments that have made the double supermajority required by Article V [2/3 of both houses of Congress and ¾ of the states] almost impossible to achieve: the emergence of the first political parties, which happened in the seventeen-nineties, and the establishment of a stable two-party system, in place by the eighteen-twenties. As John Adams complained, in 1808, “the Principle Seems to be established on both Sides that the Nation is never to be governed by the Nation: but the whole is to be exclusively governed by a Party.” This state of affairs raised the bar for amending the Constitution. The current era of party polarization, which began in the early nineteen-seventies, has raised the bar much, much higher.

How high? Political scientists talk about the “amendment rate”—the number of amendments to any given constitution, per year. Divide twenty-seven ratified amendments by two hundred and thirty-three years and you get 0.12, the U.S. amendment rate. It is one of the lowest rates in the world…..

An unamendable constitution is not an American tradition. U.S. state constitutions are much easier to amend than the federal Constitution. The average amendment rate of a U.S. state is 1.23; Alabama’s constitution has an amendment rate of 8.07. A high amendment rate is generally not a sign of political well-being, though, since it comes at the cost of stability. Also, it can be disastrous in states where constitutions can be amended by a popular referendum: research suggests that the language of ballot initiatives is so mealy-mouthed that many voters, confused or misled, end up casting votes that go against their actual preferences….You don’t want your constitution to be too hard to amend, but you don’t want it to be too easy, either.

Making the Constitution easier to amend would itself require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s not going to happen.….

“Nothing new can be put into the Constitution except through the amendatory process,” Justice Felix Frankfurter declared, in 1956, and “nothing old can be taken out without the same process.” That’s not strictly true. The Constitution has become unamendable, but it has not become unchangeable. Its meaning can be altered by the nine people who serve on the Supreme Court [actually, by merely five of them]. They can’t rewrite it, but they can reread it.

The Framers did not design or even anticipate this method of altering the Constitution. They didn’t plan for judicial review (the power exercised by the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of legislation), and they thought they’d protected against the possibility of judicial supremacy (the inability of any other branch of government to check the Court’s power).

As with the filibuster, whether you like judicial supremacy generally depends on whether your party’s in power or out. The Court is the least democratic branch of government. But it also has the ability to protect the rights of minorities against a majority. In the nineteen-fifties, because Jim Crow laws meant that Blacks in the South could not vote, it proved impossible to end segregation through electoral politics or a constitutional amendment; instead, the N.A.A.C.P. sought to end it by bringing Brown v. Board of Education to the Supreme Court.

Since then, the Court has implemented all sorts of constitutional changes: it has secured the rights of criminal defendants; established rights to contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage; declared corporate campaign donations to be free speech; and interpreted the Second Amendment as restricting the government’s ability to regulate firearms. Which of these you believe to be bad decisions and which good depends on your position on all manner of things. But, unlike a constitutional amendment, every decision the Court makes it can reverse, the way that, this year, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it overturned Roe v. Wade, from 1973. (You can reverse a constitutional amendment, but only with another one: that’s how Prohibition ended.)…

Reversing Roe v. Wade did not require a constitutional amendment (even though many were proposed). Instead, it required something even more extraordinary: a wholly new mode of constitutional interpretation. Roe built on a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which protected access to contraception under a right to privacy. After Griswold, conservative critics of the Court began to devise an approach to constitutional interpretation custom-built to defeat it: the jurisprudence of originalism. Robert Bork first proposed its framework in 1971, in an essay in which he argued against Griswold. Originalism undergirds one of the most radical constitutional reversals in recent American history: the reinterpretation of the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to bear arms, as opposed to the right of the people to form militias. (Bork himself disagreed with this reinterpretation, which has been advanced by the N.R.A.) This spring, in the Bruen case, the Court reinforced its N.R.A.-informed interpretation of the Second Amendment.

All sorts of ideas are floating around for how to shake things loose. Constitutional populists [i.e. right-wingers] have rallied around a proposal to revise the Constitution by way of a provision in Article V that’s never been used, and which holds that the country, “on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments.” Nineteen state legislatures have made some version of that application; thirty-four are required. Since 2013, this effort has been headed by the Convention of States project, funded in part by the Koch brothers [But we should note that any amendment adopted by a constitutional convention would have to be approved by ¾ of the states (38), meaning it could be defeated by 13 states]….

Americans aren’t going to amend Article V anytime soon because we’re not going to amend any part of the Constitution anytime soon. In the end, the really interesting question isn’t what would happen if the people could amend the Constitution by popular vote but what actually happened, in the first place, to cripple Article V, and give the Supreme Court superpowers.

The Constitution became effectively unamendable in the early nineteen-seventies, just when originalism began its slow, steady rise. The Twenty-sixth Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 and lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, an antiwar-movement objective, turned out to be the only amendment that constitutionalized an aim of one of the political revolutions of the sixties—the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement, and the environmental-rights movement. People did not see that coming: they expected those movements to result in amendments.

In 1970, the civil-rights activist, constitutional theorist, and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the passage of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, barring discrimination on the basis of sex, was essential … to inaugurating a new and better era in the history of the nation’s constitutional democracy:

The adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment and its ratification by the several States could well usher in an unprecedented Golden Age of human relations in our national life and help our country to become an example of the practical ideal that the sole purpose of governments is to create the conditions under which the uniqueness of each individual is cherished and is encouraged to fulfill his or her highest creative potential.

That, of course, did not come to pass. No golden age ever does. In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states, where most observers expected that it would secure quick ratification. But, in 1973, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Roe v. Wade. And conservatives began a decades-long campaign to advance originalism, reverse Roe, and defeat the E.R.A. by arguing … that “the E.R.A. means abortion.” Every significant amendment attempted since has failed. And, although efforts are ongoing to revive the E.R.A., so far they haven’t succeeded, either.

Polarization weakened Article V. But the Constitution really snapped when it became too brittle to guarantee equal rights to women. Liberals gave up on constitutional amendment; conservatives abandoned it in favor of advancing originalism. Still, nothing’s broken that can’t be mended. It’s a question, now, of how.


It’s also a question of how bad things will get if, as it seems now, nothing is done about it.

Philosophizing Naturally

Science used to be called “philosophy”. More specifically, it was called “natural philosophy”:

From the ancient world (at least since Aristotle) until the 19th century, natural philosophy was the common term for the study of physics (nature), a broad term that included botany, zoology, anthropology, and chemistry as well as what we now call physics. It was in the 19th century that the concept of science received its modern shape, with different scientific subjects emerging, such as astronomy, biology, and physics…. Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) reflects the use of the term natural philosophy in the 17th century [Wikipedia].

It makes some sense, therefore, that well-known physicist Sean Carroll decided to promote “natural philosophy”. This is from the transcript of one of Prof. Carroll’s podcasts:

… One of the bonuses of my new job here at Johns Hopkins is that I got to choose my own title. My title is Homewood professor, but then Homewood professor of what? … Knowing that I would both be involved in the physics department and the philosophy department, I thought it would be fun to call myself a professor of natural philosophy….

Back in the day, before we had separated out something called science and something called physics from philosophy, people like Isaac Newton or Galileo would have been considered to be philosophers. [He then mentions the full title of Newton’s Principia] …There’s a certain kind of philosophy and a certain kind of physics that really, really overlap, that are almost indistinguishable from each other, asking the biggest questions about, what is the world? What is it made of? Where did it come from? Why does it exist? Those kinds of things that really intersect with more down-to-earth physics questions like, “How does quantum mechanics work? What is fine-tuning in cosmology?” Things like that.

After reading that, I came upon an article from Quanta Magazine: “Inside the Proton, the ‘Most Complicated Thing You Could Possibly Imagine’”. Here’s how it starts:

The positively charged particle at the heart of the atom is an object of unspeakable complexity, one that changes its appearance depending on how it is probed….

High school physics teachers describe them as featureless balls with one unit each of positive electric charge — the perfect foils for the negatively charged electrons that buzz around them. College students learn that the ball is actually a bundle of three elementary particles called quarks. But decades of research have revealed a deeper truth, one that’s too bizarre to fully capture with words or images.

“This is the most complicated thing that you could possibly imagine,” said Mike Williams, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In fact, you can’t even imagine how complicated it is.”

Reading further made me want to do some philosophy:

The proton is a quantum mechanical object that exists as a haze of probabilities until an experiment forces it to take a concrete form. And its forms differ drastically depending on how researchers set up their experiment. Connecting the particle’s many faces has been the work of generations. “We’re kind of just starting to understand this system in a complete way,” said Richard Milner, a nuclear physicist at MIT.

As the pursuit continues, the proton’s secrets keep tumbling out. Most recently, a monumental data analysis published in August found that the proton contains traces of particles called charm quarks that are heavier than the proton itself.

The proton “has been humbling to humans,” Williams said. “Every time you think you kind of have a handle on it, it throws you some curveballs.”

There are two things here that don’t sound right. First, what is a “haze of probabilities”? Physicists (and philosophers) disagree about what exists when we refer to a quantum entity. Is there something relatively substantial underlying it that we can’t (yet) identify? Or is there nothing there except “probabilities” that become real or substantial when we do a measurement (or when some other quantum entity interferes)? Speaking philosophically, it makes no sense that probabilities exist in some sort of “haze”. A probability is a possibility. How could a possibility exist without anything to separate it from other possibilities? Why would a possibility be in one place (say, Switzerland) as opposed to another (perhaps Johns Hopkins)? Most physicists would reply that I just don’t understand the quantum world. Unfortunately, according to physicist Richard Feynman’s well-known remark, neither do they:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take [this] lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

But, Prof. Feynman, going down blind alleys from which nobody has escaped is something philosophers do! That’s what they do most of the time! In this case, however, instead of going down the alley, we might suggest that “exists as” be replaced by “appears to be” or perhaps “manifests itself as”: the proton manifests itself as a haze of probabilities.

This brings me to the second thing that doesn’t sound right. The Quanta article says “the proton contains traces of particles … heavier than the proton itself”. The author meant “more massive than” rather than “heavier than”, but putting that aside, how can something’s contents be more massive than the thing itself?

The original study published in Nature says it this way:

Both light and heavy quarks, whose mass is respectively smaller or bigger than the mass of the proton, are revealed inside the proton in high-energy collisions.

It would be clearer to say that when measured, the proton has a certain mass, but when heavy quarks are measured outside the proton, their mass is greater than the proton’s. That’s certainly puzzling, and obviously justifies further investigation, but it’s not as contradictory as saying the proton’s contents are more massive than the proton.

%d bloggers like this: