How Did This Happen Anyway?

Understanding how you got into a bad situation can be helpful. Michael Tomasky offers assistance in an article called “President Trump Is What Happens After Republicans Spend Decades Rebranding Knowledge as Elitism and Ignorance as Bliss”:

There’s no doubt that it’s a liberal reflex to sometimes make fun of conservatives for not knowing things. And yeah, some liberals do that in a superior and supercilious tone.

But what’s happened in this country over the last, oh, 40 years or so is that in our political discourse, it has become far, far worse to make fun of someone for not knowing some basic historical fact than it is to not know the fact. And that is absurd.

I’m sorry. By which I mean, I’m not remotely sorry: It is worse—plainly and unambiguously worse—to be ignorant of basic history than it is to know that history and be a little insufferable about knowing it. A civilization that has concluded that the latter is worse is a civilization that is valuing attitude and posture over fact, and that is precisely the corkscrewed value system gave us a cretin like Trump in the first place.

When the conservative counter-offensive really kicked in, back in the 1970s, conservatives who wanted to dramatically remake and reorder American society knew they had a big job in front of them. All kinds of presumptions about how life and society worked were lodged deep in people’s minds. Many—most, indeed perhaps nearly all—of those assumptions were kind of liberal. The Republicans caused the Depression. Roosevelt saved the country. Unions helped us prosper in the postwar era. Science was noble, and experts were to be venerated. Religion was to remain private. The generals got us into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And so on.

These were all things that the broad majority of Americans believed. They were also, well, you know, true. Republicans did wreck the country in 1929, FDR did save it, experts had expertise that was of value. Conservatives had to get Americans to un-believe all that—to hate unions and mistrust experts, to agree that liberals lost the Vietnam War.

That effort involved two prongs. The first and more obvious was inventing their own set of “facts” whereby, say, Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. The second prong was the discrediting of those who continued to trumpet the old liberal version of reality, and the sharpest knife in that drawer was by far the charge of elitism.

Once Republicans figured that out, the discrediting got simple. All you had to do to puncture someone’s argument was call that person an elitist. It often didn’t matter whether that someone was factually correct. In fact, being factually correct was all the more damning! Knowing the difference, say, between the Lippmann and Dewey points of view was evidence itself that one was too dependent on exterior knowledge, had no internal instincts on which to operate and base decisions.

Well, 40 years later, here we are. We finally have a president of the United States who is all gut, no knowledge. There are consequences to this. Our allies don’t like us. We’re starting trade wars with them that are ahistorical and ungrounded in fact. Trump’s going to Canada today for a G-7 meeting he has no desire to attend and where not much of anyone wants to see him. On the apparently upcoming North Korea meeting, Trump said Thursday, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much”….

So laugh when Trump blurts out some historical whopper. God knows we all need to laugh. But remember too—the fact that a man that ignorant is our president is the culmination (I hope, anyway) of a long attack on truth set in motion four decades ago that persuaded millions of Americans that knowledge is slavery and ignorance is indeed bliss.

I’d change that last sentence to say millions of Americans think knowledge is unnecessary, expertise is suspect and ignorance is comfortable, but that’s a mere quibble in the current crisis.

A Guide to Reality, Part 5

Alex Rosenberg, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, argues that “we should embrace physics as the whole truth about reality”. On the face of it, that’s a remarkable statement open to obvious challenges. 

Rosenberg, however, acknowledges that parts of physics are relatively speculative, unsettled or even inconsistent. It’s the solidly-confirmed part of physics that he’s talking about, the part of physics that is “finished” and “explains almost everything in the universe – including us”. What he’s really claiming, therefore, is that settled physics is the whole truth about reality. 

But is settled physics actually true? Philosophers disagree about what science is, what truth is and, not surprisingly, how close science gets to the truth, but I agree with Rosenberg that settled physics seems to be true. The predictions of special relativity, for example, appear to be 100% correct. (This isn’t to deny that some settled physics might become unsettled one day.) As evidence of the reliability of physics, Rosenberg points out how precise some predictions are: “quantum electrodynamics predicts the mass and charge of subatomic particles to 12 decimal places”. Those predictions are “true” in any reasonable sense of the word, even if physicists eventually refine their predictions to even more decimal places.

Some philosophers and scientists don’t accept Rosenberg’s “scientific realist” view, however. They think science is merely a tool that allows us to get things done. Questions like whether electrons or other theoretical entities really exist as physics describes them are put aside, since they’re viewed as unanswerable and irrelevant. Personally, I think physics allows us to get things done because it’s true, and furthermore it’s true in the sense that the objects and events physics describes are real, whether they’re observable or not. I believe that’s Rosenberg’s opinion too.

The second, more interesting challenge to Rosenberg’s view of physics concerns his claim that settled physics is the “whole” truth about reality. Clearly, there are mathematical and logical truths, which aren’t part of physics, but I take Rosenberg to be referring to truths about the universe and its contents, i.e. “real” stuff.

Nevertheless, if physics isn’t finished, it can’t be the “whole” truth. There must be some physical truths yet to be discovered (for example, what’s the story on dark matter and dark energy, two big things we know little about?). So Rosenberg’s claim that we should embrace settled physics as the whole truth about reality should really be understood as “settled physics is the only truth about reality we currently have”.  

Two obvious questions remain, however. Do we discover the truth from sciences other than physics? And do we learn anything true about the world even when we aren’t doing science?

Well, most people would agree that chemistry, for example, is a science that gets at the truth if any science does. Rosenberg clearly knows about chemistry, so why would he deny that chemistry is as valid as physics? The answer is that he thinks physics has shown there is nothing in the universe except fermions (e.g. quarks) and bosons (e.g. photons). From the idea that fermions and bosons are the only things that really exist, he concludes that all of reality can be explained in terms of those sub-atomic particles. After all, everything in the universe involves elementary particles being somewhere or doing something. Since physics is the science that tells us all about elementary particles and what they do, it’s the fundamental science. Using physics, therefore, we can explain chemistry, which we can then use to explain biology. Another way of saying this is that biology is reducible to chemistry and chemistry is reducible to physics. Knowledge of physics is the only knowledge that counts, because “the physical facts fix all the facts”, including chemical and biological facts.

The big problem with this point of view, aside from the difficulty in actually carrying out such reductions (replacing chemistry with physics, for example) is that fermions and bosons do such interesting things when they interact or are arranged in certain ways. Put some together and you have atoms; put some atoms together and you have molecules; put some of them together and you have cells. Once low-level particles are arranged as, for example, clouds or baseballs or trees, patterns or regularities in the behavior of these higher-level entities emerge. There are new facts to be learned.

If the universe were merely a collection of sub-atomic particles randomly scattered about, there wouldn’t be any chemical or biological facts for chemists and biologists to discover. But the particles in our universe aren’t randomly scattered. They’ve clumped together in various ways. Acquiring knowledge about these clumps (of which you and I are examples) is what chemists, biologists and other scientists (geologists, astronomers, psychologists, etc.) do. Rosenberg knows this, of course, but for some reason downplays it, choosing to focus on physics as the sine qua non of science. In virtue of its power and generality, physics should be embraced as the most fundamental science, but it clearly isn’t the only science worth embracing. 

The other question raised by Rosenberg’s scientism (or physics-ism) is whether we can add to our knowledge when we aren’t doing science at all. Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think so. Although science is built on observation, he is extremely skeptical about what can be learned by simply looking and listening. He also seriously mistrusts introspection. More on this later. 

Next: The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and us.