TUESDAY, AUGUST 30, 2022
Wittgenstein ignored: Explanations, or attempts at same, can go sideways fast.
This remains true at the very top of the academic pile. Consider an early passage in Brian Greene's 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality.
(In 2011, the book was turned into a four-part PBS series.)
As of 2004, anyone with an ounce of "philosophical" training might have shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she considered the title of Greene's book. The notion that Greene was planning to discuss as amorphous a concept as "the texture of reality" should perhaps have set red warning lights flashing.
Greene is a highly-regarded physicist. Without any question, Brian Greene knows a ton—a major boatload—of physics and math.
That said, physicists and mathematicians can go badly wrong when they wander outside the boundaries defined by their areas of expertise. And so it goes, it seems to us, early in Greene's highly-regarded book, when he starts a section he puckishly calls "Space Jam" with this muddle-adjacent passage:
GREENE (page 29): Einstein once said that if someone uses words like "red," "hard," or "disappointed," we all basically know what is meant. But as for the word "space," whose relation with psychological experience is less direct, there exists a far-reaching uncertainty of interpretation. This uncertainty reaches far back: the struggle to come to terms with the meaning of space is an ancient one. Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and many of their followers through the ages wrestled in one way or another with the meaning of "space." Is there a difference between space and matter? Does space have an existence independent of the presence of material objects? Is there such a thing as empty space? Are space and matter mutually exclusive? Is space finite or infinite?
"Is there such a thing as empty space?" So begins several pages of muddle-adjacent material.
In fairness, Greene is mainly speaking, at this point, about various questions which were posed by (very) ancient "philosophers." That said, Greene—he's an extremely learned physicist—is quickly introducing linguistic and conceptual muddles pretty much of his own.
What does Greene tell us as he starts? Paraphrasing something Einstein is said to have said, he sets out to discuss "the relation with psychological experience" of "the word 'space.' "
According to Greene, that word's "relation with psychological experience" is "less direct" than the "relation with psychological experience" of such words as "red" and "hard."
Already, the formulation is rather murky, but the obedient reader will likely decide to read on.
Greene, after all, is a major public intellectual and a high-ranking theoretical physicist. Respect for intellectual authority may lead readers to assume that Greene won't already, on page 29, leading us far away from Clarity Road and onto uncharted ground.
Alas! The serious reader shouldn't make such assumptions. When they start explaining or musing about their work, our mathematicians and physicists are quite often, and sometimes quite quickly, perhaps in over their heads.
All too often, they'll offer the kinds of muddled musings the later Wittgenstein tried to diagnose. In the case of this early passage in Greene's book, the reader is soon asked to fight his way through this:
GREENE (page 30): Such philosophical and religious musings on space can be compelling and provocative; yet, as in Einstein's cautionary remark above, they lack critical sharpness of description. But there is a fundamental and precisely framed question that emerges from such discourse: should we ascribe an independent reality to space, as we do for other, more ordinary material objects like the book you are now holding, or should we think of space as merely a language for describing relationships between ordinary material objects?
The great German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who was Newton's contemporary, firmly believed that space does not exist in any conventional sense. Talk of space, he claimed, is nothing more than an easy and convenient way of encoding where things are relative to one another. Without the objects in space, Leibniz declared, space itself has no independent meaning of existence...
Let's be perfectly clear. Leibniz believed that space does exist; it's just that it doesn't exist "in any conventional sense!"
That's what Leibniz is said to have believed. As for Greene himself, he regards the following as "a precisely framed question:"
Should we ascribe an independent reality to space? Or should we think of space as merely a language for describing relationships between ordinary material objects?
If that is our idea of precision, is it possible that, as of page 30, we've already wandered off the road into a world of hurt?
Full disclosure! Down through the ages, college freshmen had always suspected that much of what passed for academic philosophy was a big barrel of incomprehensible nonsense. In the middle of the last century, along came the later Wittgenstein, perhaps and possibly seeming to say that those skeptical college freshmen had actually been right all along!
Is there such a thing as empty space? The inquiring minds of the great philosophers had always wanted to know!
Also, does "space" exist? According to Leibniz, yes, it does—but not in any conventional sense!
Confronted with material like this, courteous readers continue along, convinced that they're in good hands. At this site, we'd ask this question:
Brian Greene knows tons of physics—but is it possible that, in ancillary "philosophical" discussions, he (along with many others) may be in over his head?
In several surveys of philosophy professors, Wittgenstein has been chosen as the most important philosopher of the 20th century. That said, he was highly inarticulate himself—and go figure! The basic thrust of his ministry has been almost wholly ignored.
Things fall apart, Yeats said. So does the art of explanation, in a wide array of realms.
Tomorrow: Revisiting Goldstein's paragraph—a paragraph we adore
Full disclosure: In the fall of our junior year, we failed Kant. Or could it be that Kant failed us? We've never been totally sure.
At any rate, because we were handed that failing grade, we had to take a summer school "make-up" course. We took a course called "Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz" while working on summer dorm crew.
Wittily borrowing from Jonson's description of Shakespeare, we've always said that we learned little Spinoza and even less Leibniz. Descartes, of course, got something quite right.
Just barely, we stumbled through. Someone went to Nam in our place.