The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: A review of a review by Tim Maudlin of two books in the philosophy of science

Can one review a review? Well, perhaps one can if  the review is over 7,000 words long and has a wide focus. Tim Maudlin’s review of two books, Adam Becker’s What is Real?: the Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, and Errol Morris’ The Ashtray: (or the Man who Denied Reality) is the basis for an extended look at two, alleged, sources of modern irrationalism — one says ‘alleged’ because there is no attempt to make a causal connection from the figures under discussion, Neils Bohr and Thomas S. Kuhn, to the modern “post-Truth” world, and even a cursory look at discussions on social media would suggest that the sources are quite distant from quantum mechanics and Bohr’s idea of complementarity. (Kuhn, however, is another story, as I will argue.) Still, as one who is as worried at the furious irrationalisms of the modern world as I think Maudlin is, this is a discussion worth having.

I must begin by saying that Maudlin writes so well and so persuasively and the areas of agreement are so large that any small matter of disagreement or addition is likely to mislead.  Nevertheless, some disagreements are worth recording — because I want to indicate that there are interconnections that have been overlooked.

With respect to Bohr there is no doubt of his Kantian education, nor of his creating an almost religious sense of mystification about Quantum Mechanics. His response to the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen paper of 1935 is a staggering example of throwing up meaningless Kantian phrases to hide the vacuity of his response. He seems not even to grasp the significance of non-locality, nor of its potential for being in conflict with Special Relativity. And yet, as Maudlin notes, physicists bought it, hook, line and sinker; the Kantian phraseology was sufficient to allow them to resume their dogmatic slumbers. The EPR argument was ignored, as was Schrödinger’s contemporaneous paper that introduced entanglement. Here was a tremendous opportunity that went begging — for decades. And all because physicists were lulled by a philosophical gibberish by which philosophers would not have been fooled. 

Modern physicists today like to disparage their philosophical colleagues — they appear to think that philosophy is an easy subject and something they can turn their hands to with no training whatsoever. Yet most of their forays into philosophy are staggeringly naive, embarrassing even. And this naivety was fully in evidence in the disputes with Einstein and Schrödinger in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the consequent attempts, in the 1950’s, to undermine their reputations. But it was not Bohr who was most to blame for this outrage — Bohr managed to maintain cordial relations with Einstein throughout his life. The real culprits in this were Heisenberg and Robert Oppenheimer — and despite being German, Heisenberg showed less allegiance to Kant than did Bohr. Oppenheimer was another story.

By the late 1950’s Oppenheimer was, in the minds of many, the epitome of the distinguished scientist. Yet he had harassed Einstein while the head of the Institute of Advanced Study, and he was, as Maudlin notes, the person responsible for setting the FBI on David Bohm — to cover up, it has been said, the fact that he himself was, all along, a secret member of the Communist Party. Then, during the war, Oppenheimer’s secret lover, the ardent Communist Jean Tatlock, died under suspicious circumstances — some months after he visited her, without security clearance, while leading the Manhattan Project. She was found drugged and drowned in her bath. Coincidentally, earlier, in the 1930’s, Oppenheimer had attempted to murder his PhD supervisor at Cambridge, by poisoned apple — an event that was hushed up only with the intervention of his parents. Then he attempted to strangle his best friend when the latter announced his engagement.

And yet he became — was allowed to become — the representative for many of the distinguished intellectual-scientist. It was under his stewardship that the negative picture of Einstein hardened: he was a dinosaur, out of touch with modern physics, had done nothing for the last 20 years of his life. When the idea was mooted that there should be a publication of Einstein’s collected works, it was Oppenheimer who personally intervened to stop it. Bohr and Heisenberg may have crafted and weaponised the Copenhagen Interpretation but it was Oppenheimer who used it to the lethal administrative effect.

Kuhn enters the story at this point. What is omitted from Maudlin’s review is that Kuhn was very influenced by the Copenhagen Interpretation and by Bohr’s philosophy in particular. Kuhn’s denial of truth and his denial of the idea that science progresses toward the truth, are really his application of Bohr’s philosophy to science as a whole. One can tell this only by the fact that to a large extent Kuhn leaves Bohr out of his exposition and instead uses as his example that of Einstein’s theory of gravitation replacing Newton’s. This is baffling until one realises that this is yet another hit at Einstein. When Einstein’s theory replaced the Newtonian theory of gravitation this was not progress, this was one paradigm replacing another, but the paradigms were just different ways of seeing the same facts. It was as though one fashion had been replaced by another fashion: flares are no more a progress to the truth than is a straight leg. 

So why was Quantum Mechanics not his prime example, why was that also not one fashion replacing another? The reason is that the Copenhagenists had enshrined the One True Philosophy into their account of physics — in fact this is where Kuhn probably had learned the philosophy in the first place — and the One True Philosophy was that there was no truth, there was only ‘perspective’, of complementary (i.e mutually incompatible) kinds: complementary, that is, in just the way Kuhn’s paradigms were.

The one who was supposed not to have understood all of this, who was too much of a dinosaur to get it, was Einstein. So Einstein’s pretensions of saying something about the real world, of there being an objective world of which something could be said, had to be punctured. If he couldn’t be refuted then he had to be ridiculed. Einstein was wrong that Quantum Mechanics wasn’t perfected by Bohr and Heisenberg because he didn’t understand the truth about truth that Bohr preached; he was wrong even where he might most have seemed to be right, in his theory of General Relativity. But it was just a fashion choice.

This “no progress” picture of scientific progress needed one element to be complete: it needed to be married to an inductive scepticism. Fortunately for Kuhn this had already been made popular by Karl Popper, who endlessly repeated the falsehood that David Hume had proven inductive scepticism in the 18th Century — endlessly repeated and endlessly refuted, this canard lives on to this day. 

But whereas America — at least in its philosophy of science departments — had a strong probabilistic tradition and could therefore resist these arguments of Popper and Kuhn, other places with a weak background in mathematical probability crumbled. Thus it was that there were “philosophy of science” departments that grew up in Britain and Australia, in the latter case without exception, that taught this anti-truth, anti-science credo, with a dogmatic fervour. And once it is in place it takes no leap to join it with “social theory” and SJW rhetoric to condemn science as imperialistic, patriarchal — or any of the other ready-made jibes that fit comfortably on a placard or in a twitter post. 

The modern world was baked in the oven provided by Kuhn, and ultimately Kant — or perhaps one could say “half-baked”.

Kant’s role in all this was far more than providing a framework for Bohr’s or Kuhn’s self-contradictions. He created an environment in which to speak an unintelligible nonsense could — like the Emperor’s New Clothes — be made to pass for the profoundest speech: Kant as Cant. Whereas philosophers before this had striven to be clear and where to write unclearly was a sign of failure, Kant reversed it. Kant wrote as though he could only be understood by the initiate, the one who had earned the right to kneel in the presence of his Mysteries. Kant replaced the task of making sense of the world with that of making sense of him. Good anglophone philosophers like Bertrand Russell were able to see though the pretensions, but only one who knew German culture intimately was able to properly skewer Kant. That was Nietzsche. Here is part of his denunciation, in The Antichrist, section 10.

Among Germans I am immediately understand when I say that philosophy has been corrupted by theologian blood. The protestant pastor is the grandfather of German philosophy. Protestantism itself is its peccatum originale. Definition of philosophy: the half-sided paralysis of Christianity — and of reason. . . One has only to say the words ‘College of Tubingen’ to grasp what German philosophy is at bottom — a cunning theology. . . The Swabians are the best liars in Germany, they lie innocently. . . .  Why the rejoicing heard throughout the German academic world — three-quarters composed of the sons of pastors and school-masters — at the appearance of Kant? Why the German’s conviction, which still finds an echo even today, that with Kant things were taking a turn for the better? The theologian instinct in the German scholar divined what was henceforth possible once again. . . . A back staircase to the old ideal stood revealed, the concept “true world”, the concept of morality as the essence of the world (— these two most vicious errors in existence!) were once more, thanks to a crafty-sly scepticism, if not demonstrable, yet no longer refutable. . . . Reason, the prerogative of reason, does not extend so far. . . . One had made of reality an ‘appearance’; one had made a completely unintelligible world of beings into a reality. . . . Kant’s success was merely a theologian’s success: German integrity was far from firm, and Kant, like Luther, like Leibniz, was one more load upon it. — — 

This idea, that Kant’s obscurantism was theology for people who felt that they’d gotten beyond religion explains so much of the worst parts of what is called “Continental Philosophy”, where practitioners act like members of a Pentecostal church speaking and writing in tongues. The effort is entirely to write so that one may not be understood, but to use select phrases so there is a something that teases the listener’s understanding, to make them think that something important is being said.  It’s a sham performance. University lecturers get away with this only by first making sure that their students are so browbeaten and intimidated that they won’t — and by the end of it can’t — speak up against it. (And it only adds to the shamefulness of this situation that the students are actually paying to be bullied thus into a cognitive paralysis, paying to the point of long term bankruptcy — even in the Soviet Union students were not required to pay for their own mental hobbling.)

Kantian philosophy is called “critical” and the word itself has spread like a virus. It is a word that presents a deceptively positive image: it suggests that here is a philosophy that is open to logical argument, reason, and criticism, that it will consider all positions fairly. But that is the opposite of the truth. In fact “critical philosophers” write and act as though they are contemptuous of logic and reason — in fact of all that “analytical philosophers” do. “Critical” in fact means to be closed to logical persuasion — just as Bohr’s notion of complementary meant exactly the opposite of what it seems to mean. Instead the critical philosopher is one who sees through things like logic, to its “presuppositions” — a very Kantian term — and who, having seen through them is instantly beyond them. This works with any and all social institutions: to apply a “critique”, and to question presuppositions is all that is required for the institution to be instantly up for replacement. The game of issuing social critiques is easy because it brooks no back-and-forth questioning of the value of what is being questioned. One repeats the magic incantation, rolls one’s eyes back in one’s head, and the job is done. Nor can it be undone with the same method of critique — one could not, for example, question Feminism with the same naively simplistic trick. The method is inherently asymmetric — a door that you can go through but cannot return through.

However it would be quite wrong to lay all of the blame for the modern world’s irrationalism at Kant’s door; this would be to overlook a far more insidious culprit much closer to home. As Nietzsche said: opening up a back staircase for religion may have been Kant’s underlying purpose, but he was not alone in having that purpose. William James, with his Pragmatism — as expressed in his essay ‘The Will to Believe’ — was attempting to make it reasonable to believe in a God under the very loose conditions of there being no definitive proof against the existence of God, and of that belief “working” for the believer. (This was much to the horror of his friend, the philosopher C. S. Peirce, who could see the disaster looming in such a permissive criteria, and it caused Peirce to dissociate himself from James’ Pragmatism and to call his own view Pragmaticism.)

Nothing placed lying so at the heart of American Letters as effectively as James’s Pragmatism. Eventually, once it had sunk in,  the criterion of believability would become the simple does it work for you? Of course it would have been naive to think otherwise: of course lies work for liars, that is why they tell them. But to have James’s personal blessing — that was more than could have been wished for! Of course this was not James’s intention, and no one could have suggested that it was — but philosophical ideas can have unintended consequences just as much as actions do. 

William James was a distinguished psychologist, a man who had the ear of presidents, but he could not have created this disaster alone. Help came to him from John Dewey, who had done his PhD on Kant, considered himself a follower of Hegel — he wrote like Kant-from-Vermont — and who was an indefatigable promulgator of Pragmatist-like ideas. (One has to say “Pragmatist-like” because Pragmatists were very unclear what this idea of ‘beliefs working’ actually amounted to — but one can say that it was Dewey who emphasised that this “working” meant in a social context, in the furtherance of liberal democracy.)

Dewey had very little effect outside America but within America his influence was profound — in part simply from his having lived so long a life and written such an extraordinary number of books.  He became America’s leading public intellectual. Yet it was through his disciples that he exerted his greatest influence very near the time of his death in the 1950s. The idea that beliefs can be maintained come what may — that is, despite the fact that they are manifestly false — was held by W.V.O Quine (in his essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’) in one of the most notorious passages of contemporary philosophy: ‘Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the [sensory] periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws.’  And also later in the same essay:

But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. 

The phrase can be held true is a devious alternative to speaking of what is true — but it really just means believed to be true. However the point is clear: beliefs about the gods can be held true if one is prepared to be pig-headed in the assessment of evidence. The delusional, the liars, the conspiracy-theorists, can take great comfort in all of this. Pragmatism is a gift of irresponsibility that was set as a curse upon an entire nation.

One may object that these words are too severe, too unkind to American philosophers, who for the most part have used their irresponsibility fairly responsibly. (It has to be stressed that there are many, many analytic philosophers who have not succumbed to this view and who work to maintain high standards.) But the Pragmatists were themselves very adept at mud-slinging with a distinctly militaristic tenor. William James likened those who didn’t believe in his religious beliefs to cowards — according to him it was cowardice in the face of the enemy not to risk your cognitive life by refusing to believe ridiculous things. (Yet who on earth was the enemy in this case?) F. C. S. Schiller, the Columbia and Oxford-based Pragmatist, likened his opponents to defenders of the city of Jericho, for whom it self-crumbled without even the need of a trumpet.  Having described his own view in glowing terms we have, on the other hand

… opposed to it on every point, an old metaphysic of tried and tested sterility, which is condemned to eternal failure by the fundamental perversity of its logical method.  

And this was Naturalism!

Pragmatism won whatever following it had by insult and denigration — and that is how it has continued to the present day. It declared the correspondence theory of truth refuted with not a single non-question begging argument anywhere in sight. And that lie also has continued to be told — repeated in one classroom after another across America.

But it was this philosophy that, in a sense, became the Copenhagen interpretation in physics. When Feynman issued his declaration: just shut up and calculate! it was because all that mattered were the empirical predictions that could be wrung out of quantum theory. Who cared whether the theory had two dynamical processes and no clear rule as to when one takes over from the other? American physicists did not repeat Bohr’s Kantian obfuscations, they ignored them — they repeated Pragmatism’s injunctions to just look at whether the theory worked — and they are still doing that to this day. 

But because they were in this Pragmatist coma, physicists missed what may be the greatest discovery of the last two thousand years: entanglement. And they only began to take notice of this when money began to be thrown at anything that could be called quantum computing. In effect, yet more Pragmatism — more of that same dull mixing of the businessman’s idea of things working — of a theory paying off — and a more commonplace empiricism.

In doing all of this the Pragmatist may well have come close to enshrining a logical fallacy as a central tenet of American intellectual life: from, if p then q, and q, infer p. Dewey and F. C. S. Schiller often seemed to be committed to something even more dangerous: from if p then q, and q is unknown, infer p is unknown and in fact meaningless. (What is often taken to be Wittgenstein’s signature doctrine that meaning is use is in fact a commonplace Pragmatist idea, attributable originally to Sidgwick.) The corollary of Pragmatism’s emphasis on the importance of things working — for someone, somewhere, in whatever dubious way — is that if they don’t work they are meaningless. 

The wreckage that is America’s current political and social discourse — on both the left and the right — possesses a toxicity that has spread itself around the world, due in no small part to the philosophical doctrines that are so peculiarly American: Protagorean relativism, Pragmatism, and the concept of a uni-directional, unanswerable, social “critique”: all a kind of political midden that has replaced rational discussion and an openness of debate with a rancorous hatred at even the smallest trace of disagreement. In this one can see the signs of a timidity that is afraid that its convictions will not stand up under scrutiny — that the lie that keeps one drugged and unable to see things as they are will wear off, that it will no longer work. 

What will happen to America, and the Western world in general, if these trends continue unabated? Chaos of belief is the precondition for, and the first step towards, a true chaos. One cannot have a country where the people cannot think, cannot discuss, and cannot disagree without violence and mutual hatred, and it is a disgrace — and that word cannot encompass the true magnitude of the offence — that this situation should have been abetted and the groundwork laid by philosophers.

Pragmatism in the development of America’s intellectual life — if such a life deserves that adjective — shows the truth of the old proverb: Crooked logs make straight fires. And large fires at that.