DVD-19 2001: A Space Odyssey

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i
The Completeness of
Physics
David Jon Spurrett
Durban, 1999
Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy,
University of Natal (1999).ii
“Let me now re-emphasise the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects.”
Joseph Conrad.iii
Abstract
The present work is focussed on the completeness of physics, or what is here called the Completeness
Thesis: the claim that the domain of the physical is causally closed. Two major questions are tackled: How best
is the Completeness Thesis to be formulated? What can be said in defence of the Completeness Thesis? My
principal conclusions are that the Completeness Thesis can be coherently formulated, and that the evidence in
favour if it significantly outweighs that against it.
In opposition to those who argue that formulation is impossible because no account of what is to count
as physical can be provided, I argue that as long as the purpose of the argument in which the account is to be
used are borne in mind there are no significant difficulties. The account of the physical which I develop holds
as physical whatever is needed to fix the likelihood of pre-theoretically given physical effects, and hypothesises
in addition that no chemical, biological or psychological factors will be needed in this way. The thus
formulated Completeness Thesis is coherent, and has significant empirical content.
In opposition to those who defend the doctrine of emergentism by means of philosophical arguments I
contend that those arguments are flawed, setting up misleading dichotomies between needlessly attenuated
alternatives and assuming the truth of what is to be proved. Against those who defend emergentism by appeal
to the evidence, I argue that the history of science since the nineteenth century shows clearly that the empirical
credentials of the view that the world is causally closed at the level of a small number of purely physical forces
and types of energy is stronger than ever, and the credentials of emergentism correspondingly weaker.
In opposition to those who argue that difficulties with reductionism point to the implausibility of the
Completeness Thesis I argue that completeness in no way entails the kinds of reductionism which give rise to
the difficulties in question. I argue further that the truth of the Completeness Thesis is in fact compatible with a
great deal of taxonomic disorder and the impossibility of any general reduction of non-fundamental descriptions
to fundamental ones.
In opposition to those who argue that the epistemological credentials of fundamental physical laws are
poor, and that those laws should in fact be seen as false, I contend that truth preserving accounts of fundamental
laws can be developed. Developing such an account, I test it by considering cases of the composition of forces
and causes, where what takes place is different to what is predicted by reference to any single law, and argue
that viewing laws as tendencies allows their truth to be preserved, and sense to be made of both the
experimental discovery of laws, and the fact that composition enables accurate prediction in at least some cases.iv
Acknowledgements
I have run up an extraordinary collection of debts of various kinds in the course of researching and
writing this thesis. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the following selection of them.
I would have been unable to begin this research without the University of Natal Doctoral Research
Scholarship (1994 - 1996), and would have been unable to continue without the Centre for Science
Development Doctoral Scholarship (1995). A significant portion of the more specialised material was researched
in London during a visit made possible by a Centre for Science Development Overseas Doctoral Scholarship
(1998). A great deal more research and philosophical engagement was permitted by the award of a twelve
month scholarship by the Association of Commonwealth Universities which enabled me to spend an entire
academic year (1998 to 1999) at King’s, and to travel to and present papers at a number of conferences in
England and Europe. Finally, many of the arguments which appear here were field-tested and refined at
conferences around South Africa which I attended by means of grants from the research office at the University
of Natal. The financial assistance of the University of Natal, the Centre for Science Development (South Africa)
and the Association of Commonwealth Universities towards this research is hereby acknowledged. Opinions
expressed here and conclusions arrived at are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of any
of these funding bodies. I am similarly grateful to King’s College London for making me a Visiting Research
Fellow for a three year period beginning with my first visit in April 1998.
On a more personal note I should begin by singling out Daniel Herwitz, my head of department in
Durban, who encouraged me when I needed it, read what I wrote when I gave it to him, and left me in
supportive peace for the rest of the time. I especially appreciate his forbearance in allowing me to use students
as guinea pigs by developing some of my research through graduate courses and seminars. David Papineau of
King’s College London has been helpful and energetically critical at various stages as well. I am especially
indebted to him for proposing me as a speaker at the one-day conference on the completeness of physics held in
London on 28 May 1999. Derek Wang at the University of Natal has been my major partner in philosophical
discussion for nearly a decade, as well as being one of the supervisors of this thesis. During this time there are
very few topics we have not discussed, always beneficially. While at King’s I was supervised for some of the
time by John Milton, whose understanding and knowledge of the history of science contributed vastly to my
grasp of the historical backdrop to the topics discussed here, and for the rest by Keith Hossack whose standards
of argument and precision were demanding and energising. Many discussions of bizarre counterfactual worlds
(my favourite had quarks being made of waltzing angels) which have been removed from the current version of
this thesis occurred in the course of discussions with Keith. In Durban I was also supervised by Andriesv
Gouws, whose advice at every stage I needed it was always finely judged and profoundly helpful, and who
made many helpful and detailed comments on a very late version of the text.
Various parts of this thesis were presented at the King’s College senior seminar group, and it gives me
pleasure to acknowledge the lively questions, criticisms, suggestions, and much needed solidarity during the
consumption of certain pints, from those in the group. I am especially grateful to Paul Sheehy, Pierre Cruse,
Guy Longworth, Sophie Allen, Daniel Hill, and Eilert Sundt-Ohlsen.
Thanks also go to David Davies (McGill) and Alan Chalmers (Sydney) who kindly sent me copies of
relevant papers, Gabe Segal (King’s) for lively discussion on several key points, and to Deepak Mistrey (Natal,
Durban) for comments on parts of a draft version.
Vital non-academic support came from Inger Nilsen and Jody Fraser (Natal, Durban), Stephen Dunnett
(British Council) and Anna Gane (Association of Commonwealth Universities). Thanks to all of them for
taking care of innumerable matters, leaving me free to work.
On an even more personal note I must thank my family, especially my parents and paternal
grandparents, for their support and encouragement.
My good friends Catherine Whitfield, Adrian Bellengere, Neal Crankshaw, Carey-Ann Jackson, Kim
Jones, Nell Aubrey, Andrea Kropf and Caron Angelbauer kept me sane at various times. While in London I
stayed happily with Rosemary Creedy, John and Julia Spencer, not to mention Stuart, Maria, Sabine and
Frank, the unspeakable degenerates at number 14. Very special thanks to Guy Morpuss and Julie Davis, who
spoilt me rotten at various times and in highly agreeable ways.
Finally, the beverage vending machine in the ground floor of the philosophy department at King’s for
the substance which it insisted was espresso and which I came to know simply as number 56. Whatever it was
I drank heinous quantities of it, and it always got me through the day.
Note
Parts of what follows have already been published in various forms, or have been presented at
conferences. In all of the latter cases I am indebted to those present for comments and criticism. The details are
as follows:
Chapter One includes material presented under the titles ‘Could Physicalism be True?’ at the Spring
Colloquium of South African analytic philosophers, Drakensburg, South Africa on 15 September 1997, ‘For
the Completeness of Physics’ at a one day conference on the Completeness of Physics at Senate House,
University of London on 28 May 1999, and relates to material appearing in the paper ‘A Note on the
Completeness of ‘Physics’’ written with David Papineau (Spurrett and Papineau 1999).vi
Chapter Two includes material presented under the titles ‘Bhaskar on Open and Closed Systems’, at
the 25th annual congress of the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA), University of the Orange Free
State, South Africa on 20 January 1999, ‘Transcendental Realism and Quantum Mechanics’, at the 22nd annual
congress of the PSSA in Stellenbosch, South Africa in January 1996, and material appearing in the paper
‘Beyond Determinism’ (Spurrett 1997).
Chapter Three develops some material appearing in a review article of Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity
and postmodernism, London: Routledge (Spurrett 1999b).
Chapter Four includes material presented under the title ‘Fundamental Laws’ at the 25th annual
philosophy of science conference at the Inter University Centre, Dubrovnik, Croatia on 14 April 1999, and
published as ‘Fundamental Laws and the Completeness of Physics’ (Spurrett 1999c), and develops aspects of
material presented under the title ‘Lyotard and the Postmodern Misunderstanding of Physics’ at the Sceptic
Tank in May 1996, at the First Colloquium of the Wits Transdisciplinary Study Group, Johannesburg, South
Africa, and later at the Warwick University Philosophy of Science seminar in May 1998, then published under
the same title (Spurrett 1999a).
Declaration
This thesis is entirely the work of the author, David Jon Spurrett.vii
Table of Contents
Abstract iii
Acknowledgements iv
Table of Contents vii
Introduction 1
1.1. Physicalism 1
1.2. The Unity of Science 5
1.3. Parameters 6
1.4. Overview 8
Chapter One: Formulation and Preliminary Defence 11
1. Introduction 11
2. Completeness 11
3. Physics I 15
3.1. Properties 15
3.2. Allegations of Impossibility 16
3.3. Garden Physics 19
4. Physics II: Some Existing Approaches 20
4.1. Poland’s Survey 21
4.2. Poland’s ‘Physics’ 27
5. Daly’s Criticisms 29
5.1. Natural Kinds 30
5.2. Paradigm Effects 33
5.3. Physics and the Physical 37
6. Trivial Completeness for Pleasure and Profit 39
7. Ways of the Completeness Thesis Being False 44
8. Conclusion 46
Chapter Two: Bhaskar and Emergence 49
1. Introduction 49
2. Background to Emergentism 50
2.1. Mill and British Emergentism 53
2.2. Contemporary Emergentists 56
3. Consequences for the Completeness Thesis 57
3.1. Strong and Weak Emergence 57viii
3.2. Emergentism versus the Completeness Thesis 59
3.3. The Alleged Incoherence of Emergentism 61
4. Bhaskar’s Philosophy of Science 62
4.1. Experimental Activity 64
5. Bhaskar’s Argument for Emergence 67
5.1. Weak stratification 68
5.2. Strong Stratification 71
6. Criticism of Bhaskar 75
7. Further Reflections on Evidence 79
7.1. The nineteenth and early twentieth century 79
7.2. Quantum Emergence 87
7.3. Chaotic Emergence 91
8. Conclusion 93
Chapter Three: Dupré and Disorder 96
1. Introduction 96
2. The Unity of Science and Natural Kinds 98
2.1. Oppenheim and Putnam on the Unity of Science 98
2.2. The Kripke-Putnam view of Natural Kinds 103
3. Dupré’s Promiscuous Realism 106
3.1. Disorder, Disunity and Reduction 107
3.2. Promiscuous Realism about Kinds 108
4. Consequences for the Completeness Thesis 113
5. Criticism of Dupré 116
6. Completeness With Disorder 119
6.1. A Look at Life 120
6.2. The Meaning of Life 125
7. Dupré on reductionism 127
7.1. Nagel and After 128
7.2. Dupré on Functionalism, Eliminativism and Anomalism 131
7.3. Stamp Collecting 136
8. Conclusion 137
Chapter Four: Cartwright and Patchwork Realism 139
1. Introduction 139
2. A selection of worlds 140
3. Cartwright’s Philosophy of Science 143
3.1. Laws and Lies 144
3.2. Realism about Entities and Capacities 147
3.3. Blowing in the Wind 148ix
4. Consequences for the Completeness Thesis 150
5. Contra Cartwright 151
5.1. Future Laws 152
5.2. Stating the Facts 154
5.3. Bhaskar and Cartwright 155
5.4. Force Laws and Composition: Mill and Bhaskar versus Cartwright 158
6. Conclusion 173
Conclusions 176
6.1. Review of Conclusions 176
A. Formulation 176
B. Credentials 177
6.2. What Next? 179
References 183