The savage Darwinian

When Bryan Appleyard isn’t moonlighting as The Priest Who Kicks Ass, he can be found writing eclectic articles for The Sunday Times. Remarkably, yours truly even receives a mention in Bryan’s latest piece, a recollection and analysis of Bryan’s personal blogging experiences, as an introduction to the 100 Best Blogs.

Gordon McCabe McCabism

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Amanda Gefter

I’ve recently stumbled upon Amanda Gefter, an editor for the Opinion section of New Scientist. Amanda studied the philosophy of physics at the London School of Economics, and writes about cosmology, so I guess there is a certain similarity of background. Moreover, Amanda is also very interested in science and religion. A couple of months ago she wrote a timely article which drew attention to the latest tactic of the creationists, (and their apologists, some of whom, it must be said, write for British newspapers):

“They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism – the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial – in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul.”

Amanda also spoke to Michael Heller earlier in the year, and concluded that

Heller comes across as a contemplative, kind and brilliant man with an impressive intellectual range, flitting easily between talk of complex philosophical ideas and sophisticated mathematical physics. (I was intrigued that his current work is focused on ridding physics of the big bang singularity – despite the fact that many Catholics have latched on to the idea of the singularity as the space left for God and his creative power.)”

I wonder if Amanda also gets asked “What on Earth is the philosophy of physics?

Amanda Gefter

Published in: on February 22, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

The branch tapping at the windowpane

David Z.Albert is never less than interesting. He first came to my attention with a provocative paper, which suggested that the global state of the universe might be the vacuum of quantum field theory. His 1992 book, Quantum Mechanics and Experience, is something of a unique work, successfully expounding a many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory without the use of difficult mathematics, and extending the notions of quantum superposition and branching worlds to include subjective experience.

Albert, however, was hookwinked by the makers of the disreputable 2004 film, What the Bleep Do We Know!?:

He spent four hours patiently explaining to the filmmakers why quantum mechanics has nothing to do with consciousness or spirituality, only to see his statements edited and cut to the point where it appears as though he and the spirit warrior are speaking with one voice. “I was taken,” Albert admits. “I was really gullible, but I learned my lesson.” Yet the real shame with this film is that it plays on people’s fascination with science while distorting and misrepresenting that science.

Albert has now co-written an excellent article in Scientific American on quantum nonlocality, (the branch tapping at the windowpane of modern physics). In this phenomenon, two particles can be prepared into a so-called ‘entangled’ state, a superposition of correlated states. In such a state, a particular property of both particles is indefinite, but it is guaranteed that when a measurement of that property is performed on one of the particles, the state of the entire system will collapse into one of the correlated states in the superposition, and the value of that property will become definite for both particles. Although the preparation of the entangled state requires the particles to be in close proximity to each other, they can then be separated to a great distance without breaking the entangled state. A measurement can be performed upon one of the particles, instantaneously selecting one of the correlated states in the superposition, thereby instantaneously selecting a definite value for the relevant property on both the measured system and the remote system. This appears at first sight to be ‘spooky’ action-at-a-distance, which violates the notion of locality associated with relativity.

Abner Shimony, however, proposes an interesting resolution to the apparent discrepancy between quantum theory and relativity. Shimony proposes that the quantum state describes the evolution of objective potentialities, as well as objective actualities, and suggests that while actualities satisfy relativistic locality, potentialities need not:

Relativistic locality is the domain of actuality, while potentialities have careers in space-time (if that word is appropriate) which modify and even violate the restrictions that space-time structure imposes upon actual events. The peculiar kind of causality exhibited when measurements at stations with space-like separation are correlated is a symptom of the slipperiness of the space-time behavior of potentialities.

Whilst one actuality cannot instantaneously cause another spatially distant actuality, the transformation of potentiality to actuality (otherwise known as the ‘collapse of the wave-function’), is instantaneous. In the case of a spatially separated entangled system, the transformation of potentiality to actuality in one place causes the instantaneous transformation of potentiality to actuality in a spatially distant place.

Note, however, that unless some notion of absolute simultaneity can be re-injected into modern physics, the instantaneous transformation of potentiality to actuality in two spatially distant places, will presumably only be simultaneous in the reference frame of the system performing the measurement on one of the particles.

Shimony’s proposal also requires a significant extension of our physical ontology to embrace the existence of objective potentialities, a notion which would require significant fleshing out…

David Z.Albert

Published in: on February 22, 2009 at 11:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Far Foreign Land

European Cup Final, Brussels, May 1985

Walking down a narrow street, I saw a crew of scallies laughing almost hysterically. Seeing my quizzical look, they pointed at a shop. It was a jeweller with no protective metal grating over the window…There was a supermarket by the bourse and, at the entrance, there stood a Liverpool fan. ‘You’re scouse?’ he said. There was no need for an answer and he knew what I was there for. ‘It’s free to us today,’ he said, handing me a tray of beer…On the way back to the square, the group of Liverpool fans by the jeweller had been replaced by riot police. Glass was scattered all over the street, studded with empty display trays. There was hysteria – and pride – in my laughter. This was turning into an excellent day.

We set off for the ground and there seemed to be more and more small confrontations…We boarded a tram to head north to the ground, slurring and swearing and exuding threatening, drunken boorishness. At our stop, we stood up to get off and Robert collapsed…We hauled him from the middle of the road towards the stadium, two of us with his arms over our shoulder while his feet dragged behind. He appeared unconscious. Then, on the approaches to the ground, a group of young men up ahead snatched the takings from a smallholder and ran away with his strongbox. The man went in pursuit, leaving the stall unattended. Without seeming to open his eyes, Robert deftly unhooked his arm from around my shoulder and pocketed a Juventus scarf…

People were staggering, collapsing, throwing up…We met a group of mates who had come by coach. A fellow passenger we all knew had leapt off as soon as they arrived and attacked two people, one an Italian, with an iron bar. That we’d long believed him to be psychotic did not lessen the shock.

This is Tony Evans‘s memoir of life as a Liverpool-supporting scouse ‘scally’. It’s a gripping insight into what, for many modern Liverpool fans, especially those from the South, will be a totally alien culture.

Evans is now Football Editor at The Times, where he recently produced a personal list of the 50 Greatest Liverpool players. It’ll evoke numerous cherished memories amongst Liverpool fans, but my favourite is the following devastating line:

And, while we’re on the subject of leaving people out, if you’re looking for McManaman, he’s on Setanta.

Tony Evans Far Foreign Land

Published in: on February 22, 2009 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  


At the weekend I read Anthony Quinton’s superb analysis of conservatism in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. It’s an article of mild vintage now (dating from 1995), but, quite apart from the main body of argument, contains at least one vital and pertinent admonition, which messrs Blair and Bush would have been wise to heed:

Democracy…is…not seen [by conservatism] as a good in itself. But representative parliamentary institutions, continuously developed in parallel with the political maturity of the population, is, in advanced Western societies, an historically established mode of proceeding and, therefore, worthy of preservation. That does not make it a universal political panacea.

The primary onus on a writer seeking to provide an intellectual defence of political conservatism, is to provide a rational foundation which refutes the view that conservatism is simply a self-interested attempt to preserve the status quo, by those who happen to possess the power, wealth and status in society at a point in time. To this end, Quinton argues as follows:

[The] main tradition of conservative thought derives from three central doctrines…The first and most obvious of them is traditionalism, which supports continuity in politics, the maintenance of existing institutions and practices and is suspicious of change, particularly of large and sudden change, and above all of violent and systematic revolutionary change…

The chief intellectual, rather than emotional, support for traditionalism is a sceptical view about political knowledge. Political wisdom for the conservative is embodied, first of all in the inherited fabric of established laws and institutions. This is seen as the deposit of a great historical accumulation of small adjustments to the political order, made by experienced political practitioners, acting under the pressure of a clearly recognized need and in a cautious, prudent way…Even less welcome to conservatives than abstract principles, such as doctrines of universally applicable natural or human rights, are utopias, systematic proposals for comprehensive social transformation.

Political scepticism in its turn rests on the third central doctrine of conservatism, the conception of human beings and society as being organically or internally related. Individual human beings are not fully formed…independently of the social institutions and practices within which they grow up. There is, therefore, no universal human nature. People’s needs and desires and expectations differ, from time to time and from place to place.

As Quinton conceives it, conservatism is not a substantive political ideology:

An ideology derives political prescriptions or principles, even sometimes utopias, from theories about human nature and society…conservatism does not depend upon a substantive theory about universal human nature, issuing in universal political principles, such as lists of the rights of man…The desirability of [particular institutions, such as a monarchy or an established church, is, for a conservative] relative to the circumstances of a particular time and place, one in which they are historically established…As an ideology conservatism is, then, procedural or methodological rather than substantive. It prescribes no principles or ideals or institutions universally and so falls outside the scope of its own rejection of abstract theory.

Curiously, then, Quinton’s account of conservatism implies a type of moral and political relativism with respect to substantive questions. Moreover, Quinton’s defence of traditionalism does, in fact, tacitly presuppose a substantive theory of human society, even though this tacit theory is used to derive methodological, rather than substantive, political prescriptions. Let us turn now to this tacitly supposed theory of society, given that it raises some interesting questions.

As we’ve seen, Quinton argues that the prevailing political state is “the deposit of a great historical accumulation of small adjustments to the political order, made by experienced political practitioners, acting under the pressure of a clearly recognized need and in a cautious, prudent way.” He then argues that, whilst a society will inevitably change due to extra-political factors, change should be gradual; large and sudden change, he argues, leads to unintended and unpredicted consequences. If the prevailing political system is subjected to large or sudden change, then:

A host of stabilities which provide a background of regularity within which life can be rationally and prudently led are jeopardized…It is not only that large political changes have many unintended results that are unwelcome. They also frequently fail to achieve their intended results or achieve opposite ones…The formation and running of a state is more like walking a girder high above the ground or driving a car along a narrow, winding road…There are innumerable ways in which it is possible to go wrong, indeed disastrously wrong, but only a very tightly restricted number of ways in which you can go right…Change should be in response both to a change in extra-political circumstances…and to a widely-felt need arising from it, and it should be gradual so that unplanned detrimental side-effects be counteracted.

Pace Quinton, there are a number of tacit substantive assumptions here about the nature of human society. In fact, these assumptions can be cast into the language of physics:

(1) Politically organised human society can, at best, attain a metastable state, a state which is capable of being perturbed into chaos by large and sudden politically-induced changes.

(2) Extra-political factors provide a constant source of change in a politically organised human society, but if the political response to such changes is gradual, then the metastable state can be maintained. Such a process of gradual change could be thought of as akin to a quasistatic process, a thermodynamic process in which equilibrium is maintained by performing the process very slowly. (The analogy doesn’t quite work, however, because human society more closely resembles what Prigogine termed a dissipative system, a type of system far from thermodynamic equilibrium due to the large flows of energy through the system).

Supplementing Quinton’s justification of traditionalism with some concepts from physics, these are the substantive theoretical claims about the nature of human society which conservatism tacitly assumes. Can such claims be justified, however? Doing so appears to require the very degree of political knowledge which conservatism avowedly rejects. What is the empirical basis for such claims? Quinton correctly points to the chaos which typically follows revolutionary change, such as that associated with the French Revolution, and the revolutions in Russia and China. However, conservatism is not uniquely distinguished politically by its resistance to revolutionary or radical change. Most of those in the modern Western world who subscribe to progressive reform, do not advocate revolution, and do not harbour utopias; they seek merely to gradually improve human society, and often find that their attempts to do so are resisted by political conservatives.

I’m far from convinced, then, about conservatism’s intellectual credentials once it strays from the safe territory of utopias and revolutionary change, but Quinton’s article is an excellent read.


Published in: on February 17, 2009 at 6:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Standard Model

Whenever I tell a scientist that I did a Philosophy of Physics PhD, the reaction is typically:

What’s that? I didn’t think you could have a philosophy of physics!

After rambling an incoherent reply on several occasions, the pat response I now use is along the lines of:

Well, most physicists want to use physics as a calculational instrument to explain, predict and control the physical world, whereas the philosophy of physics aspires to understand what the physical world actually is.

This is slightly misleading, because the default instrumentalistic philosophy used by physicists, is itself a tenable interpretational position in the philosophy of physics, and many physicists also aspire to understand what the physical world actually is. Nevertheless, as a crass simplification of a blurred distinction, it works quite well, and in fact I purchased a book this week which highlights the dichotomy. The Standard Model: A Primer, by Cliff Burgess and Guy Moore, is a fine book, but it has to be said that it is very much the anti-book to my own book on the Standard Model. If the two books were ever allowed to come into contact, they would mutually annihilate, releasing a humungous amount of energy.

The synopsis of my own book on Amazon asserts that “Rather than presenting the calculational recipes favored in most treatments of the standard model, this text focuses upon the elegant mathematical structures and the foundational concepts of the standard model.” In contrast, the synopsis for Burgess and Moore’s book states that “The book concentrates on getting students to the level of being able to use this theory by doing real calculations.”

Moreover, Burgess and Moore fail to acknowledge any distinction between the first-quantized and the second-quantized Standard Model. This is partially because of Burgess and Moore’s desire to merely equip the reader with calculational competency, but is also a reflection of a general neglect of this distinction within the physics literature. This is a huge loss, because the second-quantized theory is incapable of representing interacting fields with anything else other than a so-called perturbational approach, which treats interactions as brief collisions between particles which approach the state of free particles to the past/future of the interaction. In contrast, the first-quantized Standard Model provides a tractable representation of interacting fields (albeit not an empirically adequate one), and the structure thereof. Derdzinski’s 1992 text, The Geometry of the Standard Model of Elementary Particles, emphasised this point, and my own book is partially an attempt to publicise Derdzinski’s approach.

Alas, I suspect that the message will continue to fall not so much upon deaf ears, as outside the audible range of the physics community.

Gordon McCabe The Standard Model

Published in: on February 2, 2009 at 12:35 am  Leave a Comment  

FRES and Systems Engineering

FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) is the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) procurement programme to deliver a fleet of medium-weight, armoured vehicles to the British Army, which is rapidly deployable, network-enabled, capable of operating across the spectrum of operations, and protected against the most likely threats. Initiated in 2001, the FRES programme has yet to deliver any vehicles, or any definitive vehicle designs.

In House of Commons written answers, November 20th 2008, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Quentin Davies, provides cost estimates for a number of defence procurement projects. In the case of FRES, Mr Davies states:

The estimated cost for the assessment phase as set out in the Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2007 is £618 million. The cost of this programme will not be fixed until the main investment decision is taken.

Just to be clear, that’s £618 million spent upon thinking about what to do, rather than actually doing anything. It’s not £618 million spent upon designing, constructing, testing, validating and developing machinery; it’s £618,000,000 spent upon prevarication and procrastination.

Perhaps the most pernicious contribution to this type of economic waste is attributable to the Systems Engineering movement, which has infiltrated large sections of industry and government. Systems Engineering is a top-down approach to large engineering projects, which expends great time, effort and ritual in codifying and formalising the blindingly obvious. The fundamental fallacy of Systems Engineering is the tacit belief that complex engineering systems are best managed by defining, often in very abstract terms, top-level requirements, capabilities and stakeholders, and by then breaking those top-level entities down into sub-requirements, sub-capabilities and sub-stakeholders, all considered in abstraction from specific technologies. Systems Engineering often requires Systems Houses to expend large amounts of time and money before crucial procurement decisions are made, and therefore constitutes a form of institutionalised procrastination. Intellectually, Systems Engineering has never progressed beyond the facile observation that complex engineering systems are really ‘systems of systems’.

The history of FRES reveals the ubiquity of such Systems Engineering thinking. The House of Commons Defence Committee report on the FRES programme, published in February 2007, pointed out that:

Between 2001 and 2003 the MoD commissioned Alvis Vickers to carry out ‘concept work’ on [FRES]. There appears to be little tangible output from this concept work which cost the MoD a combined total of £192 million.

In 2004 the MoD announced a two year Initial Assessment Phase (IAP) for the FRES programme—since extended to July 2007. Atkins has been appointed by the MoD as ‘Systems House’ to the FRES project, and nine Technology Demonstrator Programmes (TDPs) have been awarded. The TDPs will culminate in a ‘trial of truth’ in the summer of 2007.

Trials of three prospective Utility Vehicles took place in 2007, but whilst General Dynamics’s Piranha V was provisionally announced as the winner in May 2008, no production order has followed.

In October 2007, the Ministry of Defence announced that “due to the complexity of the project”, Thales UK and Boeing were chosen as the “preferred bidder for the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) Systems of Systems Integrator (SOSI) role…The SOSI will provide independent support to the MoD by bringing expert programme management and system of systems engineering skills to the FRES programme.” Apparently without a trace of irony, Defence Minister Lord Drayson said: “This announcement, almost two months ahead of schedule, demonstrates the excellent progress now being made on FRES. The selection of the SOSI is a key part of our innovative acquisition strategy designed to ensure that we deliver the best solution for the Army as quickly as possible.”

Here we see the self-sustaining aspect to Systems Engineering: when it is responsible for the failure of a project, it provides generalised diagnoses of why the project failed, and prescribes more Systems Engineering as the solution. And there’s certainly no disputing that FRES is an “innovative acquisition strategy.”

As the Defence Committee report states, “The MoD’s attempts to meet its medium-weight vehicle requirement have been a sorry story of indecision, changing requirements and delay. It is high time the MoD decided where its priorities lay.” And at the root of this shambles, lies Systems Engineering.

FRES Systems Engineering

Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 11:44 pm  Leave a Comment