Philosophy and cosmology

I’ve decided it’s time to improve the consistency of my writing and practice makes perfect, as they say. So, starting from today, I’m going to a write a blog post every day for thirty days (excluding weekends and holidays). By my calculation, this means the last post in the thirty day sequence will come on the 11th of May. I’m not setting any kind of word count goals, and I’m not restricting myself when it comes to content either. I imagine I’ll write a bit about my research, such as it is at the moment, and otherwise what I’m filling my time with at the moment while I wait to travel to Spain. I’m also attending a few short (virtual) conferences in the next few weeks, and giving a couple of talks, so I’ll write about my preparations for those.

Edit (25th July): I managed five daily blogs before giving up. Turns out my life during lockdown is simply not interesting enough to warrant daily updates!

Today I had a meeting with a few of my collaborators, as we have just had a paper returned with a referee report for the fourth time. We have been going back and forth with this referee since before Christmas on a conceptual point in our paper. We have finally reached an agreement with them on that point but they have given us yet another minor change to make before the paper can be accepted. Fortunately, it looks like we can make this change very quickly and easily and resubmit the paper by the end of the week.

Otherwise, my day has been very South African-themed so far. I have a playlist of choral music which is about fifty-fifty split between pretty gentle stuff that I can listen to in the background while working and more upbeat tunes. One of the latter category is the song I’ve linked below, a Zulu spiritual song (the title translates as “Be nearer my Lord”), beautifully interpreted by the University of Pretoria Camerata, directed by Michael Barrett, who also arranged the piece. I can highly recommend the whole album.

Continuing on the South African theme, I spent an hour watching a fascinating interview with George Ellis, an emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town, on philosophical problems connected to cosmology and physics in general. If you want to learn more about fine-tuning, reductionism, causation, emergent phenomena (and a whole host of other concepts) then this video is a great place to start. The two interviewers are excellent and George explains his points with refreshing clarity. I found it really thought-provoking and will certainly write a post (or possibly a whole series of posts) on these topics in the future.

My favourite point of discussion came towards the end of the interview, where George talks about whether life has meaning.

What actually is happening here is the following, and I’m seeing it with a lot of my scientific colleagues. There’s a lot of data about the universe. Basically what is happening with these guys is they’re saying if you want to understand the universe, you must take data from microscopes, telescopes, particle accelerators. You must take that scientific data, and that will tell you the nature of the universe. When they say the universe is meaningless, the hidden agenda is they are saying, ‘We choose to ignore all of the data from human life, human history, from the great literature, the great art, all the rest of it. We choose to say that that has nothing to tell you about life and the universe, because we think the only evidence that matters is the matter that the hard science can tell you.’

George Ellis

This is a position that I have moved much closer towards during my PhD. At school and throughout my undergraduate degree, I was firmly wedded to the belief that science can and does hold all the answers, to life, the Universe and everything. But I think blind faith in the scientific method can be just as great an impediment to human progress (whatever that means) as blind religious faith. George is right when he says that we cannot dismiss aspects of the human experience just because they cannot be measured or repeated under laboratory conditions. I think the uncertainty I felt during most of my PhD led me to the realisation that science is inherently imperfect and will never be able to answer every question. But that’s ok!

This is also what frustrates me when people claim that science is apolitical, or that the scientific method leaves no room for error. Science is done by people, and people make mistakes. People are rarely (in fact, are probably never) apolitical, no matter how much they claim to be. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and it does no one any favours to try and pretend this isn’t true. It’s a rather Bayesian standpoint, I suppose: priors exist whether you like it or not — we’re just explicitly including them in our analysis.

Let me also repurpose this argument for a slightly more trivial point: life needs to take equal priority to work in the work-life balance of a scientist! Go to that concert, read that book, take that week off to go camping — you’re learning just as much about the human experience of the Universe by doing so as you are during the week, sitting at the computer!

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