Verlinde and the aversion to philosophy

After his Delft lecture,1 Verlinde gave this answer to a question about the possibility of a theory of everything:

I don’t even want to go into the direction of religion or this kind of thing because for me that’s philosophy. What I can do with my equations is only estimate how much information is there, what it’s doing and for us that’s enough. And so I don’t think that that question is part of what we need to answer as physicists. (63:46ff)

It may be guessed that Verlinde has been criticized in the physics community for a tendency to ‘philosophy’. This might especially come from physicists like Lee Smolin who are insistent realists. Here is Smolin in an April 2019 Perimeter Institute lecture, ‘Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution‘:

I don’t want a theory of myself intervening with nature or having a conversation about nature. I’m doing science because I want to understand how nature is in our absence. (…) After all, through most of the history of the universe (…) we weren’t there. So our knowing, believing, thinking, intervening, preparing, measuring shouldn’t play a role in what fundamentally the atoms and the elementary particles are doing.2 (…) Those of us are realists believe that nature exists independently of our knowledge and beliefs about it, and that the properties of systems in nature can be characterized and understood independent of our existence and our manipulations. That’s what I mean by a realist. (12:20ff)3

Since information is a primitive property4 of the universe for Verlinde,5 and since information is necessarily implicated in the “knowing, believing, thinking, intervening, preparing, measuring” rejected by Smolin, Verlinde might seem to violate Smolin’s strictures in the very foundations of his work.  It may well be, then, that his declared aversion to ‘philosophy’ is an apotropaic attempt to deflect such criticism away from his research at the outset. ‘I’m not declaring myself in either of the realist-idealist directions’, he might be seen as assuring Smolin and other realists, ‘I’m just doing my work — please look at my equations before judging what I’m up to.’

Now McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, held that philosophy comes in three flavors6 — realism, pragmatism and idealism.7 And Verlinde’s portrayal of his research might be seen as typical of the middle position of Lodge’s three forms, that of the ‘pragmatist’:

Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that (…) both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. (…) Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.8

However, despite its declared wish “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings”, such as might seem to characterize only realism and idealism, Lodge saw pragmatism as falling prey to this same ambition (or, at least, the same fate).9 He therefore explicitly rejected it as philosophy’s “proper method of study”:

If philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities, I must study those alternative possibilities, and must not, in my enthusiasm for realism (or idealism or pragmatism)10 close my eyes to alternative possibilities. In so far as any one alternative (…) refuses to be regarded as one alternative amongst others, and claims to be in exclusive possession of the whole truth, I must be sceptical of its claims. In fact, in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes [for example] (…) convinced pragmatism, it loses its open-mindedness and is really ceasing to be truly speculative and philosophical.11 ln a word, it is precisely such one-sided philosophizing which is anti-philosophical, and not comparative philosophy, with its scepticism directed against one-sidedness. As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of [any and all] one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative. 12

For Lodge, the essential thing was to reject every form of “one-sidedness” and to remain “necessarily comparative”. Such fundamental pluralism in Lodge’s work — and of McLuhan’s in “understanding media” as opposed to ‘understanding the medium’ — is also to be found in Verlinde, notably in his attention to entangement:

  • [Qubits] can do something called being entangled in the sense that one qubit, here, is doing the same thing as another one somewhere else [over there]. This is two qubits that are entangled, where the zero of one [qubit] is combined with a zero of the other, or the 1 of the one [qubit] is combined with the 1 of the other. This is an example of entanglement.  So this is the language we’re going to use to consider even our universe — we’re going to think about the universe in terms of information and also in terms of this entangled quantum information. (8:22ff)
  • it’s the power of quantum mechanics, it’s the essence of quantum mechanics that we have entanglement. And our [whole] universe [itself] is very entangled. (47.45ff)

The many implications of entanglement are of fundamental importance and will be considered in future posts. Suffice it to note here only that, at a minimum, entanglement entails plurality — and if Lodge and Verlinde are followed, this means essential plurality characterizing the very ontology of everything that exists.13 In this case, plurality cannot not characterize philosophy simply insofar as it is part of the furniture of the universe. And if philosophy, too, is essentially plural, it (it!) cannot be waved away as Verlinde does in his answer to the question in Delft (as cited above). Indeed, as Smolin illustrates, even a decided realist can see value to philosophy in at least some of its necessarily plural senses:

Philosophy cannot settle scientific questions, but it has a role to play. A bit of philosophical thought may prevent us from getting hung up on a bad idea, and the record of people who have struggled with the deep questions we face, such as the meaning of time and space, may suggest new hypotheses for us to play with. (The Life of the Cosmos, 1997, 21)

But a stronger claim may be made for philosophy in physics if (a) theory is required to do physics at all14 and if, as Lodge claimed, (b) philosophy is the comparative investigation of the field of fundamental theories.

As to the first, Eric McLuhan in a lecture claiming his father had no theories, yet somehow managed to cite Stephen Hawking as follows:

“[W]e cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory,” [Hawking] writes. A good, elegant theory will describe a wide array of observations and predict the results of new ones. “Beyond that, it makes no sense,” he points out “to ask if [a theory] corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory”.15

Hawking’s claim that “it is no good appealing to reality”16 is, of course, not “model independent”17 itself. So it would appear that, if theory is necessary to do physics at all, and if theory is necessarily plural, something like Lodge’s philosophy as the “speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives” must be applicable within physics before any assurance from it that “it is no good appealing to reality”. Or, of course, before ‘it’ is dismissed out of hand.18

  1. For discussion, see Verlinde: Physics in the Information Age.
  2. Compare Verlinde: “there might be a way of thinking about gravity in a different way than what Einstein told us by thinking about the microscopic structure of space-time, not in the language of particles (…) but thinking about more fundamental building blocks in terms of information and in particular its quantum properties.”  (Perimeter, 36:58ff)
  3. This is the auto-generated transcript of Smolin’s Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution lecture at YouTube, corrected against the audio.
  4. It may be wondered if ‘property’ is the correct term here as opposed to possible alternatives such as ‘substance’ or ‘structure’ or ‘formation’.
  5. Information (is) contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time” (Delft 5:15ff); “we’re going to think about the universe where we think about the basic building blocks as being information. This is maybe a way of phrasing it: that we live in an information universe not an information world. The whole universe is revolving around information” (Delft, 6:21ff).
  6. Comparable, perhaps, to the division in nature between mineral, vegetable and animal or to the states of matter between solid, liquid and gas.
  7. See Quantum communications (the implications of essential plurality) and the Lodge posts generally.
  8.  ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, in Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 1937, 405-432, here 413.
  9. Lodge’s interesting point seems to have been that one-sidedness is not, or is not only, a potential property internal to a philosophical position, but is also and above all a property of its external relations with other philosophical positions!
  10. This bracketed insertion is original to Lodge.
  11. Lodge: “in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes convinced realism (or convinced idealism or convinced pragmatism), it loses its open-mindedness”. The bracketed insertion is from Lodge.
  12.  ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, 432.
  13. It might be objected that Lodge’s three forms concern philosophy and not, at least not explicitly, ontology.  But this is to overlook the question at stake in those forms, namely, the relation of mind to nature. Restricting his forms to thought means to decide that question in an idealist manner and hence to contradict Lodge’s demand for a “comparative” method.
  14. Required to do physics at all — or to do philosophy at all or, indeed, to do anything at all as a human being.
  15. Eric McLuhan, ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg, Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition, 1:1, 25-43, here 28, citing Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes, 1993.  Hawking’s full passage: “If what we regard as real depends on our theory, how can we make reality the basis of our philosophy? I say that I am a realist in the sense that I think there is a universe out there waiting to be investigated and understood. (…) Beyond that, it makes no sense to ask if (a theory) corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory. This view of scientific theories may make me an instrumentalist or a positivist (…) I have been called both. (…) It is no good appealing to reality because we don’t have a model independent concept of reality.” (44)
  16. See previous note.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Curiously, this is just the conclusion which the arch-realist Smolin puts forward: “What might it mean to extend science to encompass the whole universe? Is it possible to describe the whole of the universe in scientific terms? And, if it is possible, how must we modify our current theories in order to be able to do this? I have come to believe that this is the central issue that we must confront if we are to solve many of the key open problems in theoretical physics. How we think about the universe as a whole affects such apparently diverse questions as the problem of unifying quantum theory with general relativity, the problem of understanding the origin of the properties of the elementary particles, the problems of the interpretation of the quantum theory, the problem of what “caused” the Big Bang, and the question of why the universe is hospitable to life. These are all problems we have so far failed to solve (…) In my view, part of the reason for this (failure) is that we have not paid enough attention to the ways in which a theory that could be sensibly applied to the whole universe must differ from our present theories. (The Life of the Cosmos, 12-13) Or again from Smolin, and more strongly: “If not for the philosophers, who is going to have the courage to tell the physicists when quantum theory, or another of our constructions, just cannot be made sense of? In the past, philosophers like Leibniz did not hesitate to tell physicists when they were speaking nonsense. Why now, when at least as much is at stake, are the philosophers so polite? (The Life of the Cosmos, 195)