Monday, July 5, 2010

Objectivism in Science: David Harriman's THE LOGICAL LEAP

I "stumbled upon" this book by accident yesterday, not through that site, but the old-fashioned way: browsing the shelves in a bookstore. How about that? Anyway, David Harriman, "chief science office" of the ARI, has just published The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. There's an introduction by Leonard Peikoff, and Rand is invoked a few times via her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. It's notable that the book does not appear next to the Rand library, but under the author's name. (It's also notable that Borders categorizes it under Philosophy, and Barnes and Noble under Science.)

I'm not a physics major (hell, I'm a musician, I only need to know how to count to four), but I understand enough of the basics to understand the philosophical issues brought up in this book, which challenges "modern" theories like the Big Bang Theory, String Theory, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and so on, while defending quantum theory where it does work. Is it an essential book? The main thesis of the book, which argues for induction over rationalism or empiricism in science, is already a part of Objectivist theory. So, as a layman, I was able to come to the same conclusions about the principles, if not the specifics about some of the technical details, after reading books like James Gleik's Chaos and David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality. (But, again, I'm a musician, and I only need to count to four...).

It should be said, though, that it is significant that some of the original theorists of these controversial ideas don't go as far to connect modern physic to "new age" ideas as, say, What the #$*! Do We Know?. Gleik points out, for one, that the term "chaos" theory is a misnomer; there is also Feynman's warning that those who claim to fully understand quantum theory don't. So, I don't think one has to be a rocket scientist to be skeptical of some of these theories (does that make Sheldon Cooper a "witch doctor?")

But for the non-Objectivist, this book may be a revelation, even if there are those in the Objectivist community who have their own issues with Harriman. I suspect that those people really have an issue with his involvement with Leonard Peikoff; (for example, see Robert Campbell's "guestimation" about this book.) I can see the argumentative comparisons now between Rand's "back-seat driving" of Peikoff's Ominous Parallels and the "collaboration" here. But after my reading, the subject matter seems to demand that any criticism revolve around the actual relations between philosophy and physics, so, hopefully, Harriman's book will be judged on its own merits (though there will still be the bickering nitpicking Kant-loving gadflys who already have a problem with the Objectivist approach to begin with.) I'm personally wondering if there will be accusations that Harriman has done to Paul Feyerabend what Peter Schwartz has done to his various opponents in his essay "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty"...although I think Harriman justified, given such Feyerabend "gems" as Against Method and Farewell to Reason...

(Speaking of nitpicks, I have my own; the index has a listing for Arthur Koestler on page 97, but I don't see it there...maybe it's a parallel universe page...)

Hopefully, technical issues aside, this will be recognized as contribution to the fight to keep the science in science and to promoting the view that the world, after all, is an intelligible place.

But then, what the #$*! do I know? I'm a musician, so I only have to count to four...


  1. A few weeks back the thought came into my mind that time cannot pass slower for someone relative to me regardless of their relative velocity and I then looked for an alternative explanation to Einstein's complicated theory. I think I found it. Imagine a train speeding along at 100km/hr relative to an observer not on the train. Someone on the train fires a bullet in the direction of the train at a speed of 500km/hour. The bullet will pass the observer at 600km/hr. If someone on that train shone a beam of light from a torch in the same direction of the train, Einstein assumed that you should add the speed of the train to the speed of light. Since the speed of light is always constant to the observer, he thought he needed a new theorem. However, the bullet is taken onto the train. The beam of light emanates from the torch. Do the photons ever rest on any part of anything which is on the train. If they don't, they are not "on" the train and do not gather momentum from the train. Is there a flaw in my logic?
    Regarding the experiments performed to prove time slows down, there are very few and none provide enough detail to substantiate them.

  2. A comment to Alessandras comment:
    There is no flaw in your logic.
    An alternative to Einstein's theory might by an aether theory.
    This aether was thought to occupy all of space and be the medium for propagation of light and other electromagnetic phenomenons. The velocity of light is then determined by the physical properties of this aether.
    The reason why it was abandoned was partly that its existence could not be proved. Motion through the aether would cause time dilation and length contraction making it impossible to prove you're moving relative to it. The aether will, in other words, always appear to be at rest relative to any observer.
    Einstein's contribution was to suggest that the aether isn't needed to explain time dilation and length contraction (later when he expanded his theory to explain gravity he entered the hall of fame of physics, but that's an other story).

  3. Re your nitpick about not seeing a reference to Arthur Koestler on page 97 - the quote identified as reference 12 on page 97 is from Koestler's "The Sleepwalkers" (see the references on page 261).