Richard Marshall at 3AM magazine has been doing a series of interviews with all kinds of thinkers, especially philosophers; some recent examples include Dan Dennett, Tim Maudlin, Rebecca Kukla, Alex Rosenberg, and Craig Callender. And I’m the latest subject. Given the venue, we talk as much (or more) about philosophy than about physics, and a lot about how they fit together.
Spoiler alert: I think it’s possible to have productive grown-up interactions between philosophy and science. I guess I’m just a radical bomb-thrower at heart.
Click through if this kind of thing floats your boat:
I think emergence is absolutely central to how naturalists should think about the world, and how we should find room for higher-level concepts from tables to free will in a way compatible with the scientific image. But “weak” emergence, not strong emergence. That is simply the idea that there are multiple theories/languages/vocabularies/ontologies that we can use to usefully describe the world, each appropriate at different levels of coarse-graining and precision. I always return to the example of thermodynamics (fluids, energy, pressure, entropy) and kinetic theory (collections of atoms and molecules with individual positions and momenta). Here we have two ways of talking, each perfectly valid within a domain of applicability, but with the domain of one theory (thermodynamics) living strictly inside the domain of the other (kinetic theory). Crucially, the “emergent” higher-level theory can exhibit features that you might naively think are ruled out by the lower-level rules; in particular, thermodynamics famously has an arrow of time defined by the Second Law (entropy increases in isolated systems), whereas the microscopic rules of the lower-level theory are completely time-symmetric and arrowless.
I think this example serves as a paradigm for how we can connect the manifest image to the scientific image. Sure, there’s nothing like “free will” anywhere to be found in the ultimate laws of physics. But that’s not the only question to ask; at the higher-level description, we should ask whether our best emergent theory of human beings includes the idea that they are (in the right circumstances) rational decision-making agents with freedom of action. Until we come up with a better description of human beings, I’m perfectly happy to say that free will is “real.” It’s not to be found in the most fundamental ontology, but it’s not incompatible with it either; it’s simply a crucial part of our best higher-level vocabulary.