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My questions arise after listening to Chomsky and Tim Maudlin talk about Newton's theories.

Maudlin:

"it turns out that at this moment in history [now] the physicists have to a large extent either abandoned or are not very good at addressing directly the question that Aristotle was interested in which is fundamentally what exists and the tend to get a little sketch when you try to pin them down on what exactly their physical theories postulate to exist, but that's kind of a historical accident, you know Newton was very clear about what he was postulating" https://youtu.be/-aRu75QIPcM?t=690

(I take it that Maudlin's last line means Newton was clear about what he was postulating to exist)

Chomsky:

"Newton disproved it [that the world is a machine (that it is an intelligible concept, and machinelike], he showed that the world is not a machine in this sense, he didn't believe it he thought it was so absurd that nobody with any scientific understanding could possibly believe this because that's why he called his major book mathematical principles not physical principles he said I don't have a physical theory all I have is mathematical principles that seem to work, he was sharply condemned." https://youtu.be/kzRkho1s5FA?t=3202

So it seems like they both agree that at some point science became unintelligible (operational?). Do philosophers agree about this larger point, that science recently became operational? And who is right about Newton here? Could Maudlin be talking about separate works of Newton that did postulate what exists in intellgible ways, and Chomsky referencing other works that gave up that idea? Or is there a real conflict, and who is more correct about Newton?

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    Neither Maudlin nor Chomsky talk about unintelligibility of physics, let alone operationalism. Maudlin talks about physicists being sketchy on ontology, and Chomsky about the world not being a machine. One reason physicists are sketchy is that current theories are considered temporary, and everybody waits for quantum gravity to tell us what "really" is. Another is that the primary candidate for the latter, string theory, has a slew of equivalent formulations with incompatible ontologies. So what is would be some intangible abstract structure. But that is platonism, not operationalism.
    – Conifold
    Feb 26, 2023 at 22:47
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    @JKusin Not sure when it historically happened, but I personally think it is a welcome development in the sense that physics is now more focused on objectively describing, rather than speculating. Of course "objective" is a big word here, since physics is more like a series of approximations. Also, it is a bit limiting to require an explanation of nature to be "intelligible" and it is also a bit presumptuous: nature is what it is, even if we our best descriptions are not immediately "intelligible". There is no reason nature should be intelligible in Chomsky's sense, even if we would like to.
    – Frank
    Feb 27, 2023 at 1:06
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    @JKusin Here is an example of how some physics is/was actually conducted in the 20th century: vixra.org/pdf/2002.0011v2.pdf. The sense of groping in the dark alongside making perpetual mistakes is quite palpable.
    – Frank
    Feb 27, 2023 at 1:30
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    Chomsky says that Leibniz (with monadology ?!) was a mechanist, and extrapolates Newton's hypotheses non fingo from gravity to everything on the basis of... the title of Principia. Never mind that Newton was very much into hypotheses even on gravity, just could not come up with a suitable one. It is true that physicists walked away from mechanistic models since the fall of aether, but the idea that only such models are intelligible would have Plato turn in his grave. It is also true that increased complexity of models makes them less accessible, but that is orthogonal to operationalism.
    – Conifold
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:38
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    Maudlin's "methodology" of opposing anonymous modern "physicists" to specifically Newton is also out there. Why not take Hooke and Boyle, who were not much into philosophizing, and oppose them to Einstein or Penrose instead? For what it is worth, Greene is only too happy to tell us what is (going to be) should string theory prevail, with superstrings, branes, extra dimensions, Big Bang, God particle and the rest, and Tegmark to put platonist metaphysical foundation under it. So happy that Smolin is unhappy with this much metaphysical speculation and few experiments.
    – Conifold
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:57

2 Answers 2

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While it's true that Newton didn't focus on the question of what exists but on the relationships that govern interactions between objects, I would imagine that was because Newton would have thought it obvious what did and didn't exist. If you read the English translations of his main works there is no sense of ontological uncertainty in them- you get the impression that he considered his laws to describe interactions between real objects that you can see, feel and touch.

Physics has become much less intelligible since the advent of quantum theory, in part because the mathematical formalism is impenetrable if you haven't studied it and in part because you can no longer picture what is 'really' going on in terms of familiar objects. When I was a kid, I could imagine atoms as little billiard balls, etc, and it was possible to imagine all of high-school physics in terms of everyday concepts. Modern physics is quite different- you have to put aside the tendency to want to have a common sense mental picture, and instead be guided by the maths and some key principles about symmetry, conservation and so on. I will say without a hint of pride that I was exceptionally gifted at physics at school, but I completely lost the plot at university, precisely because the professors could not explain anything to me in terms I could relate to. I wanted to know how long is a photon, how wide is it, what actually is interfering in a two-slits experiment with individual particles and so on. I wanted to imagine quantum phenomena in classical everyday pictures, and that isn't possible (as far as we know). Indeed, it might be that Tim Maudlin is wrong to suppose that there must be a more intelligible ontology for quantum theory- perhaps nature at the quantum level is utterly different from the macro models of the world that our brains have evolved to create and understand.

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If science were intelligible to all, regardless of talent, experience and education, then everyone would be a scientist and nothing would be unintelligible.

The universe is under no obligation whatsoever to make sense to everyone and anyone. What makes sense to an astrophysicist studying galaxy formation in the early universe will make no sense at all to an office manager in a room full of insurance claims adjusters. That fact does not render science in general "unintelligible".

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  • Okay I like that there are degrees of intelligibility. They might disagree where Newton lies on that scale
    – J Kusin
    Feb 27, 2023 at 4:08

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