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Physics on the Frontier

January 22, 2021

I have been spending much time lately studying various perspectives in theoretical physics on the frontier of human knowledge and ignorance, and order and chaos, who are trying to push the boundaries of what we can know about reality and the cosmos slightly further.

This will make for a series of upcoming posts about various of these key thinkers and physicists from my own philosophical perspective. Too much time is spent in philosophy defending the existent, stable doctrines in physics, such as the standard atomistic model, or merely rehashing old clichéd historical conflicts and dilemmas in physics, with no intention of resolving them, such as the quantum theory uncertainty issue, when the true task of the philosopher is to pursue the theories and ideas that are reaching beyond and sometimes even questioning accepted common wisdom.

It is very much a work in progress, a developing knowledge and experience on my own part, rather than a finished product, because the areas being dealt with are quite intricate and unclear at times. But I think it is an important story to tell. It is where reality, logic and science can all meet together, not to merely justify some predecided conclusion we wanted to believe all along, but to explore terrain where we don’t yet know what the conclusion will be.

Four main thinkers immediately come to mind whose work I will be exploring in some philosophical detail over the coming months. Roger Penrose, from his ideas on consciousness to his conformal cyclic cosmology and his twistor alternative conception of fundamental physics to string theory. Stuart Kauffman, whose views on how to define life and complexity, stretch the common understandings in physics of thermodynamic entropy and natural selection, perhaps to breaking point. Lee Smolin, whose view of an evolving cosmos related to black hole production, and his sustained critique of the completeness of some of the standard positions in theoretical physics, alongside his position of a relational view of space and a new understanding of time make for important consideration. Finally, Julian Barbour, who has this year released a new book called the Janus Point, about a new cosmological theory.

We seem to be living in a time where many physicists on the frontiers are questioning the standard model position more and more and raising important questions about its limitations. They are also offering new cosmological perspectives within which to frame our whole understanding of being in general and the existence of things and life more particularly. This makes it also an exciting time for philosophy, whose duty is to try and keep up with these perspectives on that precarious and fragile border line between order and chaos, and knowledge and ignorance.

Let me reiterate, the task of the philosopher, is not merely to support currently accepted doctrines, or find excuses to accept what we already believe anyway. It is to navigate towards the real, those areas where there is still ignorance currently, but could one day be new knowledge.

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