Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Needless philosophy

Catching up with last week’s Guardian newspaper science course I was struck by the strange desire people seem to have to say philosophically charged, contentious things when there’s no need. In what is supposed to be an introductory discussion of electricity, the author starts off:

Consider the befuddled reader, sitting at his kitchen table; holding the booklet that tumbled out of the day’s newspaper; knowing that to concentrate on yet more complicated science would be a worthy thing, but finding it far more pleasant just to rub his fingers against the rough grain of the nice paper. His brain is wandering on autopilot, and it almost seems that he’s not really all there.
Which is correct.
Nearly all our body is empty space. This applies not just to the cranium of George W Bush, but even earnest booklet readers. For our bodies are made of atoms, and atoms come roughly in two parts: a solid central core, tiny and hidden away in the atom’s depths, and far from that core, in distant orbits, are the clouds of electrons.
The main bulk of each atom is just empty space. What keeps the booklet from slipping right through our palms is that the electrons on the surface of our atoms are, roughly, shooting a powerful force field upwards. That force is, like gravity, one of the few fundamental powers of nature. The electrons of your hands hit the force field coming down from the electrons on the bottom of the pamphlet, and when the two collide, something miraculous happens: the booklet stops falling.
We think we’re holding the book, but in fact it’s actually hovering, a very small fraction of an inch above our fingers and palms. In the same way, our clothes aren’t resting on us, but are in fact floating very slightly above our skin. Indeed, even though our posteriors may seem to be settled upon the comfortable kitchen chair, in fact they’re also suspended, hovering a similar fraction of an inch above the topmost electrons in that chair.

The really striking sentences is ‘We think we’re holding the book, but in fact it’s actually hovering, a very small fraction of an inch above our fingers and palms’. The scientific account is presented as undermining what we take for granted and replacing it with something quite startling. But whilst refutation of everyday experience is obviously sometimes possible (eg. the replacement of the geocentric by the heliocentric system) in this case there’s a real problem with knowing how the meaning of the claim denied might be held stable in the face of the denial.

It seems a good instance of PF Strawson’s suggestion that scepticism involves explicitly denying some conceptual connections whilst simultaneously having to presuppose them for its claims to make sense. In this case, if one cannot correctly teach the meaning of the verb ‘to hold’ by appeal to such everyday acts, what sense does ‘hold’ have in the claim that we never hold books because they hover above our fingers?

There’s no need to say any such thing in this case. Holding is explained at the microscopic level by electrical repulsion. But that isn’t as spooky as talk of books hovering out of reach.