Comments on “Some other varieties of objectivity”

Gravity (of the situation)

Basil Marte 2021-12-29

I find the physical examples in “no inherent meaning” to be garbled.

If astronomy were the only science, it could be said that the concept of “mass” is a hypothesis like phlogiston, an itself unmeasurable quantity that is supposed to explain why some observable behavior is consistent. However, both as a matter of the history of physical concepts, and as a matter of more “everyday” practice, mass is first a quantification of inertia as per Newton’s F=ma, and it is in some sense a coincidence that the same quantity also happens to govern gravitational attraction.

Second, the argument in the following paragraph would lead one to ascribe subjectivity to magnets.

Coincidental mass and subjective magnets

David Chapman 2021-12-29

I was careful to say “gravitational mass” repeatedly in the discussion because, as you said, inertial mass is a separate concept, which could have turned out not to coincide.

The problem with phlogiston is not that it’s hypothetical, it’s that it doesn’t accurately account for all the patterns of combustion for which it was posited (and oxygen, equally hypothetical when they were in competition, did a better job).

Quantum flavor might be a better example nowadays of an intrinsic but entirely hypothetical quantity, but I wouldn’t expect as many readers to be familiar with it.

Intelligent people did ascribe woo properties to magnets for centuries, at times including subjectivity, because their behavior made no sense and wasn’t reliably predictable. In the 1700s-1800s, “animal magnetism,” a quasiscientific basis for vitalism, human consciousness, and medical techniques using iron bar magnets, was a mainstream theory. Hypnosis (a preeminently subjective phenomenon) was considered closely related.

As the physics got to be better understood, that lessened, but of course magnetic healing woo is still everywhere. I’d guess a quarter of the population would say “yes” if asked whether magnets “have some sort of consciousness.”

Mass and magnets

Basil Marte 2021-12-30

Well, I brought the wrong example with phlogiston. My point was that if gravitational and inertial mass didn’t coincide (especially if they were so unrelated that they were never grouped together in the first place), then the concept of gravitational mass would be boring. It would be accepted and used, but Newton and Einstein wouldn’t be a level of distinction above the rest of the Hall of Fame.

I mentioned magnets exactly to imply the rationalist mantra “if a phenomenon looks whimsically unpredictable to you, probably you are using the wrong set of concepts”. I wasn’t even thinking of the woo, partly because any field that is confusing (or is popularly known to be confusing) sprouts woo. Radioactivity is a particularly amusing case, because its affect flipped so suddenly from positive to negative.