Why Tim Maudlin has such a high community rating

in his fqxi essay

The reason is similar to the case of Philp Gibbs previously discussed: he is also a rather good compromise between scientism and obscurantism.

He is fond of maths and many of his ideas on Relativity are not bad (I have rather similar ideas myself). However he is a materialist, member of the Bohmian mechanics community. And he is a philosopher, more than a physicist.

In this interview, he defends academic philosophy in this way.

"I don’t think that the spats between physicists and philosophers are more heated, or of a different kind, then the spats that break out among philosophers or among physicists; they just get more public attention. Disputes in foundations of physics typically cannot be settled by observation or experiment, so argumentation has to come to the fore."

If he is talking about disputes on the interpretations of quantum physics, then of course there are disputes among those who dispute it. However they are mainly disputes of philosophy, not so much of science (even if hidden variable theories and spontaneous collapse theories also have mathematical aspects) ; most physicists develop physics, and in particular quantum theory, as a clear mathematical theory that is very successful, rather clear with rather clear predictions, without any such dispute. Physicists involved in these disputes of "quantum foundations" are a small minority. They might forget this.

He has a good statement of intent to be a scientist :

"I am a mathematical Platonist in the simple sense that I believe clear, unambiguous mathematical propositions (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture or the Axiom of Choice) to be either true or false independently of whether or not they can be proven. (...)
The relation of metaphysics—the most general inquiry into what exists—to physics strikes me as obvious: one big part of metaphysics concerns itself with physical entities, and that part had better be informed by physics."

This declaration seems to come in contrast with so much of academic philosophy which develops metaphysics without respect to the information from physics.
However he actually cannot put this into practice as long as the lessons from physics hurt his philosophical prejudices : 

"Sometimes it is difficult to make the dispute clear, but one clue is that many physicists and philosophers like to say that the passage of time is an “illusion”. In my account of things, it is not at all illusory: time passes from past to future by its intrinsic nature. (...)
I further believe that physicists have been misled by the mathematical language they use to represent the physical world. Temporal structure is part of (maybe all of!) the geometry of space-time, and the standard mathematical description of geometrical structure was developed with purely spatial structure in view. Space, unlike time, has no directionality and the mathematics developed to describe spatial geometry does not easily or naturally represent directionality."

The problem then, which he neglects, is to know where this intrinsic nature of time comes from, since the laws of physics could not discover it ; and to explain the actual inability of physics to make sense of time (as I did in my essay, explaining that the flow of time has a non-physical origin). Instead, his solution is to just make up a mathematical formalism supposed to write the time orientation as a fundamental physical reality, no matter whether such a formalism is of any use for physics.

"The situation with respect to quantum theory is completely different from that with respect to Relativity. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as “quantum theory” that can be “interpreted”. A physical theory should make clear postulates about what physically exists and how it behaves. What is in physics books is not a theory in that sense, but rather a (somewhat imprecisely formulated) recipe for making certain sorts of predictions, which is (nonetheless) extremely accurate. What is called “interpreting quantum theory” is really a matter of constructing clear and precise physical theories that return these same predictions, or nearly the same. There are several different general ideas for how to construct such theories that have been fleshed out in the non-Relativistic domain. None of these clear theories makes physical behavior dependent on observation as such. Indeed, the so-called “measurement problem” is just the problem of articulating a physics in which the sorts of experiments called “measurements” are treated as physical interactions just like any other. The exact nature of those interactions depends on the detailed physics proposed, but the physical analysis of these interactions according to the theory should validate the quantum prediction recipe."

His materialism is also symbolically manifested in his precise approach to mathematics, as appears in the opposition of views between he and I in the comments to his essay:

So generally, he defends an ant's worldview, while I prefer a bird's worldview. This is a way I see to express the difference between materialism and idealism.
And generally of course, his sort of claim that his new theory is going to overturn current physics, is very pleasant in the ears of many. The more chaos there is in science, the happiest are obscurantists who want to believe that all ideas are equal and that no idea is any more valid than any other idea. In hope that from such a democratic soup of chaos a Brave New World will sooner or later emerge.

But let us leave him the words of conclusion, from his above interview:

" I sometimes remark that we live in an astonishing world: I can actually put food on the table by going around giving talks defending the radical view that time passes!"

Back to : Set theory and foundations of mathematics homepage - On the fqxi essay contest