Two Books

People seem to have some very funny ideas about how two of my books were published by OUP: The Meaning of Disgust and Basic Structures of Reality. After presenting the material of these books in seminars and discussing them with colleagues I sent the completed books to OUP. They then engaged anonymous reviewers, experts in the field, to evaluate the books, three for each book. In each case the reviews were positive and the books accepted. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the procedures employed; they were the same as with my other academic books. A couple of reviews of the books subsequently depicted them as complete rubbish, which is the right of book reviewers, but they went through the appropriate channels. I think it was the book reviewers who got it wrong, not OUP and its referees.

20 replies
  1. Skyler Diamond
    Skyler Diamond says:

    Those people you allude to, Colin, must not know how the process works. I have published five books with three different university presses and in my experience, academic peer reviewers are conscientious and happy to assist the publisher in making a wise choice. Sometimes I have disagreed with a point of contention but much more often I have received competent evaluations and suggestions. Quite likely this is because most peer reviewers know that they are in the business of providing good reasons for the evaluations they make, and I have no reason to think this isn’t the case with your two books. At least this has been my attitude when I have been asked to evaluate a philosophy proposal. (Full disclosure: I only recently realized via Google that there are folks with the “Skyler Diamond” moniker all over the Internet. I am not among them.)

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That would be my assumption too–they don’t approve books just because of who the author is. The two book reviewers went on as if my two books were clearly unpublishable.

  2. The press
    The press says:

    Perhaps a comparison might be valuable. Look at this 2006 article, “Looking for structure in all the wrong places: Ramsey sentences, multiple realisability, and structure”, and published in a highly reputable journal by a prominent philosopher of physics, Steven French and a student. A copy of it is here,

    In particular, look at
    – the confusion in the middle of page 10, where the formula called (1.1) doesn’t make sense (maybe missing a quantifier?).
    – footnote 22, which also doesn’t make notational sense.
    – the two formulas labelled (1) and (2) on page 21, which don’t make sense.

    From this, it looks like the authors don’t know how to write down simple formulas of predicate logic. The paper contains serious errors of understanding and is below par. Yet it was written by a well-connected philosopher of physics, Steven French, and was published in a prestigious journal.

  3. augustm
    augustm says:

    I came upon this sentence in the amazon review of one of your books.

    “I am struck by the fact that treatises on particle physics never say what shape the particles have, and whether different kinds of particles
    might have different shapes. In diagrams they are usually depicted as spherical,
    but such a determination never plays a role in the theories of particles — unlike questions of charge and mass.
    Would it matter if an electron had a star shape?”

    My understanding is that this comes from the influence of philosophy, in the early 20’th century. The views of Ernst Mach (and also logical positivism),
    had very strong influence on Einstein, and Heisenberg who are the founders of much modern physical theory. Physical theory can and Only should
    talk about what has influence on the outside world. An electron is described by an equation, it IS in some sense the equation and has no other properties.
    Physics is an exercise in removing the naive belief that the universe is regulated by simple intuition and learning what properties are “observable”.

    If pushed I think most physicists would say that an electron is a “point” and thus can not have shape associated with it.
    However one also understands that it has “spin” and a point should not be able to rotate…
    At this point one moves back to the equations (Dirac in this case) to show that it is logically possible to combine “point-like” and “rotational”
    properties in a non-contradictory manner; all semi-classical attempts to give structure to the electron have broken down mathematically; many clever people certainly tried this.

    Trying to add more is rather like arguing about “god’s beard” — he surely has one since he is an old guy. However any theological text going down this road has perhaps over interpreted its sources. Moral philosophy is not about beards. Physics is not about the shape of an electron.

    A further point:
    Any research physicist knows that the base of the subject is hollow. At some point there are fundamental contradictions which occur in the logic. The subject has been in this state since about 1880.
    Mechanics and electromagnetism were found to have a fundamental problem (Rayleigh). This was solved by embedding them in a larger logical system , “quantum mechanics”. The weaknesses
    of quantum mechanics were then filled in by “field theory” in the 50’s. etc etc However the edges of the logical development still, today, contain total contradictions — hence the interest in “black holes” which
    display the most flagrant contradictions in the mathematics.

    Physics has been for the last 150 years a (failed) attempt to build a “bigger” logical system that has no internal contradiction. This is rather different from mathematics and logic,
    the foundations of which, as I understand, are underdetermined; however, no contradictions as such undermine the subject — despite a few panics along the way involving Barbers.

    Can philosophy learn anything from a theory which has internal contradictions?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      If the electron is a real constituent of matter it must presumably have some extension, not be a mere extensionless point. But if it has extension it must have shape, as the Greek atomists supposed. If we want to deny this, then we are going in an instrumentalist direction.

      You are so right about the influence of positivism on Einstein and Heisenberg, which makes me very suspicious, because positivism is hogwash philosophically.

      I hope physics doesn’t have actual contradictions, i.e. asserting both p and not-p: if so it must contain falsehoods.

  4. augustm
    augustm says:

    The fact that physics has contradictions is its most interesting feature. It contains within it, however, models without contradiction which are too small and simple to describe the universe as observed — quantum mechanics of a single
    electron without electromagnetism described by the Schroedinger equation.

    There were two great logical systems built in the 20’th century.
    General relativity (very heavy things) and quantum mechanics (very small things)
    Typically trying to reason about small and heavy objects gives different results
    according to the logical route taken.

    Your dislike of positivism explains your dislike of physics books. It is certainly
    the default position in quantum physics.

  5. Rick Padua
    Rick Padua says:

    Re: contradictions in physics …

    P and Not-P are contradictory under the rubric of classical (read: Boolean) logic. However, one of the arguable revelations of the various experiments testing the Bell inequalities (which are actually Boole’s “Conditions of Possible Experience” repurposed to check out the behavior of subatomic particles) is that in the quantum domain the constraints of Boolean logic don’t necessarily apply.

    The simplest Boole-Bell inequality (dubbed the Wigner-d’Espagnat inequality) states that in any set of classical, macroscopic objects each object possessing all or some or none of the characteristics A, B and C … well, okay, here’s Bernard d’Espagnat with a concrete example:

    “[In any group of human beings t]he number of young women is less than or equal to the number of women smokers plus the number of young non-smokers.” You can define “young” and “woman” and “smoker” however you want as long as you’re consistent within the group (or set … it’s set algebra). Logically the truth and inevitability and even triviality of the statement are readily evident. Things simply couldn’t be otherwise. But (or so it would seem) if instead you’re dealing with measured properties of entangled subatomic particles the logic doesn’t hold. You’re apparently confronting a non-Boolean domain of reality. Does or would this contradiction invalidate physics?

  6. Rick Padua
    Rick Padua says:

    Maybe all that can be said from the other side takes a form similar to the late Itamar Pitowsky’s cri de coeur of twenty-one years ago:

    “Human beings are often incapable of distinguishing truth from falsity. Recognizing that a given statement, say a hypothetical ‘law of nature’, is true requires a special relation between humans and the external world, a relation which apparently does not exist. Identifying the truth value of certain mathematical statements (e.g. the continuum hypothesis) requires an even more mysterious relation, that of human beings to the realm of ideas, which, again, seems not to exist. But recognizing consistency or, more precisely, an inconsistency, a paradox, requires no relation to anything external, only the internal powers of computation, which we do seem to possess to a certain extent. This observation is the core of the formalist approach, due essentially to Hilbert: consistency, or rather the avoidance of a contradiction, is ultimately the only safeguard in the pursuit of knowledge. We would have liked to do better for sure, but we have very little choice in the matter.

    “The presence of a paradox and the attempt to avoid it have been the themes of this paper. I think that it is significant that the paradoxical aspects of microphysics are directly associated with the historical origins of modern logic—the work of George Boole. We are close to witnessing what, in Boole’s terms, amounts to ‘an impossible experience’. Of course we cannot quite witness a logical contradiction with our own eyes, but this is as close as we can get. There are no easy ways out, all explanations seem ultimately like excuses; at least this is how I feel.

    “Perhaps this is so because we do not understand completely the nature of the phenomena involved, and future developments in science will lead us to the answer. This may very well be the case, but judging from the experience of the past seventy-five years I suspect that it is not. Perhaps it is all psychological delusion, we simply have to get used to the facts, and the questions will somehow disappear. All scientific revolutions are hard to grasp at the outset. But I do not believe that this is the case either. We are not at the beginning of a process in its pre-analytic stage. If anything, the discoveries of the last thirty years have deepened the paradox, and caused more and more scientists and philosophers to raise the question. In that respect q.m. is the greatest scientific revolution of all, for there is still something about it which we do not understand, and perhaps never will.”

    — “George Boole’s ‘Conditions of Possible Experience’ and the Quantum Puzzle”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Volume 45, Issue 1 (Mar., 1994), pages 119-20

      • Rick Padua
        Rick Padua says:

        He always tried to be as honest as he knew how. But on a case-by-case (or category by category) basis. If the Bell experiment results indeed accurately reflect how the subatomic world conducts its business he drew the only possible conclusion. He believed the experimental results were accurate. We’ll know with more certainty before very long whether his trust was misplaced. I’ve been told not to be surprised if the Technical University of Delft is first past the post with a loophole-free experiment.


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