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Not to Worry

In response to:

Otherworldly from the November 23, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

In reading Professor Quine’s charming review of Nelson Goodman’s book (NYR, November 23), I noted Quine’s claim regarding the “full coverage” of physics. We grant physics its special position among our world accounts, says Quine, for the reason that “nothing happens in the world…without some redistribution of microphysical states.”

While adding his belief that science is nonreductionistic, in that not all interesting scientific statements are expressible in terms of physics, Quine apparently regards change at the micro-level as being where the global “coverage” is. Even granting Quine’s non-reductionistic disclaimer, I am wondering whether this deference to physics might not be based on a somewhat improper foundation. Much that happens due to gravity, for example, has little to do with redistributions of microstates, except that they are along for the ride. This is not wholly accurate, but its inaccuracy in the case of bodies as large as planets is vanishingly small.

It may be that the carrying along of microstates, without any necessary rearrangement of their internal relations, is sufficient to warrant Quine’s use of the term “redistribution.” If so, I have no problem with what Quine says. In any case, I have not departed from the realm of physics in citing gravity, and I share much of what I take to be Quine’s respect for physics. The point of my opposition is the absolute regard for the microstate that I detect in Quine’s remarks. Perhaps not every event at the macro-level demands an internal rearrangement at the micro-level, except insofar as some whole microstate is brought into a different overall relation with some other whole microstate. This point may be of some importance to other areas of science.

I make this suggestion fearful that I have misunderstood Quine, and wish only illumination both.

Asher Seidel

Department of Philosophy

Miami University

Oxford, Ohio

W.V Quine replies:

It is true, as Professor Seidel sympathetically suggests, that I meant “redistribution of the elementary states” to include the mere “carrying along of microstates, without any necessary rearrangement of their internal relations.” Even when the particles are only “along for the ride,” as he well puts it, their distances from others are changing. Moreover, gross gravitation is the sum of the gravitational attractions of individual component particles, even though no such component attraction has been detected. I speak of physical theory and not of the data that support it.

If general relativity teaches that under gravitation nothing is happening, from the point of view of some frame of reference, still my position holds; in this case there is simply no event to worry about.

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