Interview with Mike Schneider

Mike Schneider is a PhD candidate at University of California, Irvine. His work spans the philosophy of physics and social epistemology, with a focus on speculative theories of physics. We talked to Mike to learn more about his work and his interest in the New Directions project.

Tell us a bit about your background, and what first sparked your interest in cosmology.

I’ve been interested for a long time — since grade school, I think — in the narrative side of science. And cosmology is just about the most grandiose story we feel entitled to tell. So, I think I was nearly always tending toward an interest in cosmology. But, if I had to pinpoint a spark, it was this. My undergraduate physics program was impressively close-knit, and centered around weekly pizza lunches in the Department library. In my first year, a cosmologist joined us one lunch and gave a talk about some foundational questions he was concerned about. Up until then, my classes that were required for a physics major had been a bit dull — the kind of intro physics and calculus courses that are geared toward engineering students (rather than budding physics majors), but meanwhile my philosophy seminars were fascinating. The result was that the cosmologist’s talk hit me in a big way: it underscored that there are serious questions at the heart of physics that demand philosophical scrutiny, and that cosmology is a breeding ground for them.

How did you get involved with the New Directions project?

I’ve been around from the beginning! I came to graduate school to work with Jim Weatherall and JB Manchak on topics in philosophy of cosmology, conducted near the formal foundations of the discipline. I began right around the time they received an earlier, smaller grant on subjects closely related to the New Directions project (along with Chris Smeenk). And then I stuck around as Jim (and Chris) reoriented, channeling their focus toward the specific topics outlined in the New Directions project.

What are your current research interests?

My interests cover a fair bit of ground in philosophy of science and social epistemology, but I’ll stick here to the bits that are close to cosmology. Broadly speaking, I’m interested in epistemology and method in theoretical physics, in situations where speculative research seems to be — whether by necessity or by matter of fact — the norm. My sense is that the most compelling contemporary arena for these sorts of questions is quantum gravity research, or, to be more specific, quantum cosmology. By ‘quantum cosmology’, I have in mind the corner of quantum gravity research that proceeds by considering how our understanding of our universe as a whole will change with certain proposed developments in the field, and (equally interesting) how our comfort with our current understanding of our universe as a whole gets used in the course of those developments.

You have written on the cosmological constant problem and the ways in which it can be used to constrain and shape future physics. Do you think problems like this will play a major role in the development of a theory of quantum gravity?

I do, but I think we should be careful by what we mean. This is, at the end of the day, a descriptive question. And indeed, I think such problems will play a major role in the development of a theory of quantum gravity. But I think this because the promise of solutions to such problems plays, as a matter of fact, a role in theory development that is similar to a signpost on a road. These solutions are what the community of theoretical physicists has become accustomed to orienting themselves toward, in their ongoing pursuit of future theory. I think the more interesting question is to assess the extent to which our locating solutions to such problems amounts to our learning something about the world around us. If it is inevitable that there winds up some or other solution to such a given problem down the road, because that’s the sort of thing the physics community anticipates an adequate future theory will feature, then the solving of that problem is baked into that future theory. We usually think about our scientific theories as informing us about the world, based on what we put into them — we don’t regard what we put into them as what there is to conclude about the world. But, of course, we aren’t putting into the future theory any particular solution to the problem, just that the problem winds up solved. So what I’ve said isn’t sufficient to conclude, pessimistically, that we stand to learn nothing from our locating a solution.

Are there any books or readings you would recommend to someone with new interest in the philosophy of cosmology?

This might say more about my own temperament than anything else, but for someone really just starting out, I would recommend reading the historian of science Helge Kragh, along with every contemporary pop science article on cosmology you can get your hands on. The pop science articles can give you something of a pulse on the contemporary discipline, but the historical work provides a much needed counterweight: it can help disentangle, in the former, perennial questions of philosophical import (which have been updated in light of the present day) from what is really more so the minutiae of the day.
I’d also give caution to those new to philosophy of cosmology, who are beginning to collate philosophical texts on the subject. Traditionally, philosophy of cosmology was a very general discipline, which was focused, for instance, on the notion of a systematic study of the totality of experience, or on the method suitable for a science of an undivided whole, or so on. Today, I think the subject is better thought of as an instance of the philosophy of special sciences — the relevant special science being, namely, modern cosmology. There are fruitful connections to be drawn between these two conceptions of the discipline — and which make cosmology a particularly fascinating special science for philosophical study — but it can be jarring to switch between the two without keeping the historical transition in mind.

What has been your favourite part of working on the New Directions project?

The first thing that pops into mind is how the workshops and conferences organized through the project have put me face to face with so many physicists and cosmologists who are invested in the foundations of their discipline, and who are willing to share their perspectives. But, thinking further, my favorite part has been getting to work in a dynamic research community of graduate students, post docs, and faculty, who are all working on different topics, but which turn out to intersect in all sorts of interesting ways. These intersections may not ever be noticed, were we all not conscientiously working, at the end of the day, on the same project. The richness that has brought to my research and philosophical perspective is immeasurable.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

If I could change one harmless social norm with a snap of my finger, it would be to make it acceptable to lick clean one’s plate at the table, particularly at restaurants.

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