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Fundemental quesitons within physics

  1. Aug 15, 2011 #1
    Most of us become interested in theoretical physics, as we seek to understand the workings of the world around us. At the heart of theoretical physics are the big questions such as "what is time?", "what 'caused' the universe", "why these laws of physics? Why this equation?" "Is our universe anthropic?". Like most people, i find these questions interesting, worrying and vexing all at once. The more i read the more i have come to see these questions as unanswerable, almost dare i say it pointless. I like many others passed through a stage believing in the ability of physics to form a "theory of everything", but i have matured, and now see this goal as a philosophical, or even physical impossibility. My readings included much of the field of philosophy of science, by authors such as Putnam, Popper and Quine, as well as considering the mathematical search for rigor by the likes of Cantor, Godel and Brouwer. Mathematics as the "tool" of theoretical physics, should be used to guide physical work, and problems in mathematics inevitably lead to issues within our theoretical models of physics. The crisis within set theory, searching for a link between predicate calculus and our mathematical axioms pales in comparison with the problems which occur when we attempt to explain our reality from an objective basis.
    Why something rather than nothing? We will never answer this question. By its very definition it is unanswerable. Our models can be made more comprehensive, but we will never have a final "why" answer, without invoking a philosophical set of axioms. If we did the unthinkable, and proved some form of multiverse string theory, we would just have shifted the question back to "what made the multiverse or geometric construction we observe". While it is fun to ask and try to answer these questions, this is not what physics is about. Physics describes and to a certain level explains our world, but at a certain stage (which i believe we passed with the quatum revolution) we are relying upon mathematical facets to work out theories and without said envoking neo platonic mathematical views we must accept that our theories of physics, are maps, imperfect at that, which describe reality but do not explain it.
    I continue to see students (I myself am still only an undergrad) inspired by the writings of hawking et al. strive to enter into the field of cosmology in the hopes of explaining our reality. As i have said, i myself once went through this stage. It is not a pointless quest, but it cannot be denied that our model, whatever it will be, will never be logically objective, the "theory of everything" is a misleading term, creating the effect of a religious doctrinated science. Our method of science is to question, to always question, and the quest for a complete theory of everything, is counterpoint to this. It will be a sad day for physics, for science, when we must accept a doctrine without question, and for this reason we will continue to perfect our model, thus highlighting the useless belief in a "theory of everything". The quest of physics is to describe nature, not explain it. We humans are organisms on the mantle of an insignificant speck of an insignificant galaxy. Some people find that depressing, i find it liberating. Do we see ourselves as gods? why should reality work the way we see? Without a creator god (which i reject due to logical contradiction within formalism) the questions at the heart of our search will never be explainable. Does this mean we should stop trying? Of course not. Science gives us control over our environment, and this will only continue to be so. We should even continue to ask these "pointless" questions, but we should acknowledge their own counterthesis. Science is not perfect, because we ourselves are not. That said, we should not view it in a postmodern view akin to literature. Science is the world according to us, to our evolved ability and function, we cannot fully control our view of the world as we can in literature, and in this sense science should remain rigorous and respected. There is no other process mor important or more beautiful but it comes at a price, and that price is certainty.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 16, 2011 #2
    Would anyone like to share their view upon the dichotomy (false?) between describing and explaining or how they see the ability of physics to reveal key facets of our reality?
  4. Aug 16, 2011 #3
    I don't have much to say on the content, but some friendly advice: Try breaking your OP into paragraphs. I bet more people will respond if you make it a little more readable. :smile:
  5. Aug 16, 2011 #4
  6. Aug 16, 2011 #5


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    Good advice
  7. Aug 16, 2011 #6
    I agree with the paragraph thingies, but I did read the whole thing. And it was a nice read, functor! I basically agree with most of it.

    I to thought that science could explain the mysteries of nature. But as time passed, I realized that science could only describe things. Physics can only present an approximation to reality, but it can never tell us why things are what they are. The best that might be possible is to take a few physical axioms and derive everything from that. But the axioms can not be explained.

    So in some sense, the only thing we can do is to describe nature using mathematical laws. And I always found this incredibly beautiful that we even can use mathematics to describe nature. There is no a priori reason that we can do this. But still nature behaves in a certain mathematical way, I find this miraculous.
  8. Aug 16, 2011 #7
    You won't find "reality" defined in any physics text book, so its a logical fallacy known as "begging the question". The whole idea that there is some sort of ultimate reality is an ethnocentric bias rather then a scientific concept. A question for philosophers, shaman, mystics, priests, and the occasional politician.
  9. Aug 16, 2011 #8


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    If we ever found the Ultimate Reality, how would we recognize it?
  10. Aug 16, 2011 #9
    Why, because it supports your ethnocentric bias of course!
  11. Aug 16, 2011 #10


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    PF = Ultimate Reality, or at least one of them :biggrin:
  12. Aug 17, 2011 #11


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    Hey Functor, I do understand what you mean about stages, maturation etc. I also had my earlier more "naive" phases.

    However I have come to what I think is a different conclusion that yours.

    My conclusion is not that some of the questions you ask, are unimportant, on the contrary are the more important but they do however not cleanly classify as "physics", and they are often posed the wrong way. But the problem here isn't classification of questions. The reason is that I think that these fundamental physics questions, do overlap with some of the deeper fundamental questions of science, what is science, what is a theory etc.

    Instead my conclusion is that it's the INFERENCE process itself, that is fundamental to the foundations of science (you know how popper struggled with this, deduction vs validity of induction etc) is in fact also very likely the best way also to understand the laws of physics and physical interactions, and that indeed the laws of physics as INFERRED by a scientific process is never 100% objective. But this could be a key insight that helps us understand the interactions, it is not necessarily just seen as a "limitation" to which we surrender.

    Ie. it is the UNDERSTANdING of the process of asking the questions, that I think IS part of the answer. Still it's true that a closed form TOE will never be found, but OTOH this is not a problem as it would probably be completely useless and non-computable anyway, and thus fails to fill it's purpose.

    I have to admit I have thought quite alot and struggle with these questions and my insights are quite different. I'm working on plenty of things in this, to translate this ideas into a new framework for understnading physical interactions in generic terms and try to produce predictions but there will be a long time until I want to publish anything.

    But I admit that this "insight" is for me at least neither depressing, dissapointing or relieiving, I've experienced it like quite a "boost". It drastically increased my understanding of plenty of things in the foundations (of course that's what I think, but I can certainly be desillusioned:wink: time will tell )

    Edit: There are hints of this, in current foundational physics, and I think the misguided focus (on the final state rather than the PROCESS) is why it's stalled. Look at some of the research programs, ST for example, you have a space of theories, where it's even doutbul if you can calculate intrinsic observables that is actually inferrable by an inside observer. This problem is at the moment just a big confusion, that people avoid.

  13. Aug 17, 2011 #12


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    There are at least two ways to understand what a "theory" is.

    In the descriptive view, it just DESCRIBES nature. In particular in a statistical sense. And in order to be able to INFER this description in a rational way, we need to constrain ourselves to subsysems. Tangenting to this discussion: "On the reality of time and the evolution of laws", Lee smolin, http://pirsa.org/08100049

    There is also a decision picture, where a theory is simply an interaction tool, for the observer/learning agent to use for navigation/learning/random walking. In this picture, a theory does NOT "describe" nature, it rather just describes the EXPECTATIONS, on which the observing sytems actions is based. This is less "obvious" to understand in the case of physical interactions and matter systems atm, but it's conceptually clear if you consider analogies.

    In the two pictures the notion of verification is different! In the first picutre, we have the poppian style falsification/corroboration, but in the descition picture things are more complicated. Here the problem is not to kill errors, the problem is to learn. In particular to FEED from the errors, in a constructive and rational way. This problem was ignored by poppers analysis. He IMO wrongly dismissed this to "psychology". But that's a superficial analysis IMO.

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