How do I show a skeptic that atoms/molecules actually exist?

  • #51
790
599
Everything about Science is 'near enough' and we can't expect any more.
Well it doesn't hurt to expect more ... some day perhaps ... , but (in the meantime) it doesn't mean that temporary relative knowledge that happens to be not 100% accurate is not science ...
 
  • #52
rsk
187
59
Because "reality" cannot have 2 descriptions right?? There can be only 1 description of reality, right??
Why? (Asking for a friend ;) )
 
  • #53
nomadreid
Gold Member
1,439
142
One thing that was overlooked in all these wonderful exchanges is: what does the OP's "skeptic" friend mean by the words, "molecules", "atoms", and "exist"? A bit of a mathematician's approach: get the definitions down first, and often that is enough that the answer comes out in the wash. According to her definitions, the statement "molecules and atoms exist" may or may not be true. While you are at it, the OP could ask the friend whether her question is real (that is, she is ready to admit that the question might have one or the other answer, and is not just being dogmatic), and if so, what the criteria would be that she would allow to decide the question. Of course, if the OP's friend is asking just to wind the OP up, then she is doing a good job. :wink:
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri
  • #54
790
599
A)
A bit of a mathematician's approach: get the definitions down first, and often that is enough that the answer comes out in the wash. According to her definitions, the statement "molecules and atoms exist" may or may not be true.
What makes you think it's a "she"?
His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".

He sites for example
Other than that, I agree.

B)
Why? (Asking for a friend ;) )
We all call it "a friend" now ... don't we? :smile::wink:
 
  • Like
Likes nomadreid
  • #55
18
30
His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".
I've been online since the days of dial-up BBS systems and USENET.

I can guarantee you that you cannot change the mind of dogmatic people like that.

I can even give you a simple way to prove that is the case.

Ask him this question: What *specific* testable evidence would it take to convince you that atoms and molecules are real?"

That question works no matter what the dogma is, and it works in both directions - it will always show when someone else is being dogmatic, and it will always show when you are being dogmatic.

You can just substitute whatever pseudoscience or science denial you're dealing with.

What *specific* testable evidence would it take to convince you that climate change is real?
What *specific* testable evidence would it take to convince you that biological evolution is real?
What *specific* testable evidence would it take to convince you that the Earth is a sphere?
What *specific* testable evidence would it take to convince you that astrology is real?

Rational people know that astrology isn't real, but are you being rational about it or dogmatic about it? That last one will tell you.

You will never change his mind from the outside. Only he can change his mind, and the only way he's going to do it is to be forced into admitting to himself that he's being dogmatic/dishonest about it.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Michael Scott, Dale, Stavros Kiri and 1 other person
  • #56
nomadreid
Gold Member
1,439
142
A)
What makes you think it's a "she"?
Touché. o:) "She" comes from the combination of not noticing the use of "he" and "his" in the OP's posts with the habit of being "politically correct", or avoiding conflict with people who think that the earlier English convention of applying masculine pronouns to persons of unknown gender is sexist (oddly enough, the same argument could be brought about a convention of applying female pronouns, but no one does). Alternatively, I could have used (while being mistaken that the reference was to a male friend) the other convention and write "they", whereupon you could ask why I think the reference is to more than one friend.
 
  • #57
790
599
Ask him this question: What *specific* testable evidence would it take to convince you that atoms and molecules are real?"

That question works no matter what the dogma is, and it works in both directions - it will always show when someone else is being dogmatic, and it will always show when you are being dogmatic.
What if he tells you that he actually wants to sit on top of a real molecule or atom, travel with it, test it and see that it is composed of electrons, protons (thus quarks etc.). Now how he does that is his problem ... , but ... he's not being dogmatic. So, I think, your argument/method is also defeasible ...
 
  • Like
Likes TheOldFart
  • #58
31
9
Tell him you'll be happy to answer his objections as soon as he proves to you that he exists.
 
  • Like
Likes Michael Scott, TheOldFart, rsk and 1 other person
  • #59
232
56
Science doesn't attempt to do that. All Science attempts to do is to make a model that can be used to predict what will happen to within some accuracy. It's Non-Scientists who demand 'reality'.
This was addressed in another comment, but there is a difference between "science" and "scientists". Of course many scientists are interested in understanding reality. But science is specifically a tool that does not make a claim of such understanding. It draws a model that is illuminating, and fits the facts, and predicts.

Scientists are as willing to demand 'reality' as non-scientists. They just recognize that the process of attempting to understand reality is a theoretical journey.

I would answer the original question that there is not a specific measurement that proves current atomic models are correct. But theories have been converging on the idea of atoms for a while. Refinements of the idea of what an atom is are not getting wildly revised. We once saw a "plum pudding" model replaced by a "planetary orbit" model. But we have not seen a model that disposes of atoms and replaces them with something completely different. There is no conclusive way to prove that our current models are close to the answer "42", but there is no reason to expect a GIANT revision.

And of course as pointed out over and over, science does not say that theories are irrefutable. Including well-established and incredibly reliable ones.
 
  • #60
790
599
Touché. o:) "She" comes from the combination of not noticing the use of "he" and "his" in the OP's posts with the habit of being "politically correct", or avoiding conflict with people who think that the earlier English convention of applying masculine pronouns to persons of unknown gender is sexist (oddly enough, the same argument could be brought about a convention of applying female pronouns, but no one does). Alternatively, I could have used (while being mistaken that the reference was to a male friend) the other convention and write "they", whereupon you could ask why I think the reference is to more than one friend.
The most "politically correct" way is I think "he/she" ...
[Although in the future we might have to also introduce "/it", to cover the case of A.I. or machine, in order to avoid being sued by any of them ! (for sexist language ...) ... :smile::wink:]
 
  • Like
Likes nomadreid
  • #61
54
11
This was addressed in another comment, but there is a difference between "science" and "scientists". Of course many scientists are interested in understanding reality. But science is specifically a tool that does not make a claim of such understanding. It draws a model that is illuminating, and fits the facts, and predicts.

Scientists are as willing to demand 'reality' as non-scientists. They just recognize that the process of attempting to understand reality is a theoretical journey.

I would answer the original question that there is not a specific measurement that proves current atomic models are correct. But theories have been converging on the idea of atoms for a while. Refinements of the idea of what an atom is are not getting wildly revised. We once saw a "plum pudding" model replaced by a "planetary orbit" model. But we have not seen a model that disposes of atoms and replaces them with something completely different. There is no conclusive way to prove that our current models are close to the answer "42", but there is no reason to expect a GIANT revision.

And of course as pointed out over and over, science does not say that theories are irrefutable. Including well-established and incredibly reliable ones.
This deep into the discussion I can barely remember the original very good reply. We have the entire science of quantum physics that is unlikely to even exist. At one time I was part of the team expanding the power of a linear accelerator. At that time I started considering quantum particles as nothing more than a means to an end. You see, the more power we put into breaking atoms apart, the more particles we found. Entire theories were developed that accurately identified particles up to the point where Higgs suggested his now famous Boson. Well, with sufficient power they eventually discovered the Boson that closed the loop. The problem was that it generated two other types of particles that were outside of the oh so carefully crafted mold of the universe. And again what I said so long ago on that project raises it's ugly head - how do you know that ANY of these particles exist outside of being a side effect of the energy being used? Come on now, it decays in less than a sextillionth of a second.

Lately I have been studying quantum computers - the wave of the future that arrives at a best estimation of an answer in 1/1000th the time a digital computer would arrive at a precise answer. Hey, how many mathematicians could give you an estimation off the tops of their heads? This makes you wonder if the scientific method isn't becoming entirely disconnected to reality.

As proof of this, repeatability of experiments conducted in papers is now at an all time low with only 30% of papers being repeatable and now "peer review" having close to nil effects on the truth of a study. Is the scientific method being distorted for academic achievement?

I am an engineer and have worked 50 years in the field and have been important parts of teams that developed ground breaking research leading to products. Including a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for one project leader. I don't think that would have ever occurred if I hadn't interrupted two PhD's who decided that the only way to prove the chemistry was to use two IBM supercomputers which at the time were $3 Million apiece. I completed the end product DNA analyzer with two microprocessors. Today I see much much worse, with job offerings for PhD engineers with no experience at all on a project that requires little more and an AA electronics technician. Come on now - asking an engineer if he knows how to operate a signal generator and an oscilloscope?

Exactly what has happened to reality?
 
  • #62
I would recommend your friend learn about the experiments of Dalton, Milikan, Rutherford, Thomson, and others. Each experiment discovered something about the atom. It was a black box. You could indirectly guess what was inside, but you could not see. These days, you could see the valence shells of atoms using an electron microscope.
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri
  • #63
AFM is capable of imaging atoms and/or molecules.

Perhaps more importantly, why is it so important for you to prove to this person that atoms/molecules exist? Believing or not believing that fact makes no practical difference in someone's life and they may be taking a counter view just to be irritating. Trolls existed before the internet. The internet just made it easier to find examples of them.
 
  • Like
Likes phinds, Asymptotic, Stavros Kiri and 1 other person
  • #64
Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
20,919
4,673
And again what I said so long ago on that project raises it's ugly head - how do you know that ANY of these particles exist outside of being a side effect of the energy being used? Come on now, it decays in less than a sextillionth of a second.
In a metaphysical sense, we don't. In the context of science, their existence is supported by the known rules by which all of these particles decay. It's a bit like measuring the decay products and decay rate of an unknown sample. Given enough decay events and enough time relative to the decay rates, you can make a reasonable conclusion as to the different elements the sample is composed of.
 
  • #65
rsk
187
59
You could try telling him that, upon investigation, you've discovered that nothing he sees around him and none of us really exist, we're all just sims in a game being played by white mice.

Sorry to be flippant, but I think one or other is on the wind up here.
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri and russ_watters
  • #66
Perhaps because VR is getting to be rather good at replicating a "reality" there are a number of well know physicists that are entertaining the idea that we are in a simulation. In such a case there would be a reality outside of our synthetic reality. That uber reality could also be simulated by yet a greater reality and so on.

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
Augustus De Morgan
 
  • #67
54
11
AFM is capable of imaging atoms and/or molecules.

Perhaps more importantly, why is it so important for you to prove to this person that atoms/molecules exist? Believing or not believing that fact makes no practical difference in someone's life and they may be taking a counter view just to be irritating. Trolls existed before the internet. The internet just made it easier to find examples of them.
I agree with you on that. But the Internet and social media has taken it to a whole new level.
 
  • #68
54
11
In a metaphysical sense, we don't. In the context of science, their existence is supported by the known rules by which all of these particles decay. It's a bit like measuring the decay products and decay rate of an unknown sample. Given enough decay events and enough time relative to the decay rates, you can make a reasonable conclusion as to the different elements the sample is composed of.
This was the problem I mentioned: inside the rules Higgs predicted a Boson of X mass. Finally with high enough energy it appeared. Unfortunately two other particles outside of the model appeared. These were not predicted and I haven't heard any moderating explanations.
 
  • #69
bob012345
Gold Member
420
66
Are you guys saying that Peter Higgs & François Englert was awarded the Nobel Prize (the GREATEST prize any human can get) just for "Creating a model of a Higgs Boson"???

Because, if you say that particles are just "models", they are not DISCOVERIES ain't It?? They are CREATIONS ain't It?

Are you saying that some alien species in a far away galaxy can model these same things DIFFERENTLY??

So, the LHC actually did not discover any Higgs particle??? They just discovered a "model" of a particle you named Higgs?

This is what the Nobel Prize site says about this: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2013/

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider"

So, are you saying that the LHC at CERN did not actually discover any real particle??

This is completely NUTS!!!
It's not as nuts as you think. Sure, 'looking' at atoms with a Scanning Tunneling Microscope shows little dots which conform to what we think of as atoms but what exactly are we sensing. Just the average effect of electrons and mostly empty space. Since we don't truly know even what an electron is (since the most fundamental theories of nature are still being debated) we can call what we know a model of something that exists. Sure, it's a really good model wrt the data. What CERN discovered is a resonance that matches the theory within a reasonable error of where a Higgs should be and suggestively acts like what the Higgs is supposed to do. We can call it a Higgs until some better models suggests otherwise if ever.

What an alien species might have an entirely different overall model but it would match the same data. It might be organized differently.
 
  • #70
bob012345
Gold Member
420
66
This was the problem I mentioned: inside the rules Higgs predicted a Boson of X mass. Finally with high enough energy it appeared. Unfortunately two other particles outside of the model appeared. These were not predicted and I haven't heard any moderating explanations.
The prize for the Higgs may have been based on confirmation bias.
 
  • #71
There are a number of physicists that are entertaining the idea that we are in a simulation. That is, there is a higher reality in which our simulation is running. This is perhaps due to VR which is getting good enough to make such an idea conceivable and that we may soon be able to build our own worlds with simulated intelligent entities that could be totally unaware that they are being simulated. So reality could be relative to what universe you live in and, in the end, doesn't make any difference.

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
Augustus De Morgan
 
  • #72
54
11
It's not as nuts as you think. Sure, 'looking' at atoms with a Scanning Tunneling Microscope shows little dots which conform to what we think of as atoms but what exactly are we sensing. Just the average effect of electrons and mostly empty space. Since we don't truly know even what an electron is (since the most fundamental theories of nature are still being debated) we can call what we know a model of something that exists. Sure, it's a really good model wrt the data. What CERN discovered is a resonance that matches the theory within a reasonable error of where a Higgs should be and suggestively acts like what the Higgs is supposed to do. We can call it a Higgs until some better models suggests otherwise if ever.

What an alien species might have an entirely different overall model but it would match the same data. It might be organized differently.
Actually you cannot see electrons. You can see a shell since these particles are moving so rapidly that they appear to be a solid. We can visualize a proton or a neutron which are large enough to see. Now I haven't done this sort of work since the late 2000's but the papers I've seen since then are not very encouraging. More and more I distrust any and all studies and too many degrees seem to have been achieved with "book larnin" and no practical experience. Why the hell would you advertise for a PhD with no experience for a job that requires extensive experience in dozens of different standards and years of experience in three or four different programming languages?
 
  • #73
170
24
So, the POINT of science is to find HOW THE NATURAL WORLD WORK and WHAT IT'S COMPONENTS ARE. Also to find how the universe began and what is beyond the universe, what is time and does it have any beginning and things like that. Components are the electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms and molecules and also things like quarks.
I think what is important to keep in mind is the universe is made up of physical phenomena. When the apple falls from the tree and hits the ground, when we detect an electron or photon on a screen, or when we detect subatomic particles in various instruments within the LHC, these are the physical phenomena. These are aspects of reality.

The mathematical models and theories are not the phenomena themselves. They are a description of the phenomena. They are not reality, they are a description of the observed/recorded phenomena. Mathematical models do not make technology work. Technology only works when you use physical phenomena in accordance with a theory that works. Whether you call an electron an electron or gluberish, it doesn't matter. It is only language. But unless what we call an electron exists, you cannot fire it inside a cathode ray tube television to make a picture on the screen. So you can have multiple mathematically consistent theories that all describe the phenomena, and reality is not somehow in jeopardy. The one theory that is accepted by the scientific community, while excluding other self-consistent ones, may be due to simplicity, "elegance", or "naturalness".

All theories are based on some axioms that have to be assumed and cannot be proven themselves, unless a more fundamental theory comes along to explain them. Once you have you a strong faith that these axioms are true, because they are repeatedly confirmed by observation or experiment, then you can use deductive logic from those axioms to prove your conclusions. But, the axioms will always be open to doubt to some extent.

As has been pointed out by others, your friend's argument is self-defeating. He has no justification for his claim that science can't tell us about reality, as long as he understands the difference between the phenomena and describing it. If your friend is an idealist, ask him why everyone agrees on their experience of the phenomena. Shouldn't there be infinite different individual experiences?
 
Last edited:
  • #74
Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
20,919
4,673
This was the problem I mentioned: inside the rules Higgs predicted a Boson of X mass. Finally with high enough energy it appeared. Unfortunately two other particles outside of the model appeared. These were not predicted and I haven't heard any moderating explanations.
I've not heard of anything about two new particles outside of the standard model appearing. Do you have a reference?
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri and Dale
  • #75
170
24
His argument is that although science works (that is the technology part), science cannot actually tell anything about "reality".
Actually the progress of science helps us build instruments that allow us to see new physical phenomena (reality) that were previous unavailable to us.
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri

Related Threads on How do I show a skeptic that atoms/molecules actually exist?

  • Last Post
Replies
20
Views
1K
Replies
6
Views
1K
  • Last Post
4
Replies
80
Views
11K
Replies
28
Views
2K
Replies
23
Views
6K
  • Last Post
Replies
2
Views
759
  • Last Post
Replies
3
Views
986
  • Last Post
Replies
4
Views
1K
Top