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Physics major doesn't believe in empiricism

  1. Sep 14, 2007 #1
    i am he. what am i going to do? i'm seriously having a philosophical crisis here. i think i'm going to switch my major to math.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2007 #2

    G01

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    What problems are you having with empiricism? Maybe some of us can offer insight into your dilemma.


    Physics and all science is based on observations of the natural world. This brings with it the component of empiricism. Empirical data from experiment is essential in science and we really couldn't be scientists without it. Empirical data guides us in the formation of our models and theories. To describe the universe without empirical data would be equivalent to trying to paint an accurate portrait of someone you've never seen.
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2007
  4. Sep 14, 2007 #3
    i have a problem with empiricism as a philosophy in that i don't think it's the right one
     
  5. Sep 14, 2007 #4

    Ivan Seeking

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  6. Sep 14, 2007 #5

    G01

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    Yes. Please explain what you don't find correct about it. We can't offer our insight into your crisis if we don't know what the crisis is.
     
  7. Sep 14, 2007 #6
    that is the crisis.
    because its leads to inherently tautologous systems. yes the theories we create come from empirical phenomena and so they're "seeded" by something outside of themselves. but the predictions are based off of the axiomatic system we've created so if they're confirmed they're tautologically true.

    honestly this is all very murky in my mind right now so please no one get upset if i'm talkin bs.

    to be a little more specific

    when people have asked me why i do physics the answer has always been : "because i want to know how things works." so implicit in that statement was the assumption that physics explained how things truly worked. but it doesn't. i mean what is a nonlocalized particle? it's not real; it's a mathematical tool, a concept. theres no such thing as a fuzzy particle. we only use this terminology because the math makes it so. whats a field? what are virtual particles? they're not real! they're tools used to make good predictions. that's why there have been so many theories that describe the same things to varying degrees of accuracy.
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2007
  8. Sep 14, 2007 #7

    G01

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    Well, let me ask you this question:

    How would you go about finding out how nature works if not through science? (I am asking this seriously. If you think science isn't going about things correctly, how would you go about it if not through the scientific method?)
     
  9. Sep 14, 2007 #8
    i don't think you can find out how nature works.
     
  10. Sep 14, 2007 #9

    G01

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    We may not be able to find out EVERYTHING about nature, but saying that we can't know how nature works is a little absurd. There is a reason why the average human life span has doubled since the scientific revolution. There is a reason why we have automobiles, planes, space shuttles, telecommunications and electricity. It is because we understand those aspects of nature that we were able to make those advances. We may not understand them completely, but with every piece of evidence and every experiment done, we get closer and closer to the real truth. We may never know everything about how the universe works, but we can keep learning more and more. If you assume your never going to understand everything and say, why bother, of course your not going to understand anything.

    Also, here's something to think about. If a model makes accurate predictions with no measurable deviation within experimental error about how nature works, how are you so sure that it's just a mathematical construct, and not the actual operating principle of that part of nature. Can you distinguish between them? I don't think you can.
     
  11. Sep 15, 2007 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    I know how you feel!!! You are correct in that physics cannot provide the answers that you seek; nothing can. However, you will get as close to the essence as possible through physics. Mathematics doesn't even try to do that.

    My motives were much the same as yours in that I wanted to REALLY understand things at the most fundamental level, but I certainly don't regret sticking it out. Then again, as much as I enjoyed the subject, there is no way that I would have ever considered becoming a math major, so we are different in that regard. :biggrin:
     
  12. Sep 15, 2007 #11
    no offense but i don't think you've ever read about epistemology. i'm not a run of the mill crackpot and this isn't a run of the mill dilemma.

    technology and medical advances aren't good evidence of insight into the way the world works. take for example electricity; holes flowing from positive terminal to negative terminal or electrons flowing from negative terminal to positive are exactly the same thing, all the equations still say the same things. so which is it? does it matter which it is?

    most technology is not based off fundamental physics, it's based off of macroscopic phenomena. samething for medicine.
    yea i've seen you in my threads before, kindred spirits we would be if i believed in spirits.

    besides the fact that i don't think physics means anything, i think it would be completely unsatisfying to solve problems that have no real answers; because they're meaningless. I knnow someone will jump on me for this but i'm not using meaningless in the same sense as others. math atleast doesn't pretend to describe anything except itself so a solved problem in math is the truth.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2007
  13. Sep 15, 2007 #12

    Ivan Seeking

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    Even if we ignore the limitations, in the end, unless you are among the elite of the elite, people in physics get paid to do practical work.

    The only thing that got me through was a "fundamental" love of the subject; limitations and all. And I would have never worked so hard for something that I didn't love.
     
  14. Sep 15, 2007 #13
    another reason why maybe i won't continue
     
  15. Sep 15, 2007 #14
    ice109, why not perceive science as the attempt to discover nature's "axioms", or at least the attempt to discover whether or not nature has axioms? If the axioms we suggest lead to an inference that we can observe in nature, then it is supporting evidence. When there is a contradiction between nature and theory, we try to come up with a new set of axioms and go on from there. In mathematics we don't have to have a system of axioms confirm anything outside of themselves, science is the opposite. Empiricism is, after all, just the gathering of information that hints us towards the axioms we're looking for.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2007
  16. Sep 15, 2007 #15
    the attempt to discover nature's axioms is to imply that there are a priori truths which there are not.
     
  17. Sep 15, 2007 #16
    Physics is what it is: A model for making predictions out of phenomena that can be measured. Trying to extend it beyond that will no doubt leave you unsatisfied. Physics does not explain the "why" of things, and should not attempt to.

    The only reason mathematics is any different is because you are able to define your fundamental principles. That does not mean it has any more or less value as an expression of what is true.
     
  18. Sep 15, 2007 #17
    I do agree with you that empiricism has its flaws in that many times we cannot trust our senses (e.g. we can only see the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum with our eyes)

    However, physics is worth studying because it lets us have accurate, though not 100% certain, ideas about how nature works. For example, gravity is an amazing phenomena about nature yet we cannot know for 100% certain how it works exactly. So in a sense, physics does indeed let us know about nature
     
  19. Sep 15, 2007 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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    It is not a matter of why, it is a matter of the essence vs models.

    We have no reason to believe that mathematical models not rooted in physics have any basis in reality, but I have often wondered... And there are a few examples where purely mathematical models predicted real models.

    ice109, I'm not trying to discourage you, and definitely don't drop out of college [which I assume is not on your list of options], but I think it is very important to be true to one's self and to pursue a life that will make you happy.

    ...and it is possible that physics in its most fundamental form is [or will be] essential, we can just never know.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2007
  20. Sep 15, 2007 #19

    Defennder

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    ice109, I think you're confused about the nature and study of science. This is more of a philosophical problem than any scientific one. I can't quite judge from your replies what your exact position and philosophical conundrum is, but I'm guessing it's something to do with the empirical underdetermination of theories. This is more philo than anything else, so perhaps you'll like to ask this in the Philo forums instead. In a nutshell, and I hope I'm right about this, what this means is that by the Duhem-Quine thesis, every empirical confirmation of a theory requires interpretation that and every interpretation itself is theory-laden. Hence you can't claim the theory is validated simply because you have a positive result, as it may be that certain other hidden background assumptions are not proven as well. This ties in quite nicely with Goodman's riddle of induction, which questions why we should accept human intuition in formulating valid inductive hypotheses as opposed to completely arbitrary ones, which though does not contradict the results, are ridiculous enough for us to not consider them.

    As interesting as this philosophical theorizing may appear, bear in mind that if you were to examine the record of the cumulative works of philosophy and that of empirical science since their inception, I think you'll agree that science has definitely achieved a lot more. If you're interested, I advise that you check Imre Lakatos's philosophy of science and math. You appear to be stuck in a phase of thought loosely corresponding to the period of development of philosophy of science in when Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The philo of science have since moved on. Lakato's philosophy attempts a way out of this phase. Of course this says nothing about mathematics, but as an alternative to physics, why not go into engineering? It's probably the the closest thing to physics. After all, even if you can't discern and comprehend scientific truth, we can at least use them to our practical advantage to make things work, right?
     
  21. Sep 15, 2007 #20

    Chi Meson

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    I remember taking some philosophy classes when I was in college too. Made me temporarily paralyzed with doubt and confusion also.

    A laser still works, though.
     
  22. Sep 15, 2007 #21

    Moonbear

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    After reading this, I'm wondering why you're considering math as an alternative? Wouldn't your issues over what is "real" only be amplified in math compared to an experimental field?

    You may find that it's just certain branches of physics that leave you dissatisfied, and that you'd be best off pursuing a different specialty that you feel is a bit more "tangible."

    It's also possible that your grasp of scientific method isn't quite fully formed yet. Some of what you say points at that possibility. When you talk about tools used to make good predictions, indeed, that is the starting point of an experiment. You develop an hypothesis, and based on that hypothesis, you have your predictions (i.e., if the hypothesis is supported, when we do X, Y will happen), you test your hypothesis, and based on the results, you either continue to find ways to test it and bash at it to make sure you can't falsify it, or you need to refine it or scrap it entirely.

    And, yes, sometimes (often) the evidence has multiple interpretations, and different people work on investigating different ones of those interpretations. If you already knew which interpretation to pursue, you wouldn't need to pursue it. It means the information available is still incomplete or insufficient to distinguish among all the alternative interpretations, and what experimentalists are doing is trying to design the experiment that will provide a more definitive answer...however, sometimes that can't be done right away without building up a body of other evidence first, or learning more about the system to figure out what that experiment needs to be.

    If you want to know all the answers down to the most minute detail, you'll find yourself frustrated and dissatisfied. If you realize that your smaller contributions are helping build the larger body of knowledge to BETTER understand how things work, rather than to KNOW how things work, then you'll find experimental science a very satisfying field.

    Depending on what you do with your skepticism or distrust, you may find yourself well-suited to be an excellent experimentalist who is detailed, careful, and ensures every piece of equipment used is properly validated that when you say it is detecting something you know that's really what it's detecting...or you may find yourself completely paralyzed because you can never be satisfied things are perfect enough to do the actual experiment.

    It may also simply be that physics is too abstract for your satisfaction. You may find another branch of the sciences is more to your liking, something where the experiments are still more tangible to you.
     
  23. Sep 15, 2007 #22

    G01

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    I was thinking ice109, and I also don't know how going into mathematics is going to help you. From your point of view, how do you know that anything in mathematics is "real?"

    If you are of the belief that we will never get real answers to anything, I think you are going to find the same dilemmas in most if not all other fields as well.
     
  24. Sep 15, 2007 #23

    russ_watters

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    Isn't that the point of science? If you accept that these tools do, in fact, make good predictions(and they do), then I don't understand why you don't accept the scientific worldview.
    That statement is straightforwardly false and directly contradicts the one I quoted above.
     
  25. Sep 15, 2007 #24

    russ_watters

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    More philosophically important: does it matter? I tend to believe they are one and the same, but even if they aren't, so what? Science has still done it's job by finding an approximation that works to within our ability to measure it.
     
  26. Sep 15, 2007 #25

    russ_watters

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    Are you saying that you believe the universe does not act consistently? Science is the evidence that it does. Perform an experiment 10 times and get the same result ten times. That means the universe obeys some rule to make that happen. Whether you want to call them "a priori truths" is really an irrelevant question. Maybe God has a bunch of stone tablets where he wrote them down? Maybe the universe just always acts consistently and the only equations describing it are ones we constructed? It doesn't matter which is correct. Either way, science still works.
     
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