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The Relationship between Experience and Theoretical Physics

  1. Dec 8, 2008 #1

    dx

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    Einstein espoused in many of his essays the opinion that there is no logical and direct path from from the world of experience to a set of concepts to describe and understand/organize that experience. The concepts and ideas that we use to describe nature are free creations of the mind. For example, mass is not a property of objects, but a property of our description of our sense-experience of objects. This became very clear with the advent of the general theory of relativity, which described in a completely satisfactory way the same domain of experience (and more) with a different set of concepts than the one used by Newton in his system of mechanics.

    What is unclear to me is whether this implies that there is no uniquely natural description. For example, the primitive concepts of everyday life seem to be uniquely suited to the description of our restricted experience. These include our Euclidean geometry intuition, Galilean view of spacetime etc. Maybe if our experience was wider, evolution would have provided us with another set of concepts which are naturally suited to describe that experience. It's not hard to imagine that the wider our experience, the closer our intuitive concepts and ideas will be to some natural and unique set of concepts.

    Any thoughts?
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2008
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  3. Dec 9, 2008 #2
    We model our world based upon past experiences/sensations. And here is a catch-22. Nothing in our universe is exactly the same a moment ago. No matter how hard we try, we cannot replicate an experiment with the 100% same result. (Little devil, called chance, which spoils otherwise perfectly predictable outcome does not make any sense to me.) Consequently, our past experiences are only pointers or approximations of what we might expect in the future.

    Theoretical physicists take this model as given and play with it. Tomorrow, somebody can come up with completely different explanation or new set of data and they will be taken by surprise.

    And although theoretical physics can offer some insights about our past experiences, my impression is that it is running wild, like runaway train. Theories, like multiverse, that cannot be tested ever are offered too easily. Dimensions, mysterious dark energies etc. seem to be added only to maintain dubious creditability of previous theories and equations. Personally, I prefer good old science – looking for (observing) anomalies that will blow my theories apart. Only this can lead me to a better theory. Unfortunately, I might be in minority here.

    Kind regards,
     
  4. Dec 10, 2008 #3

    dx

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    What does any of that have to do with my original post?
     
  5. Dec 10, 2008 #4

    Math Is Hard

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    I'm not sure I am grasping the point.

    A "wider experience" seems to imply enhanced perceptual systems. It seems there's a great number of perceptual enhancements we could have received from evolution. For instance, the ability to see infrared or ultraviolet light. If we had that, I'm sure our concepts of infrared and ultraviolet light would be very different. But these abilities aren't helpful for human survival; the range of light that we can see is. What we have to work with may not be all that accurate, but it's efficient.
     
  6. Dec 11, 2008 #5

    dx

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    Thanks for the comment Math Is Hard,

    Let me give you an example to make my point clearer. Mechanics is basically the theory of motion, and we currently have two of these theories: Newton's mechanics and Einstein's mechanics. These two theories use two different conceptual frameworks, and their "Laws" are given within these conceptual frameworks. Newton's laws have an extremely simple form in Newton's framework, and Einstein's laws are simple in Einstein's framework. Yet, it is possible to use Einstein's framework to formulate Newton's laws and Newton's framework to formulate Einstein's laws. When this is done, one gets extremely ugly and complicated schemes, although completely equivalent in predictions to their original forms. So it seems like there's some kind of natural framework for any given domain of experience, within which to organize/understand that experience.

    Our intuition is basically Newton's framework, because within our domain of experience it is in some sense "simple". This leads me to speculate that if we had a sufficiently wider range of experience (whether we currently need it or not for survival is not the point, just imagine that it is), to allow us to perceive effects normally explained in the framework of general relativity, the intuition we would develop would use Einstein's framework and not Newton's, because that experience is best understood in that framework (i.e. the description is simpler). But as I said in my first post, there is no logical bridge between the world of conceptual frameworks and the world of experience. But there seems to be an "evolutionary bridge", in the sense that humans or any other objects tend to understand and organize whatever experience that they have in the most natural way possible for that restricted domain of experience (or at least approach it with time). So if we extrapolate a little, and imagine the limit where our experience extends to all possible experience, then would that provide us (through evolution) with a uniquely natural framework for the description of the universe?
     
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2008
  7. Dec 14, 2008 #6

    Math Is Hard

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    Thanks for those examples. I think in a manner of speaking this evolutionary bridge is developing through our progression of tools and technology. These effectively widen our experience. We have greater refinement in our measuring devices (letting us know things beyond what we can perceive) and more powerful methods and tools of computation, allowing detection of patterns that we otherwise could not observe. But with all these extensions, I'm not sure this makes a particular model more "intuitive". There's something else missing, and I don't think it's just access to experience.

    Just a side note: The funny thing is that for the average person, Newton's laws of motion aren't always that intuitive. People often rely on a sort of "folk physics" and come up with predictions that disagree with the laws of motion. Even when you demonstrate that their predictions were wrong, they will alter their perception to fit with their intuition (and disagree that they saw what they just saw), or claim that some kind of a trick was pulled. This has even been demonstrated on students who have passed a course in physics!

    I apologize if I completely missed your point. :redface: I was hoping some others would jump in.
     
  8. Dec 14, 2008 #7

    dx

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    You're right, our experience is being widened constantly through new tools and technology. But at our current technological level, none of the extended experience that these tools make possible is directly accessible to the mind. I think any considerable widening of our intuition, or changes in our perceptual frameworks, would require these new tools to be sufficiently integrated into our bodies so that the extended domain of experience they give access to would be a direct fact of our moment to moment experience. For example, mathematicians can study higher dimensional objects using symbols and analogies, and this, in a sense, provides us access to facts about these higher dimensional objects. But these facts are not directly experienced by us; they are arrived at in an indirect way. If, from birth, we are constantly exposed to four dimensional visualizations of 4-cubes rotating in 4-space etc. (such as can be generated by computers), it seems plausible to me that we would have a four-dimensional intuition (in the sense that we could easily generate and mentally manipulate four dimensional objects, just as we do with three dimensional objects).

    Even in our everyday visual experience, what we actually see are two dimensional projections (one for each eye) of the "actual 3D object". Our intuitive organization of our visual experience in three dimensions seems natural and "obvious". But clearly, we didn't arrive at this representation of experience by a logical analysis of 2D pictures from our eyes. It is an intuition developed through evolution. Evolution provides us with a natural framework for the description of what we see.

    Of course, I didn't mean to imply that Newton's laws are intuitive in any sense. What is intuitive is the framework in which these laws are stated. This is the framework of Euclidean geometry and Galilean spacetime. Within this framework, Newton's laws are exceedingly simple. And the domain of experience described by Newton's laws is just the experience that is directly accessible to us. If we tried to use this framework to describe general relativity effects, the law would become an ugly mess. A more natural framework for description would be needed to state the law in a simple form.
     
  9. Dec 14, 2008 #8

    Q_Goest

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    Hi dx,
    I think what you want to understand is how people might be able to create mental representations that are not limited to the set of experiences we presently have access to as humans. But the first problem is the question of how do we create mental representations of things to begin with. In short, we create mental representations using the existing set of qualia that we have access to. That set of qualia (or experiences) is not negotiable as far as we know. For example, try and imagine a new color that you've never seen before. If you can, you might be able to provide an input into your brain that stimulates that color experience. But you can't imagine a new color. People can't create experiences inside their own mind that are 'un-natural'.

    This is actually true for any mental representation. You create mental representations in your head using an existing set of qualia. To extend these mental representations, you have to extend the existing set of qualia. We don't even know how qualia are created now, let alone how to extend them and create new ones that we can experience.
     
  10. Dec 16, 2008 #9
    If I understand you correctly you are saying the axioms we hold as "self evident" would change with a change or increase in human perception and comprehension. I think that is self evident, although many would argue with me.
    Einstein's tendency to listen to his intuition can be understood in a quote of his "Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created"
    I think one of the most difficult hurdles for physics is holding on to those principles that remain valid or self evident while leaning far enough over the edge of reason to be able to grab hold of the next new principle. I don't think all principles of physics will hold indefinitely, but many people cling to them too tightly. Some so tightly they can't even see never mind reach out for any new principles waiting to be discovered.
    I think your ideas are well founded and although most of the path is still intuition, someone has to cut the trail before the road can be paved.
     
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2008
  11. Mar 12, 2009 #10

    Fra

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    Hello dx!

    I don't think I've read the original text of Einstein where he mentions that, so I can't comment on what Einstein might have meant but roughly speaking that makes sense to me, we by logical path means a deductive path. However given Einsteins known attitude towards indeterminism I would guess that he does not really mean it as I see it.

    In general I don't like the use of the word mind in these discussions because I think it gives an angle to strongly emphasising HUMAN observers.

    I like to interpret that statement in a more general sense, where it does make sense to me. It's that the structure of the world, as observed by a ANY physical system/observer is in principle emergent in the observers own "microstructure".

    To talk about "mind" here IMHO gives the totally wrong associations. To me the closest thing to mind in this context I think makes sense is Zureks statement that "what the observer knows in inseparable from what the observer is".

    In this senese the emergence of structure of our understanding of the environment is also inseparable from evolution of the observer itself.

    Consensus among observers, an emergent "objective reality" is not inconsistenct with this, because that consensus is IMO emergent along with Rovelli's Relational QM spirit that, observers compare their "images" by communication = physical interactions, thus there is a mutual pressure among observers that are likely to prouduce a consensus as a kind of local agreement. I also see this as a sort of equilibration process.

    Local agreement can happen at different levels, it doesn't mean the observers make the same observations, but it can mean that they agree to their disagreements, which in physics notions typically would mean that the symmetry transformations that restores consistenct in despite of the choice of observers is emergent from their interactions.

    I don't think there is any universally, time independent description in general. I think the description evolves along with the universe, and what science should do IMHO is to understand, is not what the universal description is, but rather how the different views one part of the system has on another, evolves together.

    I am personally on a quest for a evolvutionary perspective, also on the basis of physical law. Smolin discusses similar reasoning in the life of cosmos book, and in his cosmologicla natural selection. But I think Smolins reasoning can be generalized much more, and not just focus on black holes.

    I think the deepest insight is that this view of things, is not to surrender. On the contrary do I think it can increase our predictive power and understanding of how the universe really works.

    The idea of science as an accumulating body of universal and eternal laws are dead to me. It represents an ancient logic .)

    /Fredrik
     
  12. Mar 12, 2009 #11

    Fra

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    Ultimately I think the problem here is closely related to the philosophical problem of induction, that many has tried to attack.

    Popper IMHO totally failed to give a satisfactory solution. Popper didn't like induction, and tried to describe in as a process of hypothesis and falsification where the falsificaiton is supposedly a deductive step. But he missed at least a couple of points. One is that falsification isn't a trivial step, but this is acknowledged by himself. But what he totally ignored as it seems, is the logic of hypothesis generation. Popper dismissed that to "phsycology of scientists brains" which is a totally unacceptable relief.

    Poppers analysis is thus a kind of human-philosophy thing. I think the best physical-philosopy solution is that the solution to the infinite regress of the usual induction is the evolutionary view. This has nothing to do with human MIND, it is a more evolutionary view from start to finish... Smolins evolutionary view is definitely going in this direction, but alot is still missing.

    This means IMHO that the logic itself is evolving. There is logic! but no HARD logic, all logic is evolving, but there is a selection by evolution for consisteny, so for practical purposes there has a evolved a rigid logic, but to me there is a subtle difference in wether it's fundamental or emergent. I've expressed my personal opinon on this before but this is also the deepest meaning of "background independence". Usually it superficially refers to background spacetime, but it can easily extend to that there is no background logic, not even for the evolutionary rules. But yet, the implications of an interacting systems will IMO imply emergence of logic and structure. But it's not a deductive process, not even on probabilistic level.

    /Fredrik
     
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