HOW PHYSICS DOCTRINE MORPHS ON A TIME-SCALE OF DECADES
Henry Flynt 16 IX 2005
© Henry A. Flynt, Jr.
Acknowledgement is due to Dr. Jacques Mallah, whose information resulted in numerous corrections regarding the physical specifics in this memo. The views expressed here, as well as any factual mistakes, are the sole responsibility of the author. Some of what Dr. Mallah said in his private communications of July-August 2005 has primary-source value and appears here in attributed paraphrases. Two Scientific American articles by Max Tegmark, February 2001 and May 2003, conveniently summarize recent developments and confess the foibles (if you will); we find ourselves referring to them several times. See the References.
A. The Division of Physics into Camps
B. Twenty Questions and Clarifications Regarding Neo-Modern Physics
C. Laws of Motion of Physical Doctrine
D. Physics on Consciousness
E. Epilogue: Method
A. The Division of Physics into Camps
One important thing which the laity may not know is that physics does not enjoy a consensus. Many questions divide physicists into camps.
Three interpretations of quantum mechanics are in play, Copenhagen, many-worlds, and pilot wave. Much of the folklore of quantum mechanics, e.g. Schrödinger’s cat, issued from the Copenhagen interpretation. The folklore loses its vividness in the other interpretations, but the latter are even more counter-intuitive, which is presumably why they took so long to catch on. (We say this as an “anthropological” observation; there is no question of advocating Copenhagen.) The many-worlds interpretation (hereafter MWI) requires the world, and every observer, to split incessantly. Allowing the human individual to die in one world while living on in another, MWI annuls the identity of the self. It would seem to be the very multiplication of entities frowned on by the old empiricism. Notwithstanding, MWI now has the momentum in the profession.
Experiment got rid of the hidden variables speculation in quantum physics. Otherwise, experiment cannot decide between the interpretations. In that respect alone, physics has moved beyond the empiricist age. Also, the application of cognitive parsimony, which (as we just said) would seem to be to the disadvantage of MWI, proves to be a matter of facility with trick arguments.
Tegmark-Wheeler 2001 reports that at a gathering of ninety quantum physicists at Cambridge University in 1999, a poll found them qute divided on the interpretation of quantum mechanics. No less than fifty physicists chose “undecided.”
Tegmark-Wheeler 2001 also says that different physicists understand a given interpretation in different ways. If one reads the official expositions of Schrödinger’s cat and Wigner’s friend, relative to the Copenhagen interpretation, each exposition construes them differently. Moreover, a typical author sneeringly remarks that the other authors are popularizers who have misunderstood the experiment. There is a question for Copenhagen of whether a wavefunction can only be collapsed by a conscious (human) observation. Different Copenhagen adherents may answer this question differently.
It is necessary to dwell on Schrödinger’s cat. This is not an introduction for those who know nothing about the famous thought-experiment. We have just mentioned discrepancies in the official expositions (relative to the Copenhagen interpretation). The present author refuses to take the blame for the discrepancies. The discrepancies are in expositions we have no responsibility for; they reflect slippage in the subject-matter itself. We will give a composite impression of the material, but we cannot claim to get it right, because there may be no such thing as getting it right when every official take is different.
We find that despite the hundreds of thousands of words which must have been written on this topic, nobody has thought to make basic modifications to the experiment which would further clarify principles. Many expositions are not clear that we have a sample with a fifty per cent probability of one emission in one hour. So the run-time is one hour. The physicist looks through the observation window at t = one hour, and it is then that the cat’s state becomes a fact. So the Geiger counter ought to be attached to a timer as well as to a poison trigger. That way, there is a definite time at which the decay both did and did not happen. If the observation which collapses the wavefunction is substantially after that time, it underlies how far Copenhagen goes in denying that there is a fact of the matter prior to the moment of observation.
Why does Copenhagen say that physics cannot be about what really happens, only about human observations? Not because Bohr had a sudden attack of positivism or solipsism, although those tendencies may have conditioned the interpretation. Evidently the idea is that something happens at the quantum level which is nothing like what we see and for which we have no reasonable picture. (The wavicle is maddeningly this and that both.) Since “what really happens” doesn’t make sense, we black-box it and only attempt to systematize our observations. Bohr does not so much deny reality as take an illicit composite of the classical world and human consciousness as reality.
To arrive at Schrödinger’s cat. The point is that the cat is not a measuring device, i.e. the cat is not considered to be conscious. If the cat were considered to be conscious, it would itself collapse the wave function. (By observing that it remains alive if it does so?—it has never been spelled out precisely.) That is exactly what would happen if a human were substituted for the cat.
Since the cat is not conscious, the radium atom is in a superposition of decaying and not decaying, there is a correlation between the state of the radium atom and the Geiger counter, and there is a correlation between the state of the Geiger counter and of the cat. That leaves the cat in a superposition of alive and dead. Inconsistent descriptions of the state of a macroscopic system are possible. There is no fact of the matter whether the cat is alive or dead.
Wigner’s friend is about the observation of observation. The sealed room with the cat is inside another sealed room where Wigner’s friend is located. Wigner’s friend looks through the inner observation window. Does he collapse the wavefunction, or is there a correlation between the state of the cat and the friend’s brainstate? Does Wigner have to look through the outer observation window and observe his friend’s reaction to the state of the cat to collapse the wavefunction? Wigner asserted that the latter is absurd; we do not exist with superposed brainstates. Thus, Wigner concluded, it is precisely the first conscious observation that collapses the wavefunction. This is the source of the tenet that a conscious observer is precisely what is required for a measurement.
All the same, Wigner’s view is said to be unpopular. Again, we refuse to take the blame for the disarray. Nor are we going to spend the rest of our lives searching for the definitive exposition. We don’t want to underestimate physics; all the while, it is not our purpose to rescue physics from its own disarray.
To extract something from the disarray, Copenhagen “probably” requires a conscious observer as measuring device. But that means that the mystics who caught a ride on Copenhagen were in the right! That must have been thoroughly distasteful to some of Copenhagen’s adherents. Then they would have had to deny that the cat or any living creature could be brought to a superposition of alive and dead. Again, I disavow all responsibility for making it make sense. Any impression on the layperson’s part that physics is fiercely lucid is the product of a snow job. Physicists are typical, fallible ideologues bashing about in subject-areas which shut out the layperson and which happen to correlate to intimidating technological successes.
Science has unprecedented predictive power quantitatively. It has vastly enlarged the range of phenomena which an explanation has to explain. For all that, I repeat, scientists are typical, fallible ideologues bashing about in their specialized subject-areas. We will see how easily they discard layers of their own orthodoxy. ‘science’ is a pretentious word to which “scientists” are not entitled. Anyone who wishes to learn what I have to teach needs to assimilate these lessons.
Other divisive questions
When Copenhagen was the only orthodoxy, one talked about its implications and how well they were elucidated. But now that a competing interpretations is starting to prevail, it is possible to acknowledge, or confess, that Copenhagen is a runaround, and that misgivings were always on record somewhere. Explicit nonunitary collapse of the wavefunction is not good physics. J. M. Jauch, Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1968) from page 38, is perfectly clear that the Copenhagen interpretation doesn’t make sense. Yet in 1968, which is late (two years before Zeh publishes decoherence), Jauch is not ready to bail out.
Tegmark-Wheeler 2001 make an observation important for our argument. They note that the quantum textbooks early on list Copenhagen’s explicit nonunitary collapse as a fundamental postulate. They say that this threw generations of students into confusion.
So we can underline what we began to say earlier about the pretension of physics to scientificity. Physics has intimidating technological successes, long since embedded in pervasive institutions, and physics has immense institutional momentum as a result. For all that, the custom of being triumphal about the state of physics as an intellectual endeavor is unwarranted. Just now, they admit that for the last many decades, students have been browbeaten with a runaround. “Shut up and calculate,” the students were told.
Just now we are told, “MWI has arrived to save the day, now all is right and good.” I don’t have to endorse that. I propose, for reasons to be spelled out below, that just as a previous layer of orthodoxy has been jettisoned, a present layer will be jettisoned by 2025 or 2035.
Interpretation of quantum mechanics is only one of the questions that divides physics into camps. As physics is presented to the laity, wormholes are frequently presented as an oddity turned up by physics, like black holes. (The technical term for them is Einstein-Rosen bridges.) But their reality is far from universally accepted.
The big crunch is another oddity which only a minority take seriously. That is why it is quite risky for a thinker who is only an amateur of physics to base a new round of speculation on a just-announced catchy idea. It is catchy that the big bang would have a big crunch as its mirror image, but if the universe is supposed to restart from the big crunch, that may not be good physics.
Professional preference has swung to the view that the universe is infinite in extent. That means that the infinitely dense universe “at the beginning” was also infinite in extent. Nevertheless, this spatially infinite universe expands. (What expands is a separation factor.) For all that, the finite convex universe may not have lost all its adherents.
Physicists who think that physics must take a position on human mentation differ as to whether human consciousness is a computer—and find themselves entangled in Anglophone academic philosophy’s treatment of consciousness and the self.
Multiple universe speculation doesn’t only mean MWI. We are guided on this topic by Tegmark 2003. Evidently there is a silent majority of physicists that doesn’t want to believe in time travel and that doesn’t want to believe in one or another of the multiple universe speculations.
There are also individual theories which receive a great deal of publicity which the audience of physicists doesn’t necessarily endorse. Paul Steinhardt’s cyclic universe, for example.
The point is that famous junctures in modern physics—from Schrödinger’s cat to time travel to the career of the physical totality (universe?)—look quite different to those in different camps. These junctures have no consensus implications.
One can ask: what is so well-established that if you don’t believe it, you are a crackpot? That is a special question with a selective answer. For example, there was a Big Bang in the sense that the region of the universe we can see (the Hubble volume) used to be far smaller and hotter than it is now. You are a crackpot if you don’t believe in that. (But see below.)
One reason why different interpretations are in play is that, as we already intimated, physics has simply outgrown positivism and falsifiability. (Mallah becomes quite clear on that.) No matter how clear it becomes that Copenhagen is bad physics, it cannot be removed by experiment. (Except that some sources say it has been!)
We make issues of points on which different physicists have different views. Thus, some physicists can dismiss our points by saying “that doesn’t affect me.” But if there are celebrated physicists who are committed to the positions at issue, that is enough.
The division of physics into camps is quite bad news in the perspective of the laity. As the laity understands scientificity, it is not science if every scientist believes something different about the subject-matter.
B. Twenty Questions and Clarifications Regarding Neo-Modern Physics
1. For decades we were told that relativity meant finite convex space. E.g. the universe is a balloon with patches (galaxies) which is being blown up. (In the analogy, the universe is the balloon, the spherical surface—not the gas interior!) They said that because the Lemaitre model won out after opposition, after the cosmic red shift was discovered. Since this is ancient history, one has to cite chapter and verse:
Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (orig. 1916, many editions; English 1961), page 109 QC6.E5
The Universe and Dr. Einstein (1948), page 93 QC6.B33
George Gamow, One Two Three … Infinity (orig. 1947) Q162.G23 pages 294-6. Leaves it undecided whether the universe is finite or infinite, but he devotes his explanation to the “finite unbounded” case.
In short, it was drummed into us that finite convex space is the solution that matters.
What are we to make of that historical period, now that finite convex space has been pronounced stupid? (What Eddington believed, pre-Lemaitre, is vindicated.) It is even arguable that the closed universe is bad physics (denies time a preferred direction).
2. If the universe is expanding anyway, why has the cosmological constant (whose purpose was to guarantee homogeneous isotropic solutions to relativity) been retained?
Well, as of the year 1990, the CC had been discarded:
“when it was realized that the universe was expanding and that there were solutions without the cosmological term that fit the current observations, the motivation for inclusion of this term disappeared and it is now not usually included” page 598 of Encyclopedia of Modern Physics, ed. Meyers (1990).
Subsequent to 1990 the empirical evidence showed that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. So the cosmological constant was brought back.
3. Has the universe been recently conceded to be anisotropic, on the basis of empirical evidence? The claim that the universe has a “top-to-bottom” axis around which radio waves rotate. Nodland and Ralston in Physical Review Letters, 21 April 1997. Einstein wanted the universe to be isotropic.
4. Clarification. (Abstracting from whether the Big Bang applies only to our Hubble volume) There are two versions of the Big Bang, finite universe and infinite universe. If the universe is infinite now, it was infinite at the outset. Otherwise it is finite and began as a point. In both cases, It began infinitely dense. Either an infinitely dense point or an infinitely dense infinity. What expands in either case is distances between things. (There is a scale factor to which distances between things is proportional, and the scale factor goes from zero to postive finite.)
The infinitely dense point is in classical GR. I find it striking because in classical mechanics, such infinities are regarded as highly distasteful.
5. Was there a Big Bang? The expositions are very casual about whether the Big Bang is the whole shebang, or is only a local event, or didn’t happen.
Let us make the alternatives explicit. Is the Big Bang the inception of Being, or only of our Hubble volume? No uniform answer. The authors don’t much care what the reader infers on this score.
Mallah says that everybody agrees that our Hubble volume was formerly far smaller in extent, and hotter, than it is now.
OK, (i) how does this far smaller universe square with the spatially infinite initial universe? (ii) It is not clear how the Hubble volume concept works at the universe’s beginning. [to make internal divisions of “all that expands”]
The notorious (?) Paul Steinhardt denies that “the very early universe” (our Hubble volume?) was the inception of Being. In fact he now says that the Big Bang was a collision of two universes. (Rockefeller University, 10 May 2005.)
[Caution: Paul Steinhardt has the most often misspelled name I have ever seen.]
6. Has the Big Crunch (EVERYTHING has a single end at some future time) been disavowed? Steinhardt and a few others: NO. The “mainstream”: YES. That leaves an always infinite universe whose scale factor grows forever, sometimes frantically. That seems thoroughly asymmetrical, rather Faustian, actually.
7. Tegmark 2003 on chaotic inflation, the multiverse, and “bubbles.” Tegmark makes the multiverse’s spatial extention sound like you take an infinite line and paste another infinite line on “the end” of the first, etc. etc. Is it supposed to be like a collinear sequence of Euclidian lines? There is no such thing.
8. For decades the Copenhagen interpretation was orthodoxy, and top scientists racked their brains over the collapse of the wavefunction. Now, Copenhagen has been pronounced stupid. What does it tell us, that the top scientists made such a mistake for so long?
Let us note that Dictionary of Physics (2004), vol. 4, page 1867 “still” calls MWI one of the most controversial interperetations of quantum-mechanical formalism. MWI, the Dictionary says, is criticized as an interpretation that itself requires an interpretation.
Laymen do not realize that physics keeps a theory in play when it has major credibility problems. And that physicists cannot agree what has a major credibility problem.
9. The term wavicle appeared in early popularizations of quantum physics. I assume it referred to the original theoretical picture of the electron etc.—not to the double slit experiment etc. which motivated the picture. The wavicle = “the Copenhagen electron”? Some authors would have avowed as late as the Nineties [Dick Hoekzema] that the wavicle was still maddening. In Tegmark 2003, the wavicle is being treated as an experimental datum that demands belief in branching universes. Instead of being “dissolved” into something “sensible,” the wavicle becomes the pillar on which the “controversial” interpretation rests.
Maybe my point is subtle, but it is that an interpretation becomes so customary that it becomes a fact; it is treated as an experimental datum on which further speculation can be founded. I make an issue of it because the development of physics is like climbing a tree. They’re stuck in the tree; they can’t climb back down.
10. Clarification. Once MWI came to the forefront, decoherence became an important part of the story. Quantum mechanics allows mixtures of mutually exclusive physical states, resulting in the well-known interference effects on the microscopic level. There are thought experiments which magnify mixed states, or superpositions, to the macroscopic level. In Copenhagen, we don’t see superpositions because the human observation collapses the wavefunction. In MWI, we don’t see them because the slightest disturbance from “the environment” “kills” the mixed states, and each classical state survives in a separate world along with the human observer. Decoherence is like an assault on the states, killing the mixed states. [Decoherence makes the branches, worlds, independent of each other, and so, approximately, substitutes for wavefunction collapse.] It was “discovered” not in the laboratory, but as an implication of the Schrödinger equation, by Zeh in 1970.
For all that, plenty of physicists regard collapse of the wavefunction as a real process which is not yet explained.
11. Clarification. Tegmark’s 2003 exposition of the many-worlds interpretation. It begins with a wavefunction for one “world,” then introduces the concept of branching worlds. It is extremely misleading because it suggests that the many-worlds totality is a surveyable tree graphically—even suggests that “now” is the tree’s vertex. Surely there is “always” an infinity of worlds.
For all that, we are told that the number of worlds does increase, continually. (What, ordinally?—surely not cardinally.) [More technically, the wavefunction spreads out in configuration space in a clumpy way, and the clumps are the worlds.]
If Tegmark started with one world so that the reader can identify with the situation, it is a disaster as far as giving a realistic idea of what MWI says.
12. Let us ask one last question before we bar the Copenhagen interpretation forever. Given the Copenhagen interpretation. How about Schrödinger’s roulette? Substitute the physicist for the cat. It can be more like revolver roulette if the probability of decay is one in six. The physicist is under general anesthesia for the critical hour, then is awakened by a timer on the IV, identically collapsing the wave function in an unpredictable way. Either he is instantly dead because he observes that he is dead—or he has instantly rescued himself from a twilight existence.
Let the physicist be kept under anesthesia for one hour after the Geiger counter apparatus is automatically inactivated. Then let him be awakened by timer. Now he establishes that he has been dead for one hour by observing that he is dead.
Physics won’t be able to exclude ghosts from its ontology.
The “out” that the physicist collapsed the wavefunction at the moment of decay, during unconsciousness, does not deserve a reply.
[[It will not do to say that the physicist collapsed the wavefunction while he was unconscious. If one believes that, then the cat collapsed the wavefunction and there never was any cat superposition.]]
There is already a different suicide physics in connection with Schrödinger’s cat and MWI. The notion is that a lethal quantum event always produces a branch in which a copy of oneself survives. So somebody built a suicide machine to try it. He didn’t consummate the experiment.
13. Speaking of Hubble volumes, Tegmark says that (at the quantum level) there are 10^10^118 of them with temperatures below 10^8 kelvins. That seems to imply that they are culled from a finite set of Hubble volumes. Otherwise the Hubble volumes with “low enough” temperatures are zero per cent of the total, a.k.a. infinitely rare. Is that exactly what Tegmark is saying?
14. Expansion of the universe (‘universe’?): is it being accounted for separately by the cosmological constant and by quantum mechanics? What became of the cosmological constant discrepancy as between observation and quantum physics?
The reference is Dictionary of Physics (2004), vol. 1, page 474! The dictionary presents is as a major “unsolved problem.”
It should be called a disproof of the master theories. But physicists don’t use that sort of language, hoping that somebody will find a way to dance around the discrepancy.
15. Has quantum gravity been solved to the general satisfaction? NO.
16. Regarding the well-worn Einstein twins paradox. We are told that the apparent slowing of one clock relative to the other is mutual. There is a case in which the returning twin is younger than the one who stayed put; evidently that depends on the travelling twin reversing direction. However:
i. In a closed finite universe, it seems that one twin would be able to travel and return to the other twin’s “fixed” location without making an about-face.
ii. Special relativity propounds that human consciousness ages at the same rate as the body’s physiological processes. That is crucial, because it commits special relativity to the recognition of irreversible processes like aging and deterioration. Is the claim that both twins age identically? What if the traveling twin travels as in (i)? If one twin ages more than the other, it can’t be mutual.
17. How many cases are now recognized which qualify the light-speed limit? We can mention three.
—quantum mechanics, the EPR effect.
—bubble separation in the expansion of the chaotically inflationary multiverse.
These two are said not to count; in them nothing travels faster than light.
—Einstein-Rosen bridges (wormholes). Apparently that does belie the light-speed limit. But some physicists don’t believe in wormholes.
I don’t like fundamental axioms which have a long list of important exceptions (even if the exceptions can be depreciated).
18. Multiple universes have been widely espoused to get rid of ontological asymmetry. So it’s no longer necessary to worry about the latter?
Isn’t the underlying motive for removing ontological asymmetry that the latter has intimations of intelligent design? (“the multiverse hypothesis … invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, “Finding Design in Nature,” NYT 7 July 2005)
Then a Hegelian irony arises. Multiple universes are correlative to an extreme Platonic absolutism regarding mathematics: the perceptible world is only a flawed copy of an ideal world, and there are an infinity of ideal worlds. What is the value of getting rid of God by switching in Platonic absolutism? Who supplied the definition of God.
19. To understand this question we have to be clear that there are other multiple universe theories besides MWI—and even that Tegmark says that MWI has been obviated by other multiple universe theories.
Are time travel and multiple universes being foregrounded in the popularizations because the science fiction constituency wants them to be true? Is reality a popularity contest? Is there is a silent majority in the profession which doesn’t want to believe these things, and doesn’t want to believe in negative kinetic energy? YES.
20. What happened to empirical testability in this subject-matter?
Experiments which compel revisions in the theoretical picture are being performed all the time. All the same, speculation more and more outruns testability. Trick arguments are used which undercut the autonomy of the “court of experiment.”
If many-worlds is adopted to repel Creationism—if that’s the empirical test—why wouldn’t physics adopt Creationism to repel many-worlds? It’s not an empirical test; it’s ideological pre-selection.
Jacques Mallah propounds explicitly, and at length, that falsifiability is overrated: even that falsifiability doesn’t exist, and that falsifiability would impose intolerable strictures on us. Mallah accepts a theory as testable if the test can be performed a million years from now.
Beyond all that, a given theory is not put to a once-for-all test. The theory comes up short and is then doctored. This is obscured by the triumphal way physics is presented.
C. Laws of Motion of Physical Doctrine
From time to time, I produce a review of the state of play at the high end of physics, where physics does not mind being perceived as crazy. (The Wheeler end, if you will.) Two of my last exercises of this nature were “The Disintegration of Possibility” and “Quantum Chromodynamics as of 1992.”
Obviously I am going to base my assessments on what the publicism presents as the latest truth. (I am not a physicist—never mind my “idea for an idea” about <relativity of the vacuum> in the late Eighties, never mind Schrödinger roulette.) But then my assements become dated, they become inoperative to a certain extent. That is because whatever the latest truth is, it is sure to have been severely revised in twenty or thirty years. I could conclude that it is hopeless, that I will always be caught fighting the last war.
But let us not be so quick to conclude that there is nothing to be learned here. Physicists are absolutists. They announce that they have arrived at the final and ultimate truth, or are just one step short of it. (The Dream of a Final Theory.) And yet: if you believe what they say at any one point in time, they will deride you a few decades later for having believed that. The candor of Tegmark-Wheeler about Copenhagen is untypical. It is more typical for them to “forget” that they once taught what you believed.
There is an opportunity here to discern laws of motion of physical doctrine.
0. There is an assumption which has been internalized to the point that physicists do not realize that it is an assumption. In the middle ages, scholarship presented proposed answers in the format of debates. It was the immensely influential Francis Bacon who got that practice abolished. Bacon said that giving equal time to opposing theories and to objections slowed progress. He introduced the convention that the best available explanation, no matter how inadequate, must be presented in scientific expositions as the truth. Only when the professional consensus is ready to change should the existence of a contending theory be admitted. So it was that Copenhagen was propped up for decades.
1. The icons which initiated modern physics do not change. We call them the Master Theories. The doctrinal changes which concern us here come about because the Master Theories get massaged and retouched to throw up interpretations which revoke previous interpretations.
The lay reader needs to be told that Einstein did not deliver a dispensation which was simply unassailable. That he basically had no use for quantum mechanics suffices to make that point. In addition, Einstein’s successive formulations came up short on various points, and were doctored, in recovery attempts. Einstein made a famous mistake regarding clocks at the equator (which was dealt with in general relativity). The cosmological constant has been in and out of relativity several times. If I understand correctly, Einstein favored the hidden variables bail-out of quantum mechanics; it has been discredited by experiment. The light-speed limit really does have to be qualified in several distinct cases [especially if one believes in Einstein-Rosen bridges].
These “problems” are not considered to demand the disavowal of general relativity.
There is no once-for-all judgment of a physical theory. If it is popular, then it may be doctored endlessly as it keeps coming up short. The profession, in its publicism, simply uses concealment to handle this embarrassment, if you will.
Thus, again, there is a layer of modern physics which is nominally preserved come what may: the Master Theories. (For that matter, classical physics is, in an important sense, retained. All of modern physics is an emendation to classical physics. Even though classical physics has been discredited as absolute truth, there is no interest in starting over. The way the discipline was configured by the classics has been an enduring feature.)
But if physics takes its final stand on relativity and quantum mechanics, why are they so resistant to reconciliation? Couldn’t that mean that both were ill-conceived?
In other words, it is not that the Master Theories are fixed targets and are unassailable. On the contrary, the very division of the creed into two doctrines, relativity and quantum mechanics, which have been extremely resistant to unification is blatant evidence that the “science” is makeshift.
[Gary Horowitz, 1999: “We have two wildly successful theories that have defined 20th-century physics. These theories are fundamentally incomplete and inconsistent with each other …” Roger Penrose said that each theory had internal problems, the strange singularities that form in general relativity, and the unmanageable infinites that crop up in quantum mechanics.]
All the while, physicists proceed as if it was God who dictated that it must be relativity and it must be quantum mechanics—just these two inadequate theories and no others—and who gave humans the assignment of jamming them together.
We refer back to B.14.
Is expansion of the universe (‘universe’?) being accounted for separately by the cosmological constant and by quantum mechanics? What became of the cosmological constant discrepancy as between observation and quantum physics? Dictionary of Physics (2004), vol. 1, page 474. The dictionary presents is as a major “unsolved problem.” It should be called a disproof of the master theories. But physicists don’t use that sort of language, hoping that somebody will find a way to dance around the discrepancy.
But a way can be found to dance around anything. As we should have learned from Hegel, if not from much earlier sources, doctrine is unstable enough that not only can any discrepancy be jived away, not only can any two doctrines be united; doctrine will throw up new discrepancies after you are finished fixing it. The theory is not really being put to the test, since the response to falsification of the theory is to doctor the theory. Given that physics is presented triumphally, I suspect that the well-educated layman doesn’t know about all the doctoring that isn’t called doctoring.
The immovability of relativity and quantum mechanics is not good news, it is bad news. At a certain level, physics cannot bail out. it is hostage to its history. As we see with relativity in particular and with the relation between relativity and quantum mechanics, it will undergo a series of fixes and outright concealments rather than being reconsidered.
2. Incredibly, scientific method changes faster than the Master Theories. In the course of the twentieth century, testability or falsifiability requirements were dropped. Physicists are more and more willing to posit unobservable realms to explain what we see. Physics, which we were told is the nemesis of metaphysics, has converged with metaphysics. As well, more and more unknowable knowledge is posited.
Max Tegmark offers, as empirical tests, considerations which hardly count as empirical tests. Multiple universes have to be espoused to obviate the extreme specialness of the universe we find ourselves in (the fine-tuning at the creation). Then the same argument is presented in another guise. Are multiple universes an excessive theory, guilty of multiplying entities? No, because the notion of a parsimonious theory is suddenly reinterpreted via complexity theory. Multiple universes require a shorter algorithm for their specification than a single extremely special case does. So multiple universes win the cognitive parsimony contest.
Latter-day physicists are discovering the loopholes in logical positivism, and rushing through those loopholes. To the insightful, it was always obvious. If positivism was to be generous enough to science to allow science to do anything it wanted, it would have to allow the unobservable, the untestable, the unknowable, because they comprise science’s only possible destination. That is why we have to be clear about the difference between nuts-and-bolts and the high end. At the nuts-and-bolts level, scientists are always congratulating themselves on how much they have just now learned. At the high end, science will not be satisfied until the unknowable is unimaginably greater than the knowable. The consummation of positivism is: our infinite ignorance of the unobservable.
Neo-modern physics becomes increasingly grandiose, increasingly willing to take the counter-intuitive plunge. Time travel’s grandfather paradox, levels and levels of multiple universes, etc. are embraced.
The doctrine has talked so long that it has talked itself into reversing its posture. It is another victory for Hegel, if anyone is interested in how insightful he was.
3. At the level of interpretations, the truth changes beyond recognition every twenty or thirty years. It is not that all physicists change their minds at the same time. Rather, what is popular changes. We were told that relativity meant finite convex space; now that is out the window. We were told that light speed was the limiting speed of propagation; now there are numerous qualifications. We were told that EVERYTHING came from a Big Bang in finite past time. That simple pronouncement, which had Wheeler and others wringing their hands in public, has either been discarded or been dissolved in vagueness. We were promised a Big Crunch; now the dominant group disavows it altogether, leaving a universe which frantically expands forever. Generations of quantum physicists racked their brains over the collapse of the wave function; now we are told there is no such thing. Everett’s many worlds, which for decades was hidden in the closet, is now the preferred interpretation of quantum mechanics.
It is important to understand how physicists look back at yesteryear’s interpretations, the ones they have discarded. They do not respect them as if they were steps on a ladder, understandable mistakes. That is to say, they do not accord them the respect of classical physics. Rather, they disavow professional responsibility for them. They intimate that those who believed in finite convex space, or the light-speed limit, or the Big Bang, or wave function collapse were unprofessional fools. Today’s physicists typically “forget” their responsibility for putting yesteryear’s theories in play. Writings of mine which assumed that “the” Big Bang was a doctrine of the profession would today be dismissed with a sneer, as if “the” Big Bang were rubbish cooked up by cranky laymen.
One view of doctrinal formation is the following. New evidence is continually being turned up; the interpretative revolutions are physics’ way of reconciling new evidence with the Master Theories. But that is not an adequate appraisal. The scientific culture demands veneration of the Master Theories, and at the same time demands a stream of new sensations. Personal aggrandizement is welcomed and rewarded. There is a culture which has become the reverse of the vernacular culture: in that the counter-intuitive is lionized. In that respect, physics is like modern art. It is also like modern art in always needing a new sensation.
[Einstein, commenting on Schrödinger’s claimed unification of general relativity with field theory in 1947. “From such episodes, the reader gets the impression that every five minutes there is a revolution in science, somewhat like the coups d’état in some of the smaller unstable republics.” Not every five minutes, every twenty years.]
I am very much against analogizing a thing to something unsavory in order to taint the thing. Having said that, sometimes an analogy can break us loose from our subservience. I might compare physics to early twentieth-century Protestant theology or late twentieth-century Catholic theology. There is a tradition which must be affirmed; in that sense, it is rigid. At the same time, sensational reinterpretations associated with celebrity theologians are welcomed by the publicity machine, if not the churches. Let us spell it out a little more. The modern world places the Christian faith under pressure continuously. There is always something new coming from the outside which threatens to expose the faith as a cultural anachronism. At the same time, Christian theology students are egoic, remarkably so. Perhaps the point is that their home culture is also European, even if Christianity’s legendary origin was in West Asia. The unruliness of a certain number of theology students is almost guaranteed. But that is not the whole story. What completes the picture is that this or that upstart is lionized and that journalism, and the “sophisticated” flock, demand new sensations.
A science writer who published a review of physical science in the latter part of the twentieth century treated physicists as if they were trendy theologians. John Horgan, The End of Science (1996).
The analogy breaks down in that Christendom is clearly divided between a doctrinal authority and the upstarts. In physics, there is no Vatican to perpetuate the old. Everything proceeds by peer review.
So, change in physics is not simply a reflection of more probing experiments. And change is never a matter of taking the last step to absolute truth (although physicists make any number of declarations that it is). Physicists are locked into a paradigm which includes Newton, Einstein, and Schrödinger. With that given, they are going to take new evidence as an opportunity to create a sensation. The institutional enclosure is rigid, but within it, egos run riot, announcing a new flavor every time you turn around. They are going to find a way to create a sensation or a faction with their name on it.
There seems to be another pressure in play: from the public and its taste for science-fiction. Seemingly, there is a professional literature on violations of the light-speed limit and time travel because a popular constituency demands these marvels. In turn, the popularizations foreground multiple universes and violations of the light-speed limit and time travel to catch the public’s attention. As the journalists say, most physicists don’t want time travel and don’t want negative kinetic energy.
Thus, yesteryear’s axiomatic tenets are thrown off the train. Finite convex space, the light-speed limit, the collapse of the wave function, “the” Big Bang, etc. etc.
4. Another law of motion. Wigner is celebrated for remarking in a 1959 lecture on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in physics. (Now they try to obviate this sort of specialness by positing that all mathematical structures are realized outside of time and space, usually without observers.) To Wigner’s aphorism, we add an aphorism which seems original with us. The latest thing in mathematics becomes just what is needed to finally explain the physical world: fifty years later. The God who started out as a geometer became a real analyst (in the mathematical jargon), then a matrix algebraist, then a group theorist, then a topologist, etc. So: a fifty-year lag as between mathematical fashion and physical fashion. (Mathematics warm off the griddle.) Once the new mathematics is in the textbooks and is being taught routinely, Nature revises itself to need just that mathematics for its perfect portrait.
There is a qualification to this law. Sometimes an idea which has been available in mathematics for fifty years suddenly attracts research because of the prospect of applying it. That is what the calculus was, presumably. (We now know that much of the integral calculus had been anticipated by Archimedes in the lost manuscript on method.) Fractional dimensions was another example. It got hot just when it was time to apply it.
5. Amazingly, if you will, physicists still subscribe to an old-fashioned absolutist epistemology. Platonism is the preferred philosophy of mathematics. (Cf. Max Tegmark.) “Physics is concerned with the absolute, eternal truth, and we have reached it, or are always about to reach it.” Never has the abolutism been more evident.
We have observed here that physics careens along like contemporary Christian theology. But the publicism of physics is intricately crafted, using all the best propaganda techniques, to deny that—to shape the developments via concealment [amnesia] and triumphalism [self-congratulation] so that the suspicion of faddishness does not arise.
Steven Weinberg, Dream of the Final Theory
Sheldon Glashow, New York Times, 10/22/1989
Alan Lightman, New York Times, 5/9/2000
Brian Greene (Columbia University) at the World Economic Forum, January 2001. Absolutist and triumphalist both.
We may conclude that a few decades from now, physicists will still pay tribute to the Master Theories—just as the Pope will still claim to be Christian. However, most of the current sensations will be disdained as if they had come from cranky laymen. They will be disdained to the point that tomorrow’s physicists will “forget” that the profession was responsible for them. And thirty years after that, there will be another sweep. And thirty years after that, another sweep. All the while, they will assert that they have arrived at the absolute truth, or are just one step short of it. All the while, the mathematics which is new today will prove to be just what is needed to describe Nature in the next round, or the next round after that.
That is a diachronic prospect. Actually, we don’t even have to proceed to a diachronic prospect. If the story is written properly, there is no consensus at a given time. There is synchronic mutual condecension. There is a lot of it and it cannot be dispelled by an experiment.
Our diachronic prospect does not predict what physics will do between 2005 and 2035. In fact, we are writing this because the directions physics has taken have surprised us. The way the cosmological constant has been in and out: we were not hands-on enough to anticipate that. As with Catholic theology, there is nothing about physics that gratifies us. It is an institutional ideological negotiation. We pay attention to it just to substantiate that judgment.
Even though we cannot guess the next sensation, we may be able to see the channel in which physics flows. We can identify the “intellectual forces” which shape what physics will do next. Our undergraduate classroom instruction said that early modern physics was prompted by routine experiments which had unexpected and startling oucomes. In fact, the history of early modern physics was almost a history of famous experiments which devastated classical physics. What the relativity and quantum physicists did was to reconstitute the received mathematical apparatus to fit these outcomes, upgrading the apparatus with the last generation’s “new” mathematics.
Are there considerations far beyond individual ambition which condition the novelties? There must be. The computer explosion is widely reflected in the new proposals, both proposals that are accepted and proposals that aren’t.
We noted that time travel and multiple universes get too much attention, evidently, because a lay constituency wants them to be true. Then, “multiple universes” seems to find its strongest motivation in the menace posed by “intelligent design.” But “multiple universes” is correlative to the comeback of Platonism, the senescent philosophy of mathematics.
Any project of predicting the course of dominent theories faces complications. Passé factions can suddenly rise again. What is more, the proposals unscrupulously mix from different factions. The latest Platonists (Tegmark; Rudy Rucker San Jose State University???) may also believe in discrete reality, whereas Platonism was originally the faction of adherents of continuity.
Let me return to the suspicion that physicists are choosing interpretations on no other basis than to lock God out. One would imagine that physicists are raving atheists. But this is another matter on which I can supply insight about an ideological nuance. Physicists often publish on “human affairs.” What they say gets little attention. That applies most of all to Einstein, but it applies to plenty of others, such as Weinberg and Witten. Einstein may have vaguely had a reputation as a diluted theist. Weinberg has a public role as an “atheist.” But wait—when I review their forgotten or buried pronouncements on human affairs, I do not find atheism.
Bertrand Russell and Weinberg may not have (had) the insight to characterize themselves theologically. They may not have understood that there are carry-overs in their pronouncements which are theistic or supernatural. The lesson is much more graphic in other cases. When it comes to ideologies, consistency is not the slightest consideration. People mix and match according to their interests. (All the while, they may not articulate their interests; they may not even have the insight to do so.) Any endeavor to predict the course of a dominant ideology has to take this into account.
Civilizations get locked into characteristic follies. When they do, they cannot correct them (although individuals appear who either sense that there is a fatal flaw or who anticipate an alternative paradigm). Civilizations stagnate and are then overrun because of their follies. So it was with Rome, Byzantium, China, Islam. Another case of a system suddenly put on the defensive: Catholic Europe at the inception of the modern era. Catholicism did pay the price for Bruno, Vanini, Galileo, etc. etc. But even when a civilization is bested, the corresponding population and tradition do not necessarily disappear. Ancient Egypt is only a relic. Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam and their population bases, however, remain extant. They have lost in the sense that control has passed to outsiders; the “people” in question must leech off of the ideas of outsiders in order to survive. Tradition ends by disabling its adherents rather than nurturing them.
Science is a civilization thing. Measured against what positivism promised, it is a folly increasingly—and the folly cannot be outgrown from inside. “The West’s knowledge” is ripe for defeat—what is lacking is a challenge that is not mere regression and obscurantism.
D. Physics on Consciousness
So far we have taken a diachronic view of physics. Now we proceed to a long aside. The ontology of physics does not recognize linguistic meaning (comprehended meanings), consciousness, or choice-making. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of physical pronouncements on consciousness and choice-making, as physicists illicitly try to align these phenomena with the reigning theories.
[They pontificate about phenomena which are too unsavory to admit to the ontology.]
It is an unavoidable by-product of the counter-intuitive character of modern physics. Consciousness is rendered so radically irrelevant that a way has to be found to re-insert it to placate common sense. Already in special relativity, all moments of time were said to exist together. “Our consciousness is what moves; it extends itself along our body’s world-line. Our experience of the flow of time, our sequential perception of the instants of time, must be an illusion produced by our inferior nervous system.”
Thereafter, this field of endeavor, which, again, does not have consciousness and choice-making in its ontology, has made more and more inferences regarding these topics.
In fact, there are two perspectives on the state of play. First, that physics draws inferences about consciousness, whether those inferences are provocative or not. Secondly, that physics draws provocative inferences.
To extract the most lessons from the developments, we should start with some observations about consciousness and the person which have lately cropped up in analytic philosophy.
1. Searle’s Chinese room is a slightly elaborate thought experiment in which somebody takes questions in Chinese and returns answers on the basis of coaching in which the meanings of the characters are never mentioned. It would prove the mentalistic character of linguistic meaning. [I find it hard to believe that somebody could “converse” or “correspond” so well in Chinese on the basis of syntactic or formal coaching alone.] It asks a human to do what a computer does. Searle says that so used, he would not suppose that he understood the Chinese.
2. When we sleep dreamlessly, the self as empirical consciousness vanishes. it reappears upon awaking. That leads materialists to conclude that it is epiphenomenal, like the light from a light bulb. In particular, a light bulb, unlighted, can be ready to light at the flick of a switch; it can also be burned out.
One author concludes, when we sleep dreamlessly, the self exists outside of time. If you believe that there is an actually existing something which exits time and re-enters it periodically, that is a challenge to physics. On the other hand, this author, presumably being a physical objectivist, can hardly say that time in general or time as such stops while one is asleep.
A contrary view. If the self consists in persistence of the organism’s basis of empirical consciousness, as well as persistence of subsurface mentation (which happens to erupt in dreaming), then the self is on the clock even during dreamless sleep.
3. Suppose there is total amnesia of episodic memory which however allows “the individual” to continue to function in a human way. (Native language, arithmetic, etc. are not forgotten.) Certain academic authors say that the one body is inhabited by “a” person continuously, although identity has been derailed. They say it explicitly: The amnesiac possesses personhood continuously, but with a second identity.
4. Certain authors reason as follows. Suppose that a brain transplant could be effected. Then a given person would continue to live, but in another body. That proves that the person goes wherever the functioning brain goes. Then, they say, if the brain ceases to function, the person is extinct. “Death” is the null case of a brain transplant, they say.
5. About death. We should never say that a person dies. A person has no corpse. We should say that the person vanishes. If physics included consciousness in its ontology, would the vanishing of the person be a violation of conservation, or would it more challenge conservation than the burning out of a light bulb?
6. Suppose there is non-traumatic cessation of consciousness (sleep, general amnesia, even fainting). Now suppose there is a trauma to the brain, during unconsciousness, such that the brain is killed. (Brain surgery gone bad.)
The person vanishes when the brain is killed, not at the commencement of unconsciousness, even though the person has been continuously inoperative from the moment unconsciousness commenced.
According to that one author, from the moment unconsciousness commenced, the self had exited time. Therefore, the self was outside time at the time that it vanished.
7. Those who imagine the above cases are mostly trying to buttress materialism. Potential for consciousness is what determines that a person exists—but that formulation is not sharp enough. Better: It is the organic substrate, the brain—not the psychological states it produces—which is determinative of the person.
8. But now, one researcher has claimed a demonstration which proves that brain and mind are not the same.
V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego devised a method to treat a patient with a paralyzed phantom limb, i.e. a phantom limb which felt paralyzed. The mirror arrangement convinced the patient that he was looking at his phantom arm when he was actually looking at his good arm. The patient was told to relax his hand and open it. The paralyzed feeling disappeared.
How should this case be interpreted? The BRAIN tricked itself into believing something. Or, the brain did one thing—and the mind thought another.
Now we are ready to look at pronouncements of physicists.
a. The psychological arrow of time is defined as our subjective sense of time, the fact that we remember events in one direction of time but not the other. This arrow can be shown to be a consequence of the principle that entropy is increasing in one direction of time. (Thermodynamic arrow.) But see (c).
b. Special relativity propounds that human consciousness ages at the same rate as the body’s physiological processes. (Source available.) That is crucial, because it commits special relativity to the recognition of irreversible processes like aging and deterioration.
And yet one author tells us that the self exits time during dreamless sleep. If all of one’s dreamless sleep is subtracted from one’s age, the figure is markedly smaller.
c. Special relativity propounds that all moments of time exist together. There is no flow of time or privileged direction of time. Our consciousness is what moves; it extends itself along our body’s world-line. (But what about dreamless sleep?) Our experience of the flow of time, our sequential perception of the instants of time, must be an illusion produced by our underdeveloped nervous system. We do not remember the future in addition to the past because of an organic impairment (or because of some secondary physical consideration). (Source available.) But in (a) above, memory’s orientation was said to be due to entropy.
Moreover: Quantum mechanics now has it that all possible states (branches?) exist at every instant. The passage of time is in the eye of the beholder. Julian Barbour, The End of Time (2000). But now time’s illusory passage comes from transiting between branches? [Mallah: there can be no communication or travel between branches.]
d. Copenhagen says that reality is constituted by human observations of observables. Wigner’s friend and delayed choice are the decisive considerations.
e. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is hypothecated to be connected to free will. (Visser; Friedman et al. in Physical Review D, 42:1928.) What we call choice-making is a quantum effect in the human brain that splits the entire universe. Both of the alternatives faced by the choice-maker are realized. Is this the same as Barbour’s notion in (c), or does this notion make the individual responsible for multiplying worlds in a way that Barbour didn’t?
f. An proposal which may be marginal is Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. Wolfram defines free will as the human potential to do something unpredictable, linking free will to cellular automata in this connection.
g. Free will is subject to local constraints imposed by the standard, local laws of physics. (Meaning that you can walk anywhere in the room, but cannot levitate? The authors don’t explain themselves.
Physical Review D, 42:1928. What is notable here is that they presume to pronounce on free will and on how it is embedded in the physical universe.)
h. The observer is a cluster of particles that store and process information. Max Tegmark, Scientific American, May 2003, page 50. Why doesn’t that take us back to the purely mechanical definition of an observation which Schrödinger’s cat et al. were aimed against? It does!
i. The appearance of consciousness presupposes a certain range of physical circumstances. (So that consciousness rigorously has a physical inverse image.)
j. The reality we see is the one selected by consciousness’ physical needs. Physical Review D, 47:5345.
“time-travel” and features of consciousness
k. The Novikov Consistency Conspiracy decrees that intelligent beings cannot change the past. This affects the philosophical notion of free will for humans and other intelligent beings. Any being who tried to change the past would be prevented by physical law from making the change, i.e. the free will of the being would be constrained. Physical Review D, 42:1928.
Jacques Mallah, in private communications, 2005, wrote at length about the observer and consciousness relative to physics. A paraphrase follows.
… we don’t fully know how to describe what an observer is …
in classical mechanics there would be the same problem, except that there it is easy to sweep under the rug by pretending that our observations are of numbers, rather than conscious observations that our model should predict the existence of. In other words, if I list the positions and velocities of all the particles in a classical universe as a function of time, that wouldn’t explain why we see rocks fall down (except in a few dreams) unless we know some way positions and velocities give rise to the observations of minds like ours, and some way of counting how many of those observers are awake or dreaming so we can assign probabilities.
In QM, improbable things must occur in some [worlds]branches, and the need to count observers to get probabilities is more explicit.
I think that observers must be modeled as computers to properly derive the probabilities in the MWI. What I am trying to do is the opposite of what most people who connect the two are doing; I am trying to get rid of any special role for consciousness in physical reality. I bring consciousness in only to explain our observations such as the probabilities we apparently see in QM.
Aside: I am [continually?] replaced by a later version of me who is much like me. Philosophically, identity does not persist over time.
Even in classical mechanics, long before QM was discovered, there was a sort of Copenhagen interpretation in which people just thought physics was about predicting experimental results and should not be used to model the human mind as something given rise to by physical objects. This still seems common. Even in classical mechanics, people talk about how a theory of physics can’t be purely a mathematical model but must be stated in terms of measurable quantities—in other words, observation is basic and physical reality as described by math is not, in this Copenhagen-like view. But with the rise of computers, there is now a countertrend in which people are realizing that in a complete theory, humans should be modeled mathematically. If a human is a computer, measurement should be derived in terms of human consciousness rather than taken as basic, while some math model is what is basic.
As far as I can see, consciousness and choice-making are being given a brush-off. Each favored theory finds the secret of consciousness in itself. The purpose is to sweep consciousness under my rug rather than yours. I see no improvement here on the pronouncements of early modern materialists like Helvetius and Holbach.
As for the proposals which did not come from physics, I find Ramachandran’s result obscure. The notion that the self exists outside of time during sleep does not make any calculable difference.
E. Epilogue: Method
Returning to (3) and (4) of Part II, we may conclude with some observations on where scientific method has come.
Hume, Mach, and the twentieth-century positivists stepped forward to save physics from groundless speculation by reconstructing its results as frugal collations of sense-experience. The slogan was “up from the sense-impressions, collation of sense-impressions.” It was correlative to Hilbert’s formalism: mathematics is a game with tangible tokens. As Carnap noted, positivism allowed a solipsist interpretation. What the last decades have shown is that physics is a culture unto itself—that it has viciously overriden the positivist rescuers and their strictures. Having climbed up the tree from everyday phenomena, physics will not climb back down and re-launch itself from everyday phenomena. Modern physics will always have “false” classical physics as its base. Physics cannot eject ideas which do not have testable consequences. Testability as the laity would imagine it is unacceptably confining. The methodological dichotomies whose point is to make one option more desirable than another can be reversed by trick arguments: frugal ontology versus extravagant ontology, intuitive versus counter-intuitive, primary datum versus judgment.
The scientistic cliché is: “It is science if it makes predictions and if it can be falsified.”
As to testability, there is no experiment that can distinguish between interpretations of quantum mechanics. Dyson avowed that string theory is not testable.
In private communications, 2005, Mallah assailed falsifiability in principle. To paraphrase:
Popper’s “only falsifiable theories count” school is empty. Is a theory falsifiable if the experiment will only be possible a million years from now? Then I won’t see it. But I don’t see any future experiment: because the self does not persist but is continually replaced. So falsifiability doesn’t really exist.
We must shape our beliefs on what we know. Demanding falsifiability would require pretending that we shouldn’t believe anything—and that is untenable.
But let us not be dazzled by discourse about whether falsifiability is even possible or even makes sense. There is a much more basic respect in which falsifiability doesn’t matter. A theory is not summoned to court for a once-for-all judgment. When favored theories come up short, they are doctored. What is more, theories are kept in play even as they are massively inadequate. Relativity was subjected to many fixes of the moment. Beyond that, there was the absurdity of Copenhagen and the irreconcilability of relativity and quantum mechanics.
The other side of this coin is that experiment’s positive role is really to ensconce favored theories as orthodoxies.
All this is hidden—at least to the lay spectator—because it is customary to present physics triumphally. Every Scientific American article ends with a thumping affirmation. Physics really is massively consequential practically, and physics is difficult the way it is difficult to give an acceptable performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. For all that, the “citadel of truth” impression would dissolve if there were not a massive use of rhetorical devices to downplay the runarounds.
Does physics determine more and more unknowable knowledge? There are intrinsic limits to our knowledge, says Raphael Bousso of Berkeley: the Big Bang; the Big Crunch. Well, that’s not new; that’s the “crisis of physics” that accompanied the announcement of the Big Bang. Announcing that the Big Bang is a limit to our knowledge: does that relieve us of answering the question “did the laws of nature exist before there was anything at all?”
The unobservables now include an infinite number of universes. Only a tiny fraction (strictly, a zero fraction) of the posited physical realm is observable.
Beyond that, Tegmark repeatedly advances ideological preferences as empirical evidence. Empirical evidence, such as it is, shows that our universe has to be extremely fine-tuned—the symmetry-breaking at the outset had to have an extremely fine-tuned outcome—to allow our existence. Then there is a crisis of our ontological specialness. It starts looking suspiciously like intelligent design. Since we can’t have that, we conclude that our universe is one of an infinite number, the one that supports life. It’s mere luck in the sense that there are vastly more failures than successes and we don’t get to see the failures (we are spoiled). I reply: this line of argument is not empirical; it is ideologically biased interpretation.
Similarly when Tegmark rings in Chaitin’s complexity theory to prove that “infinite universes” is cognitively parsimonious. The ideological bias against ontological specialness is being presented as empirical evidence.
As to mathematics, ultra-Platonism has won out. Tegmark-Wheeler 2001. “Theories can be crudely organized in a family tree where each might, in principle, be derived from more fundamental ones above it. Almost at the top of the tree lie general relativity and quantum field theory. A theory of everything would have to be purely mathematical, with no explanations or postulates.”
Ultra-Platonism has become the explanation of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in delineating physical phenomena. A mathematical structure is an abstract, immutable entity existing outside of space and time. Every mathematical structure has its own realization or universe. The realizations comprising this multiverse do not subsist in the same 3D space. They subsist outside of space and time. Most of them are devoid of observers. Once again, most of the physical realm has been placed beyond observation.
Positivism meant to align philosophy with the triumphs of science, to humble philosophy before science—and to whittle science down to a core methodology free of all mysticism. It has long since become clear that this project is unacceptable to the scientist.
References could be multiplied indefinitely. We give only those of direct interest.
Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (orig. 1916, many editions; English 1961), page 109 QC6.E5
George Gamow, One Two Three … Infinity (orig. 1947) Q162.G23 pages
The Universe and Dr. Einstein (1948), page 93 QC6.B33
J. M. Jauch, Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1968)
Sheldon Glashow, New York Times, 10/22/1989
Encyclopedia of Modern Physics, ed. Meyers (1990).
Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (1992)
S.S. Schweber, QED and the men who made it (1994) QC680.S34
John Horgan, The End of Science (1996)
Alan Lightman, New York Times, 5/9/2000
Brian Greene (Columbia University) at the World Economic Forum, January 2001. Absolutist and triumphalist both.
Max Tegmark and John A. Wheeler in Scientific American, February 2001, “100 Years of Quantum Mysteries”
Dipen Bhattacharya, “Universe for Breakfast” (June 2001)
Max Tegmark in Scientific American, May 2003
Dictionary of Physics (2004)
Paul Steinhardt, “Einstein, Time, and the Future of the Universe,” Rockefeller University, 10 May 2005, not published.