I was recently scanning a transcript of a podcast featuring Sam Harris, a noted evolutionary psychologist and atheist, and Max Tegmmark, an MIT physicist and cosmologist. Much of what I read concerned the nature of reality and whether we could ever really understand it. Here is a sample (Dr. Tegmmark speaking):
“There’s no doubt in my mind that our universe knows perfectly well what it’s doing, and it functions in some way. We physicists have so far failed to figure out what that way is. We’re in this schizophrenic situation where we can’t even make quantum mechanics talk to relativity theory properly. But that’s the way I see it. Simply a failure, so far, in our own creativity. Not only do I guess that there is a reality out there independent of us, but I actually feel it’s quite arrogant to say the opposite.”
While I tend to revel in such discussions I find myself getting peeved. Mostly it concerns a lack of pragmatism. Quantum mechanics and special relativity are least in fields that overlap and we can point to small areas in which they seem to conflict. Whether they actually do conflict is yet to be determined. But scientists, like house painters, just tend to use the tool that is called for. A painter encountering a nail to be driven doesn’t insist that he is a painter and painters use brushes and rollers and sprayers, he just picks up a hammer (Gasp, a carpenter’s tool!) does the job and gets back to his painting. He doesn’t bemoan the fact that there isn’t one tool that will both paint walls and hammer nails.
In physics there is a desire for, a desire not a logical indication of, what is in general called “unified theories.” These are theories that cover stuff from soup to nuts. Recently with the discover of the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle, there was a confirmation of the “Standard Theory” which is a theory designed to explain all of the subatomic particles and their interactions. For some reason, people seem to want this theory to be coupled with the theory of how to make a foolproof Hollandaise sauce.
Science deniers use every failure to “unify” this or that branch of science with another as a failure of a rational material worldview. They understand neither the science nor the rationality but they just know it is wrong.
I wish we would stop playing into the hands of the religious Luddites in this manner. Trying to unify the four forces of nature or Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics is great fun, but is hardly necessary. In the case of Newtonian and quantum mechanics, the realms in which each holds sway do not overlap and hence is no problem to any physicist. We did just fine with Newtonian descriptions of speed and energy and momentum and forces when we didn’t even know quantum mechanics existed. The reason quantum mechanics surprised us and seemed weird (still does) is because of our own stupidity. We assumed the laws of physics governing ordinary objects would also govern those of sub atomic size. We had no basis for the assumption, we just had this really good tool (Newtonian mechanics) that seemed to work great in similar situations, so we tried it … and it didn’t work. (Picture our painter trying a hammer a nail with a paint brush.)
We even go so far as to beat ourselves up over why we haven’t been able to unify whole bunches of theories to date. I mean the theories work so well and reality is reality, so … gosh shouldn’t we be able to make all of our descriptions of the universe work together?
So far the answer has been “no” and maybe there is a simple reason for this. There are no universal mechanical tools (It saws, it hammers, it paints, it welds, it sand blasts, it wrenches, it screws,…!). There are no universal electronic tools. So, why should a single physical description of reality have to include absolutely everything?
I know it is worth a try (to find a universal theory of everything physical) but folks, please don’t take it so seriously that not finding one, something you don’t even know exists, is considered a serious flaw. It took 50 years to find the Higgs boson. Considering how much of the Standard Model of Subatomic Particles the HB makes up, the effort to find a theory of everything might just take several thousand years of looking, if it is there to be found.