Class Warfare Blog

April 20, 2016

Combating Our Own Stupidity

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.

 

 

 

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8 Comments »

  1. I think Max is just coming at it from his ardent belief in Many Worlds. It must be frustrating to see that as the most reasonable thing, yet in the same breath, not be able to demonstrate it at any level.

    Comment by john zande — April 20, 2016 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

    • I believe that if you want to find something, you have to believe it is there, but you do not want to allow people into your delusion as you will either seem daft, or like scientists, incompetent because you can’t find what you clearly think is there.

      Positive affirmations are one thing, wild ass speculations are another. Certainly beating oneself up for a lack of creativity or vision in such a case is not productive and confusing for onlookers. We work with Olympic athletes from time to time and if you get a closeup look at the way they think, you will believe they are obsessive and need to seek psychiatric help.

      On Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 4:31 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 20, 2016 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

      • Great point.

        As to Many Worlds, I’ve never figured out if people like Max believe it’s all tangibly real, or more clouds of probability. Do you know?

        Comment by john zande — April 21, 2016 @ 4:33 am | Reply

        • It is hard to tell but in science it is not a good idea to make speculations concrete before you have good data, If your ideas solidify they are less malleable and resist changes for reasons not having to do with the data. It is entirely reasonable to me for our universe to be a bubble from a leak in space-time from another very dense universe. That’s entirely a speculation but does create a mental image, even a vivid one. All such speculations should be viewed with skepticism and caution, something almost automatic in scientists but not in the general public, which is the interface I am urging caution on.

          Maybe physicists/cosmologists should address lay audiences in parables. Whad’ya think?

          Comment by Steve Ruis — April 21, 2016 @ 8:31 am | Reply

          • Erwin Schrodinger was deeply troubled at the turn of the last century with how difficult physics was becoming for the average person to grasp. It’s why he wrote his little book, What is Life.

            Comment by john zande — April 21, 2016 @ 8:43 am | Reply

            • Hell, he was troubled by how hard physics was becoming for physicists to understand!

              A difference is made by mass media, though. Back in the mid 1800s, there was extreme consternation regarding thermodynamics and … the atomic theory. The statistical interpretation of thermo (heat = sum of molecules KE, etc.) was considered suspect because it was based upon the atomic theory. The atomic theory was held as a “useful but fictional viewpoint” by many well into the 20th century. The lack of modern widespread media publication left most of the lay public in complete ignorance over the brouhaha.

              Steve

              On Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 8:43 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Comment by Steve Ruis — April 21, 2016 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  2. As Master Po would tell the young Caine, “Patience grass hopper” 🙂

    Comment by lbwoodgate — April 21, 2016 @ 6:26 am | Reply

    • Namaste, Sensei!

      On Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 6:26 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 21, 2016 @ 8:27 am | Reply


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