Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood

While the primary purpose of last week’s post on the laws of physics underlying everyday life was to convey information like a good blog post should, there was another agenda as well: to test the waters. This is an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but I wanted to get a better idea for how it’s perceived in the outside world. I honestly wasn’t sure whether there would be more of “you arrogant physicist, we don’t have any idea what the laws are” or “you moron, why are you wasting our time with this self-evident crap?”

So much for that ambiguity. Responses, for example at Fark and Reddit but even here in our very own comment section, displayed a greater than average internetitude, defined as a tendency to not read the article, set up straw men, and miss the point. But at least the direction of disagreement was fairly uniform. The issue under discussion is important, so it’s worth taking the time to counter the three most common arguments, from completely silly to almost-sensible.

1. Are you serious? There’s so much we don’t understand: turbulence, consciousness, the gravitational N-body problem, photosynthesis…

To which my years of academic training have prepared me to reply: duh. To conclude from my post that I was convinced we had a full understanding of any of those things represents, at a minimum, a rather uncharitable reading, given that no one in their right mind thinks we have such an understanding. Nevertheless, I knew people would raise this point as if it were an objection, which is why I was extra careful to say “We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world — we don’t understand high-temperature superconductivity, or for that matter human consciousness, or a cure for cancer, or predicting the weather, or how best to regulate our financial system.” And then, at a risk of being repetitive and boring, I added “Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.” And for emphasis there was something about “the much more jagged and unpredictable frontier of how the basic laws play out in complicated ways.” Nevertheless.

The distinction I’m drawing is between the laws underlying various phenomena, and how the phenomena actually behave, especially on macroscopic scales. Newtonian gravity provides an excellent example of the difference: we certainly know the laws underlying the behavior of gravitating particles in the Newtonian regime, but that obviously does not mean we have a complete solution to the N-body problem, or even a qualitative understanding of how large collections of particles behave. It’s the difference between knowing the rules by which chess is played, and being a grandmaster. Those are not the same thing. In particular, taunting “you’re no grandmaster!” is not actually a refutation of the claim that I know the rules of chess. My claim was that we know the basic equations governing the behavior of matter and energy in the everyday regime — not that we have a complete understanding of every observable phenomenon.

It is of course completely legitimate not to care that we know the basic underlying laws. You may not think that’s interesting, or very important. That’s fine, I certainly wasn’t making any claims at all about priority or importance or interestingness. But it should still be possible to understand the claim I was making, and judge it on its own merits, such as they are.

Let me just emphasize how non-trivial the claim is. First, that there is such a thing as an “underlying” set of laws. That is, that we can think of everyday objects as being composed of individual pieces, such that those pieces obey laws that are the same independently of the larger context. (Electrons obey the same equations of motion whether they are in a rock or in a human heart.) That’s the reductionist step. Again, for people who enjoy taking offense: this is not to say that the reductionist description is the only interesting one, or to imply that the right way to attack macroscopic problems is to reduce them to microscopic ones; only that the microscopic laws exist, and work, and are complete within their realms of validity. And second, that we know what those laws are. There’s nothing in the everyday world that is inconsistent with Standard Model particles obeying the rules of quantum field theory, plus general relativity to describe gravity. Amazing.

2. We don’t even understand gravity! And the Second Law of Thermodynamics! And quantum mechanics! (Magnets! How do they work???)

Unlike the previous objection, this one is not correct-but-misplaced, it’s just wrong. But it’s wrong in an interesting way. We actually do understand gravity: it is described by Einstein’s general relativity. Not deep down at the quantum level, of course, but that’s very far from the world of the “everyday.” You might try to make some profound epistemological claim that we don’t really understand gravity, we just have a set of rules that it unambiguously obeys. Fine; I would argue that this isn’t an especially helpful distinction in this case, but in any event it’s beside the point. What I meant was that we have a clear set of rules that are unambiguously obeyed. That’s also true for the Second Law — it was explained by Boltzmann. Sure, we have to invoke a low-entropy boundary condition at the Big Bang, but guess what? The Big Bang is not within the realm of our everyday experience. Even the collapse of the wave function, which comes closest to a true mystery, doesn’t qualify. For one thing, wave function collapse isn’t something you see happening in your kitchen on an everyday basis. But more importantly, we do have a theory that describes what happens, handed down to us by Bohr and Heisenberg. You might think that this theory is unsatisfying and incomplete, and I would be extremely sympathetic. But it fits all the data we have. I’m not trying to make a deep philosophical point about the meaning of “understanding”; just noting that things obey laws, and in the everyday regime we know what those laws are.

3. You’re too presumptuous. New physics might be required to understand consciousness, or wave function collapse, or…

This comes closest to an actual argument, and I wish that the entire conversation could have focused on relatively sensible points of this form. But ultimately, I don’t buy it, not even close. Take consciousness as an example. Obviously there are a lot of things about the workings of the human mind that we don’t understand. So how can we be so sure that new physics isn’t involved?

Of course we can’t be sure, but that’s not the point. We can’t be sure that the motion of the planets isn’t governed by hard-working angels keeping them on their orbits, in the metaphysical-certitude sense of being “sure.” That’s not a criterion that is useful in science. Rather, in the face of admittedly incomplete understanding, we evaluate the relative merits of competing hypotheses. In this case, one hypothesis says that the operation of the brain is affected in a rather ill-defined way by influences that are not described by the known laws of physics, and that these effects will ultimately help us make sense of human consciousness; the other says that brains are complicated, so it’s no surprise that we don’t understand everything, but that an ultimate explanation will fit comfortably within the framework of known fundamental physics. This is not really a close call; by conventional scientific measures, the idea that known physics will be able to account for the brain is enormously far in the lead. To persuade anyone otherwise, you would have to point to something the brain does that is in apparent conflict with the Standard Model or general relativity. (Bending spoons across large distances would qualify.) Until then, the fact that something is complicated isn’t evidence that the particular collection of atoms we call the brain obeys different rules than other collections of atoms.

What would be a refutation of my claim that we understand the laws underlying everyday phenomena? Easy: point to just one example of an everyday phenomenon that provides evidence of “new physics” beyond the laws we know. Something directly visible that requires a violation of general relativity or the Standard Model. That’s all it would take, but there aren’t any such phenomena.

A century ago, that would have been incredibly easy to do; the world of Newtonian mechanics plus Maxwell’s equations wasn’t able to account for why the Sun shines, or why tables are solid. Now we do understand how to account for those things in terms of known laws of physics. I am not, as a hopelessly optimistic scientist from the year 1900 might have been tempted to do, predicting that soon we will understand everything. That’s an invitation to ridicule. Indeed, we know lots of cases where the known laws of physics are manifestly insufficient: dark matter, dark energy, electroweak symmetry breaking, the Big Bang, quantum gravity, the matter/antimatter asymmetry, and so on. We might answer all these questions soon, or it might take a really long time. But these are all rather dramatically outside our everyday experience. When it comes to everyday phenomena that are incompletely understood, from consciousness to photosynthesis, there is every reason to believe that an ultimate explanation will be obtained within the framework of the underlying laws we know, not from stepping outside that framework. An impressive accomplishment.

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125 Responses to Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood

  1. THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY
    A LIBERAL EDUCATION [49]

    Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn, upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?

    Yet it is a very plain and elementary truth, that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated—without haste, but without remorse.

    My metaphor will remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch [53] has depicted Satan playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in that picture a calm, strong angel who is playing for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win—and I should accept it as an image of human life.

    Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game. In other words, education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws. For me, education means neither more nor less than this. Anything which professes to call itself education must be tried by this standard, and if it fails to stand the test, I will not call it education, whatever may be the force of authority, or of numbers, upon the other side.

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  2. Jeffrey Uhlmann says:

    Wishy. Washy. In the late 19th Century it was famously claimed that physics was a done field: Newtonian physics seemed sufficient to explain everything. No, it hadn’t yet explained everything, but in principle it seemed capable of doing so. Of course Newtonian physics doesn’t quite work at certain limits, but then again – as you say – relativity doesn’t either. So relativity isn’t complete, quantum mechanics isn’t complete (doesn’t explain gravity), so how exactly is it any more appropriate now to say that physics is done than it was at the end of the 19th Century? The future theory that subsumes relativity and quantum, explains time, etc., may make our current understanding of the universe seem very primitive indeed.

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  3. Marshall Philips says:

    @Jeffrey

    He’s not saying that physis is complete. He’s not saying that our understanding of the universe is anything beyond primitive. He’s saying that our understanding of the phyics underlying our EVERYDAY life is complete.

    And, of course, it is.

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  4. NthDegree256 says:

    Jeffrey: “so how exactly is it any more appropriate now to say that physics is done than it was at the end of the 19th Century?”

    Even if we’re not 100% done, we’re closer than ever before, and we’re certainly not as in the dark as they were back then. To quote Asimov, from an essay on a very similar subject:

    “[...]When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

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  5. jbw says:

    I really like your chess analogy. For most of human history we have been watching the game and trying to deduce the rules. You are right, we now know the rules. But as any chess master will tell you, learning the rules is the easiest part. Becoming a grand master is much much much harder. It is humbling that it has taken centuries of science to discern the rules.

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  6. The Virtuosi says:

    So Sean,

    I have to say, I agree with your overall idea. I really wish the fact that physics can describe so much of the world was flaunted more.

    But to be argumentative, what is your take then on “More is Different” by Anderson. The thesis is something along the lines of you’re objection 3, but without having to dip into anything crazy like consciousness.

    While it may be true that even macroscopic phenomenon can be reduced to QFT and GR, the fact remains that much of condensed matter physics could not have been predicted knowing just QFT and GR. We are continually surprised by strongly interacting systems, and experience has shown that new tools have had to be developed to make strides in understanding them. I think its fair to call these new tools, ‘new physics’. Plus, there remains countless mysteries in condensed matter physics, many of these being scary close to ‘everyday’ experience.

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  7. Mike says:

    “Even the collapse of the wave function, which comes closest to a true mystery, doesn’t qualify. For one thing, wave function collapse isn’t something you see happening in your kitchen on an everyday basis. But more importantly, we do have a theory that describes what happens, handed down to us by Bohr and Heisenberg. You might think that this theory is unsatisfying and incomplete, and I would be extremely sympathetic. But it fits all the data we have.”

    We also have a theory handed down by Everett et. al. (as amended via decoherence, decision theory, etc.), that says the wave function doesn’t really collapse; it only seems that way in our discrete portion of reality — but you knew that already. This too fits all of the data we have and no “new physics” required, and no need to put in such a collapse “by hand” (which when you stop and think about it, probably constitutes “new physics” itself), so no contradiction with your main point, with which I fully and wholeheartedly agree.

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  8. Peter Morgan says:

    The dedicated work of centuries is impressive, sure, but I don’t feel comfortable with your particular way of talking about how great it all is. There have been a lot of obvious achievements in the process, but we must be thoughtful of subtler unease.

    Perhaps it’s partly because The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are (presented by some as) Completely Understood that students want to do biochemistry? Whether the study of complexity is “fundamental” enough that it ought to be in the “framework of the underlying laws we know”, if there is such a thing, apparently there are lots of people to whom complexity seems more what they want to study.

    I see so many holes in the framework, from every point of view and at every scale of detail, that I suppose we are in different worlds.

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  9. Jeffrey Uhlmann says:

    @Marshall & @NthDegree

    I think you miss my point. Here’s the question: a century from now is it really inconceivable that someone could write an article just like this one?

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  10. Waveforms says:

    I get your point, and it is a good one to remind non-scientific types of the progress made, but it is more fun to think of the mysteries that remain; Time, Gravity, entanglement, infinite space, creation/Low entropy out of nowhere, What is ‘now’, consciousness, number of dimensions, etc. etc.

    I think physics has gotten more difficult because the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so career evaluations should be adjusted. I vote for more podcasts/television shows by scientists.

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  11. jpd says:

    “Even if we’re not 100% done, we’re closer than ever before, and we’re certainly not as in the dark as they were back then.”
    but thats what they thought back then!!!!

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  12. There will always be something that cannot be explained by any given theory, that basically was proven by Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The point is that we continue to add to the body of science and get closer to understanding more phenomena in nature. I think it’s nice that while we are always getting closer to that asymptote of complete comprehension, there will always be more for future scientists to continue the quest. Some may like to consider Zeno’s paradox as an allegory.

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  13. MT-LA says:

    Do we understand the concept of “time” so well that we can call it a done-deal? Do we understand why time curves in gravity fields? Does physics have a mechanism to explain why time moves in the “direction” of increasing entropy? I was racking my brain trying to think of something that we don’t understand, and the question only came to me because Waveforms mentioned it. This is not something I’m prepared to debate, because I don’t have any good education on the topic. But I am interested in an honest (and perhaps thorough?) answer. Hell…I dont even know if I framed my questions correctly.

    I’m not asking this question of Sean…he’ll just say yes and claim it a victory. I’m asking those more educated than I, and less dismissive than he.

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  14. Mike says:

    “Even if we’re not 100% done, we’re closer than ever before, and we’re certainly not as in the dark as they were back then.”

    “but thats what they thought back then!!!!”

    And they were right

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  15. Chevsky says:

    Sean, I agree with you on some level. Over many millenniums we have created math and physics to explain a great deal of phenomena. Every day there are new findings but with those discoveries more questions arise. And once every few centuries a theory or idea arises which completely changes the playing field. So do we know more than enough to explain every day life? Sure we do! But all that could change in a swift moment, I guess that’s the whole beauty of it.

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  16. Scott_Bot says:

    Hey Sean, one of those category 3 people here. It’s hard to get into a substantive argument over Twitter, but here’s a (still-too-short) version of what I meant.

    At the turn of the 20th century, those problems about why tables are solid and why the sun shines were not seen as big issues. Like you mentioned, many eminent scientists of the time claimed all that was left in understanding the world was to fill in a few decimal places. In fact, there were all sorts of unexplained phenomena back then (as there is now), but they were so far at the fringe of what people considered every-day problems that most thought their discovery would just fill in the final piece of the puzzle.

    Of course, what really happened with those little corner issues was that the only way to solve them turned out to be revolutionizing physics. Twice. What seemed to be unimportant problems caused a change in the theory of not only fringe issues (how really small stuff worked and how time seemed to crawl for fast things) but also everything else as well. Relativity didn’t augment Newtonian mechanics, it *replaced* it. Newtonian mechanics is only a special case of Relativity in hindsight, as his definitions of mass, space, time, etc. were vastly different than Einstein’s.

    On the same token, we currently have many unexplained fringe issues – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have science – and their final explanations may well change everything we thought we knew about the basic stuff. I’m not calling your post presumptuous because angels may be keeping Mars in orbit and consciousness may require a new sort of physical law; I’m suggesting that there is no difference between the current smugness and the smugness of a century ago.

    Which is OK! Back then, we didn’t have to deal much with stuff like radios, and our “every day lives” were a good deal simpler than they are now. By and large, they did understand everything that mattered (to them), just as we do now, which is pretty awesome. But given that every scientific model except our current ones have been replaced, and most of them numerous times, it is not going out on a limb to suggest that ours might as well.

    Yes, consciousness may or may not require new sorts of physical laws; it’s more likely that the theories underlying our currently extant laws are based on incorrect assumptions. When those assumptions are corrected (and science is pretty good at self-correcting, eventually), perhaps the new theories and predictions created will be able to account for things we currently consider to be outside the scope of fundamental physics (say, consciousness, but not necessarily).

    At any rate, just because you’re being presumptuous doesn’t mean I think you’re wrong. We can understand everything we need to about every day life in a really nuanced and clever way, which is totally exciting, just like it was 100 years ago.

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  17. Moshe says:

    Just to play the devil’s advocate, isn’t this statement orthogonal to the use of the anthropic principle? The underlying assumption there (suspending disbelief for the moment) is that merely the existence of life provides powerful constraints on unknown aspects of the standard model and GR, whereas you are trying to argue that the unknowns in the standard model and GR have no bearing on our daily life, and that we need to dig deeper to see evidence for the existence of those unknowns.

    (Apologies for the predictable effects of mentioning the AP. Me, I’ve got to run…)

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  18. Sean says:

    Scott (and everyone): to say “there is no difference between the current smugness and the smugness of a century ago” is simply to get the science wrong, and to miss the point of what I am trying to say. A century ago it was very easy to point to features of everyday life that were in blatant contradiction to physics as it was then understood. Today, it is impossible to do that. A century ago, people were foolishly guessing that we were close to knowing all of the underlying laws. I am very explicitly not saying that. You may think I am smug if you like, but if you don’t see the difference between what I’m saying now and what people were saying in 1900, you are making a mistake.

    Again, it would be really easy to refute what I’m saying: point to something in everyday life that can’t be accommodated by the Standard Model plus general relativity. If you honestly believe that we have evidence that electrons behave differently when they are part of brains than when they are part of rocks, by all means make that argument. Vague declarations that “we don’t know everything” and “we shouldn’t be so smug” don’t cut the mustard.

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  19. cliff kirtley says:

    General Observations

    Paranormal events are alleged phenomena that are not subject to scientific or rational explanation. The world of the Supernatural is the arena of astrology, the paranormal, UFOs, clairvoyance, faith healing, spirits, near death experiences, witchcraft, dowsing, reincarnation: An endless list of man’s excursion into the world of irrationality, flimflam, and superstition.

    Many aspects of the paranormal are closely related to the underlying principles of religions, although the sphere of paranormal phenomena lacks the organizational, hierarchical structure of an established religion, cult or sect. Like all religions, the domain of the paranormal involves a faith-based belief-system instead of the fact-based knowledge-system that is the essential prerequisite of science.

    Faith is necessary in order to accept as fact a statement already proven false by science. A religious person, or a believer in paranormal events, requires faith to support his position. Science has no need for faith. Science produces predictable results by reliance on verifiable facts and objective evidence. The Supernatural produces unverifiable, unreliable, unrepeatable, inconsistent, contradictory mirages.

    Another arena of human irrationally, often referred to as pseudo-science, pretends to be part of the world of science but actually lacks all elements of logical, scientific determinants. Science and pseudo-science are diametrically opposed to each other. Pseudo science is easier to create and understand than real science. Pseudo-science deals with appearances whereas real science deals with repeatable and objectively observable facts.

    Similar to religious persons who try to justify their irrational ideology, people who espouse pseudo-science often advance a rather spurious argument. They try to argue that, although they may not be able to prove the validity of their claims, neither can science disprove their claims. This argument conveniently disregards a basic axiom of logic: The burden of proof is always on the claimant. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof

    It is logically impossible and logically contradictory to require another person to prove that something does not exist. We can only prove that something exists; nobody can prove that something does not exist.

    An analytically inclined mind will stipulate that unless something manifests itself objectively, it does not exist. It may still exist in somebody’s mind as a hallucination, or in another dimension, or in the deep sea. However, as far as human beings are concerned, if an object or event does not manifest itself in any form, manner or shape to human beings, it simply does not exist. If it does not manifest itself to human beings, it obviously has no effect on our life and we can safely disregard it.

    Religions are always stridently opposed to the world of the Supernatural. Alleged paranormal events represent competition for the miracles necessary to any religious belief system and thus compete for the allegiance and contributions of their believers.

    It would be needless and futile to respond with detailed rebuttals to all of the numerous claimed manifestations of the supernatural. The dilemma, which underlies all paranormal events, is its failure to provide any proof of their veracity and existence. In the domain of religious experiences, we previously found that it is unnecessary to prove or disprove the existence of god, because we merely need to stipulate that there is no evidence that a god exists.

    Since nobody can provide any evidence whatsoever that god exists, we can disregard the claim for the existence. There is a total lack of any evidence for the existence of god and there is a total lack of evidence for the existence of any alleged paranormal events. It is merely necessary to assert that whoever makes a claim has to prove it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

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  20. eukaryote says:

    I’m focusing on consciousness because that really seems to stand out as the exceptional problem. With regard to the hypothesis that the workings of the brain are governed exclusively by conventional physics, rather than involving new physics, I think that depends on whether the presence and nature of conscious experience itself is something that needs to be explained in order to account for the workings of the brain.

    If we assume that experience simply is an illusion or some kind of epiphenomena, and has no bearing on any physical descriptions of reality, then we can dispense with explaining it. If we want to include conscious experience in our physical models however, then we are going to have to expand what it means to be physical, at least a little bit.

    It seems that a physical description of reality that doesn’t capture conscious experience, or predict its emergence, is not a complete picture of reality. It also doesn’t seem likely that appeals to complexity, emergence, or simply ignoring the phenomena because of its seeming intractability is going to help either.

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  21. cliff kirtley says:

    Religious Beliefs

    A rational examination of the origins and sources of religion, as well as the benefits and disadvantages of religion, is unlikely to change the mind of anyone who is afraid to examine these concepts objectively.

    People who approach the subject of religion with trepidation or who cannot distinguish between reality and superstition, find it difficult to apply logic to their thought processes. It is much easier to belief in miracles and pseudo-science than to acquire facts and engage in incisive, rational thought.

    We can observe many members of society who appear to be intelligent and rational in the pursuit of their daily life. However, on Sundays they go to their church or temple. There they participate in incomprehensible and irrational rituals involving magic, prayer and other activities demeaning to their rational minds. Their rational mind tells them that a god does not exist and yet, there they sit and pray to him.

    It has been suggested that religious people compartmentalize their thought processes in order to avoid otherwise inevitable and destructive conflicts. In this manner, rational and irrational thought processes can coexist in separate, locked compartments of the brain without connectivity. Yet, one wonders if there is some inevitable leakage from the irrational to the rational compartment, surreptitiously contaminating rationality.

    Even some bright people may feel too frightened to face life without the consolations of a religion, cult or sect. Their upbringing has imbued in them the belief that it is safer not to subject the teachings of one’s church or temple or mosque to close scrutiny. Furthermore, becoming an agnostic or atheist can cut one off from the comfort and companionship of co-believers in a religion. This potentially damaging consequence of doubting one’s belief system is a strong deterrent to questioning deeply imbedded religious beliefs.

    Religion may also satisfy an irrational human need for cosmic significance. Some persons yearn to be more than the grain of sand in the vastness of the universe that man really is. As long as men and women feel week and insignificant in the face of awe-inspiring natural forces, logic will not be as important as religion and man will prefer the sanctuary of imaginary, all-powerful beings.

    Thus, people tend to associate in communities of like-minded people. Believers restrict their circle of friend and family to other believers. They surround themselves with mirror images of themselves.

    If people wear blinders successfully, then the young and naïve among them hear nothing but the desired belief. No reputable person in his or her sphere of life ever disagrees with or objects to the tenets of their common belief system. As time goes on, people in a mentally incestuous society consider it normal that all seemingly intelligent people believe as the community believes.

    When a believer encounters non-believers, the shock may be great. The believer asks, “How can they not believe? Doesn’t everyone believe?” The believing community usually provides a convenient answer to that question: The non-believers are evil or they are possessed by an evil power. If you hang around them enough it might be contagious.

    As a result, the believer becomes paranoid and afraid of non-believers, because he fails to understand that non-believers do not need to believe in anything. Non-believers rely on reason, logic and the factual evidence of the real world.

    Instead, the believer sees non-believers as abnormal and undesirable. Thus, religious belief maintains itself through self-affirmation, insulation and demonization of non-believers.

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  22. Brian Mingus says:

    Devils advocate:

    Our lack of understanding of complex systems implies that we don’t understand the the rules regarding what can emerge from the physics of everyday life. Imagine humanity a hundred years from now, each of our laptops oozing with computational power and each of us proficient in software that simulates all manner of complex systems, allowing us to direct the evolution of everything from brains to planets to galaxies to mini-universes. Each of us a scientist, discovering what can emerge from nature that has not yet emerged and the rules governing these processes.

    You might argue that this is not the physics of everyday life, but intuitively, I think it is. What I have described is the physics of how everyday life came to be, and how it evolves. In other words complex interactions of energy and matter, which is something we really don’t have a grasp on, but that we will start to understand in better detail soon.

    As good as our understanding is, I do get the feeling that it is presumptuous to believe that a hundred years from now we won’t see the universe differently. So far we can, for the most part, examine what has emerged naturally, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of things which can possibly exist. Ultimately “everyday life” is a function of time, and as our understanding of the universe (which is ultimately, I think, physics) improves, so to will our everyday experience.

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  23. Jeffrey Uhlmann says:

    Hi Sean, around Maxwell’s time Newtonian physics and Maxwell’s equations covered pretty much everything anyone could imagine relating to everyday life. Much of what we’ve learned since then could not have been imagined back then, and much of what will be discovered during this century is probably beyond what we can imagine now. I’ve mentioned “time” as an example. The theory that explains that and what precipitated the big bang and many other things may be well-understood in 100 years so that looking back at today’s physics will be analogous to Maxwell looking back 100 years.

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  24. Ray says:

    “At the turn of the 20th century, those problems about why tables are solid and why the sun shines were not seen as big issues. Like you mentioned, many eminent scientists of the time claimed all that was left in understanding the world was to fill in a few decimal places. In fact, there were all sorts of unexplained phenomena back then (as there is now), but they were so far at the fringe of what people considered every-day problems that most thought their discovery would just fill in the final piece of the puzzle.”

    My impression is that the idea that this was the majority view is simply a popular myth. Perhaps you can confirm this, Sean. Anyway, as far as I can tell, precisely two prominent scientists at the turn of the 20th century (Lord Kelvin, and ironically enough, Albert A Michelson) held views like this.

    On the other hand, quantum electrodynamics has been touted as a “theory of almost everything” for almost 50 years with little if any challenge.Compare that to the 50 years since Maxwell published his four equations (1861-1911.) These years included the beginnings of quantum theory, the introduction of special relativity, the invention of statistical mechanics, the discovery of radioactivity and no less than four successive re-inventings of the structure of the atom. I just don’t buy that most physicists in this period really thought physics was done.

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  25. jpd says:

    “And they were right”

    well, some of them were right, some of them were
    wildly wrong.

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  26. Scott_Bot says:

    @Sean
    “A century ago it was very easy to point to features of everyday life that were in blatant contradiction to physics as it was then understood. Today, it is impossible to do that. A century ago, people were foolishly guessing that we were close to knowing all of the underlying laws. I am very explicitly not saying that.”

    Until about 1880-1885, people assumed the supposed “contradictions” were either fringe (and thus did not matter for everyday life) or they would submit that they were not underlying contradictions, merely puzzle pieces not yet filled in. We have the luxury in retrospect to see their system was flawed, but they would have suggested it was simply incomplete. You’re not suggesting that we know all the underlying laws, but you are implying that the underlying laws we have for basic things (say, Relativity) are correct ones.

    “You may think I am smug if you like, but if you don’t see the difference between what I’m saying now and what people were saying in 1900, you are making a mistake.
    Again, it would be really easy to refute what I’m saying: point to something in everyday life that can’t be accommodated by the Standard Model plus general relativity.”

    I’m suggesting you’re smug, but I’m also suggesting that’s not a bad thing. You misread me if you think that I’m saying you’re wrong. Our model does explain everything in our every day life as it currently exists and under our current framework of what constitutes “basic” and “everyday.” That is to say, you are correct, much like they were correct at the turn of the century; what’s changed is that we have updated conceptions of basic and everyday.

    Of course we know way more now than we knew then, so we can also see that certain aspects are fundamental and important that they would not have worried or thought about. And while I think your smugness is the same, I realize your claims are different, and I don’t find fault in either yours or theirs at the turn of the century.

    “If you honestly believe that we have evidence that electrons behave differently when they are part of brains than when they are part of rocks, by all means make that argument. Vague declarations that ‘we don’t know everything’ and ‘we shouldn’t be so smug’ don’t cut the mustard.”

    I don’t honestly believe that, nor would I make that argument. I do believe that, given that every scientific system ever created except our current ones are wrong, so too will ours be. Of course, subsequent systems have been a great deal *less wrong*. Obviously I have no substantive reasoning behind this belief besides historical induction, but given that I have no evidence that our current scientific model is any more solid than the one before it was compared to its predecessor, I see no reason to extend absolute certainty to this one.

    By all means though, as scientists we should keep assuming our system is the correct one until evidence shows otherwise. Just because we don’t have that evidence yet, though, doesn’t mean we should be blind to its possibility (and, via that historical induction, its probability).

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  27. Scott_Bot says:

    A little addendum: I think you’re right, but I think in another 100 years there will be similar claims made, both about their contemporary science and their past (us.) We can both be right, as long as conceptions of basic, everyday, underlying, etc. change sufficiently.

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  28. bittergradstudent says:

    @MT-LA #13: Yes, we understand with very good detail how time behaves in gravitational fields. Any calculations you want to make can be made unambiguously.

    @Sean #18: There are certainly things we don’t completely understand about quantum coherence and wavefunction collapse. There are multiple existing models with differing predictions that match all existing data on these points. Its not inconceivable (not proven, but not inconceivable) that this could have a low energy consequence that is important for everyday life. Much as you would not have expected solid state physics to be determined by quantum mechanics and Maxwell theory in the 19th century.

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  29. Mike says:

    “And they were right”

    “well, some of them were right, some of them were
    wildly wrong.”

    No, anyone who thought that our best theories we’re closer than ever before, was right. Did they have “wrong” aspects — of course. Were they complete — no? Have they been supplanted with greater and richer detail, and in some cases changed and revised substantially — yes. But, were our best theories then closer than ever before — without a doubt.

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  30. jpd says:

    someone in the 1600’s thought angels danced on pin heads,
    were they closer to reality than aristotle ?

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  31. Mike says:

    “someone in the 1600’s thought angels danced on pin heads,
    were they closer to reality than aristotle ?”

    There are idiots today who think than angels danced on pin heads. What does that have to do with it? Our best theories today are better and closer to reality than in the 1600’s or in the time of Aristotle.

    You don’t really believe that to be untrue — do you?

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  32. Jens says:

    Of topic, but I thought today’s xkcd was very close to a post you had earlier, Sean, regarding Stephen Hawking. Enjoy: http://xkcd.com/

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  33. spyder says:

    In reading through the comment thread, i was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the things i was thinking after reading Sean’s post, were mentioned. I do think that the construct “a century ago” is itself rather wishy washy. Given that a century ago was 1910, the advances in science were well underway, leading quickly in some respects to the experiments that 30 years later led to the nuclearization of the planet (that is pretty powerful stuff). We have laws concerning the growth of scientific knowledge, computing power, technological advance and so forth; these are understood and thus are part of our everyday knowledge. We have vast imaginative capabilities; but in many ways we are closer to Kurzweil singularity, where humans will no longer have the capability to imagine more of the future, than to Jules Verne and Issac Asimov.

    The analogy that works best for me is the thought that we have moved forward, quite rapidly, along the spectrum of garnering knowledge of the laws of nature and how they operate on everyday life. We are now in the shrinking fractional endgame so to speak. The problem is that fractions shrink to infinity, thus making it ever more near impossible to get to the complete epistemological structure. No great leaps, but millions of incrementally tiny steps must be taken. Brain research already shows us that infant humans conceptualize, and quickly learn to textualize, the world around them. The tiny steps are getting smaller and smaller.

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  34. max says:

    I will repeat my objection from the last post. It is largely semantic, but I think important. You say that “the microscopic laws exist, and work, and are complete within their realms of validity. And second, that we know what those laws are. There’s nothing in the everyday world that is inconsistent with Standard Model particles obeying the rules of quantum field theory, plus general relativity to describe gravity.” I completely agree with this statement, barring the problem of consciousness (you need to be much more careful here, as others have noted). However, it seems a slight abuse of language to claim that this implies that we understand all of the macroscopic laws. If we truly understood the laws, then we would know why those laws exist, and why nature picked out our set of physical laws instead of some other laws. If you simply changed the word “understood” to “known” I would find your statement much more palatable.

    Also, the hard problem of consciousness is hard enough that you should definitely leave it out of this analysis. I know that many people will agree with you when you say that consciousness can be fully described by currently understood fundamental interactions, but many others won’t (see for example David Chalmers). Since there is a strong disagreement in this area, and since you presumably don’t have expertise here, you shouldn’t state with such certainty that your view is right.

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  35. jpd says:

    i am just saying the pinhead people thought that was the best theory of reality.
    i am not sure if i am a pinhead.

    (see also leeches, alchemy, etc)

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  36. Tony Arcieri says:

    I see lots of responses in the vein of: “New physics might be required to understand consciousness”

    That argument can be made about any problem. Consciousness isn’t special. What matters is evidence. There is no evidence than anything more than classical mechanics is involved in brain function. Beyond that, there is no reason to believe that consciousness is anything more than the result of brain function.

    The closest any have come to creating a scientific basis for non-classical brain function is the second round of Penrose/Hameroff Orch-Or, after their original proposals regarding the effect of quantum decoherence were refuted by Max Tegmark. The next round of Orch-Or merely hypothesizes a mechanism whereby quantum mechanics could maybe possibly impact brain function in a non-classical manner, and their proposal cannot be immediately be refuted. However, that’s no different from saying God is there, he just exists outside our light cone. Sure, we can’t outright say that Penrose/Hameroff are *WRONG*, but there is absolutely zero evidence of their position whatsoever, so there’s absolutely no reason to think they’re right.

    Materialism is the only scientific way to approach the problem of consciousness, and the computational theory of mind best fits the available evidence. Other proposals, particularly ones involving quantum mechanical doorways to magical metaphysical consciousness land, are completely without evidence and there’s absolutely no reason for a scientific thinker to support them over classical models. On rare occasions biology has managed to tap into distinctly quantum mechanical behavior, but in the case of consciousness there’s absolutely no reason and no evidence which would lead us to conclude that “new physics” or even quantum mechanics are required to understand the problem.

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  37. jpd says:

    actually alchemy is a better example.
    Newton was an alchemist, he obviously thought it was the
    best theory of nature, but it was wildly wrong.

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  38. Scott_Bot says:

    @jpd “it was alchemy that provided corpuscular theorists with the experimental means to debunk scholastic theories of perfect mixture and to demonstrate the retrievability of material ingredients.” (Newman, 2006)

    Alchemy was actually pretty important for chemistry and corpuscular (particle) physics, so your claims don’t hold. Also, just because someone does good science in one field doesn’t mean they do it in all fields.

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  39. Mike says:

    “Newton was an alchemist, he obviously thought it was the
    best theory of nature, but it was wildly wrong.”

    Alchemy was clearly wrong in many respects — but it was a forerunner to modern chemistry — and some of its conclusions regarding basic elements and the scientific process were great advancements — much better than chants, prayers and the like. Of course, modern chemistry is “much closer” to reality than alchemy. :)

    Oh, I just saw Scott-Bot #38’s comments — exactly

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  40. Pingback: The Distorting Effect of Scientific Revolutions | The Finch and Pea

  41. max says:

    Tony Arcieri, could you please provide one piece of evidence that materialism is right and that it can solve the hard problem of consciousness? Has anyone come up with a reasonable theory for how fundamental physics can give rise to _subjective_ experience? If so, I would very much like to hear about it.

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  42. eukaryote says:

    I think consciousness IS special, because a conventionally physical description of the brain, no matter how detailed, is going to still be a description of conventionally physical properties, in conventional physical terms, that can be expressed mathematically. The contents of conscious experience on the other hand, don’t appear to be susceptible to being modeled by those same physical terms. That’s not to say that they aren’t physical, but certainly not in any way that we currently understand.

    If we acknowledge that phenomenological experience is indeed something that merits an explanation, (which I think is unassailable), then we have to accept that there is more to nature than just what is currently described in our physical models.

    Please see Galen Strawson “Consciousness And Its Place In Nature” for a lively discussion of these issues, if not for a full-on endorsement of panpsycism.

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  43. Mike says:

    “could you please provide one piece of evidence that materialism is right and that it can solve the hard problem of consciousness? Has anyone come up with a reasonable theory for how fundamental physics can give rise to _subjective_ experience? If so, I would very much like to hear about it.”

    The computer through which you posted your comment is one piece of evidence that materialism is right. ;) Regarding consciousness, science will answer this question in time — it is after all making great progress, which is only increasing in speed. In the meantime you are free of course to posit some non-material, God, spirit, the perpetual unknown or whatever, to fill in what will inevitably turn out to be a temporary gap in our knowledge.

    “there is more to nature than just what is currently described in our physical models”

    Of course there is. Sean said this a number of times and no one disputes it. Our physical models will improve — you can count on it. Will we ever know everything there is to know — I don’t believe that’s possible. But, we will know how and why consciousness arises, and it will be physical, albeit emergent and not merely reductionist.

    “Without the *why*, all we have is the power to predict”

    Agreed, what we ultimately seek are explanations and not merely predictions. All of the best science through the ages has made progress in this regard — and that process will continue.

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  44. MT-LA says:

    @bittergradstudent (#28): Thanks for the response, but its not really what I was asking. You said we understand *how* time changes, meaning you can predict it, with a high level of accuracy I might add. And I agree with you.

    But I was asking if we understand *why*.

    The analogy: I can predict that you’re going to move the king because your opponent just said “check”, but I don’t know why you’re going to do it.

    Without the *why*, all we have is the power to predict. Without *why*, I don’t think I would call it “understanding”.

    In hindsight, I suppose this is a category-2 question, which means it’s already been addressed in the eyes of the moderator.

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  45. Sergiy Koshkin says:

    “What I meant was that we have a clear set of rules that are unambiguously obeyed. That’s also true for the Second Law — it was explained by Boltzmann. Sure, we have to invoke a low-entropy boundary condition at the Big Bang…”

    I am not sure what exactly was explained by Boltzmann. The Second Law remains inconsistent with the Poincare recurrence theorem among other things. Assuming that the universe can be treated as a closed Hamiltonian system, low-entropy initial state does not help. According to the Liouville equation, entropy should remain constant, not increase, for any initial state. Boltzmann’s derivation of the H-theorem is mathematically erroneous, as was pointed out by Zermelo and Poincare, and the theorem itself is false without an extra assumption, equivalent to what it attempts to prove. I don’t think you are referring to Boltzmann’s giant fluctuation hypothesis either. So far statistical mechanics has been unable to reconcile the second law with Hamiltonian dynamics, although I would agree that the problem is largely academic.

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  46. jpd says:

    all i am saying is i wouldn’t be surprised if one of our
    assumptions for basic physical laws was wrong.

    its happened before.
    you can say its the forerunner to whatever is next
    if it makes you feel better.

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  47. Tevong says:

    Sean all I can say is I admire your patience. Your post leaves no room for misinterpretation yet somehow…

    I think you’ll be sympathetic to Asimov’s excellent writing on “the relativity of wrong”, in which he is responding to essentially the same criticisms you’re facing:

    http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

    Some short excerpts:

    “It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight.

    I didn’t go into detail in the matter, but what I meant was that we now know the basic rules governing the universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What’s more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930.

    The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. “

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  48. Alan says:

    Hi

    I know you say that “bending spoons across large distances would qualify” and I certainly could relate an account observed by Professor Arthur Ellison (electrical engineering, City University) and Arthur Koestler or one observed in Professor Hasted’s lab at Birkbeck College, London University! Next post? ;)

    But (anyway) how about the famous remote perturbing of a highly shielded (electrically, magnetically, thermally, and deeply buried) magnetometer used in a quark detection experiment? (when it was thought quarks could maybe exist singly).
    This was an unannounced “test” on the artist Ingo Swann by Dr. Hal Puthoff at Stanford University in 1972. Some other physicists involved said to the effect that it would be impressive if Swann could disturb this device. Swann did this three times (the results were measured) then drew a pretty good diagram of the (unpublished) details of the device. After this the device functioned normally, nicely cycling to order.

    This is very curious. How could a human being initiate this effect and also see the apparatus? Swann, quite nontechnical in his qualifications, really saw this buried highly technical device.
    And why should he be able to see it? This is crucial.

    The full account is at:

    http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_10_1_puthoff.pdf

    For a pleasant talk by Dr. Puthoff precisely on this paper (with the magnetometer perturbation data):

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2261890462723894860#

    This result led to the beginning of the Stanford Research Institute CIA-funded remote-viewing programme, 1972-1985 (Puthoff’s studies). Ingo Swann was one of the top RVers recruited.

    The point is that people can accurately “see” across space (and time – the experiments showed). Are there aspects of known physics that explain this or is new physics being revealed here? This is a fair question. Perhaps the disturbance of the magnetometer can be explained, but the actual visualisation of the magnetometer suggests something else is involved.
    And of course, if we all have this ability to some degree, then this qualifies as an everyday life phenomenon.

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  49. Pete says:

    Can I somehow get a discover science RSS feed that excludes Sean’s posts? I’m tired of him wasting my time with this self-evident crap.

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  50. James says:

    So why are things solid, then?

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  51. Lab Lemming says:

    Yawn.

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  52. bittergradstudent says:

    @MT-LA #44:

    ‘why’ is a slippery thing. What is a perfectly fine ‘why’ for me may not be for you. General relativity, when given sufficiently clear initial conditions, gives me a model that describes the properties of time. The ‘why does time progress like this’ question can be answered by saying ‘because I live in a universe with an observed matter content X, and that also obeys Einstein’s equation”. From there, I can then say everything I need to know about time, barring effects of quantum gravity.

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  53. Ixn says:

    We cannot model biomolecules, we cannot model atomic nuclei, we cannot model individual events only their statistical properties, we cannot predict masses and other SM parameters, we don’t know why 3+1 dimensions – all critical issues for everyday life. Yes, we have some laws, great, unfortunately they are mostly useless because things get too complex before we get meaningful results. This also means that we cannot know if the laws are indeed all that is needed or if we are only deluding ourselves.

    All in all I don’t understand the point of these posts, if you were the one who contributed to those laws that would be one thing, or if your generation contributed at least, but you are talking about things that were already known 50 years ago. It was time to celebrate back then, now we should lament the lack of further progress instead.

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  54. Tony Arcieri says:

    @eukaryote consciousness is by definition metaphysical, so conjecture about whether consciousness is ultimately materialistic is irrelevant in a physics discussion but rather a philosophical matter. What matters in a discussion of the science behind consciousness is whether or not consciousness is the result of brain function, and whether brain function is classical or quantum mechanical. There’s no evidence consciousness is the result of anything but brain function, and there’s no evidence that brain function involves anything but classical mechanics. Conversely, there’s ample evidence consciousness is the result of brain function (e.g. results of brain damage, comas, various subjective changes in consciousness resulting from changes in brain function), and according to the best available knowledge in neuroscience, biology, and physics, the behavior of the brain is explained by classical mechanics.

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  55. réalta fuar says:

    I can’t disagree with Sean’s ideas here, I just don’t happen to think they’re particularly interesting (and they are smug, but when has he been anything else?). I even agree with his idea that no new physics will be needed to explain consciousness, but I think he wildly overestimates the popularity of that view. Minds as good as that of Roger Penrose, to name one, would disagree.

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  56. Waveforms says:

    @bittergradstudent
    “From there, I can then say everything I need to know about time, barring effects of quantum gravity.”

    Maybe you should ask more of physics.

    How long is ‘now’? What is ‘now’? If Time is an emergent property, how does it emerge? Into how many dimensions does ‘now’ act upon? How does ‘now’ relate to the collapse of the wavefunction of the universe? Is ‘now’ a quantum computing operation? Over how wide a distance? Into infinite space? How could that be?

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  57. CIP says:

    Sean said – “A century ago it was very easy to point to features of everyday life that were in blatant contradiction to physics as it was then understood. ”

    Make it 130 years and I can’t see what. Stability of tables? There was no reason to doubt it in those preatomic days. The shining of the Sun – heating by gravitational contraction looked preety good. Remember, by your own standard, simply not being fully understood doesn’t count – you need clear evidence of contradiction, and that was still to come.

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  58. bittergradstudent says:

    @waveforms:

    There are many different notions of ‘now’ depending on how you want to formulate the question. Most of them don’t have anything to do with fundamental physics. Certainly that’s not a relevant question in general relativity, where a notion of a directional time pops out of the Minkowski signature as clearly as day.

    Finally, you can’t really talk about the ‘wavefunction of the universe’ without some sort of quantum gravity. And there, you would expect little packets of coherence showing up on Planck scales at the largest.

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  59. onymous says:

    Waveforms wrote:

    How long is ‘now’? What is ‘now’? If Time is an emergent property, how does it emerge? Into how many dimensions does ‘now’ act upon? How does ‘now’ relate to the collapse of the wavefunction of the universe? Is ‘now’ a quantum computing operation? Over how wide a distance? Into infinite space? How could that be?

    You left out: How soon is ‘now’? When you say it’s gonna happen ‘now’, well when exactly do you mean?

    (See, I’ve already waited too long.)

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  60. waveforms says:

    @bittergradstudent

    I read Sean’s question as “what is everyday but we cannot describe with existing physical theories” I don’t think you are restricting the set of relevant phenomena to those that we can describe with existing equations. That would dilute Sean’s argument.
    “Hey look, we can describe all phenomena with Maths!, execpt for the ones we cannot describe with maths” I don’t think that is what Sean is saying.

    Sure most descriptions of ‘now’ are psychological descriptions, but ‘now’ is the only aspect of Time that we have direct experience with. And all timelines are asumptions of a series of nows, which we have no clue how to define.

    Imagine a bug is riding on a light beam and flies between you and the computer screen. His time is much slower than yours, so every now point he has maps to a line (series of now moments) in your time line. So what is the length of ‘now’? Is it defined by the collapse of the wavefuntion? How can it have two different relationships to the collapse of the wavefuntion in a two foot cube of space? How could it not? So forget about consciousness, you still have a problem defining what the fundamental components are in a timeline.

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  61. Thanny says:

    Sean’s claim is pretty straightforward and correct. Those objecting fall into two categories that I can see:

    1) Those that don’t really know the underlying physical principles currently understood, and how they generally apply to everyday life. They are incompetent to judge their applicability ala Dunning-Kruger.

    2) Those who are ignorant of the history of science, and don’t appreciate just how many complete and utter mysteries have been solved in principle or practice over the past several hundred years.

    Think of radioactive decay or spectral absorption. Suddenly we knew what the sun was made of, and what the source of its power was. The Earth’s age was no longer limited by its temperature (ala Kelvin), and the composition of objects light years away became measurable.

    I suppose there might be a third category, populated by those who think supernatural concepts are meaningful (they aren’t), but that’s really a separate issue – if you can’t understand that there’s no such thing as the supernatural (existence in someone’s imagination is not sufficient evidence for existence in reality), you can’t really understand the point Sean is making.

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  62. Ray says:

    @57 CIP

    130 years ago (1880) was not pre-atomic (Dalton gave good evidence for atoms as early as 1808.) Nonetheless atomic theory was controversial among physicists until the early 20th century.

    There were also well known contradictions between known physical law and known natural history — lord kelvin’s estimate for the age of the earth was uncomfortably short for geologists and biologists

    Olber’s paradox was formulated in 1823 (Kelvin proposed an incorrect solution in 1901 )

    In short, nothing even remotely resembling the post 1960s consensus on basic physical law in normal regimes existed in 1880.

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  63. Marshall says:

    There are several ways in which the Physics of everyday life could be not fully understood :

    – we might not understand the laws we have
    – there might be subtle effects from a deeper law that modify the laws we have
    – there might be new laws, new areas of physics, that at present we don’t even realize

    I agree that it is not too useful to postulate a “physics of the gaps” – i.e., if we don’t currently have a model for X, that does not necessarily imply that X requires new physics. That’s only useful if there is good evidence that X CANNOT be modeled with existing physics, not just if it HAS not been. It is, in my opinion, more useful to look in the past, and see ways where new physics entered into previous understanding. If you look back in the past, all three of the above situations have happened.

    We may not understand the laws we have. The laws of Newtonian gravitation and Newtonian mechanics have been known for 300 years, and in some ways Newtonian gravity and mechanics seem simple, but it took about 2 centuries to understand the statistical physics of thermodynamics – or even that it was needed. Likewise, chaos theory (which is important in such a mundane field as weather prediction) was not discovered for a century after the laws of fluid motion were understood, and such a great scientist as van Neumann neither expected it, nor understood its significance. Chaos in solar system dynamics was anticipated by Poincare a century ago, but is still not fully understood (in my opinion).

    There may be subtle effects of new physics we are currently ignoring. The case of General Relativity illustrates the case where there were subtle effects that indicate new laws, but that are passed over. I often wonder how long celestial mechanics could have dealt with the perihelion precession of Mercury without relativity (say, by postulating a rapidly rotating solar interior). It was only when we started dealing with the timing, as well as the direction, of photons, that Newtonian physics failed in ways that couldn’t realistically be fudged without a new theory. Of course, in actual history the theory came first, and the need for it only became apparent later. (You could say that General Relativity itself is not needed for “the physics of everyday life,” but then you must consider GPS receivers to be exotic and unusual.)

    There may be new physics that we will only discover once we start looking with new techniques or tools. The case of quantum mechanics illustrates that new, fundamental, laws, may require new methods of observations to be detected. It is hard to see quantum effects at a human, everyday, scale, but if you start building (say) television tubes, they become hard to miss. (Note that, as with the GPS system, what constitutes “everyday life” itself can change dramatically with time.)

    So, are one or two or all three of the above cases operating now ? All you can say is, maybe. Maybe the EPR / Bell’s Theorem results do indicate some sort of action at a distance. Maybe Penrose is right, and there is some new physics associated with consciousness. Maybe dark matter has some small, but detectable, effect in geophysics or even biology. Maybe advancing computer simulations will reveal some emergent property we didn’t expect in some physical law we thought we understood. (Consciousness may result from such an emergent property.) Most likely, probably, is that any new physics will be in some area we don’t anticipate. I have guesses and opinions about these things, but that’s all that they are. That’s what’s fun about this – you don’t know until you look.

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  64. OXO says:

    Whilst it would be interesting to understand the macro effect of the laws, what would be more interesting is understanding why there are such laws, and what are their origins.

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  65. AI says:

    Sean: “What would be a refutation of my claim that we understand the laws underlying everyday phenomena? Easy: point to just one example of an everyday phenomenon that provides evidence of “new physics” beyond the laws we know. Something directly visible that requires a violation of general relativity or the Standard Model. That’s all it would take, but there aren’t any such phenomena.”

    That’s only because physicists convinced themselves that laws they didn’t manage to find simply cannot exist.

    In reality there are giant holes in our understanding, the biggest one is that we don’t have any laws governing single events – all of quantum physics describes only statistical properties of collections of events. We cannot explain or predict or describe what happens in the case of a single event, for example when a particular atom will decay and why then and not earlier or later, there are laws there waiting to be discovered.

    Of course it is now fashionable to claim that such laws cannot exist and that the process is acausal, but it is a laughable attempt to mask our own ignorance as there is no proof whatsoever to support such a claim. The fact that you can describe the results of a dice roll using probability doesn’t mean that there is no more physics there beyond probability. In the same way the fact that quantum theory can predict probabilities is in no way a proof that there are no underlying deterministic laws governing the outcomes.

    Acausality is an extraordinary claim (which hardly makes sense) and therefore requires extraordinary evidence, until we have such evidence we have to conclude that it is most likely false and that there are still fundamental laws governing our reality waiting to be discovered.

    A century ago (or at any other time for that matter) people could also have claimed (and many probably did) that all the still unexplained phenomena were simply random – there were no more laws to be discovered and therefore physics new them all – of course that would have been a preposterous claim to make and it is just as preposterous now.

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  66. Gordon says:

    Moshe (17) I agree, but think that tells us all something about the reliability of the anthropic
    principle in its varied obfuscating, tautologous, anthropocentric uses.

    Alan (48)…it is so easy to fool scientists—ask Randi—and in 1972, wasn’t Puthoff a Scientologist?
    I remember a story Frank Wilzcek told about asking Murray Gellman about Feynman’s partons—Gellman looked pensive, then confused, then brightened and said ” Feynman’s put-ons.?..you must mean quarks.” IMHO Putoff is a Puton. Same goes for Sheldrake’s morphological fields, Ben Veniste’s “water memory”, and stuff by Brian Josephson post his junction. Koestler was famously credulous. Read some Medawar for therapy. There must be other blogs where folks can empathize with this stuff–perhaps one hosted by Deepak Chopra. Often quite famous people, as they age, or even before, can go rather strange. Julian Schwinger in the last few years of his life was convinced by cold fusion.

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  67. wolfgang says:

    >> the stability of chairs and tables

    so why are chairs and tables really stable?
    one necessary ingredient is that neutrons are slightly heavier than protons, otherwise H atoms would decay into neutrons.
    why are neutrons slightly heavier than protons?

    unfortunately we don’t know, because we have no clue why particle masses are what they are.

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  68. John says:

    Sean argues: “What would be a refutation of my claim that we understand the laws underlying everyday phenomena? Easy: point to just one example of an everyday phenomenon that provides evidence of “new physics” beyond the laws we know. Something directly visible that requires a violation of general relativity or the Standard Model. That’s all it would take, but there aren’t any such phenomena.”

    Ok, what about free choice? To invoke once more the chess game analogy: GR and the SM combined describe a game of chess in which the players have no choice.

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  69. Keith Harris says:

    Sorry if someone already made this point…

    Isn’t the definition of “everyday life” changing all the time? I bet you’ve seen someone in the street recently who is only alive because of a sophisticated hospital scanner. Are we saying you can completely explain their presence using physics rules we’ve completely understood?

    “Everyday life” for the researcher tinkering with quantum computing may be full of screens of output that theorists have differing explanations for. Which of us would turn down a chance to play tetris on a quantum computer just because the underlying physical rules weren’t completely established.

    It’s a moving target.

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  70. Alex R says:

    While I largely agree with Sean’s point of view, I’ll make a slightly different quibble than others have made so far: Sean includes among the rules that are “fully understood” (if not clear in all of their consequences) the rules of relativistic quantum mechanics — quantum field theory. But I don’t believe that they _are_ understood, at least not in the same way that non-relativistic qm or classical general relativity are understood. We do understand how to do perturbation theory, but that is only approximate. We can do nonperturbative qft on the lattice, but we don’t actually know whether this converges. (We suspect it does, in the case of Yang-Mills theory, but this is an unsolved problem. Yang-Mills-Higgs is even more suspect, due to the fundamental scalar.)

    So this is different from chess, where we understand the rules well enough that with arbitrarily powerful computers, we could determine the outcome of any game, and different from classical physics, where we know “in principle” how to calculate quantities to any desired accuracy.

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  71. CIP says:

    Ray – Remember Sean’s own criterion, a clear contradiction to known physical laws in the physics of ordinary life – none of your examples meet those two stringent tests. Olbers then was no more “ordinary life” than dark energy is today. Atoms were not fully understood, but the contradictions were not yet evident – nor were their reality. Geology had no absolute dating, so the problems with the age of the Sun were still up in the air.

    That said, I am pretty sure Sean is right – just not as sure as he is. I think that a century from now it is at least possible that physicists will look back and say something like – those dummies, couldn’t they see that the mass of the neutron (or muon, or something – as Wolfgang points out) was a clear signal that the SM was fatally incomplete.

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  72. wolfgang says:

    >> a clear contradiction to known physical laws in the physics of ordinary life
    ok, so Sean has reduced his claim to “consistent with the standard model + GR”.
    but the problem is that the standard model + GR is not fully consistent itself
    and as we all know, it contains several unexplained parameters (this was the point I made above).

    So, in which sense do we “understand the laws underlying everyday life” ?

    Also, does the Pioneer spacecraft count as an object of everyday life?

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  73. Maurice says:

    I have a counter-argument worth considering that may appeal to the philosopher-scientist in you:
    It is entirely conceivable that more that one set of laws explain the set of phenomena we see in our “daily lives”. Whilst you may argue that this is irrelevant and leads to untestable hypotheses, consider that establishing the laws of physics is about prediction of future situations. Just like Newtonian gravity is no longer a “sufficient explanation of everyday life” once we start launching large numbers of satellites and using highly precise clocks, so might the standard model of physics perhaps turn out to be insufficient with widespread quantum computing. The way to avoid such a phenomenon is with physics research beyond everyday life phenomena, which is of course partly the motivation behind CERN and much space research.

    So yes, perhaps we now fully understand everyday phenomena. But there is a real risk that at any moment some new “everyday phenomenon” overturns some basic law or theory of physics.

    (My argument is, incidentally, a specific-case adaptation of Hume’s view on the limitations of empirical science – as much as I would love to take credit for it myself.)

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  74. Fernando says:

    I wish people would apply to this kinds of discussions the same common sense that they apply to their everyday lives. But for some reason they don’t, they like to throw it all away for the sake of sustaining some exoteric argument.

    Here is what I’m talking about: that third example in which the person calls for some unknown laws of physics that could apply to the human brain because of how complex it is.

    Common sense is just thrown away. How is that? Well, if someone steals your wallet in a crowded concert, it is going to be nearly impossible to find out who did it. If I tell you that your wallet wasn’t stole by the people around you, but rather, by an invisible gnome, what would be your reaction? Most likely you’d think I stole it.

    For everyday life people dismiss the absurd explanations, but when things enter the realm of the unknown, common sense is discarded as some people seemingly latch on explanations that are emotionally satisfying.

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  75. Ray says:

    @69 John — the “problem” of free choice was adequately answered by Hume nearly 300 years ago. Basically, the solution is that the sort of free will we actually have doesn’t contradict determinism, let alone the looser regularity of quantum mechanics. We do things for a reason. If you really think behavior is totally unpredictable, you’re deluding yourself. The fact that some people still believe in acausal free will is no more problematic for modern physics than the fact that some people still believe in ghosts.

    @74 Maurice — quantum computing is not based on anything beyond the standard model.

    @72 CIP. I see where you’re coming from. I do think though, it’s very different to claim that there’s no conflict between chemistry and physics for example now than it was to make the same claim in 1870 or whatever. 19th century physics didn’t even make heuristic predictions about what chemistry could plausibly be like, wheras modern physics predicts lots of things about chemistry even if the details of complex molecules are worked out empirically. I also don’t think most late 19th century physicists shared Kelvin and Michelson’s view that the future of physics lay in ever more precise measurement of the principles we already understood, while I think most prominent physicists since Feynman would agree with what Sean is saying here.

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  76. John says:

    @76 Ray, can you give a definition of free will that is compatible with determinism?
    A consequence of QM is the free will theorem. In loose terms: no matter how you define ‘free will’ if QM is valid, free will can exist only if elementary particles have it as well. The conclusion seems inevitable: our current laws of physics (QM+GR) simply are in contradiction with our day-to-day experience of free will.

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  77. John says:

    Sean: “A century ago it was very easy to point to features of everyday life that were in blatant contradiction to physics as it was then understood.”

    Can you give examples please?

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  78. JimV says:

    A definition of free will that is compatible with determinism (so easy that even I, a layman, can do it): free will is the illusion that if your life were lived over in exactly the same way (including a blank slate of memory at birth), and all external events transpired in exactly the same fashion, that you would make different decisions. Thanks to the random, acausal nature of quantum-level events in this, and in any good universe, such an experiment is not possible even in principle, so this illusion is free to maintain itself in the minds of those who would like to believe it.

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  79. nebur says:

    @78 Hey, John, here’s a suggestion: read.

    Sean’s last paragraph starts with:
    “A century ago, that would have been incredibly easy to do; the world of Newtonian mechanics plus Maxwell’s equations wasn’t able to account for why the Sun shines, or why tables are solid.”

    But if that’s not enough, you can also go to his original post (September 23rd) and read:
    “A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?””

    Let’s not just ask the same (already answered) questions over and over again…

    Btw, great sequence of posts, Sean. I can only agree.

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  80. John says:

    Hey nebur, that is not a very helpful answer.
    I hoped Sean had something more convincing in mind. All the examples you quote would a century ago have been classified in the category “the detailed way in which everything plays out”, but not as a contradiction to “the underlying principles”.

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  81. John says:

    @79 JimV, that I would not call a definition, but rather a denial of the concept of free will.

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  82. MT-LA says:

    That’s a great one: mass! Every other physical measurement has been defined in relation to a constant.
    Q: How fast am I going?
    A: Some percentage of the speed of light through a vacuum…anywhere.

    Q: How much mass do I have in zero gravity.
    A: Some multiple of a piece of platinum (with a little bit of iridium) that itself is losing a little bit of mass all the time. IE, I don’t know.

    So…how well do we understand the physics of everyday life if we can’t define the kilogram unambiguously?

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  83. Ray says:

    @John
    “can you give a definition of free will that is compatible with determinism?”

    Free will is the ability to do what you want to.

    This in more specific, but by no means completely rigourous terms implies that your mental process can be divided into subprocesses that
    1) form desires (this need not be done randomly, and indeed it is not — pretty much everyone wants food shelter and sex although it’s more complicated, since we’re highly social animals)
    2) model the likely result of possible actions (possible in the sense that causing them to happen would not require any changes to your anatomy outside of the brain)
    3) compare the results of possible actions with the results of the desire generation process and pick the one with the best fit.

    As far as Conway’s free will theorem — it rather begs the question in that it assumes free will has something to do with indeterminism.

    For more info read some Hume, some Dennett, or the wikipedia entry on compatibilism.

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  84. Waveforms says:

    @ Thanny

    Since we are talking about everyday problems, what are the fundamental components of that day? Is it a second? a minute?

    That would be like asking for the fundamental components of a table and being told it was centimeters.

    >>1) Those that don’t really know the underlying physical principles currently understood, and how they generally apply to everyday life.

    Which theory did I miss that defines the fundamental unit of time?

    >>2) Those who are ignorant of the history of science, and don’t appreciate just how many complete and utter mysteries have been solved in principle or practice over the past several hundred years.

    The history of science reveals that one of it’s greatest thinkers worked in a patent office and was not dependent upon the support of ‘respected scientist’ to pay the rent. Large stable communities with histories are great for many reasons but radical innovation is not usually one of them. wikipedia: skunkworks

    >>3) a third category (existence in someone’s imagination is not sufficient evidence for existence in reality)

    The best part of any Phd program is when the student realizes that it is their job to create reality. A reality that springs forth from imagination.

    Science has made a lot of progress but everyday magic remains. The definition of the relationship of time to the collapse of the wave function of the universe will probably require new physics. It is hard to say it will, it’s hard to say it won’t. However, if you shut yourself off to the question you certainly won’t be the one to come up with the answer. It is a bit unsettling how many people are jumping at the chance to stop asking questions.

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  85. Erik says:

    @Alan: You’re certainly right that e.g. “remote viewing” would qualify as a violation of everyday physics if it were actually happening. But remember that in the world of science, open and repeatable results and consensus in the community is what is important at the edge of science. And these remote viewing experiments by the CIA definitely do not meet either of those criteria. That does not make them wrong, but it means that there is no reason to worry about them until there is enough repeatable evidence for the scientific community to take such results seriously. Even moreso given that some very prosaic explanation (e.g. when statistically examined, “remote viewing” is generally no more accurate than someone just guessing based on general information about some location) is quite possible.

    @Pete: Emprically, it is clearly not self-evident based on the number of comments to this and the previous post…

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  86. bittergradstudent says:

    @MT-LA

    That would be easy enough to change to ‘some multiple of the mass of the proton’. My understanding is just that contemporary measurements of the standard kilogram have a lower error than contemporary measurements of Avogadro’s number, and so the kilogram is a better standard for now.

    NIST and its European eqivalent are actually looking for a physical definition of mass as we speak.

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  87. John says:

    @84 thanks for the reply, Ray.

    Ray: “As far as Conway’s free will theorem — it rather begs the question in that it assumes free will has something to do with indeterminism.”

    I don’t think so. The free will theorem is just a reflection of the fact that in a universe that evolves in a way that is described by a unitary transformation in a Hilbert space, no free will can exist (unless you define free will as something that even an elementary particle posseses).

    Sean puts forward the challenge: “you would have to point to something the brain does that is in apparent conflict with the Standard Model or general relativity”. My response is: “freedom to chose”. Isn’t it obvious that free will is in conflict with unitary evolution (= very foundation of standard model)?

    Ray: “For more info read some Hume, some Dennett, or the wikipedia entry on compatibilism.”

    Compatibilism, libertarianism, etc: it’s all philosophical waffle. And that is my point: as long as things like free will remain in the realm of pre-enlightenment pseudo science, and are not successfully tackled by science (physics), we haven’t understood a thing about it.

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  88. nick herbert says:

    Source: Harvard professor Wendall Furry: “[In the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics] the existence and general nature of macroscopic bodies and systems is assumed at the outset. These facts are logically prior to the interpretation and are not expected to find an explanation in it.”

    Two clouds on the physics-explains-everyday-life horizon:
    1. the existence and general nature of macroscopic bodies;
    2. the variety of experiences associated with human consciousness.

    Other than these two clouds (and assuming masses and coupling constants to be God-given), modern physics really does seem to completely explain the everyday world.

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  89. Ray says:

    @john
    My definition of free will at least implies divisibility, which elementary particles do not possess.

    And yes, conway’s free will theorem as an argument against compatibilist free will does in fact beg the question. To quote the wikipedia page:

    “The definition of ‘free will’ used in the proof of this theorem is simply that an outcome is ‘not determined’ by prior conditions, and some philosophers strongly dispute the equivalence of ‘not determined’ with free will.”

    You ask “Isn’t it obvious that free will is in conflict with unitary evolution (= very foundation of standard model)?”

    No. The very existence of the compatibilist position implies that this statement is not obvious.

    You further state: “Compatibilism, libertarianism, etc: it’s all philosophical waffle. And that is my point: as long as things like free will remain in the realm of pre-enlightenment pseudo science, and are not successfully tackled by science (physics), we haven’t understood a thing about it.”

    You make a philosophical argument against the sufficiency of the standard model and then dismiss philosophy? and then you claim Hume is pre-enlightenment? Look, I’m not a huge fan of philosophy as a discipline — I think philosophers as a whole have been very bad about discarding bad ideas (libertarian free will being amongst them.) Nonetheless, a lot of good ideas have come out of philosophy. In particular you don’t need to know squat about physics to figure out that divine command theory, platonic idealism, libertarian free will etc. are non-starters. Nonetheless, people both within and especially outside of philosophy continue to expound these bad ideas as arguments against physics. Anyway, I don’t think you can dismiss philosophy. At least you need to recognize when the argument you are making against physics is philosophical rather than empirical.

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  90. theresnoonehere says:

    Sean, I’m not sure if this is answered in the previous 90 comments, but it didn’t seem to be, so I’m asking the question. As far as I can tell, you are trying to distinguish between:

    (1) the macro-level physics that is understood by some (maybe still very complicated) equations but maybe not understood as a phenomenon (i.e. turbulence), so that, in theory it is possible to still understand the phenomenon, and

    (2) the physics where we don’t understand what equations need to be used, so it is still not possible to even understand in theory what is going on.

    You are also (I think, but again am not sure) saying that everyday physics falls completely into the first category, not the second.

    If my understanding of what you are saying is true (and if it isn’t, please tell me), then I think a few parts of everyday physics (which sometimes seem like engineering questions and not physics at all!) fall into the second category, not the first. The three that immediately come to mind are:

    (a) shock waves
    (b) friction and
    (c) fluid flow around sharp corners.

    I know the standard answer to all of these is that “we can just use such-and-such equation and then numerically solve, blah, blah, blah” and that it seems that the question is actually part of the physics (1) not physics (2).

    *Except* that as far as I can tell the underlying equations are experimental assumptions, (like saying all shear must be linear), not built from sound physics, and as such are still not understood. This is different from the (for example) turbulence question, which is really a statement of “using a particular set of continuum equations, we can crank the parameters into murky and interesting territory.”

    I’m not trying to troll here, but am curious if you (or others) could explain the underlying (and hence totally well-understood, if possible) physics behind those three things that apparently I’m totally unaware of :-)

    Thoughts?

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  91. Alan says:

    Hi Erik @ 86

    Just to answer you, I’m afraid this subject gets quite complicated! This is from the perpective of a CIA officer (engineer):

    http://irva.org/library/articles/kress-pii.html

    The postive result of the magnetometer test on Ingo Swann (when he remote-viewed the device) is mentioned in paragraph 8. He concludes near the end of the article that although the reproducibility is poor, “experiments have successfully demonstrated abilities” … “but have not explained them”.

    The International Remote Viewing Association seem to be a serious and very current group:

    http://irva.org/conferences/speakers/index.html

    I personally think it goes like this. There are those (personal, research, military – “can do” types as the military are – I have known several) who have persistently investigated this phenomenon, formed groups, and tentatively found it real. The data is really in, although sporadic. And there are others who quite innocently don’t know about it, which is of course quite OK or do know and have an agenda, maybe personal or sinister, and criticize from these perspectives.
    But overall, from what they are saying here, it looks quite real to me.

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  92. MT-LA says:

    @bittergradstudent:
    I’m going to have a hard time making my point on this one because I dont have the technical terms on hand, but:

    Do you agree that all other measurement units (meter, second, volt, etc) have been defined in terms of invariant properties of nature (eg, the speed of light in a vacuum)?

    Do you agree that, as of right now, the NIST and others have no definition of mass that is traceable back to invariants of nature?

    The current standard might be very good, and the powers that be may be looking for a better standard, but I’m talking about physics. And if a basic property like mass can’t be defined unambiguously, then I think it’s presumptuous to say that “the underlying physics of everyday life are completely understood”.

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  93. Ray says:

    “Do you agree that, as of right now, the NIST and others have no definition of mass that is traceable back to invariants of nature?”

    No. There are plenty of available ways to define mass that are traceable back to invariants of nature. As it stands however, if we define mass in such a way we can only measure the mass of things to the nearest 50 parts per billion, while with the current definition by artifact we can measure masses to the nearest 20 parts per billion. This seems hardly a concern for fundamental physics.

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  94. ChuckWhite says:

    For Pete: Maybe you don’t need the machine to filter out Sean’s posts because they waste your time. Maybe, instead, it would be beneficial cranial exercise to save your valuable time by recognizing posts by Sean and not reading them.

    OTOH, I am surprised by the objections that were raised to your first posts, and some I see in comments to this one.

    While I am not a physicist, I follow it with interest for 45 years, and just enough knowledge to get most of it. What is most interesting to me is how easy it is for supposedly knowledge people to (almost purposefully) misunderstand the thrust of your assertion. How can anyone defend their pet quantum/micro niche when you clearly stated these articles are about our real, humanly observable world.

    Sure we know there are laws that appear contradictorily to what we humans see. But, it’s equally clear that they operate at a different level of observation. It’s impossible to pretend you have proposed that all knowledge has been discovered … why to otherwise knowledgeable imagine that what you assert?

    Tempest in a teacup. Nice articles Sean … Those inclined to stroke their own egos, need to go on a … er … trip and experience the real world (maybe a reading comprehension course wouldn’t hurt either).

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  95. MT-LA says:

    Ray: Thanks for the response.

    “There are plenty of available ways to define mass that are traceable back to invariants of nature”

    What is one of the ways? (No, I’m not asking for the full process…just the name, or the term, or whatever. Something that I can look up on my own so that I dont waste your time) Of course, if you feel like going into depth about one of them, I won’t begrudge you the chance.

    “[20 ppb] seems hardly a concern for fundamental physics.”

    So fundamental physics doesn’t care about an error of 20 parts per billion? That seems odd, but I’ll be satisfied with that answer unless a physicist objects.

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  96. Ray says:

    @MT-LA
    The intuitively easiest way is to define it as the mass of a certain number of atoms of carbon-12, say.

    The leading candidate though is the “electronic kilogram” which is measured by a multistep process.

    1) figure out the laboratory value of gravitational acceleration, g
    2) measure the weight of an object as compared to the magnetic force generated by a known current at a known distance. This is in turn compared to physical standard resistors and voltage sources.

    “So fundamental physics doesn’t care about an error of 20 parts per billion? That seems odd, but I’ll be satisfied with that answer unless a physicist objects.”
    measuring constants is more a concern for experimentalists than theorists.

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  97. CIP says:

    Nebur,

    I don’t think you or Sean are applying his criterion fairly. What aspect of Newtonian physics is contradicted by the non-collapse of tables? 1910 is a bad example, since quantum contradictions in atomic theory were already in the air, but even by 1910 there was no good reason to think tables should spontaneously collapse – for that you need the Rutherford atom. If you go back 120 years (or 150 or 300 years) , there is no aspect of everyday life that contradicts Newtonian physics

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  98. Colin says:

    I understand what you are saying. I remember in school when I learned that the periodic table was full and complete. Sure, people can tack on new elements on the end, but you never see those elements in real life. It was a hard fact to accept that everything was made of a finite number of known things. That is stunning, amazing progress.

    On the other hand, there are still major parts of everyday physics that are labeled “Thar be Dragons” on the maps. That does not mean that we don’t understand the fundamental governing laws (as you point out clearly and repeatedly), but it does give me pause. You write “…there is every reason to believe that an ultimate explanation will be obtained within the framework of the underlying laws we know, not from stepping outside that framework.” I am just not willing to make that leap, I guess.

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  99. Nullius in Verba says:

    “We actually do understand gravity: it is described by Einstein’s general relativity. Not deep down at the quantum level, of course, but that’s very far from the world of the “everyday.””

    That’s wrong. Quantum mechanics is the everyday. The classical universe we see is in fact an entirely quantum mechanical universe – gravity included – operating quantum mechanically at every level.

    Back in 1900 they knew perfectly well that their laws didn’t explain everything, but they just classified the things it didn’t explain as outside the domain of discussion, and regarded the rest as an approximation that was good enough that you could call it ‘the’ laws of physics. We have better approximations today, but are in fundamentally the same situation. We know that quantum mechanics and general relativity are inconsistent. We can see everyday effects of both of them. (Like gravity and computers.) We have approximations that are sufficient to predict/calculate anything we want, but we don’t actually know what the rules are.

    We see quantum mechanical effects like falling bricks appearing in a definite place and at a definite velocity (not classical – there are no classical effects), and need to explain why we do not see a blurry superposition. If the wavefunction really collapses to a definite point position, it’s subsequent velocity would be close to lightspeed – so clearly it doesn’t collapse all the way, and we can directly observe that fact. This is just the same sort of failure as the electrodynamic collapse of atoms – if you follow the theory to its ultimate conclusion, it makes no sense, but you can get round that by not following it down that path, and then declaring that the parts not marked ‘out of bounds’ are a complete explanation of the everyday.

    It is “closer to reality” in the same way that epicycles are closer to reality than perfect circular orbits.

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  100. bittergradstudent says:

    @Nullius:

    there are compelling theoretical reasons to believe that Quantum Gravity exists. But there is no definitive proof that semiclassical gravity is fundamentally false. Not one quantum gravitational phenomenon has ever been observed. At best, we’ve deduced that one has happened–the big bang. But we know so little about the very, very early universe, that it’s basically guesswork to say what happened in the full quantum gravitational regime of big bang cosmology.

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  101. Waveforms says:

    @Nullius in Verba

    +1. Another well written, and interesting comment.

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  102. Craig McGillivary says:

    So why should we pay COsmologists when we could be paying people to study brains? Shouldn’t we spend research dollars on scientific questions that effect our daily lives?

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  103. John says:

    @90 Ray, thanks for your reply.

    You state that I make a philosophical argument against the sufficiency of the standard model. That I object against. My observation is a direct consequence of the mathematical nature of QFT. Any physicist can tell you QFT is incapable of describing free will and consciousness. And it is not a matter of “not having a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world”. There is a huge difference between not understanding high-temperature superconductivity and not understanding free will. And Sean knows this.

    Forget about philosophers. They have no clue. Read Conway, read Penrose.

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  104. Boaz says:

    A point on the chess analogy to physics/science. In chess, the rules refer to the pieces and board we see that are quite easy to identify. In the standard model and general relativity, the rules refer to fields, and the connection to stuff we see around us is quite elaborate. So in addition to the rules of QFT and general relativity, we need rules to go from what we see to the elements in the standard model or a spacetime structure. And really, most of the time, we don’t end up with some SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) field in our explanations of everyday things. Its a part of the creativity, and difficulty of science to go from something we see/find, to an appropriate model for it.

    So, to continue the chess analogy, we might say that in addition to the rules of chess, we need to know how to identify the pieces and where they are on the board! Do we know the rules for this? I’m not sure. And this makes the whole claim that one can always find an explanation within the standard model/general relativity framework pretty hard to evaluate.

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  105. Ray says:

    @104 John
    It has neither been demonstrated empirically that we have free will in the sense required by Conway’s theorem nor has it been demonstrated that subatomic particles don’t have it. It is your philosophical assumptions that lead you to believe Conway’s theorem is a problem for QFT.

    I am also familiar with Penrose and the argument he first put forward in “the emperor’s new mind”. He’s a smart guy, but he badly misunderstands Godel’s theorem. see http://www.mth.kcl.ac.uk/~llandau/Homepage/Math/penrose.html
    (yes it has philosophical in the title, but it’s written by a mathematician.)
    I think Penrose eventually decided to save face by saying his ideas about the mind were merely speculations.

    In conclusion, High T superconductivity is indeed very different from contracausal free will and immaterial souls in that it actually exists.

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  106. John says:

    @106 Ray, let me try to summarize what we disagree upon (and then perhaps we can agree to disagree).

    Our current fundamental laws of physics don’t contain any elements that allow us to differentiate at a fundamental level between a lump of dead matter (e.g. a stone) and a brain. Agree?

    Your position seems to be: at a fundamental level there indeed is no difference between a stone and a brain, they both are lumps of matter that behave according to QFT. Right?

    My position, however, is: we haven’t yet discovered the fundamental laws of reality that describe both stones and brains. The laws we are currently working with provide excellent approximations to the behavior of stones (or turbulent flow, or high temperature superconductors, or …) but fail miserably when applied to brains.

    What is the likelihood that a century from now Sean will be the laughing stock of modern science? I don’t know, but surely I have no reasons to believe the likelihood is zero.

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  107. Ray says:

    “The laws we are currently working with provide excellent approximations to the behavior of stones (or turbulent flow, or high temperature superconductors, or …) but fail miserably when applied to brains. ”
    — i think this is exactly backwards. We can model individual neurons extremely well and it doesn’t even hint at anything more exotic than run of the mill quantum electrodynamics with semi-classical approximations kicking in at the molecular level. We can even track brain activity by predicting the exact radio frequency given off by atomic nuclei in oxygenated blood in a magnetic field (fMRI.) High T superconductivity is not nearly so well understood.

    “What is the likelihood that a century from now Sean will be the laughing stock of modern science? I don’t know, but surely I have no reasons to believe the likelihood is zero.”

    It’s certainly not zero, but he’ll be in good company — feynman and hawking at least have said similar things in the 60s and 80s respectively, and we’re still talking about the same theories they were.

    You’re advocating vitalism. It’s an old idea and the majority of physicists and chemists have denied it since at least the mid 19th century. They haven’t been proven wrong yet.

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  108. Bob says:

    There is no logical reason not to act as if free will exists. If free will exists then that is the only logical way to act and if free will does not exist then you are predestined to act as if it did exist.

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  109. Pingback: One Last Stab | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  110. Nullius in Verba says:

    #101,

    “there are compelling theoretical reasons to believe that Quantum Gravity exists. But there is no definitive proof that semiclassical gravity is fundamentally false. Not one quantum gravitational phenomenon has ever been observed.”

    Semi-classical gravity has to be fundamentally false, because it is not a fully integrated quantum theory. What I think you mean is that the false predictions it makes are outside the realm of the everyday (and indeed the experimentally achievable).

    And we have, of course, observed quantum gravity. All gravity is actually quantum gravity, so you observe it every time you drop something. Again, what I think you mean is that we haven’t observed a quantum gravity phenomenon that requires an explicitly quantum gravity explanation: one for which the semi-classical model gives false predictions.

    Having a theory that makes accurate predictions is different from knowing what the actual laws underlying the everyday world are. It is, in itself, a stunning achievement, but it is not the same. It is possible to be sure a theory will always give correct predictions in all the circumstances you can access, while knowing for certain that the theory is wrong.

    Any physical theory has a domain of validity – it makes accurate predictions within it; the existence of a complementary part outside it is acknowledged but otherwise avoided. We often have a patchwork of such theories that together predict over a wider range of circumstances, but which are mutually inconsistent. Before the 20th century, they had theories that explained why tables were solid, and theories that explained the forces between charged particles, and they knew that the two were not consistent with one another. Today, we have a single theory that covers both. That is indeed a major achievement. But the physics of the everyday is still a patchwork solution, even today.

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  111. bittergradstudent says:

    Why does everything in nature have to be a fully integrated quantum theory?

    We haven’t even directly observed gravitational waves, and you’re saying, with 100% certainty, that those degrees of freedom have to be quantized. Maybe we can just solve the back-reaction problem (and the in/out state problem in cosmology) in semiclassical gravity, and no experiment will ever be able to contradict the resulting predictions.

    There are compelling theoretical reasons to believe that this probably not work out–defining a stress-energy tensor is complicated with a quantum source and a classical field interacting with that source is tricky, to say the least, and there are apparent contradictions that can be derived.* But there are apparent contradictions that can be derived from QM and from special relativity, which just show that we’re asking the wrong questions.

    All we know about gravity at high energies is that it limits to gravity at low energies. And maybe we can be clever and say that it has something to do with cosmology.

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  112. Nullius in Verba says:

    I’m only saying that the real universe has to be consistent. So we know that any inconsistent patchwork has to be incorrect.

    Maybe you can solve the problems a different way – producing something that is not a quantum field theory of gravity in the currently understood sense, but is something else. Something that looks like quantum theory in one approximation and like general relativity in another, but is actually neither. Maybe one day you can find some sort of semi-classical theory that works, explaining how to stitch together a quantum superposition of differently curved mutually interfering vacua. I’m easy on the details. But you don’t have it yet. And until you do, you have an incomplete patchwork.

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  113. Marty says:

    If our best physical theories rely on postulates, does the fact that we formulate those postulates mean we understand what they postulate?

    One of the most ordinary attributes of the macroscopic world, and one that any person (educated or not) can observe, is that three spatial dimensions are sufficient to describe the relative positions of macroscopic objects. General relativity postulates a smooth differentiable manifold on which the metric can be determined if we know the stress-energy tensor over all of spacetime. The metric will have signature -+++, by assumption (and of course, because that is what agrees with observation). Since we have postulated 3 spatial dimensions, one time dimension, and a Lorentzian signature, does that mean we “understand” those facts? Sure, we observe that those postulates are apparently correct, at least macroscopically, but to say we “understand” those facts is contrary to what I think of as understanding.

    I think similar comments can be made about other parameters and postulates of our theories — do we understand them because we observe them, in the same sense that we understand gravity from general relativity?

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  114. Marty says:

    I should have posted my comment above in the more recent thread. I’ll repost it there.

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  115. John says:

    @Ray (108)
    I don’t see where I made any remarks that allow you to call me a vitalist. I am awaiting a next revolution in physics that will give us a handle on things like consciousness.

    See me as a medieval bystander who looks at Ptolemy’s models and shakes his head saying “there must be something better, a deeper physics law”. You tell me “this is it, there is nothing better, we have reached supreme understanding in planetary dynamics”.
    I am dreaming of physics developments centuries in the future (Newtonian physics, General Relativity) and you ask me why I believe in angels pushing the heavenly bodies.

    You totally missed my point.

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  116. Ray says:

    “My position, however, is: we haven’t yet discovered the fundamental laws of reality that describe both stones and brains. The laws we are currently working with provide excellent approximations to the behavior of stones (or turbulent flow, or high temperature superconductors, or …) but fail miserably when applied to brains. ”

    I don’t know about you, but I’d call that vitalism, or at least Cartesian dualism (maybe you think the standard model is fine for simulating a ficus plant but not a brain? How about a fly’s brain? — that’s already been completely mapped.)

    My position is that if we ever do find necessary and sufficient conditions for a system to be conscious (or at least to act like it is as far as the outside world is concerned) They will not include anything that cannot be satisfied by a Turing complete cellular automaton, and they certainly will not include a requirement for physics beyond the standard model.

    I think careful philosophical investigation is enough to figure out that the primary arguments against this position (free will, qualia) are incoherent. That said, the best evidence is that the last 200 years of physics, chemistry, biology and neurology has made considerable progress by assuming that human behavior is explained by brains made up of neurons which are made up of molecules and ions, which in turn are made up of atoms of the sort that have been fully categorized by quantum electrodynamics. Yes, we make approximations at each level of reduction, and we calibrate empirically when we can’t calculate a precise enough answer for something, but there’s not anything going on that even looks particularly implausible given the underlying laws. You think your brain is a quantum computer? Great. Solve an RSA challenge. Maybe you think there’s something else your brain can do that a computer can’t. It’s possible, but there’s been steady progress for problems that are well defined, and even some that aren’t (natural language processing comes to mind — Google translator is pretty good. It makes dumb mistakes from time to time, but then so did our last president.)

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  117. John says:

    Ray, vitalism postulates consciousness to be outside the realm of science. I consider consciousness within reach of physics but not contained in our current physics models. The difference is crucial, in particular in light of the discussion on Sean’s claim.

    If the standard model somehow describes consciousness, so does the game of life. To even entertain the thought that a large enough game of life could spring to life and develop consciousness, for me is just way beyond the boundary of irrationality.

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  118. Nullius in Verba says:

    Ray, John,

    If brains are capabable of experiencing qualia and brains are no more than matter moving in suitably complicated ways according to Standard Model rules (perhaps modified), then all matter is capable of experiencing qualia by following the same rules. The Standard Model explains the mechanics, but doesn’t describe how the sensation of experiencing it works.

    That’s sounds more like panpsychism than vitalism. Or maybe panprotoexperientialism…

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  119. Ray says:

    John
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vitalism

    The vitalism I accuse you of is definition 1, the vitalism you deny is definition 2.

    And yes, I believe a sufficiently large pattern in the game of life could behave as a conscious agent, but I don’t think you quite grok how large it would need to be or how slowly it would operate were it implemented using presently available technology.

    Nullius
    Your argument commits the fallacy of division: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_division

    You are certainly correct that if qualia are not identified with physical objects of some sort, we are faced with the uncomfortable conclusion that the reason we claim to have qualia is not because we have them. But, the qualia need not be simple objects.

    I think a more accurate way of describing what qualia are is as follows: a single person’s qualia are the primitive elements of a description of the universe in much the same way that quarks leptons and gauge bosons are the primitive elements of the standard model. I say it is a single person’s qualia, because if we admit another person’s qualia, inconsistencies can arise. If we describe a state of the universe where one person is looking at an fMRI of the other person and we claim the second person is experiencing a sensation other than what the fMRI says he is, we have uncovered a contradiction. (well, not a contradiction in the mathematical sense. The first person could be crazy. But if we suppose that the first person’s conscious experience contains enough of the clues we all use to confirm our own sanity, at some point Ockham’s razor kicks in.)

    Likewise, if we give a standard model account of what’s going on in the brain, and then we describe the qualia experienced by the owner of the brain, we have merely described the same thing twice in different language (although the second description may be incomplete.) In either case, the first description fully constrains what the content of the second can be. Furthermore, the whole of the standard model can be recovered from the conscious experience of any physics student who has learned it and has seen enough evidence to believe its predictions.

    I think the reason some people reject physical explanations of our qualia is that it’s hard to recognize the sensations we feel after they’ve been through two very ineffecient layers of re-encoding (the qualia described in the language of the standard model and the standard model described in the language of qualia).

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  120. Nullius in Verba says:

    Ray,

    I assume by fallacy of division, you mean that I say because part of the universe is sentient, it all is. But what I said was that because part of the universe is sentient, and that part is not fundamentally different in any physically meaningful way from any other part, that it all has the potential to be sentient – whether it constitutes a biological brain or not. Sentience has to be inherent in the laws of physics (which are not necessarily just the standard model), not in brains. Thus, it isn’t vitalism, because it’s not distinguishing brains or life generally from physics, and it’s not dualism, because it posits no material of mind distinct from matter, but it does assert an observed phenomenon – a property of matter – that does not appear to be explained/described by the current model of those laws.

    I didn’t say qualia were not identified with physical objects (simple or complex). Although as it happens I’d be more likely to identify them with abstract properties of patterns in the arrangements and interactions of those objects. And we have qualia irrespective of whether or not we claim to.

    There is nothing in the standard model to distinguish an entity with qualia from one without – what the philosophers call a zombie: a purely mechanical agglomeration of particles that looks, acts, thinks, and speaks like a person, that even claims to have qualia, but which is internally insensate – particles moving in mechanistic orbits like a baroque tape-recorder. It may be that such a thing is impossible; that anything that simulates a person with sufficient fidelity will have the sensation of being a person. But if so, it isn’t clear how or why from any description of how the particles will move.

    What people are rejecting are not physical explanations of qualia, but explanations of the experience of sensation in terms of descriptions of particle motions alone. “Physics” does not necessarily have to be identified with just the types and motions of particles. It may well be an implied consequence of those particle motions, but there does not appear to be anything in the standard model (other than the basic symmetry saying brains are nothing special) to say whether it is or not.

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  121. Ray says:

    Nullius:
    Ok. I may have misinterpreted you. I thought you were claiming subatomic particles had qualia or something to that effect.

    My position is that qualia does not provide evidence of macroscopically important physics beyond the standard model because

    1) there is certainly no reason to suppose that anything in the standard model prevents one from building a computer which would claim to have qualia and describe them in the terms humans generally do.

    2) once you accept 1, it’s very hard to accept that the qualia themselves are not accounted for by the standard model, since to do so would suppose that our claim that we have qualia does not arise from our observing the qualia but from an independent process.

    perhaps we do not in fact disagree.

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  122. Nullius in Verba says:

    Ray,

    1. I agree with. A tape recorder would do. Question is, is there anything in the standard model to stop one building a computer that actually experiences qualia?

    2. “…independent process” Independent of what? Physics? Or those aspects of physics described by the standard model?

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  123. Ray says:

    1) A tape recorder would not work. by describing qualia in human terms I don’t mean just giving a description and leaving it at that. I mean carrying on a conversation about it the way you do. I see no reason to doubt this is possible.

    2) I think I misphrased what I was trying to say here. Suppose we have a physical account within the standard model of why we claim to have qualia and defend that claim in the way we do. My feeling is that it’s a lot easier to imagine a satisfying explanation for that than a satisfying explanation for why we have qualia in the first place. However, given a standard model account for the behavior (claiming to have qualia and defending that claim vigorously in human terms) if we do not further accept that qualia can be accounted for by only standard model physics, then we are in the uncomfortable position of saying that our claim to have qualia is caused by something other than their actual existence.

    Now I think there’s a lot of good physics reasons for thinking nothing in our brain violates the standard model in any important way (it’s actually pretty hard to modify the standard model to get effects that would only be detectable in the brain) and good biology reasons to boot (biological processes that are very sensitive to small changes in chemistry tend not to be selected for, which means that what we’re looking for ought to be easy to produce in nature if it depends on fundamental physics rather than the complexity of biology.) I think in the end, it doesn’t seem that implausible that the reason we have trouble duplicating the exact structure of human thought is that it solves a very complicated problem which we really don’t understand (surviving and reproducing in a very complex environment which is made more complex by our fellow humans) and it seems very implausible that conditions in the brain make physics beyond the standard model important.

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  124. We think & create a meaning & purpose to our Life; it’s a structuring device in our lives. In a universe of absolute(c) & relative(0 to c) spatial instantaneous propagations that had no beginnings & has no endings it is foolish to assume to have a divine, 5- year planned meaning. Nevertheless humans must learn the real nature of reality&harmonize with it, if for no any other reasons than self/serving reasons…Valentine S. Goroshko,NYC

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