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.

  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.

  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.

  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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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?

  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.

  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!!!!

  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.

  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.

  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

  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.

  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.

  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…)

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  25. jpd says:

    “And they were right”

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

  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).

  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.

  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.

  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.

  30. jpd says:

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

  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?

  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/

  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.

  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.

  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)

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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. “

  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.

  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.

  50. James says:

    So why are things solid, then?