The Effective Field Theory of Everyday Life, Revisited

For some reason Nature News was inspired to tweet about my old blog post on Seriously, The Laws of Physics Underlying Everyday Life Are Completely Understood. Which I mentioned on Facebook, which led to an interesting comment, which I then mentioned on Google+… but now it’s substantive enough that I feel like I am neglecting our loyal blog readers! So here is a copy of my G+ comment, and a lament that I suck at proper use of the internet.

Not sure what brought this back to life. Like the Lord of the Rings, this is part of a trilogy; don’t miss the first installment, or the exciting conclusion.

As Michael Salem points out on an alternative social-media site (rhymes with “lacebook”), some of the resistance to this really quite unobjectionable claim comes from a lack of familiarity with the idea of a “range of validity” for a theory. We tend to think of scientific theories as “right” or “wrong,” which is hardly surprising. But not correct! Theories can be “right” within a certain regime, and useless outside that regime. Newtonian gravity is perfectly good if you want to fly a rocket to the Moon. But you need to toss it out and use general relativity (which has a wider range of validity) if you want to talk about black holes. And you have to toss out GR and use quantum gravity if you want to talk about the birth of the universe.

Just because there is something we don’t understand about some phenomenon (superconductivity, cancer, consciousness) does not imply that everything we think we know might be wrong. Sometimes we can say with confidence that certain things are known, even when other things are not.

Not only do theories have ranges of validity, but in some cases (as with the Standard Model of particle physics) we know what the range is. Or at least, we know where we have tested the theory and where we can be confident it is valid. The Standard Model is valid for all the particles and interactions that constitute our everyday existence.

Today we think of ourselves and the stuff we see around us as made of electrons, protons, and neutrons, interacting through gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces. A thousand years from now, we will still think precisely that. Unless we destroy the planet, or are uploaded into computers and decide that the laws of physics outside the Matrix aren’t that interesting any more.

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72 Responses to The Effective Field Theory of Everyday Life, Revisited

  1. Loki says:

    Whether people 1000 years from now will need the same basic laws to explain everyday life, depends not on the progress of physics, but on the progress of technology, i.e.”everyday life”! Hence i think that Sean’s statement is wrong.
    You don’t need relativity to explain solid table, but you do need it to explain GPS navigator. And you can’t explain some modern gadgets without QM. A hypothetical time traveller can be sure to meet gadgets in 3000 A.D., that will be totally ordinary stuff for people of 3000, but seem a total magic beyond comprehension to him. Like IPad to Isaak Newton.

  2. jpd says:

    chaos isn’t fundamental?
    the fact that i cant predict a n body orbit with arbitrary
    accuracy isn’t fundamental?

  3. Justin Loe says:

    “how can we prove that laws of physics known today are not an emergent properties of our specific Universe”
    The project as I see it of various GUT approaches is to provide a theory that will account for the variety of constants that are in the standard model and which have arbitrary values. Unfortunately, none of these have been successful up until this point. Unanswered also is the question which is whether the particular physics of our universe is the only possible physics, or whether it is an emergent property of the initial conditions, and, in other universes, an entirely different set of physical laws applies.
    If one solution is the multiverse, which suggests the realization of all possible configurations of physical laws in other universes, it is not at all clear why that doesn’t produce the same outcomes as saying the initial entropic state can assume any possible set of configurations.
    Although it is possible that the multiverse is the explanation, that appears to explain physics via an infinite set of possibilities. That’s clearly at odds with Occam’s Razor. If a multiverse theory yields the same set of predictions as current theories, in what sense would it be testable? A brief search reveals that Tegmark argues that the information content of a multiverse would be lower than a single universe explanation. Puzzingly, an invocation of Occam’s Razor is itself problematic since it also seems that previous researchers erroneously favored proteins over dna as the carriers of genetic information, but that was obviously proven incorrect. So, intuitions about whether a particular explanation is or is not more parsimonious may not be a good guide that the theory is correct.

  4. Benji says:

    We need to be clear what we mean by the term “understood”. If we mean it in the sense that given a set of inputs we can accurately predict the outputs, then the physics of everyday life is definitely understood.
    If, however we mean that we have a complete explanation of the physics of everyday life, then I think this is much less clear.
    Consider Newtonian gravity; this provides the necessary predictive power (ignoring gps and a few other things which arguably are part of everyday life). So without GR we could say that we “understand” gravity on this scale. So would we say that GR has no more value as a theory in everyday life? No, because GR is more than just it’s predictive power. It provides a better explanation of what is really going on with gravity.
    It is in this sense that I expect our ideas about the physics of everyday life to change in the coming decades. Yes, we’ll still have electrons, protons etc. but we’ll understand a bit more of the why.

  5. Julien says:


    >Off course, i won’t consider “human” any AI, whether it emulates human behavior or not.

    If it looks like human behavior and moos like a human, then it is probably a cow. 😉

    But ok, allow me correcting my question again: would you consider self-conscious any program winning a Turing test, or just those that are constructed to emulate humans both from the point-of-view of behavior and inner mecanisms?

  6. Justin Loe says:

    Thanks to a good tip from scientist in the field, I found this paper,, which appears to offer a plausible derivation of the second law of thermodynamics from quantum physics.

  7. Baby Bones says:

    Thanks for the references. It’s good to know that SM has a strong connection to nuclear physics in that it can predict the decay of a neutron, and I checked your reference on the shell model to see if the SM can account for a nucleus environment, but there’s no mention of SM in the abstract.

    I imagine the only thing needed to validate the quark gluon picture is the existence of a strong force that the quarks of the neutron feel attracted to, and that in turn reflects the lower total energy of the neutron in comparison with its constituents.

    The quark-gluon picture is, to me at least, a far cry from a simple attractive force , and it is something that has always bothered me as being a bit unphysical. The gluon stretches while confined in a flux tube until another particle-antiparticle pair is formed in its place and the attached quarks are strongly confined. Furthermore, despite the confinement, a residue of the color force leaks out and is seen as the strong force. I don’t want to sound impolite but that idea smacks of convenience rather than insight even if it is a reasonable extension of SU2 for photon exchange in the electromagnetic field. Evidence of the quark-gluon plasma makes me feel a bit less uneasy, since I think more evidence for the standard model is what is needed.

  8. Lab Lemming says:

    If Sean’s statement about everyday physics is correct, then does it follow that basic physics research no longer has practical societal value?

  9. Aleksandar Mikovic says:

    Certain phenomena of the everyday life can be understood by using the Standard Model, but there are plenty of other phenomena (like consciousness, emotions, social interactions etc.) which cannot be explained by SM. The basic reason are the Goedel’s theorems in logic, which state that for any mathematical theory like SM, exist infinitely many undecidable statements, i.e. the statements which cannot be proven from the initial postulates. Hence for any physical theory there will exist phenomena in its domain of validity which cannot be explained.

  10. Loki says:

    If an AI can win a real Turing test – and let’s say we mean by TT a reasonably long conversation with a very intelligent human, say me (:-)) – than it has to be as “self-conscious” as you! Sounds ridiculous and reminds you of Chinese Room argument? But consider this:
    I can choose to converse with it exactly about introspection and consciousness problem and philosophical zombies, in a way we do now. If AI can respond to a joke about mooing cows, for example, than it need subroutines that detect humor, irony, intentional stance of an opponent, relevance to other topics being discussed and a lot of other stuff. Basically, it has to do the same deconstruction as you. And the same subroutines for constructing response – among other things: when to answer with joke? with sarcasm? use some other rethorical trick? put a smile?
    Now, i can not easily imagine how one can discuss introspection and lack one at the same time. Could be just a lack of imagination though .. ))
    So, we know it is “just” an algorithm, but .. not all people, frankly, possess conversational algorithms of such complexity! As i consider self-consciousness nothing more (and less!) than a set of algorithms of vast complexity, operating in some computational substate (a brain in human case), including modules for self-assesment (=introspection) – such an AI is clearly self-conscious to me.
    Why .. imagine i’m actually a smart program here. What would be your argument agianst my self-consciosness ?! :-)

  11. Julien says:


    Fun that, at least one time in my life, I can take the anticomp side :-)

    Well I will examine you from the inside (I’m biologist), and notice that in fact your answers have been produced by tossing a coin. That was very unlikely to see such “human like” text, but that does not violate any physical law. Dude I was discussing with a coin! Was the coin conscious?

    Well I will examine you from the inside (I’m biologist gniark gniark), and notice that in fact your answers were deterministically chosen from a big table that contains any possible answers allowing to pass a 5 minutes TT. Dude I was discussing with a table! Was the table conscious?

  12. Loki says:

    Exponential branching produces big numbers very fast indeed. As a mathematician I bet the complexity of an intelligent 5 minutes discussion is such that:
    – the probability of it being produced by a coin tossing is negligible compared with the life time of the Universe;
    – the table one needs to produce it has more entries than the number of paricles in the Universe.
    Hence it just has to be an algorithmic process! and it has to be comparably complex to the one used by an actual human brain.
    So you were discussing with an algorithm! And it was as conscious as you are.
    .. Well, no soul there, but i don’t claim to have one ))

  13. Alan says:

    “Just because there is something we don’t understand about some phenomenon (superconductivity, cancer, consciousness) does not imply that everything we think we know might be wrong.”

    But can what we know so far incorporate other possibilities.
    I came across this recently and this psychology professor is very very certain of the phenomena he and his fellow scientists witnessed over several years – basically consciousness without the so-called physical. I find these experiments/observations eternally fascinating. No explanations as yet.
    Of course the setting makes many balk but well…just listen to the full extract.

    There is also tremendous scholarship involved in some of the studies of these supposed “other properties” of life: e.g. Dr. Alan Gauld:


    “Conscious algorithms… And it was as conscious as you are.
    .. Well, no soul there, but i don’t claim to have one.”

    Don’t be too sure. There seem to be a few “promissory materialists” above who are quite cocksure (but haven’t worked it out yet) that you can only have awareness inside physical brains – you know the brain is a computer, make it all complex enough and up consciousness pops (and just in the brain). But the phenomena reported above seem to hole this because IT is there, quietly existing and thinking and with no apparent physical support.

    You have to go with the phenomena seen first, as the good professor above reports, then go from there (somehow). I think this – consciousness researchers will never, ever, solve the problem of what consciousness/awareness is without taking this stuff into account.
    They will publish and be cool and maybe convince others that they are getting there.
    Of course physics may incorporate such phenomena, just as Feynman said fluid dynamics contains Barber poles and other things – but I doubt it though.

    What physics can explain a complex organized structure, with sentience, existing apart from the brain? – answers please.

  14. Julien says:

    Did you hear about the following equation? claim>>evidence=>don’t give it a shit

    Ok now you get use to my Socratic style, so let me change my question again :-)

    Is ELIZA conscious?

  15. Alan says:


    The problem with your remarks is that it looks as if you are unaware of the evidence. One must put aside prejudice and see with new eyes. So important here. Firstly a huge range of phenomena were displayed; as example:

    “The Lights. The light phenomena were among the most dramatic features observed by the investigators. In most cases, these phenomena were consistent with those reported by past investigators in other settings. Briefly the lights consisted chiefly of the following.

    *Single light points, varying from the size of peas to that of medium-sized glass marbles, which variously darted around the room at great speed, appeared to pass through the surface of the seance room table (appearing immediately underneath in areas inaccessible to the Scole Group), settled on outstretched hands for close inspection, sustained circles in mid-air at a speed and with a precision inconsistent with manual manipulation (often “switching” off various segments of the circle), responded to requests and apparently entered investigators’ bodies, entered crystals placed upon the table and either illuminated the whole crystal or moved as a small point of light throughout their structure, entered a glass dome in the center of the table.

    * Small lights which appear to enter, illuminate and levitate crystals.” See:

    A documentary by a leading UK investigative reporter was produced over several years:

    The Director, Time Coleman, responds here to a similar but very biased critique:

    “This skeptical analysis is well intentioned, but so full of inaccuracies it completely discredits itself. I produced and directed the documentary – The Afterlife Investigations – in which I thoroughly examine all the evidence for the Scole Experiment. I spent several years interviewing all the leading participants and I got to know them all well. As unbelievable as the activities at Scole are I found no evidence of fraud. The authors [the skeptical commenter] arguments like – I consulted with a colleague who told me its possible to remove a luminous arm, therefore all experiments which used this control at Scole are fraudulent – are childish in their logic. Given the space I could demolish this entire analysis – but its easier if you watch the documentary.”

    These comments speak for themselves about the reality of these phenomena – evidence for consciousness/awareness without physical brains.

    And please do not swear – thanks.

  16. Loki says:

    Look … all “spiritual” stuff is just boring. Looking for gods, ghosts, IDesigners and other transcendental cheburashkas reveals nothing but lack of imagination, in my opinion. Not interesting for creative sentient beings, really :-)
    It depends on what you mean by “Consciousness” (“C”). If that only relates to the ability to construct some internal identity, than probably only humans possess this “C” among animals. And one Julian Jaynes (google it, very cool reading, though a bit fantastic) claimed that Achilles and other Iliad heroes were NOT conscious in this sense. That this “C” evolved as a cultural phenomenon around 3000 years ago (before that people were like schisophreniacs or very drunk, smth like that).
    If we take a wider notion of “C”, like the ability to react to changes around, form some intentions etc. Than i’d say that a Crow is less conscious than a Human, but more conscious than a Cow, which is more conscious that a Fruit-fly. How it relates to a Dog – i don’t know (probably higher, as it was shown that crows can solve some puzzles without trial-and-error, hence have some introspective abilities. nothing like that was shown for dogs). Where os Elisa on this scale? Does it react and form intentions? Sure, it reacts to your question and intends to answer it, and does it. It doesn’t “think” about it’s actions, but that relates to the strong concept of “C”. Besides, 99% of human activity is unconscious in this sense. When you brush your teeth in the morning or drive a car to the office – do you “think” about it?
    Still, i guess a Fruit-Fly is much more consiouis :-)

  17. Alan says:


    “Look … all “spiritual” stuff is just boring…” Mmm…

    Actually, you mentioned “spiritual” not myself. As to rest, well they couldn’t be further from my mind.

    Let’s be very clear here. These are multiply witnessed phenomena – evidence from scientists such as fellows who post here. So not “boring”! And as Professor Fontana says in the video above (@63), “I must stress, it changes your paradigm”. So… interesting! Paradigm changes are thus.

    It would have been great to see Dick Feynman as a witness to these little buzzing lights, bouncing off tables, entering his chest even (as happened BTW). He would have seen what they saw and wouldn’t have found the “strings” (didn’t like strings anyway).

    If it’s happening in the universe it should be studied – that’s science.

  18. Julien says:


    Thanks for the link, I’ll take a look. Notice that if you think that, then you don’t really trust TT but rely on the idea that human consciousness depends on the content of its information processing.

    To me, but I can’t change my mind, consciousness is likely a feature that happened as part of the way our brain evolved to work, especially the neocortex. I’d expect that it’s almost a on/off phenomenon we share with Achilles, Apes, Elephant, Dog, but not Fruit-Fly, and the boundary should be somewhere arround Snakes.

    I’d also guess that we can software it, the day we will understand how it works in our brain, but I’m not sure we will one day be able to asses consciousness in non brain-like programs. My point with ELIZA was that we agree it’s less conscious than a Fruit-Fly, but that program already passed some form of TT. In the same vein, I don’t think it’d be so difficult to fill a table which could discuss hours and hours about any of the usual transcendental cheburashkas. Maybe we should do it and spare some time :-)

  19. Ian says:

    Unfortunately, this post doesn’t rise above information consumerism. It’s welcome rhetoric for materialists who want to see their views confirmed, but it doesn’t participate in the real debate. Here are the problems:

    1. Dismissing consciousness as just “complicated” demonstrates ignorance regarding the problems qualia and intentionality pose for physicalism. If Dr. Carroll wants to make a case for his claim, he needs to educate himself regarding basic philosophy of mind. As it stands, he’s providing a straightforward example of an expert in one area naively assuming that he knows more about an issue outside his area of expertise than he really does.

    2. Dr. Carroll has given no reason to suppose that the range of validity in which physical theories work doesn’t end at consciousness, just as the range of validity in which Newtonian physics works ends at curved spacetime. In fact, if an experiment were to show that there’s something involved in a conscious system which physics can’t account for, that would in no way invalidate everything we know about how physics works for systems which do not involve consciousness. His conclusion does not follow from his argument.

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