Saturday, 24 August 2013

What is Real?

My aippakuluk bought a copy of the August 2013 issue of Scientific American, and in it is a very interesting article called, Quantum Physics: what is real?

Personally, my present reading is that, since the discovery of the Higgs boson, string theorists (which according to Lee Smolin makes up most of the physicist community) have been somewhat jolted back to reality (whatever "reality" is) and are beginning to question whether the Standard Model of particle physics was always a more productive theoretical framework after all than the superstring varieties.

I would like to liken the ever-multiplying string models (taking cue from GH Hardy) to 'ugly mathematics' for the simple reason that the whole discourse has never seemed to grasp the (dare I say?) wisdom of the Occam's Razor - says the Wikipedia entry on Occam's Razor:

It states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.('s_razor)

The entry goes on to say: "The razor states that one should proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power. The simplest available theory need not be most accurate."

As a fallibilist (turns out I was this all along), or someone who believes that human knowledge is "liable to err"—being as we ourselves are limited and what we can know is subject to revision—I've always been a subscriber to Occam's Razor. You know...the type of realization that comes where once it was only an inkling then you comes across a statement that give the proper language to that once-only-an-inkling? I find that as I mature as a reader and writer these types of epiphanies are coming clearer and, even, spiritual (which I think I've always had those "aha!" moments if rare these).

Anyhoo...the article I started talking about: some (if not most) physics philosophers have always felt that our notions of "particles" and "fields" are rather inadequate descriptors because they give us the impression that we're talking about things we've actually experienced as "particles" and "fields" when actually these technical/mathematical entities have little if nothing in common with our experience. Fine.

One day, my best friend made a comment that he finds it astounding that something could be both a "particle" and a "wave" at the same time. After a split-second of reflection, I replied that we actually experience it everyday, and precisely because it is such a commonplace thing we completely overlook the fact that we see in colour in everyday things (colour, they say, is a wave).

The article says that these two categories of the physical phenomena blur together. But then says something immediately after that which I find very interesting and insightful if unconsciously stated: "Quantum field theory assigns [emphasis mine] a field to each type of elementary particle, so there is an electron field as surely as there is an electron. At the same time, the force fields are quantized rather than continuous, which gives rise to particles such as the photon." (Scientific American, August 2013, p. 42)

In other words, when we talk of physics we are not actually talking about (well, maybe in some tenuous way yet to be demonstrated convincing to all) particles and fields but the mathematical values assigned to what is being measured. This is different than saying these "assigned" values are actually what we think we observe. The phenomena, after all, are not the actual chosen artefacts of our discourse—ie, "particles" and "fields".

I've always been struck by our notions of "number"—there is something deeper than our differentiation of "oneness" from "twoness", for example, than what we actually think. Though we actually "know" there is a quantitative difference between "one" and "two" there is a subtle "slipperiness" about our notion of number. And, this is reflected in our discourse: we can say that there is a difference between "cardinal" and "ordinal" numbers, or that these "integers" belong to a bigger class of number called the "reals" (as per the closed ring theory of arithmetic).

In other words, though we distinguish 1 from 2 they are actually artefacts of our discourse and, being abstract entities, one doesn't actually take up more space nor energy than the other. In fact, the amorphous notion of the infinite takes up no more space than zero does.

Just to be absolutely clear: I'm not what is called in mathematicians a "formalist". I don't actually believe that reality and our notions of number are just rules to manipulate and arrange into pleasing forms. I am, as I said, a fallibilist (of the pragmatist persuasion). Though I tend to treat human knowledge and the language we use as being subject to change and modification I think its fundamental object is something real and immutable (I like calling it "the mind/creation of God").

However we chose to label ourselves epistemologically, there is no denying that our pursuit of knowledge is motivated and inspired by something "real" and "objective" no matter how we regard it. In fact, how we regard reality is immaterial for our perspective/perception is merely a tool—without detracting anything from what we perceive in the first instance.

There is something wonderful in Kierkegaard's writings that I think capture most succinctly what I'm driving at here. It is his notions of the "absurd" and "irony" in light of pursuit of knowledge. To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Kierkegaard's rhetorical play with the inverse Christian dialectic was designed not to make the word of God easier to assimilate, but to establish more clearly the absolute distance that separates human beings from God. This was in order to emphasize that human beings are absolutely reliant on God's grace for salvation. While most commentators regard Kierkegaard's view to be that sin is what separates human beings absolutely from God, thereby lending weight to the view that Kierkegaard endorses a particularly dour version of Christianity, a more defensible interpretation is that it is the transcendent God's capacity to forgive the unforgivable that marks the absolute difference. Our struggle to accept divine forgiveness can become mired in despair, including the second-order despair over the impossibility of forgiveness of our sins and the demonic despair of defiance in which we refuse to accept forgiveness. On the other hand, faith in divine forgiveness can manifest in joy, at the realization that for God anything is possible, including our “rebirth” as spiritual selves with “eternal validity”. (

Earlier, the above article says that Kierkegaard's insight into the Christian "inverse dialectic" demands that we find hope in hopelessness, strength in weakness, and peace in adversity (and, finding joyfulness in the dour, if I may add)—this view, by the way, is perfectly in line with Paul's theology and, indeed, the Christ's Himself. And earlier still the author points out that Kierkegaard's whole project was to "take away from" rather than "add to" human knowledge (which he views as so much brush and bramble, overgrowth of weeds, to be pruned 'til clarity is yet again achieved). Very Taoist, if I may point out.

This type of philosophical outlook is about perspective (ie, the saving grace in Christ's gospel) that invariably and inevitably leads to humility and sense of peace if nothing else precisely because they draw our attention away from the self into our notions of portion and proportion ("know before whom you stand"), which, the sages say, is enough. This is my chosen meditation. The dynamical living relationship between God and human is the thing—ie, not the rewards and punishments but the authenticity of the relationship God invites us to explore.

This is basically what the Scientific American article says: that we should perhaps view the physical phenomena as not so much about things/objects but as how the values we can measure are at their cores relational. This, to me, is good because ultimately there is nothing satisfying about regarding reality as a thing; the satisfaction comes from perceiving relations and interconnections.


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