I was recently sent an old issue of Scientific American (August 2013) where it features a piece on quantum physics called, What is Real?, by Meinard Kuhlmann (p. 41).
Though much has been said and written about the mysterious—even mystical—nature of quantum mechanics, over the many years of being a sideline watcher my faith in the credibility of the theory has only grown. The theory says that a particle is a wave and a wave a particle: Ok. I accept that. Perhaps it has to do with something deeper than what the human mind can grasp; perhaps this picture of the dual nature of particle-wave is only a mathematical artifact; etc. etc.
The fact remains: the theory works! even if we cannot now fully understand it. Indeed, it would still work without us ever 'understanding' it. It has worked so far because the 'mechanics' of it have largely been worked out if not the metaphysics of it.
In the self-same issue of Scientific American there is a letter to the editor talking about neutrino mass by Carl Gruel wondering "[i]f the current mass measurements of these basic particles [ie, electrons, neutrons and protons] are not sufficiently accurate, can a more accurate measurement be made with today's equipment?"
One of the co-authors of "Ghostly Beacons of New Physics" replies "...According to special relativity [...] energy and mass are equivalent. So the mass of the emitted antineutrino is not simply given by the neutron mass minus the proton and the electron mass; in addition, the kinetic energies of the emitted antineutrino and the electron enter the equation. What the experimentalists do, then, is look at the maximum possible energy of the electron and check whether it can carry away all the missing energy in the budget above. If it doesn't, the difference corresponds to the neutrino mass."
In talking about the paradoxes of particle physics Kuhlmann points out (p. 43) "what we see/calculate/do" with tracks in a bubble chamber is to infer that particles are flying through the chamber and leaving tracks. Then, he points out why this inference is wrong because "[a]ll we really see is a succession of bubbles..." and that it would be a mistake to link them together.
Now, a bubble chamber looks like this:
Each track, Kuhlmann says, comprises of a succession of tiny bubbles (the whorls and curves indicate only the 'particle's' charge, spin and energy resulting from a collision).
Kuhlmann's thesis is that if neither particles and fields are fundamental, then what is? He contends that "[a]s infants, when we see and experience a ball for the first time, we do not actually perceive a ball, strictly speaking. What we perceive is a round shape, some shade of red, with a certain elastic touch. Only later we do associate this bundle of perceptions with a coherent object of a certain kind—namely, a ball.
Applying this idea to quantum field theory, what we call an electron is in fact a bundle of various properties or tropes: three fixed, essential properties (mass, charge and spin), as well as numerous changing, nonessential properties (position and velocity).
A particle is what you get when those properties bundle themselves together in a certain way."
The philosopher in me is greatly assuaged by this elegant logic, but I'm still struggling to see why it would be "a mistake to link [...] together" the succession of bubbles that result in a bubble chamber. Perhaps we would be mistaken to link together a succession in a single track but as a system perhaps it is possible to correlate a bubble from one track with the rest of the contemporaneous bubbles on other tracks to gain further insights into the evolution of the system.
I mean, for all we know each successive bubble may not even manifest the three fixed, essential properties (mass, spin and charge) in isolation but are only realized in the context of the whole. As an egocentric sentient being I am all potentia (the greatest, the biggest, etc. as well as the smallest, the weakest, etc.); it is only in relation to the rest of the human world can I reasonably gauge where I am, who I am, and what is possible for me. Where and how and why I diverge from/converge with other human beings and identify myself is psychologically, politically, existentially, practically meaningless without the others to compare and contrast myself.
One of the fundamental questions in linguistics (phonology and morphology especially) is:
"Is the order in which rules apply predictable from any properties of the rules concerned? [italics mine] If it is, no ordering statement would be necessary: the rule is said to be intrinsic. If the order is not given by the theory, and an explicit ordering statement of the type 'Rule X applies before Rule Y' is necessary, the rule order is extrinsic. The issue of intrinsic rule order occupied many phonologists in the 1970s, but the search for the principles that exhaustively govern the order in which rules apply is generally considered to have been unsuccessful [...]. A principle that has stood the test of time is the ELSEWHERE CONDITION. This is really a principle governing the application of rules in general, and has been invoked in morphology as well as phonology. What it says is that when one rule applies to a subset of the forms that another rule applies to, the general rule is blocked from applying to that subset. So it is not just a principle governing order, but also application as such, in a sense that only one of the two rules will be allowed to apply." (Gussenhoven and Jacobs, Understanding Phonology, 2013 p. 111)
When all is said and done, this linguistics principle is equivalent to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum physics that basically states that we can never know simultaneously the position and velocity of a particle; we must 'sacrifice' one measurement for the other.
Earlier in the Understanding Phonology book, the authors talk about the notions of "distinctive features" in relation to the notion "constraint rules" that govern those distinctive features (of natural segment classes)—to be sure, these principles also apply to natural morphological classes as the Inuit language amply supplies.
This is what is called a "formalist" approach to analysis where we look at different species within a system and how these species do and/or do not interact with each other. A dog, a chien, a qimmiq can mean the same thing up to a certain point. The original "bundle of properties" of the animal allows this in the same way that spin, charge and mass of a particle allow physicists to identify its species and class.
Pragmatics and structural efficacy. We grope in the dark but we are not entirely helpless nor even hopeless: what the luminaries of humanity have found may not be certain metaphysically but they consistently carry us to the right answers often enough for us to come to faith.