Wisdom is the path to knowledge

As a physicist, I cherish the freedom that comes with the endeavor to uncover new knowledge about our physical world. However, it irks me when people include things in physics that do not qualify.

Physics is a science. As a science, it follows the scientific method. What this means is that, while one can use any conceivable method to come up with ideas for explaining the physical world, only those ideas that work survive to become scientific knowledge. How do we know that it works? We go and look! That means we make observations and perform experiments.

That is the scientific method. It has been like that for more than a few centuries. And it is still the way it is today. All this talk about compromising on the basics of the scientific method is annoying. If we start to compromise, then eventually we’ll end up compromising on our understanding of the physical world. The scientific method works the way it works because that is the only way we can know that our ideas work.

Some people want to go further and put restrictions on how one should come up with these ideas or what kind of ideas should be allowed to have any potential to become scientific knowledge even before it has been tested. There is the idea of falsifiability, as proposed by Karl Popper. It may be a useful idea, but sometimes it is difficult to say in advance whether an idea would be falsifiable. So, I don’t think one should be too exclusive. However, sometimes it is quite obvious that an idea can never be tested.

For example, the interior of a black hole cannot be observed in a way that will give us scientific knowledge about what is going on inside a black hole. Nobody that has entered a black hole can come back with the experimental or observational evidence to tell us that the theory works. So, any theory about the inside of a black hole can never constitute scientific knowledge.

Now there is this issue of the interpretations of quantum mechanics. In a broader sense, it is included under the current studies of the foundations of quantum mechanics. A particular problem that is much talked about within this field, is the so-called measurement problem. The question is: are these scientific topics? Will it ever be possible to test interpretations of quantum mechanics experimentally? Will we be able to study the foundations of quantum mechanics experimentally? Some aspects of it perhaps? What about the measurement problem? Are these topics to be included in physics, or is it perhaps better to just include them under philosophy?

Does philosophy ever lead to knowledge? No, probably not. However, it helps one to find the path to knowledge. If philosophy is considered to embody wisdom (it is the love of wisdom after all), then wisdom must be the path to knowledge. Part of this wisdom is also to know which paths do not lead to knowledge.

It then follows that one should probably not even include the studies of foundations of quantum mechanics under philosophy, because it is not about discovering which paths will lead to knowledge. It tries to achieve knowledge itself, even if it does not always follow the scientific method. Well, we argued that such an approach cannot lead to scientific knowledge. I guess a philosophical viewpoint would then tell us that this is not the path to knowledge after all.

Diversity of ideas

The prevailing “crisis in physics” has lead some people to suggest that physicists should only follow a specific path in their research. It creates the impression that one person is trying to tell the entire physics community what they are allowed to do and what not. Speculative ideas are not to be encouraged. The entire physics research methodology need to be reviewed.

Unfortunately, it does not work like that. One of the key underlying principles of the scientific method is the freedom that all people involved in it have to do whatever they like. It is the agreement between these ideas and what nature says that determines which ideas work and which do not. How one comes up with the ideas should not be restricted in any way.

This freedom is important, because nature is resourceful. From the history of science we learn that the ways people got those ideas that turned out to be right differ in all sorts of ways. If one starts to restrict the way these ideas are generated, one may end up empty handed.

Due to this diversity in the ways nature works, we need a diversity in perspectives to find the solutions. It is like a search algorithm in a vast energy landscape. One needs numerous diverse starting points to have any hope to find the global minimum.

Having said that, one does find that there are some guiding principles that have proven useful in selecting among various ideas. One is Occam’s razor. It suggests that one starts with the simplest explanation first. Nature seems to be minimalist. If we are trying to find an underlying system to explain a certain phenomenology, then the underlying system needs to be rich enough to be able to produce the level of complexity that one observes in the phenomenology. However, it should not be too rich, leading to too much complexity. As an example, conjuring up extra dimensions to explain what we see, we produce too much complexity. Therefore, chances are that we don’t need this.

Another principle, which is perhaps less well-known is the minimum disturbance principle. It suggests that when we find that something is wrong with our current understanding, it does not make sense to through everything away and build up the whole understanding from scratch. Just fix that which is wrong.

Now, there are examples in the history of science where the entire edifice of existing theory in a particular field is changed to solve a problem. However, this only happens when the observations that contradict the current theory start to accumulate. In other words, when there is a crisis.

Do we have such a kind of crisis at the moment? I don’t think so. The problem is not that the existing standard model of particle physics have all these predictions that contradict observations. The problem is precisely the opposite. It is very good at making predictions that agree with what we can observe. We don’t seem to see anything that can tell us what to do next. So, the effort to see what we can improve may well be beyond our capability.

The current crisis in physics may be because we are nearing the end of observable advances in our fundamental understanding. We may come up with new ideas, but we may be unable to get any more hints from experimental observation. In the end we not even be able to test these new ideas. This problem starts to enter the domain of what we see as the scientific method. Can we compromise it?

That is a topic for another day.

The thing about philosophy

As a physicist, one tends to have encounters from time to time with the world of philosophy. While some physicists would embrace it and acquaint themselves as much as possible with the various topics, I tend to regard it with a good measure of suspicion. The reason is that philosophy is not a science. It cannot (and should not) test the ideas to see if they are true. In those cases where these ideas (political philosophy) were tested, the results ended up being severely disastrous.

As a result of my suspicion, I deliberately kept myself ignorant of philosophy. But ignorance is never anything to brag about.  So, I decided to read up a little about it. I bought a book that summarizes the different philosophical ideas that was developed over the history of humanity. Although it does not give any detail understanding of any particular idea. It gives one a broad perspective of all the ideas and some idea of who said what.

One thing that becomes clear from such a broad perspective is how diverse these ideas are; how drastically these ideas can differ from each other. Despite the fact that none of these ideas can in any way be confirmed, their proponents are very strongly convinced of their veracity even in cases where they are completely ludicrous .

One of the sad things is the notion of a “proof” where someone tries to show that their ideas are irrefutable. Such proofs consist of supposedly logical arguments. But the steps in these arguments often incorporate hidden assumptions that have not and cannot be shown to be true. As a result these so-called proofs never survive for long. So much for being a proof.

There are situations where people’s ideas have been implemented, especially in the field of political philosophy. In those cases, these ideas had a huge impact on the history. Unfortunately, this impact is usually of a severely negative nature. The French revolution, Nazism and Communism, were all practical implementations of philosophical ideas and the associated atrocities provide clear evidence of just how dangerous it is to follow such ideas.

What is the conclusion then? If philosophy cannot provide the wisdom that it is supposed to provide, does it have any value? I do think it has some value, but one that is far humbler than its proponents would like to believe. Although it cannot provide any wisdom directly, it can provide us with a clearer understanding of the path to wisdom. In this case, I’m specifically thinking of its role in describing and maintaining the scientific method. Perhaps I’ll write more about that some other day.

Mopping up

The particle physics impasse prevails. That is my impression, judging from the battles raging on the blogs.

Among these, I recently saw an interesting comment by Terry Bollinger to a blog post by Sabine Hossenfelder. According to Terry, the particle physics research effort lost track (missed the right turnoff) already in the 70’s. This opinion is in agreement with the apparent slow down in progress since the 70’s. Apart from the fact that neutrino’s have mass, we did not learn much more about fundamental physics since the advent of the standard model in the 70’s.

However, some may argue that the problem already started earlier. Perhaps just after the Second World War. Because that was when the world woke up to the importance of fundamental physics. That was the point where vanity became more important than curiosity for the driving force to do research. The result was an increase in weird science – crazy predictions that are more interested in drawing attention than increasing understanding.

Be that as it may. (I’ve written about that in my book.) The question is, what to do about that? There are some concepts in fundamental physics that are taken for granted, yet have never been established as scientific fact through a proper scientific process. One such concept pointed out by Terry is the behaviour of spacetime at the Planck scale.

Today the Planck scale is referred to as if it is establish scientific fact, where in fact it is a hypothetical scale. The physical existence of the Planck scale has not and probably cannot be confirmed through scientific experiments, at least not with out current capability. Chances are it does not exist.

The existence of the Planck scale is based on some other concepts that are also not scientific facts. One is the notion of vacuum fluctuations, a concept that is often invoked to come up with exotic predictions. What about the vacuum is fluctuating? It follows from a very simple calculation that the particle number of the vacuum state is exactly zero with zero uncertainty. So it seems that the notion of vacuum fluctuations is not as well understood as is generally believed.

Does it mean that we are doomed to wander around in a state of confusion? No, we just need to return to the basic principles of the scientific method.

So I propose a mopping up exercise. We need to go back to what we understand according to the scientific method and then test those parts that we are not sure about using scientific experiments and observations. Those aspects that are not testable in a scientific manner needs to be treated on a different level.

For instance, the so-called measurement problem involves aspects that are in principle not testable. As such, they belong to the domain of philosophy and should not be incorporated into our scientific understanding. There are things we can never know in a scientific manner and it is pointless to make them prerequisites for progress in our understanding of the physical world.