Some months ago, a post on a theoretical physics group discussion asked the question, “What are the greatest unsolved problems in theoretical physics, today?” Almost without exception, the comments from subscribers focused on issues of filling in chinks in the so-called standard model and its variants, and resolving the still major conceptual conflicts between relativity and the various quantum theories. Notably absent from the discussion was any question about the absence in the standard model of any relationship to observed reality.
Scientific reality consists of the class of objects, events, and phenomena characterized by a discernable presence and measurable persistence. This is the world that exists outside of our heads, and we, our minds, our bodies, and our actions are members of that class.
Scientific realists, a class in which I personally claim membership, assume that reality and its entities, observable objects, events, and phenomena, exist objectively and independent of whether or not there exists an observer to experience perception or carry out measurement. They believe that reality is rational, predictable, and accessible to human reason.
I am convinced that the absence of scientific realism from modern physics and cosmology is the greatest unsolved problem in theoretical physics today. Whenever I have raised this question in discussion I have had the response, “Well, you are stuck in a classical physics mindset.” Well, yes! Theoretical physics in the quantum era, and by that I mean the time period from Max Planck’s assertion of the quantum principle and its appropriation by Einstein and by Niels Bohr and his coterie of mystical thinkers, until today, has moved entirely away from any pretense of offering explanations of how the observable world actually works. It has become, rather, a discipline that deals only in unproven and unprovable assumptions, in reducing reality into descriptions, into probabilities, and mysterious concepts called “wavefunctions,” “superpositions,” virtual and “real” particles never seen but only assumed to exist by observation of their supposed “tracks” in a medium. These imaginary entities have then been used to justify new creation myths of the origin and growth of the universe including the “Big Bang,” that is, the creation of the observable universe out of nothing, or as the result of something labeled a “quantum vibration” or a “quantum discontinuity,” both substitutes for an agreement that we don’t actually know anything about which we are making assumptions.
Physics is in desperate need of resubstantiation. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr are both responsible for leading us down this primrose path. Einstein, while considered a strong proponent of realism in physics, particularly in his long argument with Bohr over the “action at a distance” anomalies in quantum physics, in fact based his elegant equations of General Relativity on the presumed objective existence of two demonstrably not real, unobservable, unmeasurable, unmanipulable entities, space and time. Bohr did the same in embracing an invented hypothesis—”wavefunction”—also unobservable, unmeasurable, unmanipulable—to explain away the contradiction between observed wavelike phenomena and the religiously held assumption that everything, including invisible fields, gravity, even space itself, is made up of “particles.”
Science, particularly physics, is based on a powerful foundation. It aims to explain the workings of our observable world and the universe, the cosmos, in which it exists. It is a collection of disciplines that share a complex but in many ways simple methodology, a continuum that begins in observations, correlations, theories and models, experiment and further observation, confirmation or disproof, and repeat of the cycle. At each stage, it is important that the scientist takes care to avoid the dangers of incomplete or superficial observations, of intentional or unintentional bias toward tradition or long-held theories, misattribution of observations which may have more than a single potential cause, or even of bias toward a particular theory because it seems more elegant or even beautiful in its initial form, a bias that can lead to selection of only those observations that support the theory and the discarding of those that do not.
When Einstein, in the 1920’s, challenged the proponents of quantum theory, he did so on the basis that it was incomplete, that it failed to answer or ignored many questions in the physical world it purported to explain. And while he acknowledged the incompleteness of his own General Relativity, it seemed to him so elegant that it might even survive contradictory evidence. And to their credit, scientists who thought they understood both quantum theory and relativity, still believed, at least until recently, that the two would some day be reconciled into a grand unified theory of the universe.
Two important barriers remain, however. Both candidates for this hoped-for reconciliation cannot shake the perception that they are based on unsupportable assumptions. The unreality of space and time in the case of relativity, and the apparently unresolvable paradoxes and contradictions of quantum theory, which seems more and more to have roots in eastern mysticism rather than in objective observations of reality. When challenged, advocates of both theories respond in typical ways. As mentioned before, challengers are accused of opposing because they do not understand the theories, or, the math proves the theories must be true, or, this new theory requires its own language. Classical paradoxes are cited, like Zeno’s Paradox for example, itself only a word game. The Schrödinger’s Cat fable, another word game, originally proposed to demonstrate the contradictions in quantum theory, is rebranded to support that very outcome. Imaginary scenarios are invented, like string theory, multiverses, ‘branes, dark energy, dark matter, all supported only by prior unsupportable assumptions (capably debunked in Jim Baggot’s book on “fairy tale physics,” “Farewell to Reality”), or based on long-held unshakable assumptions, like the atom theories of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius from 3000 years earlier (where “particles” come from).
It is suggested in some of these totally unsupportable speculations, that there could be another, or many more universes out there, and possibly some where the “laws of nature” may differ from ours. Of course one may speculate about anything, but this seems clearly outside of science. But what do these imaginers mean when they pose “the laws of nature?” I suppose they mean things like Newton’s Laws of Motion, . How did these become known as “laws” with the attendant implication of having been handed down or imposed on nature, by some unseen hand, perhaps. I think that this affectation arises from a long held assumption that every action or phenomenon has a cause. Causality has a long history in philosophy and common usage, but I would suggest that it should be seen as a mind-set or historical construction with confusing if not downright negative effects on our understanding.
What Newton and every scientific mind before and since his time has sought are not laws per se, but patterns in the appearance or behavior of natural events. When after long study, those patterns seemed to be consistent over a longish period, they came into use as predictors of behavior for entities undergoing similar conditions or circumstances. Calling that pattern a law is perhaps a natural inclination, but it tends to obscure its true nature as simply an observed or persistent pattern and imparts the notion that it is forever immutable and the it cannot be violated without punishment. This is an important problem that I believe leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of an important process. For example, it is found frequently in discussions of another discipline, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or evolution. Even among experts and scientists with powerful credentials, one may hear the phrase “evolutionary pressure” when referring to the emergence of some characteristic that happened to give some creature an evolutionary advantage. This is a misreading of the random process of the appearance of favorable traits or functions that give an individual or group an evolutionary advantage, and can only be seen as such sometimes long after their appearance. This is an inherited mind-set that seeks “causation” rather than the uncovering or discovering that some pattern has appeared in the fossil (or physical) record.
So, as we go forward in this discussion, the reader should be apprised, we will be looking for patterns, not laws; we will seek to discover, or, if insufficient evidence emerges, to tentatively infer, that certain occurrences, or correspondences, be they of objects, events, or phenomena, exist as a result of their fitting a consistent pattern. How those patterns arise and function as templates, and the rules and conditions underlying their workings will be the new “laws of nature” so to speak, but we will see them more as the “DNA” of the universe, the internal instruction set, in the same way that we understand how the DNA of living creatures, made up of just a few elements but with myriad combinations and relationships, have generated the rich abundance of life here on earth. These will be the roots of the simple universe.