Physics and Metaphysics

In a near perfect follow to my recent post on animist and quantum worldviews, Margaret Wertheim explains why physics — supposedly the most “hard” of all sciences — is bedeviled by difficulties. It is a lucid, patient, and brilliant piece of writing on a subject that is, for most of us, difficult. Despite the difficulty, Wertheim hits on all the key issues, beginning with her observation that physics is essentially Platonic:

Most physicists are Platonists. They believe that the mathematical relationships they discover in the world about us represent some kind of transcendent truth existing independently from, and perhaps a priori to, the physical world. In this way of seeing, the universe came into being according to a mathematical plan, what the British physicist Paul Davies has called ‘a cosmic blueprint’. Discovering this ‘plan’ is a goal for many theoretical physicists and the schism in the foundation of their framework is thus intensely frustrating. It’s as if the cosmic architect has designed a fiendish puzzle in which two apparently incompatible parts must be fitted together.

Equating physics with Plato may seem, at first blush, a bit odd. Plato is usually associated with the non-physical (or imaginary) world of ideal forms. According to Plato, these perfect or essential forms — which cannot be perceived — constitute the real or actual world and everything else, including all perceptions, is an imperfect reflection or facsimile of the forms. This is a quintessentially metaphysical viewpoint that lends itself especially well to religious thinking. Recognizing this, early Christian intellectuals imported Plato nearly wholesale into that tradition, a fact which prompted Nietzsche to quip that “Christianity is Platonism for the people.”

But if we reverse this common understanding of Plato, we can also see him as establishing a framework within which science could operate. As philosopher Scott Berman explains, we can also see Plato as a naturalist:

Plato took himself to be arguing that unless his view is right, science is not possible. The fact that we do have science now is confirmation that Plato was right, or so I think anyway. He thought that unless there exist things that can never change, there can’t be objects that are stable enough for knowledge, i.e., science. And so, he argued against Nominalism, that is, the idea that all that exists are spatiotemporal things, and Constructivism, that is, the idea that the measures or criteria of what things are can change. He argued that if there exist non-spatiotemporal things, then such things could be the objects of science and hence that science is possible. Laws of natures, for example, would be non-spatiotemporal things according to Plato and so aren’t located anywhere (because they are non-spatial) and can’t change (because they are non-temporal). If there truly is a science of some subject matter, then there has to be a non-spatiotemporal thing which is the measure of that subject matter.

With this, we can better understand why Wertheim contends that most physicists are Platonists. This is somewhat ironic, given that physics is usually considered the “hardest” or most real-material of sciences. Yet there is a tension here because physics starts with an assumption (i.e., that mathematics does not simply describe or approximate reality but actually constitutes it) which is thoroughly metaphysical. While modern physicists have attempted to separate their science from theology, these foundational assumptions may always lead them back to metaphysics. As Wertheim explains, this is partly a matter of history (it’s also partly a matter of method):

In its modern incarnation, physics is grounded in the language of mathematics. It is a so-called ‘hard’ science, a term meant to imply that physics is unfuzzy — unlike, say, biology whose classification systems have always been disputed. Based in mathematics, the classifications of physicists are supposed to have a rigour that other sciences lack, and a good deal of the near-mystical discourse that surrounds the subject hinges on ideas about where the mathematics ‘comes from’.

According to Galileo Galilei and other instigators of what came to be known as the Scientific Revolution, nature was ‘a book’ that had been written by God, who had used the language of mathematics because it was seen to be Platonically transcendent and timeless. While modern physics is no longer formally tied to Christian faith, its long association with religion lingers in the many references that physicists continue to make about ‘the mind of God’, and many contemporary proponents of a ‘theory of everything’ remain Platonists at heart.

Having kicked metaphysics and theology out the front door, physicists often bring them right back in through the rear. If you’ve ever wondered why theoretical physicists talk in ways that sound religious or mystical, this is the explanation.

This also explains why I have asserted a similarity between animist and quantum worldviews. At these ultimate or foundational levels, theoretical physicists talk in ways and describe things that may or may not be true, correct, or real. We don’t know and they don’t either.

But these descriptions are not at all unlike, and indeed are quite similar to, animist descriptions of the way things work. I am not asserting these worldviews are ultimately correct, only that they are — despite different idioms — structurally and functionally similar. By this conception, it is difficult to describe (or marginalize) animist worldviews as the product of “primitive” minds or cultures.

All this aside, be sure to read Wertheim’s piece. She deploys Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) in a particularly fruitful way. Despite having read Purity and Danger, I didn’t much care for it. Wertheim’s use of Douglas suggests that I may need to revisit it.


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8 thoughts on “Physics and Metaphysics

  1. jayarava

    Well, you have a pretty picture of Maxwell’s equations at the end of your post. Whatever you believe about metaphysics you can use Maxwell’s equations to both explain observations of electro-magnetic phenomena and to predict future observations. So standing on the sidelines and criticising the metaphysics is trivial and laughable compared to the achievement of Maxwell. The models that physicists have produced can explain physical phenomena in everyday life to such a degree of accuracy that measurement error is always more significant than theoretical error.

    Why should we even care about the “beliefs” of physicists when we have their equations which are independent of belief?

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure I understand your point. The “pretty picture” at the end of the post is of course a cartoon, meant to convey humor (or hilarity, as the case may be). Who do you take to be standing on the sidelines and criticizing the metaphysical aspects of physics?

    As for the achievements of Maxwell, and other physicists, they are no doubt impressive. I’m not aware of anyone except post-modern types who question or criticize those achievements. Those criticisms are of course silly, or hilarious.

    The article I linked, and my commentary, was addressed to the abstruse branch of theoretical physics that engages in cosmological (and ontological) speculations that are, by their very nature, metaphysical.

    Is your final question rhetorical? Do equations exist independent or outside of minds? Do physics equations which address or describe the non-measurable and non-empirical (i.e., string theory equations or multiverse equations) express something real or actual? How do they map onto or describe “reality” or the universe?

    These are metaphysical questions arising from foundational physics. I’m sure you are aware of the longstanding links between physics and philosophy. It seems that many physicists are (or wanted to be) philosophers and many philosophers are (or wanted to be) physicists. There are in fact some who are both, either by training or expertise. As a result, we find that physicists talk philosophy and philosophers talk physics. Is this hilarious?

    Are you asserting that philosophy and physics are separate and distinct domains? That physics can’t query philosophy or that philosophy can’t query physics? Or that some of the issues raised by physics aren’t philosophical?

    What are we to make of the fact that the equations successfully used for tiny quantum “things” don’t square with the equations successfully used for large classical things? Why are physicists and philosophers so perplexed by these apparently contradictory equations? Why is there no unified theory in physics and what might this mean?

    These are metaphysical questions, some of which are addressed in this delightfully breezy science video.

  3. thisica

    To answer some of your questions, Cris…

    1) Why are physicists and philosophers so perplexed by these apparently contradictory equations?

    All of our theories and equations are approximations. We often have to deploy spherical cow-like assumptions into our models. For instance, in classical mechanics, we assume frictionless floors and massless strings. Quantum electrodynamics—the interaction of photons with matter at subatomic scale—uses renormalisation as a mathematical trick to prevent divergences in the equations. Hence, we should think of these models as like a well-worn map, with burnt-out holes, crossed out lines and redrawn boundaries. As such, there is not much mystery about their ‘correspondence’ to reality—they’re useful tools that have worked for us. If we see the equations as just tools, then the problem vanishes. My own pragmatism is visible here :)

    To make a very important point: no theory of science is ever complete. This is true for even classical mechanics, which some people say is just outdated by quantum mechanics. Chaos theory originates from the classical 3-body gravitational problem, after all :) If such a theory was complete–as Bohr thought about quantum mechanics–then there wouldn’t be any research into it anymore.

    2) Why is there no unified theory in physics and what might this mean?

    The universe need not amend to a so-called Theory of Everything that some physicists tout must exist. The impasse between the general theory of relativity (GTR) and quantum mechanics (or more like quantum field theory—this is the actual point of inconsistency) stems from our current attempts to unify gravitation (which is strictly speaking not a force under GTR) with the other three fundamental interactions—electromagnetism, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force. The desire for such elegance in mathematical formalism, though, is a human conceit rather than a necessary feature of the world. It simply points to the metaphysical plausibility that the universe’s workings cannot be reduced to mathematics.

    3) What are we to make of the fact that the equations successfully used for tiny quantum “things” don’t square with the equations successfully used for large classical things?

    Because of emergent properties :) OK, it’s not quite an explanation, but it’s a warning to those who think that quantum mechanics and quantum field theory can be blindly applied to other phenomena in the world. See, from understanding that our theories are just approximations, there’s no problem with these theories being incommensurable with each other. These theories just describe different things, that’s all. No mystery involved.

    4) Do equations exist independent or outside of minds? Do physics equations which address or describe the non-measurable and non-empirical (i.e., string theory equations or multiverse equations) express something real or actual?

    Equations are all in the mind…scratch that! Equations are a creation of our social minds, historically contingent and culturally-bound. As for the latter question…we don’t know. I have no idea over the domain of applicability of string theory–besides the fact that it’s nice maths, to people who can understand it (which I don’t). For now, it’s just mathematical formalism seeking some glue to some data.

    On other issues:
    We scientists are philosophers as well—we are interested in how the world exists (metaphysics) and how to find out more about it (epistemology). It’s unfortunate that most researchers aren’t explicit on this very point and it’s sad to see some of them disparaging the very activity they’re doing.

    In closing: I don’t think that metaphysical musings is required to explain some of the behaviours of theorists recently, like Brian Greene and Hawking over their puzzlements over these problems. I consider some of those issues to be full of hot air, by the way. Human-centredness is quite a problem in these areas of research–for example the Anthropic Principle, which is nothing more than a tautology. Note: hardly any experimentalist makes such overgeneralised claims about what the equations can describe. I wonder why…

  4. thisica

    Well, I’m currently studying physics as a major for my double degree in science and arts (political economy being the other). I have found myself reading a lot of philosophy of physics works during the past few years and reflecting upon what researchers actually do (some of my lecturers are researchers too), I have found the stories about how science gets done in textbooks from high school to be grossly inadequate. I think we take a more pragmatic stance on philosophical issues and don’t worry too much about them for the most part. It’s only when things start to become confusing and puzzling that we may wear the philosopher’s hat. But I do think that scientists aren’t so blind to what they’re doing as some philosophers and sociologists may imagine. It’s that a lot of what’s done as philosophical thinking is done on a daily basis in the decisions we make and the continual concerns about the quality of data. However, as you may already know, there’s scientific frauds and scandals as well…which goes to show just how human we all are. It’s sobering to see such activities being done–perhaps we need that philosopher’s hat after all, if it’s just on the ethics side.

  5. Larry Stout

    “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” — Albert Einstein

    Physicists don’t know what “dark matter” and “dark energy” are. Neither do philosophers. And neither do I. But I know what a hamburger and fries are. So I get by. ;>)

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