Thoughts on Physics and Reality

by Ben Best

Responsible philosophy acknowledges that life requires choice and action, and that epistemological and metaphysical assumptions are presupposed both in everyday life and in the more studious or scientific pursuits of truth. Some armchair philosophers claim to be solipsists, denying the existence of other minds or an external reality, but their conduct in daily life belies their hypocrisy. Others deny the use of reason on the grounds that, for example, it is circular to use reason to justify itself and that there is no grounds external to reason by which reason can be justified. And there are many who enjoy the use of obscurity, complexity and arcane mathematics or physics to impress others or intimidate them into abandoning reason and perception of reality — supplanted by nothing of use. These approaches use philosophy for ulterior motives and leave practical life, as well as science, effectively groundless.

I see three realms in the epistemological processes of a human being, which I designate as (1) models (2) phenomena and (3) reality. Models are the ideas a human forms about reality based on phenomena. Truth refers to the close correspondence of models with reality. This triadic view is itself a model of reality.

An armchair philosopher may claim that the biological brain in which models are constructed, and the biological sense-organs through which phenomena are processed, are so different in structure from reality itself that the gap can never be bridged. And that a correspondence between models and reality can never be verified without direct access to reality — while humans only have access models and phenomena. But if he is preparing to leave his house and plans to use his car, he will seek phenomena from an objective reality (to improve the correspondence of his model) by checking his pocket for his car keys. Discovering no keys improves the correspondence of his model with reality and motivates the seeking of more phenomenal clues so as to correctly model and function within reality — such as checking to see whether the keys are on his desk. The philosophical skeptic displays his hypocrisy by his conduct, and robs himself of the opportunity to make of philosophy a tool to empower his life.

Yet the skeptic is at least correct in emphasizing that reality and models of reality are distinct — and will always and necessarily be distinct. It is erroneous to become so philosophically arrogant (as perhaps characterized by Ayn Rand) as to regard models of reality (especially her own) as perfect representations of reality. Phenomena are the windows through which reality is viewed. The receptors in the human eye represent the colors red, green, and blue as qualitatively distinct — providing no clue that the difference is one of quantitative wavelength or that the eye has merely selected a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to be "visible". Nonetheless, other phenomena — and model-building from those phenomena — has given us this information. Phenomena have been used to get beyond phenomena — to build a model of reality sophisticated enough to allow us to incorporate limitations of our perceptions.

Phenomena are more than raw sensory data. Perception is the process of a consciousness using implicit ideas or models to process sensory input. For example, the phenomenon of day alternating with night requires an induction of sensations over time. (Even if induction cannot prove theory, induction can give rise to theories.)

Models of reality have two components which may not be distinct: entities and causes. Entities cause perceptions, but causality generally refers to models of the laws or mechanisms of reality. The phenomenon of the alternation of day and night is said to be caused by the rotation of the Earth in space in its orbit around the sun. The distinction between prediction and causal determinism may be one of degree. Primitive peoples could have predicted the coming of day or night on the basis of past experience, without the visual model of earth and sun that I have presented as "causal". The explanation of the prediction can be called the cause. Similarly, one can predict that an apple dropped from a height will fall to the ground. But an understanding of the causative agent (gravity) provides a broader context for the prediction — for example the ability to predict that the apple will not fall in a space station. Familiarity with the more general cause is itself a kind of prediction — little is known about what gravity really is or why it exists.

Physics as the ultimate science provides the ultimate causal explanations underlying the other sciences and the general phenomena of life. Classical physics reduced physical laws to (1) Newton's laws of motion, concerning gravitational fields & forces on particles/rigid bodies, and (2) Maxwell's equations, concerning electromagnetic fields (waves). Gravitational and electromagnetic forces are the chief forces governing the macroworld, while a "strong force" and a "weak force" are the chief forces governing the atomic and subatomic microworld. Relativity demonstrated that commonsense notions of time, space and matter cannot be correct, but it did not call into question the objectivity or causal nature of reality the way orthodox interpretations of quantum theory have done.

The building of models, particularly visual models, is based on constructions from our commonsensical everyday environment. But as science explores new high velocity, ultracold or subatomic worlds, the causes and the entities involved become increasingly alien — and so do the models. Most physicists give little thought to reality, and instead simply concern themselves with phenomena and mathematical prediction (should I say as primitives induced that day would follow night?).

Using quantum physics to resolve philosophical questions concerning reality and causality seems like little more than a "snow job", since such questions go beyond the scope of physics. The fact that physics cannot explain any specific phenomenon is no more grounds for rejecting causality than it is grounds for supporting belief in the existence of God. The alternative to a belief in a mechanistic universe is a belief in a magical universe (or a spiritual universe). One cannot live rationally while being agnostic to causality or reality — these must at least be accepted heuristically (or denied only in some remotely irrelevant microworld).

[The physics which inspired this essay can be found in my piece The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics ]

[For a collection of quotes by scientists, quasi-scientists and pseudo-scientists on the subject of quantum physics see Quotations for the Backyard Quantum Mechanic ]

[For a critique of the quantum metaphysics of Roger Penrose and New-Ager Fred Alan Wolf see my piece Comments on Two "New Age Physics" Books]