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Can Physics Account for Our Whole Reality?

Evolution News
Photo credit: Linus Mimietz via Unsplash.

If only we could reduce the world to an equation — preferably one that is solvable — many think we would understand life better.

University of Durham philosopher Nancy Cartwright takes issue with that, arguing that the universe is “beautifully dappled, and requires a dappled science to explain it.” She is the author, most recently, of A Philosopher Looks at Science (Cambridge University Press, 2022). And she says,

If physics is to have total dominion, she must not only help out with chemical bonding, signal transmission in neurons, the flow of petrol in a carburettor, and the like. She must be able in principle to entirely take over the disciplines that usually study these things, to explain and predict the rise in teenage pregnancies, the current level of inflation, the Protestant Reformation, and the fate of migrants crossing the channel. Plus, she must be able to get me off the hook for shouting at my daughter: after all, I was just obeying the laws of physics.

NANCY CARTWRIGHT, “PHYSICS CAN’T DEAL WITH REALITY’S COMPLEXITY” AT IAI. NEWS (OCTOBER 17, 2022)

Now that She Mentions It

Pop psychology has indeed featured many theories that tie together disparate phenomena like inflation, the Reformation, and shouting at loved ones. It’s comparatively easy to link very complex events to one another if we are allowed to choose any link we wish. Some might link Hurricane Ian with municipal elections in Vancouver and with high-starch diets in Texas. It takes creativity but many people have plenty of that. 

Physics sets itself a harder goal: showing the numbers (serious numbers, not pop stats) and a rigorous theory behind them. That necessarily means leaving out a great deal, assuming that what is omitted is subsumed in the theory. But is it?

The idea of physics as queen of all that happens has powerful implications about just what the world we live in must be like. It must be a world made up entirely of the basic entities of physics — fundamental particles, curved space-time and the like — entities that have only the mathematical features that physics equations describe, features that often have no names of their own other than the names of the mathematical objects that are supposed to represent them, like the “quantum state vector” and the “metric tensor” of general relativity. The world has to be that way since these are the kinds of features that physics can rule.

NANCY CARTWRIGHT, “PHYSICS CAN’T DEAL WITH REALITY’S COMPLEXITY” AT IAI. NEWS (OCTOBER 17, 2022)

The World We Live In

Cartwright offers an alternative approach:

Instead of supposing that physics must be queen of all we survey, I recommend we construct our image of what an ultimate science might be like on the basis of what current science is like when it is most successful, from putting people on the moon to devising and carrying out a plan for the complete evacuation of the Royal Marsden Hospital (which took just 28 minutes when called into play by a gigantic fire, 2 January 2008)… This is a world in which irritability, generosity and social exclusion can affect what happens just as gravity and electromagnetic repulsion can.

NANCY CARTWRIGHT, “PHYSICS CAN’T DEAL WITH REALITY’S COMPLEXITY” AT IAI. NEWS (OCTOBER 17, 2022)

As she says, that’s the world we actually live in, a world of many tiny, intersecting worlds where causes can include anything from fundamental physics to social psychology.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.