Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truthby Jim Baggott
From acclaimed science author Jim Baggot, a pointed critique of modern theoretical physics.
From acclaimed science author Jim Baggot, a pointed critique of modern theoretical physics.
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Farewell to Reality
How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth
By Jim Baggott
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Jim Baggott
All rights reserved.
The Supreme Task
Reality, Truth and the Scientific Method
The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.
Now I want to be absolutely clear and unequivocal upfront. I trained as a scientist, and although I no longer practise, I continue to believe—deeply and sincerely—that only science, correctly applied, can provide a sure path to true knowledge of the real world. If you want to know what the world is made of, where it came from, how it works and how it came to be as it is today, then my recommendation is to look to science for the answers.
I hope I speak with conviction, but be assured that I am not a zealot. I will happily admit that the practice of science is not always black and white. We are forced to admit shades of grey. It is a lot looser and more ambiguous than many practitioners are themselves often willing to admit. Much of the looseness and ambiguity arises because science is after all a human endeavour, and human beings are complicated and unpredictable things.
But it would be a mistake to think that the humanity of scientists is responsible for all the vagueness, that everything would be crystal clear if only a few flaky individuals would stick to the rules. When we look closely, we discover that what passes for the 'rules' of scientific endeavour are themselves rather vague and open to interpretation. This, I will argue, is how fairy-tale physics manages to thrive.
Our problems begin as soon as we try to unpack the sentences that I used to open this introductory chapter. Reality is at heart a metaphysical concept—it is, quite simply, 'beyond physics' and therefore beyond science. And just what, exactly, is this thing we call 'science'? For that matter, how should we define 'truth'?
That's a lot of difficult questions. And, it seems, if I'm going to accuse a bunch of theoretical physicists of abandoning the scientific method and so betraying the search for scientific truth about the nature of physical reality, then I'll need properly to ground this assertion in some definitions. It's better to try to clear all this up before we really get going.
There's quite a lot at stake here, so I've summarized my main conclusions about reality, science and truth in a series of six 'principles', handily picked out in italics with a grey background so that you can easily refer back to them if needed. Collectively, these principles define what it is that we apply science to, what science is and how we think we know when it is 'true'.
Of course, many physicists and philosophers of science will disagree with these principles, with varying degrees of vehemence. This, I think, is rather the point. What's important is how they seem to you.
In Part I, my mission will be to tell the story of the authorized version of reality in the context of these statements, showing how science has been applied to generate this contemporary version of the truth. This section concludes with a chapter summarizing most (but not all) of the problems with this authorized version and gives the reasons why we know it can't be the whole truth.
In Part II, I will attempt to explain how contemporary theoretical physics seeks to address these problems. It is here that fairy-tale physics sneaks in through unavoidable loopholes in our interpretation of one or more of the principles, but fails to satisfy all of them taken together. It is on this basis that I will seek to reject fairy-tale physics as metaphysics.
Let's start with reality.
Real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain
'What is real?' asked the character Morpheus in the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster movie The Matrix. 'How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.'
These days we tend not to look for profundity in a Hollywood movie, but it's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this observation. I want to persuade you that reality is like liquid mercury: no matter how hard you try, you can never nail it down. I propose to explain why this is by reference to three 'everyday' things: a red rose, a bat and a dark cave.
So, imagine a red rose, lying on an expanse of pure white silk. We might regard the rose as a thing of beauty, its redness stark against the silk sheen of brilliant nothingness. What, then, creates this vision, this evocative image, this tantalizing reality? More specifically, what in reality creates this wonderful experience of the colour red?
That's easy. We google 'red rose pigment' and discover that roses are red because their petals contain a subtle mixture of chemicals called anthocyanins, their colour enhanced if grown in soil of modest acidity. So, anthocyanins in the rose petals interact with sunlight, absorbing certain wavelengths of the light and reflecting predominantly red light into our eyes. We look at the petals and we see red. This all seems quite straightforward.
But hang on. What, precisely, is 'red light'? Our instinct might be to give a scientific answer. Red light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between about 620 and 750 billionths of a metre. It sits at the long-wavelength end of the visible spectrum, sandwiched between invisible infrared and orange.
But light is, well, light. It consists of tiny particles of energy which we call photons. And no matter how hard we look, we will not find an inherent property of 'redness' in photons with this range of wavelengths. Aside from differences in wavelength, there is nothing in the physical properties of photons to distinguish red from green or any other colour.
We can keep going. We can trace the chemical and physical changes that result from the interactions of photons with cone cells in your retina all the way to the stimulation of your visual cortex at the back of your brain. Look all you like, but you will not find the experience of the colour red in any of this chemistry and physics. It is obviously only when you synthesize the information being processed by your visual cortex in your conscious mind that you experience the sensation of a beautiful red rose. And this is the point that Morpheus was making.
We could invent some equivalent scenarios for all of our other human senses—taste, smell, touch and hearing. But we would come to much the same conclusion. What you take to be your reality is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
What is it like to be a bat?
Now, you might be ready to dismiss all this as just so much juvenile philosophizing. Of course we're all reliant on the way our minds process the information delivered to us by our senses. But does it make any sense at all for the human mind to have evolved processes that represent reality differently from how it really is? Surely what we experience and the way we experience it must correspond to whatever it is that's 'out there' in reality? Otherwise how could we survive?
To answer these questions, it helps to imagine what it might be like to be a bat.
What does the world look like—what passes for reality—from a bat's point of view? We know that bats compensate for their poor night vision by using sophisticated sonar, or echolocation. Bats emit high-frequency sounds, most of them way above the threshold of human perception. These sound waves bounce off objects around them, forming echoes which they then detect.
Human beings do not use echolocation to gather information about the world. We cannot possibly imagine what it's like for a bat to be a bat because we lack the bat's sensory apparatus, in much the same way that we cannot begin to describe colours to someone who has been blind from birth.
But the bat is a highly evolved mammal, successful in its own ecological niche. Just because I can't understand what reality might be like for a bat doesn't mean that the bat's perceptions and experiences of that reality are any less legitimate than mine.
What this suggests is that evolutionary selection pressures lead to the development of a sensory apparatus that delivers a finely tuned representation of reality. All that matters is that this is a representation that lends a creature survival advantages. There is no evolutionary selection pressure to develop a mind to represent reality as it really is.
Plato's allegory of the cave
So, what do we perceive if not reality as it really is? In The Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato used an allegory to describe the situation we find ourselves in. This is his famous allegory of the cave.
Imagine you are a prisoner in a dark cave. You have been a prisoner all your life, shackled to a wall. You have never experienced the world outside the cave. You have never seen sunlight. In fact, you have no knowledge of a world outside your immediate environment and are not even aware that you are a prisoner, or that you are being held in a cave.
It is dark in the cave, but you can nevertheless see men and women passing along the wall in front of you, carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals. Some are talking. As far as you are concerned, the cave and the men and women you can see constitute your reality. This is all you have ever known.
Unknown to you, however, there is a fire constantly burning at the back of the cave, filling it with a dim light. The men and women you can see against the wall are in fact merely shadows cast by real people passing in front of the fire. The world you perceive is a world of crude appearances of objects which you have mistaken for the objects themselves.
Plato's allegory was intended to show that whilst our reality is derived from 'things-in-themselves'—the real people that walk in front of the fire—we can only ever perceive 'things-as-they-appear'—the shadows they cast on the cave wall. We can never perceive reality for what it is; we can only ever perceive the shadows. 'Esse est percipi', declared the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley: essence is perception, or to be is to be perceived.
These kinds of arguments appear to link our ability to gain knowledge of our external reality firmly with the workings of the human mind. A disconnect arises because of the apparent unbridgeable distance between the physical world of things and the ways in which our perception of this shapes our mental world of thoughts, images and ideas. This disconnect may arise because we lack a rigorous understanding of how the mind works. But knowing how the mind works wouldn't change the simple fact that thoughts are very different from things.
It doesn't end here. Another disconnect, of a very different kind but no less profound, is that between the quantum world of atomic and subatomic dimensions and the classical world of everyday experience. What we will discover is that our anxiety over the relationship between reality and perception is extended to that between reality and measurement.
Irrespective of what thoughts we think and how we think them, we find that we can no longer assume that what we measure necessarily reflects reality as it really is. We discover that there is also a difference between 'things-in-themselves' and 'things-as-they-are-measured'.
The contemporary physicist and philosopher Bernard d'Espagnat called it 'veiled reality', and commented that:
... we must conclude that physical realism is an 'ideal' from which we remain distant. Indeed, a comparison with conditions that ruled in the past suggests that we are a great deal more distant from it than our predecessors thought they were a century ago.
At this point the pragmatists among us shrug their shoulders and declare: 'So what?' I can never be sure that the world as I perceive or measure it is really how the world is 'in reality', but this doesn't stop me from making observations, doing experiments and forming theories about it. I can still establish facts about the shadows—the projections of reality into our world of perception and measurement—and I can compare these with similar facts derived by others. If these facts agree, then surely we have learned something about the nature of the reality that lies beneath the shadows. We can still determine that if we do this, then that will happen.
Just because I can't perceive or measure reality as it really is doesn't mean that reality has ceased to exist. As American science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick once observed: 'Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.'
And this is indeed the bargain we make. Although we don't always openly acknowledge it upfront, 'reality-in-itself' is a metaphysical concept. The reality that we attempt to study is inherently an empirical reality deduced from our studies of the shadows. It is the reality of observation, measurement and perception, of things-as-they-appear and of things-as-they-are-measured. As German physicist Werner Heisenberg once claimed: ' ... we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning'.
But this isn't enough, is it? We may have undermined our own confidence that there is anything we can ever know about reality-in-itself, but we must still have some rules. Whatever reality-in-itself is really like, we know that it must exist. What's more, it must surely exist independently of perception or measurement. We expect that the shadows would continue to be cast whether or not there were any prisoners in the cave to observe them.
We might also agree that, whatever reality is, it does seem to be rational and predictable, within recognized limits. Reality appears to be logically consistent. The shadows that we perceive and measure are not completely independent of the things-in-themselves that cause them. Even though we can never have knowledge of the things-in-themselves, we can assume that the properties and behaviour of the shadows they cast are somehow determined by the things that cast them.
That feels better. It's good to establish a few rules. But don't look too closely. If you want some assurance that there are good, solid scientific reasons for believing in the existence of an independent reality, a reality that is logical and structured, for which our cause-and-effect assumptions are valid, then you're likely to be disappointed. To repeat one last time, reality is a metaphysical concept—it lies beyond the grasp of science. When we adopt specific beliefs about reality, what we are actually doing is adopting a specific philosophical position.
If we accept the rules as outlined above, then we're declaring ourselves as scientific realists. We're in good company. Einstein was a realist, and when asked to justify this position he replied: 'I have no better expression than the term "religious" for this trust in the rational character of reality and in its being accessible, to some extent, to human reason.'
Now, it's one thing to be confident about the existence of an independent reality, but it's quite another to be confident about the existence of overtly theoretical entities that we might want to believe to exist in some shape or form within this reality. When we invoke entities that we can't directly perceive, such as photons or electrons, we learn to appreciate that we can't know anything of these entities as things-in-themselves. We may nevertheless choose to assume that they exist. I can find no better argument for such 'entity realism' than a famous quote from philosopher Ian Hacking's book Representing and Intervening. In an early passage in this book, Hacking explains the details of a series of experiments designed to discover if it is possible to reveal the fractional electric charges characteristic of 'free' quarks. The experiments involved studying the flow of electric charge across the surface of balls of superconducting niobium:
Now how does one alter the charge on the niobium ball? 'Well, at that stage,' said my friend, 'we spray it with positrons to increase the charge or with electrons to decrease the charge.' From that day forth I've been a scientific realist. So far as I'm concerned, if you can spray them then they are real.
This brings us to our first principle.
Having established what we can and can't know about reality, it's time to turn our attention properly to science.
Excerpted from Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott. Copyright © 2013 Jim Baggott. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jim Baggott is an award-winning science writer. A former academic chemist, he maintains a broad interest in science, philosophy, and history, and writes on these subjects for New Scientist and other journals. His books have been widely acclaimed and include A Beginner's Guide to Reality
(Pegasus, 2006), The First War of Physics (Pegasus, 2010), The Meaning of Quantum Physics (Oxford, 1992), and Beyond Measure Modern Physics, Philosophy, and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (Oxford, 2004). He lives in England.
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Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, by Jim Baggott is a criticism of modern theoretical physics. Baggot is currently a freelance science writer. A graduate of Manchester with a degree in chemistry and a PhD in physical chemistry from Oxford he was a lecturer at the University of Reading. He is the author of several books on quantum physics and reality. There has been an explosion in Physics for the common man, or at least the lay person that chooses to follow. I was working on an electronics degree in the mid 1980s and I came across a copy of Taking the Quantum Leap by Fred Alan Wolf. I was amazed at book about quantum physics that I could follow. Earlier I picked up a book on String Theory and I was thoroughly discouraged as the book was entirely mathematical equations. Times changed for the better. Hawking's A Brief History of Time made physics popular again. But is popular good? Since then the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel have kept the general public up to date and interested. It's is actually surprising how many people actually knew something out the Higgs particle last year. Documentaries covering physics, reality, time, and quantum mechanics are all readily available and constantly updated. The concept of multiple universes even made its way to prime time television as the science fiction show “Sliders”. Baggott writes a clear introduction with a list of items he would like the reader to think about and follow along with as they read the book. He traces science from the observable to the purely mathematical. Along the way he explains the corrections made to theories and scientific thought. The idea of what is reality comes into play and does science actually describe reality. Reality can be a matter of perspective. Plato's cave allegory is an excellent example of reality. From the prisoners view, the shadowy images are reality yet for everyone else it is not. Einstein introduced the world to the idea that time and space were not constant, only the speed of light is constant. Numerous thought experiments were made, but still, empirical observation supported these predictions. Relativity was, and is, difficult but, all in all, not mind blowing. The Standard Model again is difficult, but has a beauty in it: symmetry of particles. Then came the discovery of more particles and the need to explain them, Super Symmetry, Sting Theory, additional dimensions, Multiverses. We have gone from elegant and empirical to seemingly impossibly complex and untestable. Just because mathematics can provide a solution, is it necessarily the right right solution; more importantly which of the several mathematical conclusions is right...if any? There comes a point when science loses touch with empirical world. Baggott uses the term fairy tale. Opponents would counter, “Here is the mathematics to prove it.” Baggott uses the term metaphysical to describe where science is headed. I can see the direct relation to what he is say. Without empirical data or proof, what separates science from metaphysics or religion? Modern physics seems to have abandoned the scientific method and pursued unobservable, untestable, and unfalsifiable science: fairy tale. Perhaps it's the popular science selling itself to the mass market, where popular is better selling than factual. Selling the idea on a holographic universe is more profitable than being right. Has sensationalism taken over modern science? Baggott gives his views in this book. Farewell to Reality is doing for science what Zealot is doing for religion. It is setting up a challenge and creating controversy. Baggott's book is a bit deeper than popular science books like A Brief History of Time. Rather than fame or fortune Baggot wants to save science. He presents a clear and well written book. The book is well cited and almost 40 pages of documentation are provided. Farewell to Reality is an excellent book for the science minded. It may be a bit difficult for those without a science or a physics background.