23 December 2020

Modern physics built on quicksand?

The title of this post will provoke its immediate dismissal as mere polemic. Be that as it may. Let me continue. University physics departments have been increasingly renamed today as Departments of Physics and Astronomy. This signals a significant shift in the focus of physics since the 19th century, when mechanics and electromagnetic dynamics were at the centre of attention, to cosmology. This cosmology requires not only the use of huge telescopes of all kinds: ocular, radio, electromagnetic and even gravitational, as well as so-called particle colliders such as the LHC in Geneva, but also the application of ever more complex theories, starting with Einsteinian special relativity and general relativity, and even quantum dynamics requiring ever more complex mathematics. As a conservative estimate, a very able student coming from a school with competent maths and science teachers will need at least four years in an undergraduate physics degree plus four years of postgraduate work in physics to learn the mathematical foundations of advanced relativity physics and quantum dynamics. This is a prerequisite for getting comfortable with the complexities of these highly sophisticated mathematized theories of physics. These entrance barriers make of physicists working at the frontiers of modern physics a kind of small, exclusive, intellectual elite that can communicate in an unfiltered way only amongst itself. 

Physicists are therefore proud of having acquired the mathematical background to even understand modern physics. This pride spills over often enough into arrogance and smugness. After all, they are supposed to be the modern keepers of the keys to the secrets of the universe. The many popularizations of modern physics give a rough idea of some of the enigmas of modern physics such as quantum indeterminacy and space-time curvature, but it remains a rough idea that readers cannot seriously deploy in any confidently critical fashion. These critics would be ruled out of bounds, outside their area of competency, by the initiated physicists themselves. 

One could say, this is all to the good, because the physicists oversee their own work internally and mutually criticize it in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Hence physicists put their reputation on the line if they try to publish nonsense that is either theoretically inconsistent or empirically unverifiable or both. Rigorous internal controls are then said to guarantee falsifiable scientific 'truth'. Scientific endeavour in physics is thus in the hands of competent experts in the best of all possible scientific worlds, even if the rest of us can't follow in detail what they're up to.

But isn't there something fishy going on here? Doesn't the scientific elite of physicists, along with their renowned journals, share a set of pre-given rules for critically judging the worth of scientific discovery? One can often read from physicists themselves that their science's foundations consist of mathematical theories that are treated first as merely hypothetical theoretical models, but that these models then have to be tested and verified by finding the appropriate empirical data to test the model. If the model can account for, that is, explain, the empirical facts given by the data, then it has been verified, at least for now, until new, unexpected empirical facts come along with which the existing model cannot cope. The truth of such mathematical physical models amounts to the correctness in corresponding to the given empirical facts. These empirical facts, in turn, invariably concern movement that the theoretical model needs to accurately predict to prove its mettle as a scientific theory. Hence truth is really only the correct correspondence between model and empirical data relating to movement and change. More succinctly: truth is correctness, and not the unconcealment of the phenomena themselves. Since movement and change are the focus of concern for scientific prediction, the simple phenomena themselves are conceptualized by one-line definitions as a preliminary to moving on to where the action is, namely, the movement of the physical entities concerned. In predicting motion, physics fulfils its raison d'être of usefulness for the mastery of physical motion either in the mind or practically. Empiricism and pragmatism in philosophy and scientific methodology may be regarded as synonyms, and the one is as naïvely dogmatic as the other with respect to its own ontological foundations.

Modern scientific method is ruled by the necessity of testing the validity of hypothetical theoretical models against the experimental data concerning movement and change given by the physical phenomena. Such a procedure is the hallmark of all modern science, which is thoroughly empiricist in nature because it is convinced that theories can be confirmed or confuted by comparing them with empirical data in a circular fashion that, from the outset, rules out questioning the validity of the simple a priori assumptions that already pre-form how the phenomena of concerned are accessed and grasped at all by the scientific mind. This amounts to saying that all modern science is thoroughly clueless as to its own respective ontological foundations, physics no less than economics, biology no less than sociology. It guarantees its own blindness by adhering unquestioningly to an empiricist methodology and epistemology: if the model explains the quantitative empirical facts predictively, it must be true, at least for now (cf. Popperian falsifiability). The implicit ontology of all modern science, including physics, is as naïve and simple-minded as this.

Witness, for instance, the testimony of a sophisticated physicist who has written a very good text book on relativity theory:

"A physical theory, in fact, is a man-made amalgam of concepts, definitions, and laws, constituting a mathematical model for a certain part of nature. It asserts not so much what nature is, but rather what it is like. Agreement with experiment is the most obvious requirement for the usefulness of such a theory. However, no amount of experimental agreement can ever ‘prove’ a theory, partly because no experiment (unless it involves counting only) can ever be infinitely accurate, and partly because we can evidently not test all relevant instances." (Wolfgang Rindler Relativity: Special, General and Cosmological 2nd ed. O.U.P. 2006 p.33)

What is the above-mentioned unconcealment of the phenomena themselves supposed to be, you ask. The phenomena themselves in their revealing themselves of themselves must be hindered, if at all, by the assumed hypotheses of the mathematical physical models. These hypotheses, or underlying postulates must, from the outset (a priori), obscure and distort the view provided by the models based on them. To the present day, physics lavishly praises itself for its mathematization that took off in earnest at the beginning of the 17th century with major contemporaneous figures such as Kepler and Galileo. Galileo is even the author of the leading line of the era's playbook when he pronounces that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics. Descartes fills this out to a full-blown script for the modern scientific age in his De Regulae or Rules. This postulation of a mathematized mode of accessing the phenomena of nature is itself not evidence-based, but posited as an (allegedly obvious) axiom entirely for the sake of gaining a purely quantitative, precalculative, predictive power of knowledge over physical motion in a unified way through simple mathematizable laws of motion, namely, Newton's.

To precalculate physical (loco)motion, Newton's laws require the mathematical operation of infinitesimal differentiation with respect to the continuous, real, time variable, t. Without this variable, it cannot even start business. Armed with this assumed 'obvious' mathematization of time, physics was off to the races with unprecedented success, that is, until it hit a road block at the end of the 19th century. Whereas for Newtonian physics, time t was an absolute variable, anomalies in the theory of electromagnetic radiation coupled with the paradoxes of the absoluteness of the movement of electromagnetic radiation (light) in a vacuum in turn forced a relativization of time itself. With Einsteinian relativity, the human being, that is, the scientific observer-subject, was cast as the receiver of electromagnetic signals bearing empirical data at a certain clock-time that the observer-subject registered on his or her clock in the pertinent inertial reference frame. Voilà! Time t had been relativized to the time registered by receipt of an electromagnetic (light) signal in a given frame of reference. 

It had also been spatialized as the path taken by the light bearing the physical information from some event or other in the universe. Such events were of interest especially with a view to calculating the motion of cosmological entities, starting with planets and stars. This spatialized time was tied to the usual three-dimensional spatial co-ordinates by mathematical constraints known as the Lorentz transformation, which resulted in the time of a physical event registered by the clock in one frame being compressed or dilated compared to the time registered by the clock in another frame. Four-dimensional space-time (x,y,z,t) was born with time t becoming the fourth dimension as a continuous, real, linear variable with respect to which equations of motion could still be differentiated. 

The extension of special relativity, in which light moves invariably in a straight line at the absolute speed of light, c, to considering the curvature of the path of light necessitated that the ties between the spatial co-ordinates and the linear time co-ordinate had to be adjusted to account for the curvature of light's path that bore the signal data determining time, t. Hence a curved space-time had to be postulated whose treatment demanded a curved geometry known as differential geometry initially developed by the German mathematician, Bernhard Riemann, who introduced Riemann tensors to cope mathematically with curvature. The focus of theoretical interest remained, of course, the quantities involved and their variation, which could still be captured by (partial and ultimately covariant) differentiation. The phenomena of space and time themselves were taken for granted as self-evident to physical common sense. Only their mathematization was mysterious. For how could space-time be curved?!

Even with the advent of quantum mechanics, whose quantization was forced on physics by anomalies in the theory of electromagnetic radiation, i.e. again: of light, whereupon light (now conceived as nuggets of pure energy, i.e. as absolute, pure, massless movement) could now only be emitted in discrete Planck quanta rather than continuously. This quantization of light in photons led in the 1920s, with Heisenberg and Schrödinger, to the invention of the device of quantum indeterminacy. The motion of sub-atomic particles could no longer be uniquely causally determined, but had only a probability distribution. However, no attempt was made to break with the mathematization of time as a continuous, real, and hence differentiable variable measuring physical movement. The reason is simple: since its inception with Aristotle and his predecessors, physics has always been about investigating the movement of all that is movable, changeable (_kinoumena_). That is the definition of physics: the science of movement, whereby with Aristotle at least, this movement comprised not only locomotion (change of place), but also change of quality, change of quantity and change of entity itself (propagation). Modern mathematized physics started with the simplest kind of movement, namely (loco)motion, that was most amenable to mathematization. To the present day, physics hangs on for dear life to continuous, real, linear, differentiable time, even though the mathematical operation of differentiation itself becomes increasingly round-about, culminating in the covariant differentiation applicable to general relativity theory.

Convenience for the sake of mathematization, however, can hardly be the criterion for choosing a conception of time. (Linear equations in maths are easy to work with; non-linear equations make things complicated.) Nor is it beyond question that time as a phenomenon in its own right is merely derivative of phenomena of movement and motion. A continuous, real variable t is still basically only a counted time counted off one kind of movement or other. This circumstance, in turn, is dictated by physics' undivertible interest in predicting movement, thus gaining calculative power over it. Is the decision regarding the conceptualization of a phenomenon as fundamental and elementary as time to be dictated by the will to power over movement? What if it were instead the case more fitting the truth of phenomena of movement that it is time — now as three-dimensional time — which enables all kinds of movement to be conceived and understood by us humans as movement in the first place? For a modern physicist, such considerations are totally out of bounds because it is a recipe for declaring a modesty with respect to the knowledge claims of physics, instead of puffing oneself up as one who is investigating the deepest truths of the universe and where 'we' supposedly 'came from'. As it turns out, such alleged deep truth amounts to only the correctness of factual observation under certain restrictive assumptions concerning how the phenomena of concern are accessed and conceived. In particular, the violence done to the phenomenon of time ultimately does violence to our very conception of ourselves as human beings. 

We have thus been caught in the inexorable progress of linear time in one dimension as what-beings that (not who) are themselves one-dimensional. We are, however, if we open the question of time, beings exposed to the openness of three-dimensional time that enables our freedom of movement. Without a proper conception of three-dimensional time there can be no well-founded conception of human freedom. By contrast, modern physics is built on ontological quicksand and must be unfrocked as obscuring the view of the phenomena themselves through unbridled mathematization for the sake of its self-aggrandizement.

Further reading: Movement and Time in the Cyberworld

1 comment:

  1. Nutrient-dense food for the mind. If modern physics is 'built on ontological quicksand', then where does that leave the human race? This is no 'mere polemic'.