Rabbit Holes and Physicists

During my adult life I have been continuously falling into rabbit holes. As explained here; “What is an internet rabbit hole? Just like the infamous example from Alice in Wonderland, a rabbit hole is a never-ending path into the unknown. One thing leads to another, and suddenly you’re learning about everything and anything under the sun. When Alice fell down into the literal and figurative rabbit hole, she discovered a whole new world. An internet rabbit hole is a twist on Lewis Carrol’s classic. Instead of being confined by physical books and literature, the boundaries of an internet rabbit hole are nonexistent. That’s what makes them so dangerous!” Perhaps the deepest hole I have ever entered is Austrian economics itself, and that is why I am writing here on LRC today. Recent sojourns down rabbit holes have been populated by physicists.

I am reasonably well grounded in physics having degrees through the PhD in mechanical engineering. During graduate school I wandered over to the physics department for a course on instrumentation and data analysis and another on statistical mechanics. But I only had a passing understanding of the most modern concepts of theoretical particle physics and astrophysics. I recall thinking that string theory, the mainstream candidate of the physics community for a final theory of everything, seemed to be a only a morass of mathematics far from any contact with reality.

Dreams of a Final Theo... Weinberg, Steven Best Price: $2.14 Buy New $13.34 (as of 04:22 UTC - Details) Fast forward over 30 years to the present. I have reported on LRC my discovery of the Jordan Peterson rabbit hole and the many rabbit warrens that I have followed in Peterson’s wake. One such is Karen Wong’s Youtube channel The Meaning Code. She is an artist and mother who discusses with her eclectic guests a wide range of subjects from the most esoteric metaphysics to the most esoteric neuroscience. She has also dabbled in esoteric economics when I appeared on her channel. She has been in discussion over several episodes with a physicist, who is also a Christian, on the question What is Life? A Theoretical Path to the Question from the Perspective of Physics and Math. Through the five episodes of this discussion to date, the topics have been Defining Complexity, Order, Entropy and Information plus Maxwell’s demon, Inside and Outside: a Deep Dive into Entropy, Its History and Deeper Meaning, The Nature of Life: The Necessity of Connectedness, Entropy as a Process rather than a Thing, and The Nature of Life: Computation as Fundamental – Locks, Keys and Intelligently Behaved Systems.

In one of these episodes (I don’t recall which one) Karen introduced a talk by a renowned physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed on the morality of fundamental physics. For Arkani-Hamed morality arrives from the “beauty” of the theory. The concepts of beauty and morality in physics have been a recurring theme in the podcasts of another physicist/astronomer, Brian Keating. Here is a nice primer on relativity and his own research. Keating has interviewed several Nobel laureates and often has his friend the mathematician and social iconoclast Eric Weinstein on the podcast. Eric always stresses that he is not a physicist, yet he has his own theory to unify the Standard model of particle physics with gravity that he calls “Geometric Unity.” I can’t say I know what this theory is, but he cites gage theory and “bundles” as the keys. Weinstein will often riff on all the names and accomplishments of the 20th century physicists and bemoan the lack of recent progress. Keating and Weinstein mention their Jewish practice in passing during their conversations. I say practice in place of faith because I have not heard them express anything particular about their religious beliefs. Here Keating is in a discussion that does get to the human level.

Arkani-Hamed highly recommended the 1993 book “Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature” (1992) by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg to understand this physics morality. “Dreams of a Final Theory” is a very good book. Weinberg elegantly explains the “Standard Model” of particle physics in an understandable way (better than I have heard Eric Weinstein’s off the cuff descriptions). But he also displays a flair for philosophy, at least in brief skirmishes defending physics against its positivist and postmodern critiques.

One consistent theme from the physicists is the need for money to pay for their monster experiments. For Weinberg it was the Super Collider project that was eventually cancelled in the 90s. “The particle physicists’ campaign for the Super Collider has been spurred by a sense of desperation, that only with the data from such an accelerator can we be sure that our work will continue.” In contrast Weinstein is not so graceful, he says “shut up” and give us the money (at 1:36 of this podcast) because we physicists gave you everything technologically and economically. It is a remarkable argument that certainly would never convince anybody, even physicists. The fact that the most recognizable contribution to society of physicists in the 20th century was nuclear weapons alone would make most people pause.

Contrary to Keating and Weinstein, Weinberg is very clear on the point of religious belief. “It would be wonderful to find in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role. I find sadness in doubting that we will. There are some among my scientific colleagues who say that the contemplation of nature gives them all the spiritual satisfaction that others have traditionally found in a belief in an interested God. Some of them may even really feel that way. I do not. And it does not seem to me to be helpful to identify the laws of nature as Einstein did with some sort of remote and disinterested God. The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless.” And further, “But, as far as I can tell from my own observations, most physicists today are not sufficiently interested in religion even to qualify as practicing atheists.” TeeHee St. Patricks Da... Buy New $8.99 (as of 04:22 UTC - Details)

To my understanding, Weinberg goes deeper into the physical reality of atoms and molecules held by many atheists, to describe all reality as based on the wave functions of quantum mechanics, because these functions are the only universal descriptions independent of the observer. “Other physicists including myself prefer another, realist, way of looking at quantum mechanics, in terms of a wave function that can describe laboratories and observers as well as atoms and molecules, governed by laws that do not materially depend on whether there are any observers or not.”

So you, or anyone else, as an individual is simply a wave function. What does this make for the meaning of human life? In this Weinberg Interview, there is a question beginning at 55:45, Is there a purpose to consciousness, or is consciousness pointless? Weinberg responds that everything is pointless, but I sensed that he doesn’t really believe (act) on what he says. At one point he even hesitates to consider love. In the end, what he said is what is aligned with his intellectual theory, but this is not how he lives or what is his lived experience. Is this being scientific?  From my perspective, consider gravity. Gravity is something we cannot see, touch, smell, hear; nor taste, but we experience it continually all of our lives. We know it exists. The natural law has always been a reality for me from my childhood until now.  This is a simple testimony. I leave it to theologians and philosophers, or perhaps cognitive scientists, to define what I have felt, I only stipulate I have felt it like I have felt gravity. To live ignoring gravity is impossible. The existence of the natural law has made my life meaningful giving my actions a point. To live ignoring the natural law is impossible. And thus it insisted upon my psyche the presence of God. So finding God did not make life meaningful, but life being meaningful predicated the presence of God.

This short and chaotic essay represents only an inkling of what I have recently encountered in the physics rabbit holes. To end, the following is an appendix with a sample of my highlights from Weinberg’s book with some short commentary.


“Some scientists and writers like Fritjof Capra welcome what they see as an opportunity for a reconciliation between the spirit of science and the gentler parts of our nature. I might, too, if I thought the opportunity was a real one, but I do not think it is. Quantum mechanics has been overwhelmingly important to physics, but I cannot find any ‘messages’ for human life in quantum mechanics that are different in any important way from those of Newtonian physics.”

“In its final form, the general theory of relativity was just a reinterpretation of the existing mathematics of curved spaces in terms of gravitation, together with a field equation that specified the curvature produced by any given amount of matter and energy. Remarkably, for the small densities and low velocities of the solar system, general relativity gave just the same results as Newton’s theory of gravitation, with the two theories distinguished only by tiny effects like the precession of orbits and the deflection of light.”

In this age of oxymoronic settled science I provide at length Weinberg’s description of perhaps the most celebrated scientific observation of the 20th century that proved Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a telling lesson for the reality of scientific development. Danjani Outdoor Raised... Check Amazon for Pricing.

“So let us now turn to the deflection of light by the sun. After 1919 astronomers went on to check Einstein’s prediction in a number of subsequent eclipses. There was one eclipse in 1922 visible in Australia; one in 1929 in Sumatra; one in 1936 in the USSR; and one in 1947 in Brazil. Some of these observations did seem to yield a result for the deflection of light in agreement with Einstein’s theory, but several others found a result that seriously disagreed with Einstein’s prediction. And, although the 1919 expedition had reported a 10% experimental uncertainty in the deflection on the basis of observations of a dozen stars, and an agreement with Einstein’s theory to an accuracy also of about 10%, several of the later eclipse expeditions found that they could not achieve that accuracy, even though they had observed many more stars. It is true that the 1919 eclipse was unusually favorable for this sort of observation. Nevertheless, I am inclined to believe that the astronomers of the 1919 expedition had been carried away with enthusiasm for general relativity in analyzing their data. Indeed, some scientists at the time had reservations about the 1919 eclipse data. In a report to the 1921 Nobel Committee, Svante Arrhenius referred to various criticisms of the reported results on the bending of light. Once in Jerusalem I met an elderly Professor Sambursky, who in 1919 had been a colleague of Einstein at Berlin. He told me that the astronomers and physicists at Berlin had been skeptical that the British astronomers could really have achieved such an accurate test of Einstein’s theory. This is not for a moment to suggest that any dishonesty had crept into these observations. You can imagine all the uncertainties that plague you when you measure the deflection of light by the sun. You are looking at a star that appears in the sky close to the sun’s disk when the sun is blotted out by the moon. You are comparing the position of the star on photographic plates at two times six months apart. The telescope may have been focused differently in the two observations. The photographic plate itself may have expanded or shrunk in the interval – and so on. As in all experiments, all sorts of corrections are needed. The astronomer makes these corrections the best way that he or she can. But if one knows the answer, there is a natural tendency to keep on making these corrections until one has the ‘right’ answer and then to stop looking for further corrections. Indeed, the astronomers of the 1919 eclipse expedition were accused of bias in throwing out the data from one of the photographic plates that would have been in conflict with Einstein’s prediction, a result they blamed on a change of focus of the telescope. With hindsight we can say that the British astronomers were right, but I would not be surprised if they had gone on finding corrections until finally their result with all these corrections fit Einstein’s theory.”

“I will not try to define beauty, any more than I would try to define love or fear. You do not define these things; you know them when you feel them. Later, after the fact, you may sometimes be able to say a little to describe them, as I will try to do here.”

The beauty is found in the symmetry that simplifies the equations without tweaks or fudge factors.

“A symmetry of the laws of nature is a statement that when we make certain changes in the point of view from which we observe natural phenomena, the laws of nature we discover do not change. Such symmetries are often called principles of invariance.”

There is a sense of gnosticism in the physics world, in that they consist of an elite who are the only ones who understand reality.

“There is another respect in which it seems to me that theoretical physics is a bad model for the arts. Our theories are very esoteric – necessarily so, because we are forced to develop these theories using a language, the language of mathematics, that has not become part of the general equipment of the educated public. Physicists generally do not like the fact that our theories are so esoteric. On the other hand, I have occasionally heard artists talk proudly about their work being accessible only to a band of cognoscenti and justify this attitude by quoting the example of physical theories like general relativity that also can be understood only by initiates. Artists like physicists may not always be able to make themselves understood by the general public, but esotericism for its own sake is just silly.” 7 in 1 Immune Support ... Buy New $29.95 ($0.25 / Count) (as of 08:12 UTC - Details)

“The genetic code is pretty much a mess; some amino acids are called for by more than one triplet of base pairs, and some triplets produce nothing at all. The genetic code is not as bad as a randomly chosen code, which suggests that it has been somewhat improved by evolution, but any communications engineer could design a better code. The reason of course is that the genetic code was not designed; it developed through a series of accidents at the beginning of life on earth and has been inherited in more or less this form by all subsequent organisms. Of course the genetic code is so important to us that we study it whether it is beautiful or not, but it is a little disappointing that it did not turn out to be beautiful.”

The cognitive scientist/philosopher John Vervaeke in this podcast explained from the neoplatonic perspective on why physicists like Weinberg are searching for the final theory, to make the world “one”, and therefore, intelligible.

“It is when we study truly fundamental problems that we expect to find beautiful answers. We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty. We think this in part because our historical experience teaches us that as we look beneath the surface of things, we find more and more beauty. Plato and the neo-Platonists taught that the beauty we see in nature is a reflection of the beauty of the ultimate, the nous. For us, too, the beauty of present theories is an anticipation, a premonition, of the beauty of the final theory. And in any case, we would not accept any theory as final unless it were beautiful.”

“I do not want to draw the lesson here that physics is best done without preconceptions. At any one moment there are so many things that might be done, so many accepted principles that might be challenged, that without some guidance from our preconceptions one could do nothing at all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally provided us with the right preconceptions. In our hunt for the final theory, physicists are more like hounds than hawks; we have become good at sniffing around on the ground for traces of the beauty we expect in the laws of nature, but we do not seem to be able to see the path to the truth from the heights of philosophy.”

“The insights of the philosophers I studied seemed murky and inconsequential compared with the dazzling successes of physics and mathematics.”

Weinberg is critical of positivist philosophy that demands only “observable facts” similar to the Austrian School of Economics. (e.g., see David Gordon or Guido Hulsmann).

“It is not in metaphysics that modern physics meets its greatest troubles, but in epistemology, the study of the nature and sources of knowledge. The epistemological doctrine of positivism (or in some versions logical positivism) demands not only that science must ultimately test its theories against observation (which is hardly in doubt) but that every aspect of our theories must at every point refer to observable quantities. That is, although physical theories may involve aspects that have not yet been studied observationally and would be too expensive to study this year or next year, it would be inadmissible for our theories to deal with elements that could not in principle ever be observed. A great deal is at stake here, because positivism if valid would allow us to discover valuable clues about the ingredients of the final theory by using thought experiments to find out what sorts of things can in principle be observed.”

Suncast 22 Gallon Indo... Best Price: $42.72 Buy New $45.00 (as of 04:22 UTC - Details) “What after all does it mean to observe anything? In a narrow sense, Kaufmann did not even observe the deflection of cathode rays in a given magnetic field; he measured the position of a luminous spot on the downstream side of the vacuum tube when wires were wound a certain number of times around a piece of iron near the tube and connected to a certain electric battery and used accepted theory to interpret this in terms of ray trajectories and magnetic fields. Very strictly speaking, he did not even do that: he experienced certain visual and tactile sensations that he interpreted in terms of luminous spots and wires and batteries. It has become a commonplace among historians of science that observation can never be freed of theory.”

“In a lecture in 1974 Heisenberg recalled a conversation he had with Einstein in Berlin in early 1926: I pointed out [to Einstein] that we cannot, in fact, observe such a path [of an electron in an atom]; what we actually record are frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path. And since it is but rational to introduce into a theory only such quantities as can be directly observed, the concept of electron paths ought not, in fact, to figure in the theory. To my astonishment, Einstein was not at all satisfied with this argument. He thought that every theory in fact contains unobservable quantities. The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, had made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: ‘Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote it, but it is nonsense all the same.’”

Weinberg is critical of postmodern relativists who were attacking STEM even in 1992.

“Metaphysics and epistemology have at least been intended to play a constructive role in science. In recent years science has come under attack from unfriendly commentators joined under the banner of relativism. The philosophical relativists deny the claim of science to the discovery of objective truth; they see it as merely another social phenomenon, not fundamentally different from a fertility cult or a potlatch.”

“Science is of course a social phenomenon, with its own reward system, its revealing snobberies, its interesting patterns of alliance and authority.”

“…[it] is simply a logical fallacy to go from the observation that science is a social process to the conclusion that the final product, our scientific theories, is what it is because of the social and historical forces acting in this process.”

“Where then does this radical attack on the objectivity of scientific knowledge come from? One source I think is the old bugbear of positivism, this time applied to the study of science itself.”

“…Gerald Holton is close to the truth in seeing the radical attack on science as one symptom of a broader hostility to Western civilization that has bedeviled Western intellectuals from Oswald Spengler on. Modern science is an obvious target for this hostility; great art and literature have sprung from many of the world’s civilizations, but ever since Galileo scientific research has been overwhelmingly dominated by the West. This hostility seems to me to be tragically misdirected. Even the most frightening Western applications of science like nuclear weapons represent just one more example of mankind’s timeless efforts to destroy itself with whatever weapons it can devise. Balancing this against the benign applications of science and its role in liberating the human spirit, I think that modern science, along with democracy and contrapuntal music, is something that the West has given the world in which we should take special pride.”

“It is a tribute to the fundamental importance of elementary particle physics that very bright students continue to come into the field when so little is going on.”

“The particle physicists’ campaign for the Super Collider has been spurred by a sense of desperation, that only with the data from such an accelerator can we be sure that our work will continue.”

“But so far no detailed quantitative predictions have emerged that would allow a decisive test of string theory.”

“…the aim of physics at its most fundamental level is not just to describe the world but to explain why it is the way it is.”

“…there is just one wave function describing all phenomena, including experiments and observers, and the fundamental laws are those that describe the evolution of this wave function.”

“A far more pressing worry is that the effort to discover the final laws may be stopped for want of money.”

Weinberg does not recognize the goodness of creation.

“The stars tell us nothing more or less about the glory of God than do the stones on the ground around us.”

“Remembrance of the Holocaust leaves me unsympathetic to attempts to justify the ways of God to man. If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers.”

“It would be wonderful to find in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role. I find sadness in doubting that we will. There are some among my scientific colleagues who say that the contemplation of nature gives them all the spiritual satisfaction that others have traditionally found in a belief in an interested God. Some of them may even really feel that way. I do not. And it does not seem to me to be helpful to identify the laws of nature as Einstein did with some sort of remote and disinterested God. The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless.”

“Wolfgang Pauli was once asked whether he thought that a particularly ill-conceived physics paper was wrong. He replied that such a description would be too kind – the paper was not even wrong. I happen to think that the religious conservatives are wrong in what they believe, but at least they have not forgotten what it means really to believe something. The religious liberals seem to me to be not even wrong.”

A message for those who believe in “settled science.” REXBETI Knee Pads for ... Buy New $25.19 (as of 07:01 UTC - Details)

“Across Asia and Africa the dark forces of religious enthusiasm are gathering strength, and reason and tolerance are not safe even in the secular states of the West. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has said that it was the spread of the spirit of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that finally ended the burning of witches in Europe. We may need to rely again on the influence of science to preserve a sane world. It is not the certainty of scientific knowledge that fits it for this role, but its uncertainty. Seeing scientists change their minds again and again about matters that can be studied directly in laboratory experiments, how can one take seriously the claims of religious tradition or sacred writings to certain knowledge about matters beyond human experience?”

“The decision to believe or not is not entirely in our hands. I might be happier and have better manners if I thought I were descended from the emperors of China, but no effort of will on my part can make me believe it, any more than I can will my heart to stop beating. Yet it seems that many people are able to exert some control over what they believe and choose to believe in what they think makes them good or happy. The most interesting description I know of how this control can work appears in George Orwell’s novel 1984. The hero, Winston Smith, has written in his diary that ‘freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two is four.’ The inquisitor, O’Brien, takes this as a challenge, and sets out to force Smith to change his mind. Under torture Smith is perfectly willing to say that two plus two is five, but that is not what O’Brien is after. Finally, the pain becomes so unbearable that in order to escape it Smith manages to convince himself for an instant that two plus two is five. O’Brien is satisfied for the moment, and the torture is suspended.”

Reading Weinberg brought to mind a kind of positron to his electron, the writings of G. K. Chesterton. Directly after finishing The Dreams of a Final Theory I read Chesteron’s Orthodoxy and his short biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is interesting to contemplate this passage in the context of the physicists.

“St. Thomas Aquinas closely resembles the great Professor Huxley, the Agnostic who invented the word Agnosticism. He is like him in his way of starting the argument, and he is unlike everybody else, before and after, until the Huxleyan age. He adopts almost literally the Huxleyan definition of the Agnostic method; “To follow reason as far as it will go;” the only question is–where does it go? He lays down the almost startlingly modern or materialist statement; “Everything that is in the intellect has been in the senses.” This is where he began, as much as any modern man of science, nay, as much as any modern materialist who can now hardly be called a man of science; at the very opposite end of enquiry from that of the mere mystic. The Platonists, or at least the Neo-Platonists, all tended to the view that the mind was lit entirely from within; St. Thomas insisted that it was lit by five windows, that we call the windows of the senses. But he wanted the light from without to shine on what was within. He wanted to study the nature of Man, and not merely of such moss and mushrooms as he might see through the window, and which he valued as the first enlightening experience of man. And starting from this point, he proceeds to climb the House of Man, step by step and story by story, until he has come out on the highest tower and beheld the largest vision.  In other words, he is an anthropologist, with a complete theory of Man, right or wrong. Now the modern Anthropologists, who called themselves Agnostics, completely failed to be Anthropologists at all. Under their limitations, they could not get a complete theory of Man, let alone a complete theory of nature. They began by ruling out something which they called the Unknowable. The incomprehensibility was almost comprehensible, if we could really understand the Unknowable in the sense of the Ultimate. But it rapidly became apparent that all sorts of things were Unknowable, which were exactly the things that a man has got to know. It is necessary to know whether he is responsible or irresponsible, perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal, doomed or free, not in order to understand God, but in order to understand Man. Nothing that leaves these things under a cloud of religious doubt can possibly pretend to be a Science of Man; it shrinks from anthropology as completely as from theology. Has a man free will; or is his sense of choice an illusion? Has he a conscience, or has his conscience any authority; or is it only the prejudice of the tribal past? Is there real hope of settling these things by human reason; and has that any authority? Is he to regard death as final; and is he to regard miraculous help as possible? Now it is all nonsense to say that these are unknowable in any remote sense, like the distinction between the Cherubim and the Seraphim, or the Procession of the Holy Ghost. The Schoolmen may have shot too far beyond our limits in pursuing the Cherubim and Seraphim. But in asking whether a man can choose or whether a man will die, they were asking ordinary questions in natural history; like whether a cat can scratch or whether a dog can smell. Nothing calling itself a complete Science of Man can shirk them. And the great Agnostics did shirk them. They may have said they had no scientific evidence; in that case they failed to produce even a scientific hypothesis. What they generally did produce was a wildly unscientific contradiction. Most Monist moralists simply said that Man has no choice; but he must think and act heroically as if he had. Huxley made morality, and even Victorian morality, in the exact sense, supernatural. He said it had arbitrary rights above nature; a sort of theology without theism.”