An obscure yet still controversial engineer–physicist named Bill Gaede put out a video last year, inspired by Martin Luther, spelling out 95 theses against the current scientific consensus in physics. I’m in no position to evaluate his views on physics, but I find his take on the difference between science and religion fascinating. In this post I’ll try to condense some of his views on that narrow topic. You can watch the whole video here. Fair warning: his presentation style is rather eccentric. I find it quirky and fun, you may feel differently.
A description is a list of characteristics and traits. It answers the questions what, where, when, and how many.
An explanation is a discussion of causes, reasons, and mechanisms. It answers the question why.
An opinion is a subjective belief. What counts as “evidence”, “proof”, or “truth” is an opinion.
Science is the systematic attempt at providing explanations. Why do planets orbit stars? Why are some people rich and others poor? Why is there something instead of nothing? All questions that can be answered (to varying degrees) with science.
Note well that the experiments and observations per se are not science. The scientist takes those results for granted: they form his hypothesis—literally, that which is without a thesis or explanation. Technicians and assistants may carry out the observations and experiments. But the actual science is the explanation.
Religion is the systematic attempt at shaping opinions. Religion is not mere faith—the belief in things without evidence. Religion works through persuasion—the use of science and faith to appeal to your subjective beliefs about evidence and proof and truth.
Science is not be about persuading the audience. Good science is about providing consistent, logically sound explanations. An individual may have many religious reasons for their incredulity. But religious skepticism is not the concern of the scientist. The scientist is only concerned about logically valid explanations.
As the treasurer of the philosophy club at Chico State, I help organize weekly meetings to either explore topics from class more in-depth, or just argue with each other until the majority wins. As anyone will tell you, a group of philosophers is called a disagreement.
In this century, positions like absolute idealism, transcendental dualism or “free” free will are very marginal, and outside of those that favor the continental and those that favor the analytic schools, philosophy talk at a state college can tend toward groupthink.
One position that never fails to attract criticism is relativism, whose adherents persist to this day about morality. Someone will even come along now and then and claim truth itself is subjective (alethic relativism). Although at least the latter notion seems outright preposterous — it too easily leads to contradictions — Marvel Studios, of all places, recently gave me some insight into this debate.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, says “the truth is a matter of circumstance.” Before I’m kicked off this site for talking about mainstream cinema twice in a row, I want to argue that this off-hand sentiment raises some powerful and plausible connotations.
Truth does sometimes seem to be circumstantial. I don’t want to get grouped into the alethic relativists or skeptics quite yet, but sometimes truth at one level (or circumstance) becomes falsity at another. The most obvious example is our dual systems of mechanics. Newtonian physics describes the physical world we function at with excellent approximation, including planetary motion. After its creation, it defined the paradigm for over two hundred years, improved upon by greats like Faraday and Maxwell, until experiments with optics wore heavily on our common sense and prevailing calculus. The nature of light was questioned, and so a new theory of optics was necessary (and thence truth). This would be theorized by Einstein.
Albert Einstein formalized light as quanta, and went on to pen special relativity to understand bodies approaching the speed of these sometimes-packets, sometimes-waves. And he went on again to redefine our understanding of gravity. Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expedition in 1919 corroborated Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which predicted light, traveling along the indenture of space-time by massive bodies, would appear curved. In the eclipse observation a star which should have been hidden was shifted outside of the eclipse — confirming that starlight itself, which is massless, had been affected via light deflection. It was a dramatic event in scientific history, akin to Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric universe, or the abandonment of Aristotelian innate qualities.
Just like this early test of light deflection helped cement general relativity a century ago, physicists with LIGO just confirmed gravitational waves, another Einsteinian prediction. Stephen Colbert recently featured Brian Greene (whose online courses I used to learn special relativity) on his show to discuss the pivotal discovery, and Greene does an excellent job modelling the experiment in three dimensions. So exactly a century after Einstein first thought up his theory of the workings of the universe, scientists have transformed the mysterious and radical postulates into the popularly tangible.
The theory of general relativity explained the flaws and limits of Newtonian physics, but did not completely retire the mathematics. It became the new theory of truth for new areas of study. The problem being that general relativity doesn’t work for everything.
Albert Einstein never thought we would be able to practically test for gravitational waves, and he also denied a fundamental discovery of the fresh field of quantum mechanics: nonlocality. After the 19th century two-slit experiment, in which electrons were found to behave with wave-particle duality, quantum probability and nonlocality were introduced, to which Einstein proposed multiple solutions to avoid. These tenets have since been generally accepted. However, quantum mechanics, for all its brilliant complexity, works only to describe the extremely small scale, and fails to describe the universe we live in, which Newtonian mechanics excels in practically predicting, but which in turn fails to with true accuracy describe cosmological characters, like black holes and spacetime itself, in turn best explained by general relativity. The issue of gravity has been a key dissonance between the theories, as the other forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear) have their explanations in quantum field theory on the fundamental level at certain speeds, but a quantum explanation of gravity has been empirically evasive. Scientists must utilize classical or relativistic or quantum mechanics or quantum field theory, and each has its own domain of validity.
All of our current presiding and college-instructed theories, though compatible in certain contexts, war with each other at others, and ultimately fail to describe everything in every scenario… which is where “the truth is a matter of circumstance” comes to play. What can indisputably be said to be true for one scenario becomes false in another. Meaningfully saying that this is certainly true here, and anything else would be false, but then there, speaking of the same “this,” is false and an anything-else is true, seems to be only a reward of the past century of physics. Truth has a context within our understanding of the scale it admits to. It’s important to notice that, within these conflicting physical theories, a truth doesn’t become a falsity in its same context; it is only when the truth is examined through a different circumstance that, in light of the new circumstance, the truth no longer applies. It would sound like alethic relativism, except that in the example of physics, there are three or so set systems or rubrics from which to evaluate truth-values, instead of the complete toss-up commonly theorized by global relativism, in which there are as many systems as there are individuals or methods of viewing a given system.
The most obvious opposition would be that though we use these distinct theories to describe our reality based on our early place in scientific progression, we don’t assume they are necessarily correct; a final, accurate picture of the nuanced intricacies of the universe is singular and still beyond our experimental comprehension. In which case, parallel to the idea of circumstantiality, there is a vagueness whose truths are still humanly inaccessible (the idea that there is a definite but forever unknowable quality to outwardly-vague systems of speaking or discernment has been defended as epistemicism). This doesn’t get us anywhere closer to truth, however, and for practical purposes it’s as if to say truth is a convention of any given, temporary system of thought: a social construct.
That there is a discoverable and definite system of truth is still hoped for by theoretical physicists. The popular, almost celebrity theory — that one-dimensional oscillating “strings” make up fundamental particles — has most of the platform, as compared to the alternative loop quantum gravity. However, much criticism directed at string theory centers on its nonempirical evidence (perhaps epitomized in the polemic “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that chastises the theory for a purported lack of testability). The use of nonempirical arguments is very controversial in 21st-century science, but they could possibly shed light on truth; in any way we may be forced to accept this consequence of not having the adequate technology to make observations, or retire particle physics altogether.
Now, how concerned should we be with what occurs on a quantum level, as applicable to our own lives? This is relevant for truth as well as our conception of free will. The answer is that the quantum level is just as true as the functional human level, and dismissing it as less valuable or irrelevant is absurd. Not only are special relativity and quantum mechanics necessary for much of our modern technology, they speculate about the very processes that comprise all experience and function and moreover, what it’s like to exist.
I noted at the beginning that mechanics is the most obvious example of a circumstantiality of truth. At this moment I’m unsure of others. But here would not consist of an example of circumstantiality: at a ski resort, someone traveling up the lift might say they were high. However, to the skier already at the top of the mountain, the person in the lift is low and they are high. So we might say the truth is a matter of either of their circumstances; this is not the case however, because in either situation the quality that is being examined for truthfulness (high, low) is a relative quality, and this will be for every example of the sort. A claim we might expose to Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics (e.g., the body is moving forward) is subject to criteria concerning momentum, space-time, reference point, locality, and a whole conglomerate of standards to evaluate what’s actually happening. In this sense it takes on a less subjective tone than what is high or low, which can, like the first point about global relativity, be examined by a myriad of individual viewpoints. (Also, from an outsider context, high and low are meaningless.) High and low are dependent on their correlatives, and also dependent on scale for their truth; quantum mechanics without any other size would still have truth, and general relativity without any other size would still have truth, and so on.
So, what does all this mean? It’s support for the idea that truth can be evaluated through different systems, and not just like using the tools of sociology, or psychology, or feminist theory, or Marxist history to read and analyze the same event in different interpretations; physics is a physical science, and its truths are not contingent on lived humanity. The circumstantiality of truth on the scientific level might have some consequences for objectivity and vagueness, allow exploration into what the conditions of truth are, and could be formed into a rubric for evaluating all truth and falsity; all that is work for another day though. Right now, all it tells us is sometimes Marvel can say meaningful things in philosophy.
[Update (6/28/2017): I no longer believe much of what I wrote here, having learned much since.]
Some Austrian-school economists dislike analogies from physics in economics, because they don’t regard economics as mechanical. But since human action is physical, we can understand economics better if we understand the basics of physics.
We begin with space. For human action, space encompasses distance in three dimensions. For economics, space constitutes the sites in which activity takes place. The economics of space includes three-dimensional volume as well as a location. For human purposes, spacial land is fixed relative to the earth. Space is not altered by use, but it is consumed by using its value, as reflected by its rent, over time. There is also another type of economic space in the electromagnetic spectrum, made up of frequencies that travel through three-dimensional space.
The second rudiment of the universe is time, which has two meanings, a moment and a duration. Time is not an input into production, but a dimension of all activity. An analysis that examines a phenomenon over a duration is called “dynamic,” in contrast to the static analysis of a moment.
The third universal rudiment is mass, or its synonym, matter. Mass is what takes up space and has inertia. Economics categorizes mass as land (natural resources), human beings, capital goods, and trash.
A fundamental law of physics is that of conservation, that matter (and its sibling energy) cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed in form. But there is no conservation of value. In economics, production is the creation of economic value, processing inputs to make them more desirable. Consumption is the using up of economic value. Capital goods are items that have been produced but not yet consumed.
Linear velocity is the rate of the motion of a mass object in some direction. In economics, activity has a velocity as a mass of inputs gets processed into outputs, or objects get transported. There is also angular velocity in the speed of rotation, including the velocity of money as its turnover as measured during a year. Momentum equals mass times velocity, including a velocity of zero. Human action has momentum when activity proceeds at a constant speed and direction.
However, economic dynamics involves changes in speed or direction, which is acceleration (including negative acceleration or deceleration). A fundamental equation in physics is F=MA, force equals mass times its acceleration, Newton’s second law of motion. Newton’s first law of motion is that of inertia, that a body will retain its momentum unless an external force is applied. Force makes mass objects accelerate. On earth, mass has a weight due to the force applied by gravity
In human action, force can mean either a physical action, as inputs are moved and combined, or else a coercive action by either criminals or governments. The initiation of coercive force alters what people would otherwise voluntarily do. Such forceful intervention imposes a net loss of value on society by accelerating the mass of human action into directions or speeds that reduce its net utility. The economy and society maximize well being with rules that prevent coercive force.
Newton’s third law of motion is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When one body exerts force on another body, the other body exerts an opposite force on the first body. This law is what propels a rocket, as the force of the ejected fuel makes the rocket go in the opposite direction. Economic action encounters resistance to motion, or friction, which is good if we want to walk (as without friction we would slide around), but is bad if the friction consists of obstacles imposed by coercive force.
In economics, energy is the generation of heat, light, and movement. There are many forms of energy. In physics, potential energy is mass that can be accelerated into motion, such as an object that can fall down, or molecules that can be combined to create heat and light. There is kinetic energy of motion, with the equation: e = ½ mv2. Einstein’s equation reflecting the convertibility of mass and energy is e = mc2, but that has no relevance in the human scale of action.
In physics, work is force times displacement. Applied to human action, work is done when a person applies force (human exertion and tools) to a mass to change its location or composition, even if the change is only of bits in a computer memory. Work can also be a change in the kinetic energy of a system.
Another physics concept that has been applied to economics is equilibrium, a state of constant momentum, including zero velocity, where there is no incentive or force for acceleration. In economics, equilibrium is the exhaustion of gains from trade. At the moment you pay for goods at a store, you are in equilibrium, as you do not wish to trade any more money for goods. But a moment later, you are in disequilibrium, as some goods now have more value than the money you exchange for them. Market prices and quantities move towards equilibrium to remove a shortage or surplus or to gain from extra production, consumption, and trade.
We can see that the application of physics to human action is not mechanistic, as people act on their subjective values and beliefs and psychological inclinations, but their physical action is necessarily subject to the laws and concepts of physics. F=MA applies to human action as it does to physical particles.
Warning: this is not a libertarian post and I may get kicked out of this blog group for going way, way off topic! (It does have repercussions for Objectivists and others interested in ontology and epistemology.) This is an invitation to share a fascinating idea from modern physics: the holographic universe. As I understand it, the idea is that everything within a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on the boundary of the region – like a conventional hologram. (You can find runaway interpretations of the idea online which I suspect are bogus.)
Further warning: I am not a physicist. I do have a Ph.D. in engineering and a decent grasp of mathematics and I have been studying modern physics with Prof. Leonard Susskind at Stanford. His continuing education classes are just right for the likes of me – people who know elementary calculus, complex variables, etc. but cannot undertake a full-blast graduate physics course.
I commend to you Prof. Susskind’s lecture, The World as Hologram. He is talking to a lay audience so he uses very little math. But in his Stanford class he carefully took us through the math that leads to the conclusion that a black hole’s entropy is proportional to its surface area and not its volume as common sense would suggest.
If there’s a lesson here for a libertarian like me, perhaps it’s this: that we shouldn’t let ourselves get into a rut. Don’t focus exclusively on libertarian issues, but stretch your mind from time to time in a new direction. Allow the possibility that you might learn something from a socialist like Lenny Susskind. He’s someone I admire very much and I’m fortunate to have gotten personally acquainted with him.
By the way, you could hardly find a more moronic commentary on modern physics than this one, posted on the web site of the Ayn Rand Institute, from which I quote:
Today, physicists suppose that a particle can travel many different paths simultaneously, or travel backwards in time, or randomly pop into and out of existence from nothingness. They enjoy treating the entire universe as a “fluctuation of the vacuum,” or as an insignificant member of an infinite ensemble of universes, or even as a hologram. The fabric of this strange universe is a non-entity called “spacetime,” which expands, curves, attends yoga classes, and may have twenty-six dimensions.
Again, I’m not a physicist, but I have learned enough to recognize this paragraph as a preposterous know-nothing caricature of ideas that have been carefully worked out by physicists who almost without exception remain ruthlessly dedicated to experimental facts and correct logic.