Why Sean Carroll is wrong

Sean Carroll, who I do respect, has blogged no less than four times about the idea that the physics underlying the “world of everyday experience” is completely understood, bar none.  His most recent post on this subject claims to have put it all into a single equation.  In his response to critics he has made  a number of interesting claims including arguing – correctly – that there is a misperception about the nature of scientific theories.  They aren’t simply right or wrong.  They have ranges of applicability.  This is one of my greatest pet peeves, in fact.  It drives me bonkers when people, for instance, claim that Einstein proved Newton was wrong.  No, that in fact is not true.  Einstein proved Newton was only correct within a certain range of validity.  We rely on Newton having been correct every single day when we open a door or drive a car.  That’s not the issue here.  So what is the issue?

Let’s look at Sean’s claim one more time: that the physics underlying the world of everyday experience is perfectly well understood.  To quote from one of Sean’s earlier posts on the subject,

If you were to ask a contemporary scientist why a table is solid, they would give you an explanation that comes down to the properties of the molecules of which it is made, which in turn reflect a combination of the size of the atoms as determined by quantum mechanics, and the electrostatic interaction between those atoms. If you were to ask why the Sun shines, you would get a story in terms of protons and neutrons fusing and releasing energy. If you were to ask what happens when a person flexes a muscle, you would hear about signals sent through nerves by the transmission of ions across electromagnetic potentials and various chemical interactions.

And so on with innumerable other questions about how everyday phenomena work. In every single case, the basic underlying story (if that happens to be what you’re interested in, and again there are plenty of other interesting things out there) would involve the particles of the Standard Model, interacting through electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear forces, according to the principles of quantum mechanics and general relativity.

As simple as that sounds, what is he really trying to say?  It certainly appears as if he is implying that one can draw a direct line from the Standard Model (via the equation that he is now rolling out on his tour of England) to doors closing and muscles flexing.  Yet, when anyone challenges him on the fact that emergence and complexity, not to mention the quantum-classical contrast, are not sufficiently well-understood he (and his supporters) dismiss the argument as “tiresome.”  But he has fallen into his own trap by overextending the validity of a theory.

So let’s review what we know, without question.

  1. We know the classical physics (and the “classical” part is crucial here) that describes how things like doors open and close, buildings stand up, and so on.  On an everyday level, this involves Newtonian mechanics.  Thus we know how macroscopic objects work at non-relativistic energies and speeds to great precision.
  2. We know the classical physics of electromagnetism and we know that it helps govern how macroscopic objects interact (when you press on a door it is really electromagnetic repulsion between molecules that mediates the interaction between your hand and the door).
  3. We know the classical physics of macroscopic objects at relativistic energies to a great precision.
  4. We know the quantum physics that tells us how molecules are held together, i.e. we know chemistry.
  5. We know the quantum physics that tells us about the sub-atomic particles that make up the atoms (and thus molecules) that constitute these things, i.e. we know QED and QCD.

What don’t we know?  Well, for starters, we do not know where the quantum world ends and the classical world begins.  In other words, we’re not 100% certain how Numbers 4 and 5 above connect to Numbers 1, 2, and 3.  For example, Sean’s equation seems to imply that spacetime and gravity, at least as it regards everyday objects, is entirely explained by the two terms Sean has identified in that equation.  But Sean’s equation is fundamentally quantum in nature.  How can one include a gravitational term in a fundamentally quantum equation and claim it explains all of the physics underlying everyday life when we as yet have no well-developed theory of quantum gravity?  Do we know for certain that the gravitational interactions that affect everyday life can be traced to that one term?  Sean blithely claims

We don’t understand the full theory of quantum gravity, but we understand it perfectly well at the everyday level.

Really?  That’s a rather tall claim. Likewise, by including a group of terms broadly labeled “quantum mechanics” he is implying that we fully understand quantum mechanics, at least as it regards the physics of everyday life.  Presumably all of chemistry comes out of this particular set of terms, but there are an awful lot of things about quantum mechanics that we just don’t know.  Sean has conveniently brushed over some of the more complex aspects of biology in his description of muscle flexing (and then dismisses this criticism as “tiresome”).  But there are legitimate questions that could be asked about just how some of these neuro-chemical processes can legitimately come out of those terms (or others as we are apparently supposed to “not take them too seriously”) in Sean’s equation.  Thus even if I reluctantly granted him the gravity claim, he’s dodging certain problems with biochemistry by claiming criticism on this point is “tiresome” (if you do not see the problem in this, perhaps you should review a list of basic logical fallacies, notably this one).

Aside from the rather nebulously labeled term “other forces,” Sean also fails to account for certain interpretational problems inherent in the Standard Model, some of which have a direct bearing on everyday life.  In my very first FQXi essay I argued the point that there is an interpretational problem with the exclusion principle (and hence the spin-statistics theorem).  As we understand it at present, the Standard Model only fully explains three of the four fundamental forces of nature (already a problem for Sean’s claim as I have stated above).  Nevertheless, if we assume an extension of the Standard Model will someday include gravity, then

the four fundamental interactions would each be accompanied by a mediator particle – the photon for the electromagnetic, vector bosons (W+, W−, and Z0) for the weak nuclear, gluons for the color, and gravitons for the gravitational … Higher order micro- scopic interactions, such as the strong nuclear, possess their own mediator particle (e.g. the meson). One can theoretically use these as the building blocks for ordinary macroscopic matter with one glaring exception: the extended structure of the atom. In addition to two of the fundamental interactions, ‘building’ an atom requires invocation of the Pauli Exclusion Principle (PEP). PEP may be understood in the context of the Standard Model via the spin-statistics theorem – fields ultimately possess certain commutation properties that manifest themselves, after the action of a field operator, as bosons or fermions, the latter obeying PEP. In other words, we would find that a certain field has to be commuting (or perhaps anti-commuting) or else we get, in the words of Tony Zee, ‘a nonvanishing piece of junk’ in our mathematics …

So, as Tony Zee also put it,

[i]t is sometimes said that because of electromagnetism you do not sink through the floor and because of gravity you do not float to the ceiling, and you would be sinking or floating in total darkness were it not for the weak interaction, which regulates stellar burning. Without the spin statistics connection, electrons would not obey Pauli exclusion. Matter would just collapse.

Now here’s the rub.  We often connect the physics of everyday life with the physics underlying everyday life, but sometimes we have trouble.  In the former we like to do things such as draw free-body (force) diagrams to describe how the forces acting on a macroscopic object balance out.  While the following example is not part of everyday life, it is illustrative of the problem (since we know that the exclusion principle plays a major role in keeping all of matter from collapsing in on itself).  Consider a stable, macroscopic chunk of a white dwarf star.  Now draw a free-body diagram of that chunk.  In the radial direction there is, of course, a force due to gravity acting in the negative r direction and so I can draw an arrow and label it.  Now there ought to be an equal magnitude arrow pointing in the opposite direction since the chunk is stable.  But there isn’t because there is no force preventing collapse.  It is PEP that prevents collapse and acts against gravity here and PEP, in the Standard Model, is not a force.

That example was simply illustrative.  A similar argument can be made about all matter.  Indeed, as Tom Moore said to me once, PEP does present a problem for the interaction picture that is painted by the Standard Model.  Within the realm of the Standard Model itself, there is no problem.  But this is precisely where Sean falls into his own trap by over-extrapolating the realm of applicability of a theory: the interaction picture of the Standard Model matches up well with standard Newtonian physics except for this one case.  And we do not yet know why.  That alone should be enough to refute Sean’s claim. The claim is dubious at best and at worst is misleading enough to beguile even the best science journalists especially when it comes from someone as well-known as Sean Carroll.

A cynic might say that the purpose of such a claim is merely to sell books.  But I think Sean really believes his claim.  Either way it’s another case of the particle physics and cosmology community making grandiose claims that are eaten up by the public, giving the impression that this sub-field of physics has a monopoly on truth, particularly when it comes to fundamental questions.  And not only is that wrong but it is potentially harmful to science.

Oh, and by the way, just because we have an equation that works doesn’t mean we understand it.  If you don’t believe me then google “interpreting the quantum mechanical wave function.”

About these ads

41 Responses to “Why Sean Carroll is wrong”

  1. Robert Wright Says:

    Some readers may like to read Edgar Alan Poe’s “Eureka” in which he builds his own theory of the Universe. Its style is quaint for the modern reader, but he deals with the “big bang” (although sometimes invoking “God”, and sometimes just Nature). He seeks to explain all of the forces in Nature to electromagnetism, with a balance between positive and negative forces. His is a long essay but, nonetheless, worth a read as the efforts of a “common man” to synthesize a cosmogony.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      Thanks for the pointer. I do believe that that particular essay is the one in which Poe suggests a solution to Olber’s paradox.

  2. Carroll comments seem to be always true from a particular narrow perspective. The statement was true before QM, GR, any theory really, pre-Copernicus or a flat earth. When we discover or understand things deeper they impact our world and make different our everyday experience and vice versa, eg The Information Age like the age of spirits do inform our science.

    • Robert Wright Says:

      Whenever there is a NEW phenomenon is discovered, it is in the nature of science to seek an explanation. As QM says there are several aspects of quantum phenomena which are not understood. For example solving Schrodinger’s equation (for the collapse of the wave function), finding the ‘boundary’ between quantum-level and macro-level events. Perhaps controversially, explaining the ‘spooky action at a distance’ with entangled systems, given that there no hidden variables – is this just a given, just a ‘natural an fundamental law of nature’, whatever that means? My hero, Richard Feynman, often expressed the view that as soon as a problem has been solved there is always another one. This surely means that we can never know everything.

      • Well its about what he means as everyday experience. In reply to a “comment” by a popular physics blogger Bee, he distinguishes his use of the equation from another’s. In another comment he mentions chemistry which I will extrapolate to the role an everyday example. So photosynthesis, which we don’t understand or the brain are either (i) not everyday examples to him (although to some people they are) or (ii) are things to be understood within our current framework, just complexity and computational time the hindrance. I think it’s the latter case he is making as turbulence is not understood. So he’s saying (in some small way) the mathematics needs to pick up where the physics left off. But I don’t think you can predict that to be true, one little misunderstanding is a world of new things sometimes. But yes it is true in some very narrow sense and for reasons he gave in his earlier posts he want to try to highlight this not to easy to draw a circle around realm and call it “everyday experiences”.

        It also depends on his audience. I think to a person lacking knowledge of science it’s a good conversation starter, say for a talk among 10 -15 year old’s. Although he has an equation beyond them he is hoping for an audience of the same spirit. That is, he doesn’t seem to mean the questions a curious 10 year old child can ask, but maybe a curious educated eighteenth century person (what is light, why do the observable planets have their precise orbits, why bubbles have their colours, what exactly is a star, how far to that star, did they show atom exist, etc). This gives some precision to that tangled circle we tried to draw. Such an audience can exist among educated and intrigued academic and studious layman, so he has a target audience. I think what he is saying does have a different appeal to such people other than say a New Scientist article which may try to inspire by highlighting unsolved problems, for example, how much mass is missing. It’s motivation by triumphs over what was once unknown as opposed to what still is.

        Either way it seems to me that for a researcher it more like “nothing here to see , move along, BUT maybe if you give a little peep talk you could make the above boast / marketing of physics”. As with any such talk someone “in the know” will ask ‘well why did you say this and not that’, etc. I personally won’t say use his words, I’ll maybe try to show it to an audience and we’ll see if his words past that test, but I still won’t use his words, I’d say its seems to many unlikely that we will discover laws that modify the answers we have now in such a way that …, which I am sure anyone at anytime in history with an appropriate cut off date of the older generation (my eighteenth century) could boast. Would a person from the future be impressed? Moreover, surely the questions depend on culture, they would most likely ask us questions we don’t understand since “weird” ideas have fallen away. So we are selecting specific questions we can understand to make our boast.

        Lastly, I wouldn’t advice wasting much thought on that post. It’s one of those things you either agree, disagree, or just understand where its coming from. Listening requires more skill than reading.

        Btw, nice blog and congrats with the FQXi essay. I’ll go back to listening quietly now.

      • quantummoxie Says:

        Thanks Colin and my apologies for taking so long to reply. My sabbatical has come to a close and I am in the throes of beginning the semester. At any rate, no need to continue “quietly listening.” Please continue to chime in!

  3. Sean’s position is a very reasonable one, and I am interested in understanding objections to it. If you understand that theories have ranges of applicability, then why are you trying to draw a free body diagram for a neutron star? That is clearly a case where Newtonian dynamics has broken down and we have to use the more fundamental quantum model. You seem to think that there are features at the classical/quantum interface that we don’t understand and matter for everyday living. Neutron stars probably fail on the ‘applicability to everyday life’ criterion in any case. But it seems to me that we know quantum mechanics is the more fundamental theory and we only expect to use classical physics when quantum effects can be safely ignored, so I would put neutron stars well into the category of things that seem to obey known physics very well.

    The way I would phrase what I take to be Sean’s point in this sequence of posts is: Our theories are amazingly successful in describing our everyday experience. In fact, no one knows of any measured phenomena in our everyday experience that they can show to be inconsistent with our existing theories. The ‘tiresome’ comment he made probably wasn’t helpful, but it is trying to head off a common misunderstanding. He never claims to be able to predict the behavior of complex systems like muscle cell dynamics etc. The claim is that we know enough about the components that make up muscle cells that we have very good reasons to believe that that there are no significant effects from unknown physics.

    I actually take it as the opposite of particle physicists making grandiose claims. My conclusion is that for all practical purposes particle physics research is irrelevant. Practical physics is figuring out how the complicated systems of everyday life work. We know they obey fundamental physics, but we often can’t predict the things we most want to know.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      Just getting around to replying to this (been very busy). It seems as if you contradict yourself a bit. You say “we often can’t predict the things we most want to know.” It would be easy to interpret that as including aspects of everyday experience. If so, then your own comment calls into question Sean’s stance.

      Assuming, however, that you did not intend that sentence to be construed in that way, I guess the better question is, where does everyday experience end? That’s clearly a subjective (not to mention contextual) question. Sean’s claim takes a “one-size-fits-all” approach in assuming that what he considers everyday experience is what everyone does. Admittedly, the neutron star is not in the realm of everyday experience. But, as someone who is currently suffering from an annoying cold that has lasted for weeks on end, there’s some physics relating to how these viruses work that we don’t understand and that, to me, is everyday experience.

      Aside from that, as I have turned my attention lately to optical systems, I have come to a realization that we really don’t understand light as well as we think. And while it may be true that for most everyday applications we understand it fairly well, I would argue that improved efficiency in solar panels, for instance, might benefit from a better understanding of light.

      Finally, Sean’s comment does a good deal of harm from a public relations perspective. Since Sean is reasonably well-known in non-science circles, he serves as an ambassador of sorts for science. People who don’t understand science terribly well could easily misinterpret that. As scientists, we rely in part on the public for support. I could easily see a politician, for example, getting wind of this and then questioning funding an important project simply because on the surface it might appear as if there is no problem there to solve.

      • Now very much later, I came back to Sean’s ideas and noticed your reply.

        On the public relations front, I think you are right that there are problems. They are not fundamental problems, because most physicists are already working on figuring out how the known laws of physics can be used to understand and control things like materials or biological cells. But it can be hard to convince the public that they need scientists doing research on these questions…they think they just need engineers to give them devices or doctors to give them medical treatments. It is easier to convince people that they need physicists to discover new fundamental laws of nature. But if Sean’s is right, then there is a bit of deception in marketing particle physics as a way to improve people’s lives. Unifying QM and General Relativity probably does not have any practical consequences in our corner of the galaxy. It might be a short term benefit to deceive people, but in the long run it is usually best to stick with the truth. And the truth seem to be that the public should support particle physics because it is a beautiful thing humans do (like creating great music) and because of spin off technologies, not because better theories in fundamental physics will allow technology that will improve their lives.

        I think there is a misunderstanding about how the fundamental physics underlying something can be fully known while the actual outcome of those physical laws for a complex system can be unpredictable. Consider a chaotic pendulum. The laws of motion are fully contained in Newton’s laws. But the motion of the system can’t be predicted because of exponential growth of inital perturbations. Similarly, biological systems seem not to do anything that is inconsistent with the laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity, but we are unable to predict how such a complex arrangement of atoms will behave.

        What about light do we not understand? Is quantum electrodynamics not an adequate description of the behavior of photons? I think the problem is not with our fundamental theories. The problems are more likely that we can’t solve the theories to predict how light will behave in materials used to collect solar energy (for example).

      • quantummoxie Says:

        Regarding light, I would say that there is a lot on the fundamental level that we do not understand about it. In fact, the photon is one of the weirdest aspects of quantum physics: it’s a spin-1 particle with only two degrees of freedom. That’s pretty weird.

        At any rate, I think all of this gets at what is actually meant by the “physics of everyday life.” Does it mean the physics that may have a direct *impact* on everyday life, or does it mean the physics of the objects and processes that make up everyday life? I think in the case of the former, we probably do understand most of the physics of everyday life pretty well.

        But if that’s what Sean was talking about, why come up with a “grand equation” that has to do directly with particle physics and parade it around as representative of the physics of everyday life? And that’s the point. Sean said, on the one hand, that the physics underlying everyday life were was well understood but then talked about particle physics as being precisely that physics. So what the heck is he talking about?

        Aside from that, I think it is not only disingenuous but also wrong to presume that particle physics is the be-all-end-all that cosmologists and particle physicists claim it is. Honestly, I don’t think that, as a theory, the Standard Model really *explains* anything. It makes it easy to calculate cross-sections and amplitudes, but it doesn’t shed a whole lot of light on some really deeply profound problems.

        Regarding whether or not any of this pie-in-the-sky research will have a direct effect on people’s lives, who knows? No one ever thought that lasers would have a direct effect on people’s lives and now they are ubiquitous. It’s not inconceivable to think that something from particle physics might have some effect on nuclear medicine, for example. So why not?

        Nevertheless, I do agree that we should be supporting the research not just for the practical nature of it but also for its sheer beauty and because learning for its own sake is a good thing.

  4. Jeffrey Kraus Says:

    My understanding of his claim is that there will be no new discoveries in particle physics that affect everyday life. The standard model includes all of the particles and forces that affect everyday life. We know either that there are only four forces or if there is a fifth force that it is too weak to have an effect that matters in everyday life. The same with particles in that any new particles that might be discovered will not have an effect on everyday life.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      Well, he didn’t say that, but even if that’s what he meant, I disagree. There are still some fundamental problems with the Standard Model. That doesn’t mean that anything he put in his “master equation” will be found to be invalid, just that there’s plenty that we don’t understand about the fundamental particles that make up everyday life. Particle physicists are fond of claiming they know everything, but they appear to think that calculating cross-sections and amplitudes amounts to “everything.”

  5. Asher Kirschbaum Says:

    If you think about it, Newton’s laws and Einstein’s special relativity has built the foundations of physics for many years (hundreds for Newton). Accepting the weirdness of quantum mechanics would mean starting physics again from scratch. Why should microscopic objects behave differently from macroscopic objects? Sean Carroll is a strong supporter of quantum field theory, and so am I. Quantum field theory is able to solve quantum mechanics’ weirdness without having to violate Newton’s laws and Einstein’s special relativity! For a layman introduction to quantum field theory, see “Fields of Color: The theory that escaped Einstein” by Rodney Brooks. Introduction to the book is here… http://www.quantum-field-theory.net.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      Um, not exactly. It still violates Newtonian physics (hell, relativity violates Newtonian physics). Quantum field theory is obviously a very accurate theory, but it’s far from perfect.

  6. […] but what has physics done for me lately? After all, didn’t Sean Carroll recently declare that the physics of everyday life was completely understood? Plenty of physicists will likely bristle at the following suggestion, but the fact remains that we […]

  7. This page really has all the information and facts I needed concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.

  8. Moxie read Sean’s posting carefully again and see if you would come up with an improved update: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/01/04/the-world-of-everyday-experience-in-one-equation/

    And, for the benefits of all (hopefully), do it in the true scientific truth seeking spirit :

    Instead of adding guessing what Sean means and showcasing the physics you know, why not write to him for elaboration? Or at least tease out from the “everyday equation” the part you found problematic and share your insight?

    James Wong
    Hong Kong

    • “Obviously there are plenty of things we don’t understand. We don’t know how to quantize gravity, or what the dark matter is, or what breaks electroweak symmetry. But we don’t need to know any of those things to account for the world that is immediately apparent to us. We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world — we don’t understand high-temperature superconductivity, or for that matter human consciousness, or a cure for cancer, or predicting the weather, or how best to regulate our financial system. But these are manifestations of the underlying laws, not signs that our understanding of the laws are incomplete. Nobody thinks we’re going to have to invent new elementary particles or forces in order to understand high-Tc superconductivity, much less predicting the weather.” – Just what better disclaimer to his claims can anyone expect, Moxie?

      • quantummoxie Says:

        Actually, James, you might do well to re-read what I wrote.

        In the time since I wrote this, I have actually come across even more problems with his claim. Notably, he places far too much faith in the Standard Model as do a lot of people. As spectacularly successful as it is, it has some glaring holes: holes that have been known for more than four decades.

        And Sean’s claim that we won’t need new elementary particles to understand certain things seems a bit arrogant to me in that it assumes that particle physics is the foundation of all physics, i.e. everything else is a level or two up. It implies that no new fundamental physics will be needed for any of this stuff. I find that claim arrogant and mis-informed.

        Finally, Sean is, I believe, aware of my criticisms. A recorded debate was even proposed by someone, but it has yet to materialize.

  9. Moxie did you write to Sean and did you get a reply? Keep things transparent so we know what he makes of your opinions. Again in the scientific truth seeking spirit, focus on elaborating how and what you found about the Standard Model being still problematic which obviously contradicts the consensus of all working physicists we know of. Lay things out, post your scientific findings of those glaring holes in place for 4 decades that we might have missed.

    Lastly to avoid being accuse like you accused, retitled your blog using something like ” What if you are wrong, Sean?” and wait until you convince him how he had come up with his wrong, arrogant conclusion.

  10. Moxie did you write to Sean and did you get a reply? Keep things transparent so we know what he makes of your opinions. Again in the scientific truth seeking spirit, focus on elaborating how and what you found about the Standard Model being still problematic which obviously contradicts the consensus of all working physicists we know of. Lay things out, post your scientific findings of those glaring holes in place for 4 decades that we might have missed.

    Lastly to avoid being accused of like you accused, retitled your blog using something like ” What if you are wrong, Sean?” and wait until you convince him how he had come up with his wrong, arrogant conclusion.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      Problems with the Standard Model are so commonly known that it has it’s own rather lengthy entry in the Standard Model Wikipedia page. So my “views” could hardly be said to contradict the consensus of all working physicists you know of (unless you don’t know very many working physicists).

      I have every intention of following up on your suggestion. As I said, it was proposed by a third party that we debate this at the most recent FQXi meeting. Unfortunately, neither of us found the time while at that meeting nor in the intervening few months. This would best be done in person and we are both rather busy people who also happen to live on opposite coasts.

      • “Despite being the most successful theory of particle physics to date, the Standard Model is not perfect.”
        Moxie that’s what i referred to as Physicists’ Consensus.

        – Like Sean, i must have been a bit too presumptuous in others’ contextual understanding.

        – Me the worse, failed to avoid provoking your professional’s ego, not to mention my goal to help steer this discussion towards a rational, productive result.

        I’d keep trying though – if you allow me:

        Following his scientific deduction, Sean reached a conclusion which I personally found to be of utmost imperative, in our understanding of the nature of humanity:

        1. Nature is what it is, no devine Creator, no personal God.
        2. Astrology doesn’t work, no miracles, no supernaturalism.
        3. There is no After Life – no info-carrier after death.

        May be I should rephrase my question here:
        Moxie what’s your take on the aforesaid 3 and what in everyday
        experience you found not well understood by the Physics we know so far? (To be exact, I mean the physics described in the Standard Model)

      • quantummoxie Says:

        Regarding the first of the three points, I side with David Albert on this one. Science is agnostic on God. It can rule on the validity of certain interpretations of God or on certain “events” in certain religions, but it can’t say anything about something that is inherently not science.

        I think that point 2 is most likely correct. Astrology is clearly total bunk and most “miracles” likely have a scientific explanation. That being said, there will always be things that science cannot explain. Especially in physics, science has its own built-in limits (e.g. the uncertainty principle).

        As for point 3, until we pin down the nature of consciousness a bit more, I think it is difficult to rule on this one. Certainly Freeman Dyson has proposed an alternative form of consciousness that transcends physical bodies and Douglas Hofstadter and E.O. Wilson have both talked a lot about the existence of things on meta levels that seem to transcend their component parts (e.g. ant colonies).

    • quantummoxie Says:

      And to that, let me reply that I know exactly what he was talking about. If you want an alternative view that is not mine, check out some of George Ellis’ writing (or wait a few months until I can finish editing the video of his talk from a recent workshop). George has lately been arguing for a sort of top-down causation which, if true, would mean that the fundamental interactions — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions — are not completely understood at their most fundamental level since their fundamental level is (according to George) affected by higher levels (it’s actually quite reminiscent of some of Douglas Hofstadter’s ideas).

      You might also do well to read some stuff on the foundations of quantum theory (and I don’t mean the latest fad interpretation, I mean the meaty stuff like the PBR theorem).

      If Sean’s point is that we fully understand all the *laws* of physics that are the core of every day life (but not necessarily how they are applied on higher levels), then Sean needs to explain how gravity can be reconciled with the Standard Model. How can we claim to fully understand gravity if we don’t know how it relates to the other fundamental interactions?

      QED (*not* the Standard Model as a whole) is the most accurate physical theory yet developed. Indeed, many of the predictions of the Standard Model have proven to be true (e.g. the Higgs boson) but many have not (e.g. massless neutrinos).

      But, it does at times seem as if Sean “moves the goalposts” whenever someone challenges him on this subject, conveniently saying, “well, you misinterpreted what I meant.”

  11. “We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world .. but the underlying principles.” – Sean Carroll

  12. Moxie
    1. Science is agnostic only on a Pantheistic Spinoza Einstein God, not a Personal Thestic one.
    2. Sure for now and in the foreseeable furture, there still are countless things that science YET can explain – But we can’t rule out the possibility of a total understanding either – have we not been making great progress never dreamed of since Galileo and Newton?
    3. So in Dyson/Hofstadter/Wilson’s proposals, what from a dead body or it’s decompostion is left to carry the info, like our memory, onto the suggested unknown realms?

    • quantummoxie Says:

      I agree with your first statement. As for your second statement, I’m fairly certain that a complete understanding will never be possible precisely because science has built-in limitations. Even if we assume we can get around the limitations of the uncertainty principle, there are still limitations imposed by pure logic, not to mention analogues of Gödelian incompleteness — we are inherently a part of the universe we are attempting to understand and, ergo, can never understand it fully because we can never step “out” of the system.

      In response to your third point (question), it’s really only Dyson that has proposed this (and it was many years ago that I heard it in a talk he gave). But putting his idea together with the notion of emergent complexity as discussed by Hofstadter and Wilson, and it isn’t a stretch to propose that there is more to this than we can actually know (at least at the moment). It is difficult to succinctly summarize both Wilson’s and Hofstadter’s ideas (actually I learned about Wilson’s from Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach). But they are quite similar to ideas currently being promoted by George Ellis and others. The basic idea is that there are levels of meaning that could be “above” us. So the analogy that is given is an ant colony. The individual ants are oblivious to the larger context of the ant colony (Wilson wrote a whole book on this). Hofstadter playfully including a dialogue in his aforementioned book in which the ant colony itself is a character. The movement of the ants is how the colony “communicates.”

  13. Moxie I’m glad you say yes to Pt. 1 – pithy word works!

    Pt. 2
    We also are inherently a part of earth and the solar system, and our own chemistry and biology too – yet we managed to learn pretty well about all of them, didn’t we?
    We didn’t witness the Big Bang nor the 1st cell replication but we have sorted out quite well how they went and go about, haven’t we?
    Of coz it’s an open question but all we can do is keeping working for a better understanding of the universe and everything we can observe – to assume a binding limitation is not anything helpful.

    Pt. 3
    “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

    Pt. 4
    I don’t believe you’ve addressed the question i rephrased:
    “What in everyday experience you found not well understood by the Physics we know so far?”

    Did you find the time to contact Sean yet?

    We all look forward to seeing how your arguments fall out of the 3 categories he labeled:
    “A tendency to not read the article, set up straw men, and miss the point.”

    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/29/seriously-the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-really-are-completely-understood/

    Best

  14. Moxie I’m glad you say yes to Pt. 1 – pithy word works!

    Pt. 2
    We also are inherently a part of earth and the solar system, and our own chemistry and biology too – yet we managed to learn pretty well about all of them, didn’t we?
    We didn’t witness the Big Bang nor the 1st cell replication but we have sorted out quite well how they went and go about, haven’t we?
    Of coz it’s an open question but all we can do is keep working for a better understanding of the universe and everything we can observe – to assume a binding limitation is not anything helpful.

    Pt. 3
    “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

    Pt. 4
    I don’t believe you’ve addressed the question i rephrased:
    “What in everyday experience you found not well understood by the Physics we know so far?”

    Did you find the time to contact Sean yet?

    We all look forward to seeing how your arguments fall out of the 3 categories he labeled:
    “A tendency to not read the article, set up straw men, and miss the point.”

    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/29/seriously-the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-really-are-completely-understood/

    I do have a couple of new categories to add, when the time is right or when situation calls.

    Best

    • quantummoxie Says:

      No, we are actually not inherently part of the earth or the solar system. We live on the earth and in the solar system, but we are not, by definition, a “part” of it in the sense in which I am meaning, i.e. the behavior of the solar system as a unit does not depend on human beings.

      Are you familiar with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? That is the sense in which I mean when I say that there are fundamental limits to knowledge. And I do believe it is important to recognize any indisputably proven limits in knowledge and I think Sean would likely agree with me on this. When we don’t, we open the door to pseudo-scientific claims like “quantum healing.”

      I’m not sure what bearing your quote on evolution has on what I am talking about. Evolution is silent on “meaning.” It is simply a mechanism by which change occurs.

      I have not had time to contact Sean yet, nor will I for awhile. Nevertheless, I intend to sometime this summer.

      In order to answer your fourth point — what it is that I say we don’t understand — I need to pin down what both you and Sean mean exactly by the physics underlying everyday life. And this is why I have such a hard time with this. On the one hand, Sean has given this equation to say that all of the physics underlying everyday life is fully understood. That implies that everything about this equation is fully understood. We certainly understand the individual terms, but it is ridiculous to claim that we understand how the terms correctly modeled by the Standard Model fit together with gravity. If we did, we would have a single, agreed-upon theory of quantum gravity. If we did, there would not be at least two, major competing theories of quantum gravity (see video Closing Session: Reverse Debate here).

      Now, Sean might counter by saying that we don’t need a theory of quantum gravity to understand everyday life. I would agree with that. But then why sell the physics of everyday life as being summed up in this single equation? Because this single equation very clearly implies that we understand how gravity fits in with the other forces. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If Sean wants to sell this equation as the explanation for the physics underlying everyday life, then he’s got a problem.

      Aside from that, Sean seems to “move the goalposts” a lot in his arguments. He talks a lot about things like tables and the weather and such, saying things like “Nobody thinks we’re going to have to invent new elementary particles or forces in order to understand high-Tc superconductivity, much less predicting the weather.” (I’m not really sure how high-Tc superconductivity has anything to do with everyday life, but c’est la vie.) OK, but he has admitted that emergence and complexity are not well-understood (while simultaneously claiming that they have no relevance to his argument). If they are not well-understood, then how do we know for certain that there isn’t new physics to be discovered at lower levels, i.e. how do we know the physics of everyday life is entirely explicable via the four known fundamental interactions if we can’t trace a direct line from them to everyday life?

      Now, I would agree with Sean that the physics underlying everyday life is perfectly well-understood if he stuck to saying that the physics we need to get by in everyday life is perfectly well-understood, e.g. classical gravity, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, etc. His insistence on tying it to quantum field theory is what I have a problem with. And, mind you, I have no problem with quantum field theory itself. I have published papers on the topic.

      I’d also like to make it clear that I do not in any way think that the limitations I talk about above mean that I am pushing some quasi-religious viewpoint. I would think that some of my writing on reductionism should have put that to rest.

      Physics has been incredibly successful and its methods offer the best hope for understanding us and our universe. But overselling it is just as bad as underselling it.

  15. TNR – Tendency Not To Read (with care)
    SMA – Straw Man Argument
    MTP – Miss The Point

    1. We are IN them but NOT part of the earth/the solar system/the universe? (MTP)

    “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust.“ – L Krauss

    ”The Most Astounding Fact. When I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” – Neil D Tyson

    “The behavior of the solar system as a unit does not depend on human beings?” (SMA)

    Indisputably proven limits in knowledge?
    People before Copernicus & Galileo will probably say the same about the stars and people before Darwin will say the same about
    The complexity and endless forms of life.

    People dispute will open the door to pseudo-science? (SMA)
    I don’t know Sean’s take on this, I find it an open question and I know I’m on this side of the wall with Sagan/Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris/Dennett/Randi/Shermer/Penn …..

    2. Not sure how high-Tc superconductivity has anything to do with everyday life – Where and in what context Sean made such statement? (“set up straw men and miss the point”) (TNR/SMA/MTP)

    3. Evolution simply a “silent” mechanism by which change occurs? Not sure what bearing it has on social insects’ behavior? (MTP)

    Wish this from Wiki helps:

    In the natural world, ants (initially) wander randomly, and upon finding food return to their colony while laying down pheromone trails. If other ants find such a path, they are likely not to keep travelling at random, but to instead follow the trail, returning and reinforcing it if they eventually find food (see Ant communication).
    Over time, however, the pheromone trail starts to evaporate, thus reducing its attractive strength. The more time it takes for an ant to travel down the path and back again, the more time the pheromones have to evaporate. A short path, by comparison, gets marched over more frequently, and thus the pheromone density becomes higher on shorter paths than longer ones. Pheromone evaporation also has the advantage of avoiding the convergence to a locally optimal solution. If there were no evaporation at all, the paths chosen by the first ants would tend to be excessively attractive to the following ones. In that case, the exploration of the solution space would be constrained.
    Thus, when one ant finds a good (i.e., short) path from the colony to a food source, other ants are more likely to follow that path, and positive feedback eventually leads to all the ants’ following a single path.”

    And here u go again:
    ” “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” – T Dobzhansky

    4. My 4th point – urging you to lay out exactly “What in everyday experience you found not well understood by the Physics we know so far?” (Not addressed, SMA followed)

    You said you have a hard time accepting Sean’s single equation which “very clearly implies that we understand how gravity fits in with the other forces.”

    For god’s sake, that’s exactly what he DID NOT say and THIS is what he said about gravity and all that we don’t understand YET:

    “Obviously there are plenty of things we don’t understand. We don’t know how to quantize gravity, or what the dark matter is, or what breaks electroweak symmetry. But we don’t need to know any of those things to account for the world that is immediately apparent to us. We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world — we don’t understand high-temperature superconductivity, or for that matter human consciousness, or a cure for cancer, or predicting the weather, or how best to regulate our financial system. But these are manifestations of the underlying laws, not signs that our understanding of the laws are incomplete. Nobody thinks we’re going to have to invent new elementary particles or forces in order to understand high-Tc superconductivity, much less predicting the weather.”

    To which i added: “Just what better disclaimer to his claims can anyone expect, Moxie?”

    In all his writings, talks and lectures relevant to this subject, he always made it super clear that in our reality there are of course various Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns. If you happened to have missed any of that or the graphs he used in his presentation. Please do read and watch one another time – any one of them will do.

    No time to contact Sean till summer?
    That’s ok Moxie, after all I’m here to help filter what brought about from “A tendency to not read the article, set up straw men, and miss the point.”
    Just don’t get me wrong Moxie, I don’t side with no one who made silly claims or great claims lacking good science based explanation. And I’m quite sure such person wouldn’t have won the respect from physics mavens like you.

    Then let me know if you are ready to re-consider this very blog of yours, at least give it an appropriate title?

    Best
    jameswong.com.hk
    001.idd1717.com

  16. quantummoxie Says:

    James,

    Are you here to have a meaningful discussion or just to toss around rhetoric? Because your post has a distinct flavor of snarkiness and condescension to it. Frankly, I’m a busy person and don’t have time for a one-sided conversation. You might do well to heed your own advice because you clearly have missed several of my points and have set up several straw men in the process. I’ve cited several authors — Hofstadter, Wilson, Ellis — all of whom are as respected as Sagan, Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al. (perhaps more so — what did Christopher Hitchens know about science?). You might want to actually read them before criticizing me.

    Now, if you are actually interested in meaningful debate, then I’m happy to continue. But I expect you to practice what you preach. Please read what I write very carefully and think about (perhaps read up on!) some of the things I am citing before lobbing judgment. While you may accuse me of doing the same thing, I assuredly have read what Sean has written numerous times. I think, to some extent, you are over-extrapolating what both Sean and I are saying. If you would like me to get pedantic and map out the logic formally for you, I would be also happy to do that if only to put on the record that either Sean is not being clear about what he means or he is simply wrong. But I thought I had been fairly clear. (Note that this book might be of some use.)

    Regards,
    Ian

  17. Thanks Ian you know I’m here to verify if Sean’s claim is valid because the implications are stupendous.

    I’m all for logic and that’s why when you brought in new points along the way I tried to follow on each and everyone of them, with my mind still focused on the original subject.

    So please from this on quit accusing anyone of playing with words, being sarcastic, moving goalposts, over-extrapolating what you and Sean mean, missing your points, setting up straw men – but instead: Lay things out, state the case, provide examples and evidence like I demonstrate here, once again:

    You asked “What did Christopher Hitchens know about science?” in order to challenge against my reasoning for including a non-scientist in my argument.

    1. Hitchens was mentioned in the unmistakable context of him being one of those I side with for reasons and science advocacy.
    (The poorest SMA you’ve set up so far, I’m afraid)

    2. As smart as he is and as well acquainted as he is with prominent scientists like Dawkins and Krauss, he may know a lot of science than you think he did.

    As with all the materials you referred to, please do lay down what I’ve missed out in relation to this subject of our discussion.

    YES get pedantic and map out not just the logic, but everything formally for not just me but everyone who cares.

    You are of coz free to choose to continue or put a stop to this all.

    Just bear in mind this is brought about from your pointing finger at someone you respect saying ” Why You Are Wrong”.

  18. quantummoxie Says:

    James,

    Clearly my previous response had little to no impact on you. I will try one more time and if I do not make myself clear in this post, then I am done with this conversation.

    1. You seem to think it is your job to stick up for Sean. I actually know Sean and I can tell you that he is perfectly capable of holding his own. He doesn’t need you to “verify” his claims.

    2. Further, no one is forcing you to read my blog. It’s a blog. If you don’t like what I have to say, don’t read it.

    3. You ought to re-read the definition of a straw man argument. You are mis-applying the term when you say my note about Hitchens was a straw man argument. My note about Hitchens was a parenthetical statement. That is not the same thing as a straw man argument. If you can’t tell the difference between the two, then there’s no point in going any further.

    4. I’m not really sure what kind of “agenda” you think I’m pushing or who you think I am (or, for that matter, who you think you are). But the fact of the matter is that my disagreement with Sean is entirely about interpreting (and communicating) known physics. Sean and I agree entirely on the content of that physics. The fact that you threw the names of Dennett, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Penn at me suggests that you are attempting to make this into an argument about theism versus atheism (curiously, you included Sagan, who was not an atheist). This is an argument about interpreting physics. It has absolutely nothing to do with God, gods, goddesses, the divine, the supernatural, UFOs, flying spaghetti monsters, etc. (or lack there of, for that matter).

    I suspect this conversation is over, but perhaps you will surprise me.

    Ian

  19. If that’s how you want to interpret my words and take offence from them, I’m glad to quit too. Before I go, I want to leave you with these final words:

    1. I don’t know Sean like you do – why blog publicly against a friend when you can write and talk to him to sort out your differences?
    2. It’s not my job to stick up for anyone but it’s everyone’s job to stick up for Science.
    3. Hitchens is a Straw Man you knocked down trying to dismiss my level of logic and reasoning.
    4.
    Sean’s claim goes:
    “Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood”
    The title of your blog goes:
    “Why Sean Carroll Is Wrong”
    I help simplified the argument by asking:
    “What in everyday experience you found not well understood by the Physics we know so far?”

    To this very moment, you failed to name even one.

    5. No I did’t consider you have anything to do with Creationism or Religion. But to be frank, similar equivocation and obfuscation are found in your arguments.

    Depending on your response, I shall keep the last sentence to myself.

    Sorry to hurt your feeling Ian, you know I’ve tried my best not to.

    All the best
    James

    • quantummoxie Says:

      To this very moment, you failed to name even one.

      To this very moment you have failed to demonstrate an ability to read (much less comprehend).

      But, go ahead and continue to “stick up for Science.” I will be busy actually doing science.

      And, this conversation is officially over.

  20. The point is,
    It doesn’t take much reading to expose your shaky false claim and sophistry – basic critical thinking and common sense will do the work.

    Yes keep yourself busy actually doing science and quit saying your fellow scientist is wrong when you have trouble giving even a shred of evidence.

    Don’t become another Dr. Vague – Billy Lane Craig who spends all his life capitalizing on others’ fame – work for your own and forget not:
    Honesty – the best policy.

  21. Please read my postings on viXra

Comment (obtuse, impolite, or otherwise "troll"-like comments may be deleted)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 336 other followers

%d bloggers like this: