Jumping Backwards

Thoughts from Steven: Reality versus Description of Reality

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I am continuing to ready The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick. I am nearing the end of the book. It has already reached its climax: the publication of Newton’s groundbreaking book Principia. It was this book that put forth Newton’s explanation for motion and gravity, all of the ideas that are considered foundational to physics today.

There is an interesting observation about Newton’s ideas: as groundbreaking as they were and as powerful his mathematics was in explaining the physical world, other natural philosophers (they were not called scientists at the time) had a hard time accepting his conclusions. Why? Because even though Newton described everything with mathematics, he did not provide an explanation for the things he explained.

The classic example of Newton’s description without an explanation is gravity. Newton’s mathematical laws worked because they explained the motion of objects due to gravity here on earth as well as in the solar system,. However, in order for those explanations to work, one had to accept that bodies with mass had an instantaneous attraction to each other over vast distances. In Newton’s equations, the sun and the earth had an attraction between them. There was no physical connection between them, no chain pulling them together, nothing but a mysterious force called gravity that pulled them together.

Today, action at a distance does not seem like a radical idea. That is because we have been taught about Newton’s version of gravity in school: we grow up accepting gravity with its action at a distance so it is not strange to us. However, it was a radical idea in the 1600’s.

Take a step back and imagine you are in the 1600’s. It is still common sense that objects cannot interact unless they are in contact with one another. Then Principia comes out, proposing gravity as an invisible, intangible force that attracts distant bodies towards one another. Sure, Newton’s math works, that makes sense, but the nature of this mysterious force is not explained. Newton succeeded in describing the motion of objects but he didn’t provide an explanation for that motion other than calling it gravity.

Now, take one more step back. Rather than simply accepting that it is common sense for objects to interact by contact, ask a more fundamental question: what are objects? The immediate answer to this would be something physical. Today, we would describe it in terms of mass and position. However, that just describes objects and matter. What is matter? It is an even harder concept to wrap one’s mind around, but just like gravity, we do not know what matter is. We can describe matter and its properties and its measurements, just like gravity, but that does not explain what matter is. Just like natural philosophers in Newton’s time came to accept that gravity is action at a distance because it works, we have to just accept that matter exists and that it behaves according to the equations used to describe it.

Some people might try to take one more step backward. They might try to explain matter in terms of dimensions. They might say that there are 11 dimensions, each of which can be described by specific equations or sets of numbers. Plug in a certain set of numbers and the dimensions produce a certain type of matter. That explains it, right?

Again, it does not. It might provide equations that work, but it does not explain the nature of the dimensions: they just have to be accepted because it works.

There are always certain things that we take for granted, certain assumptions that we make about the world. Today, we accept gravity and action at a distance,1 but four hundred years ago, people did not. Four hundred years ago people accepted the existence of matter and today, some people try to explain matter with more fundamental concepts. If those fundamental concepts ever become common knowledge, then someone else will come along and try to find an even more basal idea.

The point I am trying to make is that science is not a foundational idea. Science can only function if certain assumptions are made. One must accept the nature of gravity or the nature of matter or the nature of dimensions, but there is always something lurking just below our level of understanding that we do not, well, understand. While science is a powerful tool, it also has this fundamental weakness: we can never be sure of the truth of scientific conclusions unless we first establish the assumptions of scientific ideas.

Some people might read what I have just said and their heads will begin to spin. Others might find it interesting but wonder why this discussion of fundamental ideas is important. Can’t we just agree to start at a certain point and not worry about more basic questions? My dad once commented about people that keep jumping backward to more and more basic concepts that he hoped they don’t forget to breathe. His meaning was that it does not matter whether it makes sense, philosophically, to breath, you have to breathe in order to stay alive, so just do it. Similarly, science works, it helps us shape our world and create technology. It is necessary to understand it at such a basic level?

I would argue that, at times, it is necessary to question the basal assumptions of science. One reason why is because Darwin himself cited the widespread acceptance of gravity despite the lack of an explanation as a reason why people should accept that the brain can create conscience out of physical interactions. He wanted people to accept his ideas as assumptions just like people had accepted Newton’s ideas as assumptions. In other words, evolutionists and long-agers are capable of hiding their ideas in the fundamental assumptions of science. Sometimes, you have to go into the weeds to remove the bramble. More on that in the next post.

1In truth, physicists do not accept action at a distance anymore. Einstein changed that when he explained gravity in terms of massive bodies warping space-time. Ironically, Einstein removed action at a distance, since it is now understood that gravity waves propagate outward from objects at the speed of light. However, Newtonian physics is still widely taught so the concept of action at a distance is still familiar.

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