The Hubris of Physics

Professor Ralph Rowbottom

This paper aims to puncture some of the inflated claims that are often made for the subject of physics, suggesting a more modest place for it in the hierarchy of all sciences, a more modest assessment of its practical importance and applicability, and moreover (in the context of the general presentation in the paper ‘A Philosophy For Living’) a strong questioning of the frequent assumption that sub-atomic particles constitute the ultimate reality of our world.

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Since Newton’s day science has been the marvel of the modern era and within it, physics the exemplar of what a true science is, and how it should be done. (As one famous physicist remarked ‘physics is the only real science, all the rest is just stamp-collecting’) The depth and beauty of the mathematical theory of physics is awesome, and the evidence of its applications overwhelming. Although physicists themselves, if pushed, are properly circumspect about the significance of their work, their public reporters and popularisers do not hesitate to characterise any new advances in such terms as ‘getting closer to the ultimate secrets of the Universe’.

Now, there is little doubt that the study of physics has a significant place in modern life. But the gross overvaluation of its status and scope has the effect of putting into the shade other fields of study which are arguably in much greater need of attention. Let us examine some of the main misapprehensions that contribute to, if indeed they do not positively cause, this current state of affairs.

‘Physics is the Apex of the Sciences’

In fact physics, far from being regarded as the highest point of the sciences should more properly be seen, to use the metaphor of a building, as at the lowest or basement level. If we extend the conception of science to what it once used to be, namely, the systematic study and analysis of any and every aspect of our world and life, then a picture starts to emerge in which the component sciences form a natural hierarchy in three main levels; from highest to lowest:

  • Human sciences (psychology, sociology, politics, law, etc)
  • Biological sciences (anatomy, physiology, ethology etc)
  • Material sciences (physics, chemistry, engineering, etc)

In adopting such a picture we avoid the gross error of ‘reductionism’;  that is, the fallacious idea that humans, for example, are nothing more than a collection of certain cells and chemicals, or that living cells are nothing more than a collection of diverse atoms. Instead we embrace ‘holism’ ; that is, the principle that in an evolutionary progression, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, the behaviour of animals cannot ever be explained simply in terms of the physics and chemistry of their constituent atoms and molecules. To understand it most fully we need to ascend from those sciences to the ones at the next higher level. And again, human activities can never be explained simply in terms of animal instincts and reflexes. To understand it in all its fullness and complexity, we need to rise above animal ethology, above anatomy and physiology, to consider humans as being (amongst other things) conscious, decision-making actors.

To extend the metaphor of the building, it is to the various public rooms, studios, studies, and bedrooms, which constitute the upper stories that we should look if we want to understand the most elevated and significant things in our world; not to the cellars and basements, important though these may be for housing the raw materials, the generators, the heating units, and the cleaning equipment (so to speak).

‘Physics is the Most Practically Important of the Sciences’

Up to a century or so ago, technology, in such things as bridge-building, iron-production, steam-locomotion, and the manufacture of textile machinery, moved forward at its own pace, largely independent of any parallel advances in scientific theory. In the last century this situation altered radically. Advances in theoretical knowledge in the physical sciences directly stimulated the development of such things as synthetic materials, the generation and use of electrical power, TV and radio, space satellites, computers, and of course, the atom bomb. Such things have undoubtedly wrought major changes in our lives, and although chemistry has played a large role here, it is (within what were identified above as the material sciences) probably physics, which has taken the palm in the public imagination, certainly as regards the most recent times. But we should note that changes at the physical or material level are always the easiest, relatively speaking, to make in our world. And although some of the innovations just mentioned have certainly helped to reduce the sheer hard labour of things, and others have served to increase our comfort and convenience, how much beyond this any have really added to the basic quality of life remains a very open question.

In more recent times, we have seen the beginnings of major advances based in the next level up in the hierarchy – the biological sciences – such as the development of therapeutic drugs and crop-enhancing chemicals, and now the start of genetic engineering. Safe and calculable changes at this level are much harder to bring about, and, it may well be claimed, of much greater practical consequence in the long run (for either benefits to the human condition, or  the reverse) than those engendered through the physical sciences.

But how much indeed still remains to be learnt and put to good practical use at the highest of the three levels just described, that of the humanities. We know how to destroy distant military targets with pin-point accuracy, but little enough of how to deal with the circumstances that lead to violent conflict in the first place. We are well able to produce ample material resources for communities in desperate need, but still do not yet seem to know how to get the people concerned to a point where they no longer depend on outside help. We can send e-mails all over the world at the push of a button, but are nothing like so good at the widespread creation of authentic communication, communication that really amounts to something, one to another.

It has often been observed that, for the sake of the more-balanced progression of mankind, we could do with a moratorium on any further development of the physical or biological sciences, if only that would help us to concentrate on what is so urgently needed, better understanding of how to handle problems at the truly human level: personal, organisational, social, or political.

‘Physics tells us What Things Really Consist of’

Ask any educated person of today with at least a smattering of scientific knowledge, what we and everything else in the universe basically consists of, and they are likely to indicate a picture involving molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles, all whirling around in space. Such (we have been led to believe) constitutes the ultimate reality of things.

But what is really real? When I was a young science student I was led to believe that the three kinds of minute but solid particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons to be found within atoms were the ultimate realities from which everything in the universe was composed. But further on in my studies this relatively simple picture dissolved. It appeared, for example, that electrons could be conceived for some purpose as bundles of waves rather than solid particles (and, conversely, that light waves and other radiations could be conceived for some purposes as streams of particles). And then there were strange things like ‘neutrinos’ – particles having no mass, no charge, and half a spin; ‘quarks’ – described as manifesting in six possible ‘flavours’, up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom, each further divisible in three possible ‘colours’; and stranger still perhaps, ‘force-carrying particles’ which, because they cannot be directly detected must therefore be considered ‘virtual’. And so on. Was all this indeed the language of solid reality?

The truth is that all such entities are fictions, though useful ones. They help describe, and sometimes partially visualise, the various scenarios that physicists study. But in the end, the grip in physics comes, not from the visualisations, but from the mathematics. Where the visualisations fail, or become absurd, the mathematics take firmly over. It is the mathematics, not descriptions of minute, supposedly-real, entities, that allow predictions to be made of such things as the rigidity of bridges, the strength of magnetic fields, the decay of radioactivity, or the future histories of the stars. Physics does not tell us what things really are; it does not offer us clear images of the ultimate stuff of reality. It tells us how things – certain kinds of things – behave. It offers us mathematical descriptions of processes that fit certain kinds of observed facts. If we are looking for basic realities within physics, it is these observed facts which fit the bill: down-to-earth things like instrument-readings and traces on computer screens or photographic films.

My own view of what is really real is the commonplace one: it is things like a burning fire, a frozen pond, the stones that sometimes fall on our heads, the dogs that we bend down to pat, our human partners, friends, and foes. It is beings like these that can be seen, heard, felt, liked, disliked, loved, or hated, that are the real things in life; not atoms, electrons, neutrinos, quarks, and other such.

Physics tells us how certain parts of our environment move and work, but it adds very little to our perception of the most significant things in life. If we want to increase our sense of those then it is to what can be generally described as the humanities, that we should turn. The best way to a deeper sense of reality is through such things as studying and meditating upon our own experience, or that of our contemporaries or forebears; immersing ourselves in the creative or performing arts; endeavouring to improve our personal relationships and better understandings of each other; performing whatever religious or similar exercises as seem to make sense of the great facts of birth, life and death; and so on. We learn more about the fundamental realities of existence from a Shakespeare play or a Beethoven symphony than we will ever do from a textbook on physics.

‘Physics reveals the Basic Laws of the Universe’

‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in Night
God said, Let Newton Be, and all was light’

In the eighteenth century – the time of that verse – the idea of an over-viewing Creator bringing into being Nature and at the same time, like a super-King, devising the Laws by which Nature was to be governed, was still seen not as a metaphor, but as something very close to literal truth. Kings made the laws by which their realms were to be run; God made the Laws by which the Universe was to run. And it was the appointed task of Mankind in general, or Science in particular, to discover and lay bare those laws.

Nowadays, we tend to take a different view of things, though some remnants of the older thinking still linger on. As the philosopher Karl Popper has persuaded us, the so-called laws of nature, the laws of physics as they are principally known, are really just inspired conjectures. They are hypotheses which appear to fit the facts as far as they are currently known, but which are ever-vulnerable to refutation, or the need for modification, as new and more-testing facts come to light. (Thus, the inaccuracies in certain respects of Newton’s Laws of Motion became apparent as Einstein’s Relativity Theories were formulated some two centuries later; and no doubt one day, certain shortcomings in these latter theories will also emerge, if they are not already doing so.)

The laws or hypotheses of physics illuminate certain aspects of our total human experience, but not by any means all. Like all other generalisations, they have a certain zone of validity, but outside that, they have little or nothing to say. They do not go very far, for instance, in helping us to understand the growth of plants, the mating rituals of birds, or status hierarchies amongst monkeys. Even less do they help us to understand why humans pray, play games,  jest  ….or even why they study physics.

We need to abandon once and for all the notion that physics is somehow, the field of ultimate knowledge, and that all other such fields are subservient to it. We need to cease completely talking about ‘universal laws’ in physics, or any other science. We need to distinguish the various metaphors and images in which new theories are inevitably expressed, from the true reality of our everyday world and of the various beings, human and other, which inhabit it. We need to recognise that physics, in spite of its intellectual glamour and obvious practical applicability, is of less importance in the ultimate scheme of things than human science, that is, a psycho-social science, however difficult the development of genuine human science turns out to be.

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All readers are welcome to use this material for what ever purposes they may have. When doing so, please attribute authorship to Professor Ralph Rowbottom.

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5 Responses to The Hubris of Physics

  1. bastywebb says:

    I agree with the main argument that the study of humans and society is, in principle, the most important of all. It was this belief that led me to study Psychology. But I finished my studies with a somewhat cynical view of the advancements Psychology has made in understanding and applying the less concrete apsects of human thought and behaviour in positive ways.

  2. Vernon Goodman says:

    I believe that at the time Rutherford lived, his statement about physics and stamp collecting was very true. Chemistry was about trying different compounds until one of them met a given set of requirements. Medicine was about trying different chemicals to see which ones have the most benificial effect with the least harm. Biology is still trying to find the missing links in the God’s tree of life. Many areas, like psychology, are about cataloguing and classification (we’re up to DSM V now!). It’s all about looking for something that fits in the proper place on your stamp collecting page. If it’s not about stamp collecting, it’s about heat exchange, electron orbits, etc., things which are measurable = phenomenology = physics. I believe it’s still true today.

  3. Allen Razdow says:

    Googling on “physics hubris” I found your post. Very interesting. I was searching for a more restricted hubris: that Physics always feels its theories encompass nearly everything physical. For example, because it all points to the big-bang now, the certainty that there actually was such a bang. It would be humbler to admit that even if a “theory of everything” were possible, chances are we are not even close and may never be. Deriving what current physics says the first seconds of the universe were like is fascinating and useful. But to believe it is almost certainly a pride before a fall.

  4. Anonymike says:

    In a story, almost certainly apochryphal, an crotchety old lady confronts a famous physicist, could be Rutherford, could be Hawking, during a public lecture on cosmology.

    “You should know that the world rides around on the back of a turtle,” she tells him.

    Keep his patience, he replied, “Well, then, what does that turtle stand on?”

    “You think you are very clever, young man,” she tells him. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”

    And it is. Turtles all the down, I suspect. You will never get to the bottom of things because there is no bottom. Inevitably, we have no choice bit the live a life confined by human nature and what is important to us in our human life. The human being may not be the measure of all things. But those who try to live outside of the bounds of human perception and human perspective often succeed only in making fools of themselves. Sometimes dangerous fools.

  5. I too found your paper when I GOOGLED hubris physicist. I recently watched a “debate” on the web, Intelligence Squared, where Lawrence Krauss displayed the hubris you described to a tee. His arguments and claim to ultimate rationality/truth were filled with basis flaws so profound that I marveled how he could make it so far. Neil deGrasse Tyson is another science actor who seems to fall victim to the maxim: bad logic leads to bad philosophy which leads to bad theology. We tend to give Stephen Hawking a pass due to his ALS, but in reality the other ‘rock stars of science’ seem to walk and talk and pontificate under his umbrella and therefore act as “kings of the hill” with a force field of ultimate trumpism that protects their position of suggestive power over both in physics and metaphysics. Albert Einstein started this trend but he was no atheist. Scientism is not scientific.

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