Pseudo-problems in Physics

Posted on 25 November 2008


Most problems in physics are genuine problems with interesting solutions. There are a few problems, though, that are described as problems of physics, but are actually pseudo-problems. They arise from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of theories. One such problem arises as the explanatory gap between the abstract description of the world by a theory and the concrete and particular present moment, actualized here and now. This can take several forms. For example, there is the problem of explaining how it is that, of all the possible universes consistent with the laws of physics, we happen to live in this particular one, with the fundamental constants of physics having the particular values that they do. Another is the measurement problem of quantum physics, which is the problem of relating the probabilistic description of the world given by the theory to the particular world that is actually experienced. We know from our immediate experience that this particular world exists here and now. The problem is that we don’t have an explanation of how such a specific actual world is selected from the general description of reality that the theory provides. We expect the theory to dictate not only the general laws of many possible worlds, but to explain as well why it is that this particular world is actual rather than various other possibilities.

To see how these problems are pseudo-problems, we need only realize that physical theories are abstractions from the here and now. They are conceptual systems that posit and describe a general reality, much of which is forever inaccessible to experiment (e.g., decohered regions of a many worlds theory, or space-like separated regions of space-time). We always begin and end with the present moment. In fact, we never escape it. With our theories, though, we imagine a vast world extended into the future and past, reaching far into the depths of intergalactic space, and including various branches of possibility in a reality that includes many worlds of possibility. The problem begins when we forget that this is all imagined in the present moment, and take these theories to be describing a primary reality.

For example, if we think that the quantum theoretical description of the world is real, we can become perplexed trying to explain how to relate it to our present experience, e.g., how is it that the present experience is “actualized” from the many possibilities? Why is this possible outcome actualized and not another? Or consider the four dimensional space-time of special relativity. Why is the present here-and-now located at this particular point in space-time, and not another? This problem only arises because we have forgotten that we never really left the present here-and-now in the first place. The measurement problem, the actualization of a particular “here-now” in spacetime, is looking at it backwards. The key is to recognize that we do not live in the abstraction but in the here and now, and have never left it. The key is to become aware of how we are abstracting from the present here-now, and what presuppositions of time and space we are making when we do so. This approach to fundamental physics removes the pseudo-problems from physics that have their root in our own misconception of the nature of scientific theory. And it opens up a more fruitful approach to understanding the basis of physical theory and its relationship to the inescapable present moment of experience.

Posted in: Philosophy, Science