I’ve recently been reading Why Does the World Exist?, a book by the journalist Jim Holt. In it he interviews a range of physicists and philosophers, asking each the question in the title. As the book goes on, he concludes that physicists can’t possibly give him the answer he’s looking for: even if physicists explain the entire universe from simple physical laws, they still would need to explain why those laws exist. A bit disappointed, he turns back to the philosophers.
Something about Holt’s account rubs me the wrong way. Yes, it’s true that physics can’t answer this kind of philosophical problem, at least not in a logically rigorous way. But I think we do have a chance of answering the question nonetheless…by eclipsing it with a better question.
How would that work? Let’s consider a historical example.
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? We learn in school that this is a solved question: Copernicus was right, the Earth goes around the Sun.
The details are a bit more subtle, though. The Sun and the Earth both attract each other: while it is a good approximation to treat the Sun as fixed, in reality it and the Earth both move in elliptical orbits around the same focus (which is close to, but not exactly, the center of the Sun). Furthermore, this is all dependent on your choice of reference frame: if you wish you can choose coordinates in which the Earth stays still while the Sun moves.
So what stops a modern-day Tycho Brahe from arguing that the Sun and the stars and everything else orbit around the Earth?
The reason we aren’t still debating the Copernican versus the Tychonic system isn’t that we proved Copernicus right. Instead, we replaced the old question with a better one. We don’t actually care which object is the center of the universe. What we care about is whether we can make predictions, and what mathematical laws we need to do so. Newton’s law of universal gravitation lets us calculate the motion of the solar system. It’s easier to teach it by talking about the Earth going around the Sun, so we talk about it that way. The “philosophical” question, about the “center of the universe”, has been explained away by the more interesting practical question.
My suspicion is that other philosophical questions will be solved in this way. Maybe physicists can’t solve the ultimate philosophical question, of why the laws of physics are one way and not another. But if we can predict unexpected laws and match observations of the early universe, then we’re most of the way to making the question irrelevant. Similarly, perhaps neuroscientists will never truly solve the mystery of consciousness, at least the way philosophers frame it today. Nevertheless, if they can describe brains well enough to understand why we act like we’re conscious, if they have something in their explanation that looks sufficiently “consciousness-like”, then it won’t matter if they meet the philosophical requirements, people simply won’t care. The question will have been eaten by a more interesting question.
This can happen in physics by itself, without reference to philosophy. Indeed, it may happen again soon. In the New Yorker this week, Natalie Wolchover has an article in which she talks to Nima Arkani-Hamed about the search for better principles to describe the universe. In it, Nima talks about looking for a deep mathematical question that the laws of physics answer. Peter Woit has expressed confusion that Nima can both believe this and pursue various complicated, far-fetched, and at times frankly ugly ideas for new physics.
I think the way to reconcile these two perspectives is to know that Nima takes naturalness seriously. The naturalness argument in physics states that physics as we currently see it is “unnatural”, in particular, that we can’t get it cleanly from the kinds of physical theories we understand. If you accept the argument as stated, then you get driven down a rabbit hole of increasingly strange solutions: versions of supersymmetry that cleverly hide from all experiments, hundreds of copies of the Standard Model, or even a multiverse.
Taking naturalness seriously doesn’t just mean accepting the argument as stated though. It can also mean believing the argument is wrong, but wrong in an interesting way.
One interesting way naturalness could be wrong would be if our reductionist picture of the world, where the ultimate laws live on the smallest scales, breaks down. I’ve heard vague hints from physicists over the years that this might be the case, usually based on the way that gravity seems to mix small and large scales. (Wolchover’s article also hints at this.) In that case, you’d want to find not just a new physical theory, but a new question to ask, something that could eclipse the old question with something more interesting and powerful.
Nima’s search for better questions seems to drive most of his research now. But I don’t think he’s 100% certain that the old questions are wrong, so you can still occasionally see him talking about multiverses and the like.
Ultimately, we can’t predict when a new question will take over. It’s a mix of the social and the empirical, of new predictions and observations but also of which ideas are compelling and beautiful enough to get people to dismiss the old question as irrelevant. It feels like we’re due for another change…but we might not be, and even if we are it might be a long time coming.