A few weeks back, Quanta Magazine had an article about attempts to “bootstrap” the laws of physics, starting from simple physical principles and pulling out a full theory “by its own bootstraps”. This kind of work is a cornerstone of my field, a shared philosophy that motivates a lot of what we do. Building on deep older results, people in my field have found that just a few simple principles are enough to pick out specific physical theories.
There are limits to this. These principles pick out broad traits of theories: gravity versus the strong force versus the Higgs boson. As far as we know they don’t separate more closely related forces, like the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. (Originally, the Quanta article accidentally made it sound like we know why there are four fundamental forces: we don’t, and the article’s phrasing was corrected.) More generally, a bootstrap method isn’t going to tell you which principles are the right ones. For any set of principles, you can always ask “why?”
With that in mind, why would you want to bootstrap?
First, it can make your life simpler. Those simple physical principles may be clear at the end, but they aren’t always obvious at the start of a calculation. If you don’t make good use of them, you might find you’re calculating many things that violate those principles, things that in the end all add up to zero. Bootstrapping can let you skip that part of the calculation, and sometimes go straight to the answer.
Second, it can suggest possibilities you hadn’t considered. Sometimes, your simple physical principles don’t select a unique theory. Some of the options will be theories you’ve heard of, but some might be theories that never would have come up, or even theories that are entirely new. Trying to understand the new theories, to see whether they make sense and are useful, can lead to discovering new principles as well.
Finally, even if you don’t know which principles are the right ones, some principles are better than others. If there is an ultimate theory that describes the real world, it can’t be logically inconsistent. That’s a start, but it’s quite a weak requirement. There are principles that aren’t required by logic itself, but that still seem important in making the world “make sense”. Often, we appreciate these principles only after we’ve seen them at work in the real world. The best example I can think of is relativity: while Newtonian mechanics is logically consistent, it requires a preferred reference frame, a fixed notion for which things are moving and which things are still. This seemed reasonable for a long time, but now that we understand relativity the idea of a preferred reference frame seems like it should have been obviously wrong. It introduces something arbitrary into the laws of the universe, a “why is it that way?” question that doesn’t have an answer. That doesn’t mean it’s logically inconsistent, or impossible, but it does make it suspect in a way other ideas aren’t. Part of the hope of these kinds of bootstrap methods is that they uncover principles like that, principles that aren’t mandatory but that are still in some sense “obvious”. Hopefully, enough principles like that really do specify the laws of physics. And if they don’t, we’ll at least have learned how to calculate better.