“How do bacteria know when to split without having a brain?”
“How does an electron know it is being measured?”
These questions, and similar, have bothered me for some time now. Not in that I have searched for the answers to no avail. It’s not the actual answers that concern me. It’s the implication that these questions make that inanimate objects and, perhaps worse, physical forces are somehow cognisant.
To seek the answer to what it is that drives the universal forces of the Universe is a completely reasonable goal. The problem as I see it is that we are too quick to use the comfortable frame of reference of a computer program as our explanation. As physicists we learn our science through the language of maths and maths, in this context, is a representation of a model or simulation. For instance, when we use the formula F=ma we are modelling acceleration through maths. In this way we are taught to simulate everything.
We rarely, however, discuss the fact that this isn’t what is really happening. We talk about “the laws governing the universe” but there is no list of these laws anywhere. There is no Matlab workspace, with the variables saved, which is referenced by the universe for calculations. Sometimes, I think, we forget this. Too often have I had to stop to think in order to explain why the real world deviated from my equations.
The wording of the last sentence of that paragraph should show the innate hubris in this approach. To approach science from the direction of mathematics has been the best tool we have had for centuries. Before that, science was the domain of philosophers. With the advent of computers we could build true simulations. Those simulations use maths to give us a fantastic tool to look at the Universe, to model and to explore but they are not actually the Universe and they do not work the way the universe works.
So is this a problem? I believe it could be. While discussing relativity the other day, I decided to play devil’s advocate and argue that it was false. From a layperson’s perspective (or more accurately from a classical perspective) it is true that there are some major hurdles to overcome. The answer that came back was basically this: “the maths works”. Cool! But does this further our scientific understanding? Have we built physics so thoroughly on foundations of maths and computation that “the maths works” is really all that matters?
It is conceivable that there is no unifying theory. No final collection of equations to simulate every force and every interaction. Moreover, as the boundaries of physics become less intuitive we rely more on a mathematical understanding rather than a physical. It seems possible to me that as this continues we could lose sight entirely of the physical phenomena we are trying to explain. We must be careful then to test our understanding of the underlying phenomenon on a physical level lest we lose ourselves in the maths. To ask questions is important, but we must ask the right ones.