The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood

By Sean Carroll | September 23, 2010 8:37 am

Not sure why people don’t make a bigger deal out of this fact. Physicists (and scientists more generally) are infamous for making grandiose claims about how close we are to Figuring It All Out, only to be shocked by some sort of revolutionary discoveries soon thereafter. Personally I have no idea how close we are to a comprehensive theory of absolutely everything. But I do know how close we are to having a comprehensive theory of the basic laws underlying the phenomena we encounter in our everyday lives — without benefit of fancy telescopes or particle accelerators or what have you. Namely, we already have it! That seems to be worth celebrating, or at least remarking upon, but you don’t hear it mentioned very much.

Obviously there are plenty of things we don’t understand. We don’t know how to quantize gravity, or what the dark matter is, or what breaks electroweak symmetry. But we don’t need to know any of those things to account for the world that is immediately apparent to us. We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world — we don’t understand high-temperature superconductivity, or for that matter human consciousness, or a cure for cancer, or predicting the weather, or how best to regulate our financial system. But these are manifestations of the underlying laws, not signs that our understanding of the laws are incomplete. Nobody thinks we’re going to have to invent new elementary particles or forces in order to understand high-Tc superconductivity, much less predicting the weather.

All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles — electrons, protons, and neutrons — interacting via a few forces — the nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism — subject to the basic rules of quantum mechanics and general relativity. You can substitute up and down quarks for protons and neutrons if you like, but most of us don’t notice the substructure of nucleons on a daily basis. That’s a remarkably short list of ingredients, to account for all the marvelous diversity of things we see in the world.

A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?” But now we understand all that stuff. (Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.) Fifty years ago we more or less had it figured out, depending on how picky you want to be about the nuclear forces. But there’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.

You might question the “once and for all” part of that formulation, but it’s solid. Of course revolutions can always happen, but there’s every reason to believe that our current understanding is complete within the everyday realm. Using the framework of quantum field theory — which we have no reason to doubt in this regime — we can classify the kinds of new particles and forces that could conceivably exist, and go look for them. It’s absolutely possible that such particles and forces do exist, but they must be hidden from us somehow: either the particles are too massive to be produced, or decay too quickly to be detected, or interact too weakly to influence ordinary matter; and the forces are either too weak or too short-range to be noticed. In any of those cases, if they can’t be found by our current techniques, they are also unable to influence what we see in our everyday lives. We have very little idea how big the region of our understanding is, compared to all that there is to be understood; but we know that it’s bigger than what we need to understand to make sense of the world we see with our unaided senses.

That’s pretty amazing. Science will certainly push forward along the frontier of phenomena that are too big or small or subtle to be detected without delicate instruments, as well as along the much more jagged and unpredictable frontier of how the basic laws play out in complicated ways. But getting the basic laws right is an extremely impressive accomplishment, especially for good old human beings who have only been doing science systematically for a few centuries. Way to go, human beings!

(See follow-up posts here and here.)

  • bittergradstudent

    One caveat: To my understanding, we haven’t ruled out things like non-local hidden variable theories or time-symmetric quantum mechanics. While unlikely, these things could very well have low-temperature consequences that affect things like brain function (not that I’m saying that they DO, but it’s possible).

    There’s still much not understood about quantum entanglement, either over macroscopic distances or human-scale times, at least, to my understanding.

  • Maldoror

    On the one hand you say:

    The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood

    and then you qualify this with

    We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world.

    I think this answers the question in your first sentence.

  • wolfgang

    >> The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood

    we can finally tell if our experience is real or based on a simulation (a la Matrix) ?
    so should i take the red or the blue pill?

  • eukaryote

    A complete understanding of consciousness is not going to come from any physical laws as they are currently understood. This problem is on a wholly different level than curing cancer or developing high temperature superconductivity.
    It doesn’t seem totally certain though that consciousness has any causal role in the physical Universe, so I it may be possible to forgo an explanation of it, and just ignore it when putting together a mathematical description of the world. However, that seems unlikely to me that it has no causal connection to the rest of physical reality.

  • Joseph Smidt

    Very interesting article Sean. I think you are 100% correct and think this is a very honest analysis of the whole situation.

  • maneesh

    What if this idea was brought about during the time of Einstein , Copernicus, or Newton or Darwin. They all thought beyond their everyday life, even when apparently they didn’t have to, for the times they lived in. Space travel is our next frontier and that break through depends on our understanding the mysteries of fundamental particles and other ‘theories of everything’.

    Colonizing other solar systems with today’s technology is as ‘distant’ as it was to the Polynesians who colonized the remote islands in the Pacific using hand built canoes and stars to guide them. We must not satisfy ourselves with the accomplishments to date but look beyond. Fundamental research into ‘theory of everything’ will provide the next technology break through to accomplish that.

  • Anthony McCarthy

    When you say “All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles,” you are talking about only those things you take into account that can be explained that way, as of to date, I would imagine. In that would lie the unstated and often unconsidered necessity of regarding knowledge as contingent. But those questions are far, far from being “all we need to account for in everything we seen in our everyday lives.

    There isn’t any way to reduce enormous parts of human experience to fit into that framework. Just assuming that everything in our experience is a manifestation of the interactions of those particles is certainly a statement of materialist faith, it’s not anything that has been reliably established in science. I’m becoming more convinced that it accounts for a good part of the decidedly unreliable, would be science allegedly explaining behavior. Materialism has been the mainstream faith of a large part of psychology just about from the beginning, with a few heretics along the way. You can read the resulting wreckage in the bone yard of discontinued psychology, much of which was “founded” in “science” that was quite well accepted in its time. I doubt that the dubious use of images from MRIs is going to do much to change that, especially considering the criticism of that much touted advance.

    I’d like to repose that question. Is there a single object of which physics has a comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge?

  • Anthony McCarthy

    Since someone mentioned evolution, which is, beyond question, the most thoroughly documented phenomenon in science, the idea that more than a tiny fraction of it is known to date seems to be very unlikely. Consider the length of time that evolution is presently known to have been in progress, more than three billion years and compare that to the length of time that the modern science of evolutionary biology has been existence, since the publication of The Origin of Species is a good place to measure that. So it’s been about a hundred fifty years that people have been scientifically studying it. Then consider the number of organisms which constitute the units of evolution, which is certainly a number that would be many times greater than three billion. And consider how many aspects of the lives of those organisms are relevant to the problem, and not only as individuals but in their environments. And then consider the incredibly tiny amount of that information available for review in any depth. To think that we have anything close to a comprehensive knowledge of even the general mechanisms of evolution would seem to be rather unlikely. I’d include that in things that might be relevant to our everyday lives, though hardly as relevant to them as the enormously complex topic of climate change.

    I’m beginning to think I’m spying a sort of “materialism in the gaps”.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Interesting idea. I wonder if, in part, scientists don’t want to talk about how much we know because (consciously or subconsciously) they don’t want to take away from the excitement of what lies ahead. For instance, if you hammered this point home in every news article, would that decrease the likelihood that legislators will fund another, more expensive particle collider? “Well, what’s the point, the physicists have already figured out what makes all this stuff work.”

    I guess it’s the same reason for many scientists’ rejection of John Horgan’s End of Science thesis.

  • onymous

    Fundamental research into ‘theory of everything’ will provide the next technology break through to accomplish that.

    No, it won’t. Space travel will never be easy. We will probably never colonize other planets. Understanding the physics of new particles that are more massive than the electroweak scale will never have techonological consequences. Science fiction has lied to you.

  • Doug

    Wow, this posting really brought out the kooks…

    “materialist faith”? You mean not arbitrarily making up things that we have no evidence for the existence of?

  • PTM

    We cannot explain atomic nuclei – QCD is too hard doesn’t cut it.

    We do not know how to interpret QM.

    IMHO we do not even understand electrons and photons properly – I bet there is much more to them then the probabilistic picture.

    Finally past generations had good reasons to celebrate the progress of physics, currently we are mostly stuck.

  • Ellipsis

    I don’t think you can say we understand why there are 3 dimensions of space and one of time, to be more specific, why the Minkowski metric is the vacuum expectation value of the metric.

    That is most definitely the physics of everyday life, our 3+1 dimensional world affects everyone, and it really is not understood.

  • CanuckRob

    Do we have any understanding of time? In particular why does it seem to “flow” to our perception but there is no sign of that in our physics. Is it because the apparent passage of time is just something our brains or consciousness makes up or is it a lack of understanding of what time is?

  • Anthony McCarthy

    Doug, materialism isn’t science, it’s an ideology. You have to believe it, you can’t know it. If you then use it to make assertions about the natural universe, those are statements of faith.

    You know, scientists could save themselves a lot of bother by not opening up issues like this but once they’ve done that, they can’t avoid people discussing it. You almost might get the feeling they haven’t though them through very far.

  • Anthony McCarthy

    Amos Zeeberg, sometimes you come to an end that’s just a dead end because you can’t get any farther. Eventually you’re going to come to the limits of your ability. When I read Horgan’s description of the collider necessary to verify stuff on the Planck scale, I wondered if it might run up against the limits in computers Feynman talked about. I don’t know but I would imagine it might be something to think about.

    And that’s not to mention the budgetary limits. My sister in law, the aquatic biologist, will declare war if that project gets funding.

  • max

    I think that saying that the underlying laws of everyday physics are completely understood is taking it a bit too far. I certainly agree with the more moderate statement that all everyday phenomena can, with enough computational power, be described with extreme accuracy using only the laws of modern physics (the problem of consciousness being the big exception, as others have noted above). However, that doesn’t mean that we understand those laws, or even that the laws describe nature as it really exists independently of our observations. To truly understand even the most basic laws of physics — to understand why these laws exist in the first place and what bits of matter they act upon — will definitely require a theory of everything. Maybe this is being too semantic though.

  • Anthony McCarthy

    max, back when thinking through the previous Hawking session, on extraterrestrials, his statement about how “other life” might be extremely different from our form and have arisen under greatly different conditions, one of the issues was if it was possible that they would have an entirely different means of making the physical universe comprehensible to themselves. If we’re going to start making assumptions about our species having a theory of everything, it’s at least interesting to wonder if it’s going to be the only possible theory of everything. And if that’s the case, would it be possible to have more than one theory of everything. Among the proud claims that are currently all the rage is that some of us are not anthropocentric in our thinking, but isn’t the idea that our species could come up with the one and only possible ToE a bit humanish? What if they sense something we can’t?

  • jpd

    “All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles”
    i’ll point you to
    “More Is Different”
    by P. W. Anderson

  • spyder

    for that matter human consciousness

    Though there is tremendous progress being made; for example this resume!

    Wow, i see the thread hog is back, willing again to gobble up time and space. I guess the 12000+ (because i wanted to see what it was) words he spewed back on the Hawking thread were somehow insufficient to construct a reasonable point.

  • Anthony McCarthy

    spyder, it’s not my fault that you guys wanted to go through the entire, badly thought out and ill considered program of the new atheism. I’d thought it through and I wasn’t about to pretend I hadn’t. I was relieved when Gordon didn’t pursue neuroscience as I’ve got better things to do than go through the rest of it.

    I’ll make a deal, if Sean will answer the question I put to him, I won’t post another comment here. Is there a single object that physics knows comprehensively and exhaustively?

  • cmt

    I think maybe this post goes a little too far, but I almost agree with it. Aside from the usual caveats about how knowing the rules doesn’t mean you can predict what happens, there are two points I want to make:

    1) There are classes of models that are so difficult to solve computationally that I’m not sure it makes much sense to say that they are solvable. Anything with a severe sign problem, protein folding, certain disordered and glassy statistical systems, etc.

    2) Also, though it may *not* happen, it seems possible that our understanding of how measurement works in quantum mechanics could be fine-tuned a bit. I still don’t understand how to tell when an observer is big enough to collapse a wave function. Maybe that is just me, though.

  • max

    Anthony, I suppose when I said “a theory of everything” I really meant “the theory of everything.” There are undoubtably many different theories that can describe the universe to arbitrary accuracy, and these theories will be different based upon who comes up with them and what their particular cultural or sensorial backgrounds emphasize, but there should be only one theory that describes the way the universe actually works. That is, you can have a theory that models the universe but whose components don’t physically exist (think epicycles and Ptolemy, for example), or you can have a theory whose components are in a one to one correspondence with fundamental bits of physical reality. Such a theory should be unique. Now, whether or not that theory is even theoretically obtainable is separate question.

  • xponen

    What the OP says, (posted by Sean), is true. We know everything that is to know about physical law. -We know how sub-atomic particle are related to each other (by quark), and we know how atoms are related to each other (by sub-atomic particle), and we know all the force that made up the universe!

    The things that is TO KNOW NOW is “how things can work from being a simple law of physics into a complex thing, that produces novel physical law”. Complex interaction is the thing that caused novel thing to appear in our everyday life. -For example; High-T Superconductor is caused by atomic arrangement and not due to some exotic particle; and the brain is also caused by complex interaction (of electrical wave and ‘memresistive’ circuit), not some exotic physic.

    The underlying mechanism was soo complex, such that we can only see the surface, and what it does was like magic (literally).

  • Sean

    Anthony @ 21: “No.”

    Thanks for commenting.

  • http://n/a Uhprentis

    I disagree with the writer of this article.

    For one, we do not ‘understand’ most everyday life things as deeply or as often as you propose. take for example, photosynthesis which now is known to involve the quantum world in it’s process. A quote from a relatively old article on the subject in wired seems to best illustrate the idea I’m getting at which is that a lot of things we ‘think’ we understand…in fact we actually don’t.

    “The findings are wondrous in themselves, adding a new dimension to something taught — incompletely, it now seems — to every high school biology student.”

    I am certain that making the prediction that the next few decades will involve more discovery and understanding on the quantum level than anything solely in the macro world by far is not a huge gamble. We will also continue to reveal more and more ways the macro and micro worlds affect eachother as inseparable parts of the whole. Being so vastly different from eachother this relationship will certainly continue to enlighten and shape our understanding of what may be considered now ‘commonly understood’ items into entirely different ideas altogether, as in the case with photosynthesis.

  • ed

    i do not understand the point of this..?

    people not questioning and striving for understanding seems like only a bad thing.

    what you see is what you get? that’s all there is? stop trying to understand anything else? don’t ask questions? don’t try to better understand ‘everything?’ i don’t get it.

    the sun clearly revolves around the earth, just look in the sky. what difference does it really make which way it happens to our every day life? it grows crops the same way either way right? clearly it makes no difference to human daily life. like i’m sure many other things that are important but ‘irrelevant.’

    also, we only understand the world ‘well’ based on our earthly 3d 1.0 gravity levels of existence and very little of anything else. things seem ‘too small’ because we are not built on that scale, if we were, they would make sense, but things ‘normal’ size that we are use to would be as incomprehensible as the questions of the universe are to us.

  • xponen

    @ Uhprentis, at 26
    IMO, photosynthesis is just an example of a complex system that utilize the known physical law, but this doesn’t imply that the physical law is to be as complex as the system that utilize it. It simply says that: the organism in question is soo complex, such that it utilize physical law in a way that is magical to us. -The original physical law will remain simple even when the organism continue to evolve into a more complex form.

    In other word; the physical law of the universe will remain known, but the way it manifest itself through complexity will remain unknown.

  • N. Peter Armitage

    Uhprentis wrote:

    >I disagree with the writer of this article.
    >For one, we do not ‘understand’ most everyday life things as deeply or as often as you propose. take >for example, photosynthesis which now is known to involve the quantum world in it’s process.

    But this is exactly the point. The underlying physical law is known (almost) exactly. It is the Schrodinger equation + Coulomb’s law.

    Laughlin has called this the “Theory of almost everything”. What Sean wrote mirrors alot of what is written here

    Eq. 1 is all that is needed for “almost everything.”

  • Yi

    The first thing we observe in daily life might be, we are human observers, not Boltzmann brains 😉

  • boreds

    @Sean #25

    Lol. Maybe I didn’t see enough funny stuff today, but I thought this response was hilarious. And hopefully equally effective.

  • jpd


    but are you sure you are not a boltzmann brain?
    do you trust your brain to tell you that?
    does anybody really know what time it is?

  • Tevong

    “Interesting idea. I wonder if, in part, scientists don’t want to talk about how much we know because (consciously or subconsciously) they don’t want to take away from the excitement of what lies ahead.”

    Actually i think scientists are bursting at the seams to explain how much we know, but are paralysed by the monumental task of it. The amount of understanding gained in the last century is as overwhelming as it is wonderful. It was truly the golden age of the interplay between fundamental physics, applied physics, chemistry and even biology, where a breakthrough in understanding the fundamental rules had immediate implications in understanding atoms and chemistry, which tied together with understanding stars and nucleosynthesis, the big bang, properties of materials, and enabled the technology to understand biology on the molecular level, which connects us back to chemistry etc…

    It’s really fascinating to follow this picture from top to bottom and see how it all reinforces each other, and it’s a picture that’s only been made possible in the last century by a rapid consolidation of our understanding at all levels in the sciences. But to appreciate the completeness of this picture and feel like we really do know what we know, and not take someone’s word for it, means having to explain everything from the fundamental laws and how they explain the structure of atomic elements up to why we know the brain is nothing more than a series of nerve impulses and life is nothing more than cells itself made up of molecules and how we know molecules are just atoms attached together and how it’s possible for complex life forms to evolve from just a bunch of cells and how
    cells themselves spontaneously assembled, not to mention how the rest of the universe fits in this.

    I think the challenge is for scientists to explain this so people see the picture for themselves, not just to be told that there is such a picture and they have to accept that it is pretty much complete in principle for everyday things. Thats why i wish pop science articles would focus more on explaining what we already know so people can start filling in the steps of the picture with real knowledge, rather than the fancy stuff that only means something if you already understand it in the context of this picture. Instead of blaming scientists for not communicating enough i blame science journalists for ignoring a backlog of three centuries of wonderful science the public is still blissfully unaware of.

    (edit: sorry sean, this turned into a bit of an essay.. Please delete if it violates the blog rules)

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I do think it’s pretty amazing that we have a sufficient understanding to explain everything we see in daily life at the level of fundamental forces. There’s no denying that is a stunning achievement of human intellect. I also think it’s pretty amazing that so few realistic physical problems (which include the phenomena of biology, as far as I’m concerned) are tractable using direct application of the laws we use to describe those fundamental forces. I don’t say this to be snide or unappreciative. If I understand correctly, a precise description of the electronic structure of a single molecule of water from first principles far outstrips the capabilities of our most powerful supercomputers. If everything is information, and physical interactions are a kind of computation, how does nature do it?

  • Alan Jacobs

    I was in graduate school during the Apollo program. Like the Renaissance in art, the 20th century was an exciting era of scientific progress….but the author misses the real point. During the first 69 years of the 20th century we moved from a horse & buggy culture to landing on the moon. Even prior to World War II sophisticated technology only circulated in academic circles. The Baby Boomers and the Moon Landings changed that. On July 20, 1969 almost every TV set in the world was tuned to Mission Control. We saw those stone faced “can do” guys in their BO stained white shirts and skinny black ties methodically follow the check list to touch down. Yes there was idealism….but objectivity, analytical procedure, and sheer guts produced one of humanity’s greatest feats. We kids wanted to be like them; the REALLY COOL kids had the super wide slide rules with all kinds of numbers….and could use it.

    Now it’s 2010. Technology is everywhere but a huge portion of high school ( and some college )graduates can’t do simple arithmetic; scientists are considered “elitist”; cynicism is rampant; the moon landing was a hoax; and lots of people want to explain measurable physical phenomena with theological or political dogma. Measurable facts are not liberal or conservative…..they are what they are….data. How we use objective data to improve society is another problem – and the real point the author should have stressed.

  • Yi


    I am perhaps not sure now, but pretty sure at the next moment. Because if I were a Boltzmann brain, next moment I will most probabily be returning to the thermal equilibrium.

    On the other hand, even if I am not sure whether I am human or Boltzmann brain, this is exactly a question about daily life physics that is not answered or understood.

  • Doug

    Sean @ 25: Not even the hydrogen atom?

  • Gordon

    —Not Anthony MCarthy again! What happened to just lurking? All I have to do is look for the longest, most bloated and content-free posts:

    “Just assuming that everything in our experience is a manifestation of the interactions of those particles is certainly a statement of materialist faith, it’s not anything that has been reliably established in science. ”

    Of course everything in our experience is a manifestation of the interactions of those particles. Just what do you think it is? Some sort of psychic voodoo?
    The general mechanisms of evolution are understood. Stop obfuscating. You are sounding more and more like an IDer. I suppose now you will talk about irreducible complexity. This is a science blog, not the psychic hotline. What is next, spoon bending? BTW the Sophists were condemned as immoral long ago by Plato. I didn’t think one survived to the 21st century.

  • Gordon

    Sean: Anthony is asking questions not for enlightenment, but rather, is playing word games. Is anything known exhaustively and totally.? Not really. But within probabilistic limits, it certainly is.
    For example, I do not “know” that a God does not exist, but the probability is so vanishingly small, that it can effectively be discounted. The sort of questions he asks are simply to deflect that he has no evidence for his positions and to put you on the defensive by making it sound like science doesn’t know something if it isn’t 100% certain, because of so-called gaps, and, for example because scientists who totally believe in evolution have minor points of disagreement. It is similar to the tactic used by the Discovery Institute in their lame and, in the words of Judge Jones, breathtakingly inane attempts to discredit evolution.
    Answering him just encourages him….it is better just telling him he is wrong rather than trying to give him an answer.

  • Gordon

    Quoting one of Anthony’s favorite philosopher’s ending the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, about that, one must remain silent.” Perhaps he should take that to heart and return to the lurking ether from whence he apparently came. I believe he is a chatbot using a nonsense generator

  • Russ Abbott

    Sean, I’m surprised to hear you take such a reductionist position. In “What is Life” Schrödinger said, “[L]iving matter, while not eluding the ‘laws of physics’ … is likely to involve ‘other laws,’ [which] will form just as integral a part of [its] science.” That’s true not only of life but of economics, consciousness, etc. There are lots of everyday phenomena that we haven’t yet figured out.

    For an extended explanation, see my “The Reductionist blind spot,” Complexity, 14/5 (May/Jun 2009) pp 10-22.

  • Ralf Muschall

    This all sounds nice, but I feel like having read this article already 110 years ago. Just back then it was “everything is explained, we just don’t know how to shine light onto a moving body (but Ritz and a few others seem close to a solution)”. And I guess that sufficiently long ago, one could similarly say “the earth is a disk, which is good enough since no manned ship can travel far enough to make a difference (unless somebody invents sauerkraut)”. The main progress of the (late) 20th century about *everyday* stuff was about everyday stuff that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, i.e. QED (in vacuum and solid state lattices) and the electronics based on that. For everything else, we are in a similar situation as back then: all basics *seem* to be understood, and “we just have to figure out the detail of messy compound (particularly living) systems, and some weird stuff nobody cares about”. Except we didn’t then, and I don’t know if we do now.

  • John Grigni

    The title of this article will probably be used to cut science spending.

  • Doug Natelson

    To echo the comments of posters up-thread (e.g., N. Peter Armitage, jpd)…. Yes, the everyday world is, to a very large extent, governed by E&M and (mostly nonrelativistic) quantum mechanics. The big challege is figuring out how the richness and complexity of the everyday world emerges from such simple underlying laws. Who would have imagined, knowing only the Maxwell and Schroedinger equations, that the low energy excitations of some 2d semiconductor structures can exhibit fractional charge and exotic statistics? While Sean couches his statement in “way to go, humanity” language, it still feels to me a bit like the classic arrogant physicist statement that all of chemistry may be expressed trivially in an undergrad quantum class. It conveys the impression that everything not bound up in Profound Questions (i.e. cosmology, high energy theory) is just detail work, and that’s simply not so.

  • Phil McKerracher

    It’s a big deal for physicists that the fundamental laws are known, not so much for everyone else. Out here we’re still dying horrible deaths because our understanding of biology is so incomplete, and horoscopes are still widely used to make important decisions because science is so poorly understood. Knowing the fundamental laws is necessary but not sufficient.

  • slw

    That’s nice and all but…Turbulence.

    Sorry, had to :(

  • eukaryote

    “Of course everything in our experience is a manifestation of the interactions of those particles. Just what do you think it is? Some sort of psychic voodoo?”

    Maybe it IS psychic voodoo. If we are talking about phenomenological experience itself, for all we know, it could be anything. If conscious experience is ‘just’ particles interacting, then particles necessarily have an experiential quality, or at least the inherent potential to manifest experiential qualities. Either that, or there is something else involved entirely. There’s nothing in our physical descriptions of fundamental forces that captures the existence of experiential phenomena. At least as far as we have developed those physical descriptions.

    I’m not saying that there is something supernatural, or even non-physical involved in conscious experience, just that there must be more to the Physical than that which can be described by our conventional models. I think that’s pretty important, since for me at least, that a big part of everyday life.

  • Gordon

    ie “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy”
    Actually, not. Sure consciousness, for example, cannot be “explained” in an experiential way by interaction of particles, but it is surely caused by this, as is everything else, including Anthony.

  • Sorbit

    Please tell us something we don’t know. If you want to “rejoice” that our knowledge of Newtonian physics allows us to understand and predict most everyday phenomena with great accuracy, fine. But that does not mean we suddenly understand everything as well as we understand Coulomb’s law and electrostatics. I am sure you know about emergent phenomena. What you say is like saying that since we understand physics so well we understand evolution. But the behavior of particles can by no means automatically predict natural selection, speciation etc.

    Perhaps that’s why you used the words “account for”. Then it makes more sense. But that’s a far cry from using the word “explain”. As P W Anderson said in his classic Science article, the explanatory arrows don’t necessarily point downwards. It is not possible to directly extrapolate downwards from the behavior of societies to the behavior of subatomic particles. Big gap there. So your exultation in the understanding of the physics of daily life is not entirely unjustified, but far from making us satisfied with understanding the world.

  • Alan

    I have always thought that consciousness was a very difficult one to crack. I have been following recently a little of the work of Prof. David Chalmers, one of the leading philosophers of mind:

    who has the largest collection of papers on the subject. If anyone can summarize that lot and come up with some nice principles behind it, I would be interested. Look for his interviews on consciousness and quantum physics on:

    This is a really great (!) site (as is this, of course) with the best interviews I have seen with leading physicists (e.g. Andrei Linde), philosophers and mind scientists. This is a wonderful achievement by Dr. Lawrence Kuhn, who brings them all together.

    Just a few ideas. Could it go a little along these sorts of lines? Let’s go (sort of) quantum! Prof. Frank Wilczek (Nobel 2004-Physics) made some interesting comments a few years ago.

    “The leading interpretations of quantum theory introduce concepts that are extrinsic to its equations (“observers”), or even contradict them (“collapse of the wave function”). The relevant literature is famously contentious and obscure. I believe it will remain so until someone constructs, within the formalism of quantum mechanics, an “observer”, that is, a model entity whose states correspond to a recognizable caricature of conscious awareness; and demonstrates that the perceived interaction of this entity with the physical world, following the equations of quantum theory, accords with our experience. That is a formidable project, extending well beyond what is conventionally considered physics”. (interesting last sentence)

    Note that Wilczek says “concepts that are extrinsic to its equations”. So awareness acting on the causal Schrodinger equation gives experienced results. So what IS this awareness and where exactly does it exist?

    Does this mean that there is something outside of the physics which must come in to “collapse the wave fuction”. Henry Stapp, the quantum physics expert, has written extensively theoretically on this:

    where he says that there is a “psychological process” necessarily outside of the quantum formalism which must act, otherwise you never get a collapse to a real measurement. He says that this “psychological process” or “awareness” (Wilczek) in itself is not descibed by physics. Stapp is also the physicist working with AWARE Project team members (world-wide academic near-death experience research project).

    Also Dr. Bruce Rosenblum and Dr. Fred Kuttner (also see the arxiv) address this in their book, Quantum Enigma:Physics Encounters Consciousness (being republished late 2010 by Oxford University Press, note)

    where they say every interpretation of quantum theory needs an observer. They highlight the problem of consciousness. Can’t wait for it to come out.

    Does this mean that “awareness” somehow has some other physics associated with it? Can it, for instance, exist independently? If so, why does the universe have such properties that allow this to be so? Lots of questions I’m afraid – no answers.
    Philip Goff is an interesting academic philosopher here in the UK, who argues that consciousness may be fundamental in reality.

    So there is real academic physics and philosophical (notwithstanding Stephen Hawking’s recent dismissive comments on philosophy) work being done on this. Maybe it will pan out and become a deep physics research subject.

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  • nick herbert

    Source: UCSC physics professor Bruce Rosenblum:
    “Classical physics could explain the world
    but got some of the details wrong;
    Quantum physics gets all the details right
    but can’t explain the world.”

  • Ma’aji Caleb Zonkwa

    @Amos Zeeberg, you have said it all [rejection of John Horgan’s End of Science thesis].Also’ @ Anthony McCarthy, your proposition is educative and i like your argument.

  • Alan

    Nice one, Dr. Herbert!

  • Kay

    Unless you even have the slightest idea on what is happening on all the dimensions and how it effects the dimension we live on then you all are just guessing as much as anyone lay person or whatever and all the credentials and astro-minds of the universe don’t really have a clue what’s going on or if they do they are not telling.

  • Cosmonut

    Sean, you say that:

    We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world — we don’t understand high-temperature superconductivity, or for that matter human consciousness…. But these are manifestations of the underlying laws, not signs that our understanding of the laws are incomplete.

    My question is, how would we know that consciousness or even high temperature superconductivity ARE really just manifestations of the underlying laws we know, unless we have already succeeded in explaining them in terms of those laws ?

    In other words, as long as the “jagged frontier” remains, we can’t really say that the the laws of physics we know will definitely explain everything on the everyday scale, can we ?

  • Gammaburst

    The heart has it’s reasons which reason knows nothing of. (Blaise Pascal)

  • Doug

    “In other words, as long as the “jagged frontier” remains, we can’t really say that the the laws of physics we know will definitely explain everything on the everyday scale, can we ?”

    Well, we know consciousness is a product of brains, and brains operate according to physics, so yes, we can assert with confidence, though perhaps not definitively, that it can be explained with physics we already know the fundamentals of. There is no magic consciousness substance in the brain, there is simply patterns of neuron activity. This isn’t even the quantum regime, we’re talking about classical physics.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Is the second law of thermodynamics a manifestation of the known microscopic laws? How about the irreversibility of wavefunction collapse, if such a thing happens? Time and certainty seem pretty fundamental to the everyday.

    “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
    Lord Kelvin, 1900.

  • j

    Interesting idea. My interpretation of things is not the same as yours.
    I find you core assertion not true. For instance; we do not understand inertia or even magnetism on a truly fundamental level. Yes we can model stuff and have immense engineering abilities… but ‘the physics of everyday life completely understood?’ . i for one disagree… mysteries are all around.

  • Cosmonut

    @58- Doug:
    I guess what you said is what Sean is arguing for as well.

    But my point is that the statement – “Consciousness is a product of brains and brains are classical physics systems” is a *hypothesis*.
    It might be a true hypothesis, but you can’t say for certain until you actually test and prove it – explain consciousness in terms of cell behaviour and cells in terms of physics.
    (Nothing special about consciousness, it could be superconductivity or weather.)

    The best one can do is argue on lines like “since our physics has explained so much about the everyday world, we strongly believe that all other phenomena on the everyday world will also turn out to be a consequence of known physics.”

    I guess all it means is that Sean should add a parenthetic ‘very probably’ to the heading. :)

  • Dionigi

    I think we have an explanation for the way things work as we see them this does not mean our explanation is true even if it is testable and repeatable. Ptolomy had a good explanation for the movement of planets but is was not elegant. Quantum theory explains what we see at micro levels but is by no means elegant or satisfying. One day another Newton / Einstein will come along and every one will smack their foreheads. As for whether what we see is reality or not it doesn’t matter we are stuck with it and have no choice between the blue or red pill.

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  • bittergradstudent


    Wavefunction collapse isn’t irreversible at all. Quantum decoherence is a huge, huge problem for people trying to take advantage of wavefunction collapse, actually.

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  • Edward

    We don’t have a good understanding of nonlinear systems, which are ubiquitous in nature.

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  • jofr

    Yes, it is true, you can only discover a new world once, whether it is America or the Science of everyday day life. Feynman knew this. He said “we are very lucky to live in an age in which we are still making discoveries. It is like the discovery of America – you only discover it once.” We have reached the limits of the very large and the very small, but there is still the world of the very complex, where things are confusing and complicated. And there is the world of programs which form the computational universe and all kinds of virtual worlds (what Stephen Wolfram likes to call a new kind of science). And maybe something completely different. They told Max Planck in 1878 that almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes. You know what happened then. We do not know all kinds of possible worlds yet, and this is just the beginning, because things get interesting when worlds interact with each other, if universes meet and worlds collide.

  • Swampfox48

    So what! To what end? Oh yea, I get to watch a football game in 3D. Hal-lay-louya

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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