Well, i have been downloading lots of TED Talks. By now it’s in the vicinity of 3 Gigs. Not yet as big as the 5th season of Lost, but together with the Authors@Google vids it is even bigger. Anyways. I’ve just seen a vid about Murray Gell, a physicist, talking about beauty in physics.
His objective subject is that surprisingly, the best theories in physics are also the ones that are prettier. What he means by this is basically that the mathematics involved are simple. This is an interesting idea, not very accurate, but useful nonetheless. His subtext in the other hand is nasty.
His subtext is basically that “There is Truth”, but in his own terms it goes like: “if somewhere in some other planet there where some entities that where at least as intelligent as us who where interested in science and had strange tentacles and had brains shaped like pretzels, they wouldn’t have different laws of physics”.
In other words, he is saying that a physicist is not responsible for the laws of physics he studies. (More on that latter).
So, about the laws of physics for the pretzelings. First thing is: even if they had come to a form of Mathematics that was equivalent to Gell’s, and they had happened to isolate mathematically a characteristic of the behaviour of particles that is equivalent to what we call “Gravity”, certainly they would have a different word for it.
In this sense, they would not have gravity, they would have word-in-pretzeling-for-gravity, whatever it is. Does that seem silly? I know it does, but it shouldn’t. The reason, expressed with facts that should appeal to a physicist, is as follows:
We as humans never actually touch or see or deal with “Gravity” or “Electromagnetism” or “Laws of Physics” directly. Instead, we deal with circumstances, with experiences. We can’t even be completely sure that those experiences come directly from the-world-out-there, even if this is an useful hypothesis.
Amongst those experiences, we have, for the last 300 years, learnt to isolate some that we call «gravity» and «electricity», and then latter «weak force» and «strong force». If we hope to find a way to call all of those the same force, maybe the aliens could have first stumbled upon an unification of say gravity with the quantum forces and they would think we are stupid about it, while at the same time being completely unaware of their relationship to magnetism.
In this scenario, they would still have “Laws of Physics” but those would be a very puzzling thing to terran scientists.
Say they lived in a world rich in purely chemical sources of electricity and poor in magnetizable metals. They could have developed a whole system of physics that dealt only with charges and not with movements. That would be another puzzle.
They could be interested in properties of matter for which we don’t even have names. They could have ways to experience things our brains are unable to adapt to. If the contrary would happen, their brains being unable to deal with something we take for granted, the problem of communication would be even worse.
Even more puzzling scenarios can be imagined.
No more evidence should be necessary to support this basic assumption (that pretzel-brained people would have very few things in common with us) than the fact that different cultures of our same species had completely different world-views. The Mayans where better at tracking heavenly bodies than the Europeans at their time, but even then they had completely different world-views. They might accept our ideas of “laws-of-nature”, but we can’t be sure of it.
In other words, even if the hypothesis that pretzelings “obey the same laws” was true, we would still have to spend as much energy into trying to understand them as we would if they had completely different physical laws.
Furthermore, a completely different understanding of the world developed without even an hypothetical ancient common root (like we can hypothesize for human cultures) is bound to split and shape experiences in ways that defy and invalidate our current way of understanding the world.
In other words, it might seem reasonable to think that, if we did kill the pretzelings and grinned their bodies and fed their raw matter into a particle accelerator the results would not be too different than when using ordinary terran matter. But that does not mean “they obey the same laws”.
It only means that if we could force them to be almost like us and do almost the same experiments that we did in exactly the same order they would end up agreeing with us.
In a very practical sense, this means that, in case there is a difference between human laws and pretzeling laws, it is impossible to measure this difference, even to the point of saying whether they are different or not.
Now if we respect their way of viewing the world and their own particular experiences (which is something that is likely to be a good idea, for we can potentially learn lots from pretzelings) we would have to find a way to translate not only pretzeling language, but their experiences.
Therefore, we would have to accept that, even if they do indeed (contrary to all reasonable expectations) have a word for gravity, they would still not have gravity, but only pretzeling-word-for-gravity.
The only way to ascertain that the words indeed happened to refer to the same thing would be to have someone who could speak both languages. That is so because you can’t isolate language to it’s objective sense. You can’t isolate, for example, «apple» from «something that is sweet but not as tasty as an orange» in my head and «the thing that likely fell into Newton’s head» in Gell’s head. The reason you can’t isolate it is that we, as physical systems, can only respond adequately to «apple» in the objective sense because we have the non-objective sense, the subjective, the mammalian-brain operated domain of language instead of ape-brain operated. The ape-brain can’t work without the mammalian.
In our own day-to-day activities, we can ignore the subtext involved in, say, a word like «gravity», but imagine that for the pretzelings word-for-gravity had a connotation of «one of the 4 tentacles of our very big god who likes pretzels and dislikes nuts». And they happened to call us nut-brained nutlings. That would certainly not work right.
If the subjective content of words is enough to cause endless strife between, say, republicans and democrats (who not only have a similar brain, but also share a remarkably homogenizing culture), which reason do we really have to believe that things would just go smooth with differently-brained people? What to say of a kind of alien who lacked a brain?
The example about feeding pretzeling-meat to a particle accelerator is not gratuitous. It is there to point that, if we are willing to reduce our expectation of communication to who-remains-alive-in-the-end, then we can make comparisons of laws, but then those laws are not physics laws any more, they are warfare ones. Which, by the way, is exactly what the Spanish did to the Maya, despite the fact that Mayan technology and understanding of the world was more refined!
In our culture, physicists are expected to speak only to physicists. And they are expected to communicate only in Maths. In the same way that Latin was once seen as the only language that could hold the truth of science, contemporary physicists think Mathematics is this all-encompassing all-powerful language to which all the others should bow down to.
That is not a bad thing for Physics, but it does have the ambiguous effect that Physicists end up training themselves to be unwilling to deal with unquantifiable things. That means that a physicist reaction to any argument that points for example the limits of language would be to mock or to disregard — out of habit, not out of any sane reason!
I don’t mean that as a criticism of Physics. I do think the point-of-view of physics about the world is an interesting and valuable one, even for more-than-practical purposes.
But i do fear that, when a physicist says that the laws he studies are not his responsibility, that (as Homer would say) they were already like that when he arrived, they are in fact avoiding a duty that no other part in society can do competently. They do not accept responsibility for what they learn from their work (be it experimental or theoretic, matters not) but no one else can! I can’t understand the Maths involved. Gell himself made jokes about the Maths he himself showed up on the powerpoint being not-understandable by the majority of his audience, an audience that was presumably of very very bright people.
Where does that leave us?
It is obvious that if you give an army guy the atomic bomb he will regard it as an useful weapon. But only the non-military types understood enough about the Maths to create the thing. And they excused themselves about that by believing that “the laws are not my responsibility”, which would certainly be phrased on the much more insidious form of “if we do not do it, the Germans certainly will”, but the only person who could really understand the thing was not a General who would reason in terms of amount of people killed, but instead the physicist that could, at the same time, think about the amount of people being killed, the amount of energy being released, and the whole mathematical and beyond-pure-maths nature of the thing being dealt with.
Not a few Manhattan-Project members latter regretted being involved in the affair, and it should be no wonder.
Epistemology is not a problem for physicists. It is a problem for linguists, for what is involved is really language and not “reality” or the “external world”. Having as an integral part of their training the practice of hiding the language-related aspects of their work (which is exactly what mathematizing does), it is only natural that physicists should disregard completely all those concerns as “litcrit”. Therefore, it is not a problem if a physicist does not want to study language.
But it is a problem if he uses bad epistemology to justify relegating the responsibility he must have for his own work.