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Uncovering Reality:

Physics, truth and metaphor

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This Debate

Hilary Lawson, David Tong, Lev Vaidman.

Science describes reality, and physics depends on the correspondence between mathematical laws and the world. Or does it? Are the models used by physicists merely powerful tools created by the human mind, or do they really exist and describe the essential character of the universe?

The Panel

Cambridge Professor of Applied Mathematics David Tong, quantum physicist Lev Vaidman and post-postmodern philosopher Hilary Lawson challenge the foundations of reality.

Jump to what you want to see in the debate
  • David Tong
    The Pitch
    Physics can and will provide an ultimate account of reality
  • Lev Vaidman
    The Pitch
    Physics has almost reached the point where it can explain everything
  • Hilary Lawson
    The Pitch
    Physics cannot provide accurate descriptions of reality
  • The Debate
    Theme One
    Does physics describe reality?
  • The Debate
    Theme Two
    Why is physics successful?
  • The Debate
    Theme Three
    Are the models of physics metaphorical?
Join the conversation

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T MM on 08/02/2014 7:22pm

...a chronometer beating out integers... Can both metaphor and logic be descriptive for our 3-surface I.e. 'universe'?

See Nature of Time and Hubble expansion for further discussion at https://sites.google.com/site/zankaon

Luis alberto Maldonado on 30/12/2013 10:15pm

Brian, your comments are amazing. As interesting as the debate itself. Thanks!

Brian Coyle on 04/11/2013 8:06am

Lawson's argument hinges on the division of mind and matter, of the brain and the world outside. This is wrong. The brain is part of nature. Organisms adapt to reality. We see green light best, and plants utilize green light most, because green light penetrates the atmosphere in greatest quantity (yes, a simplification). Sensory inputs are not random, but reality impinging on the body. Realists thrive in any species, because they can adapt.

Lawson claims the visual system breaks information into tiny bits, which is why science models the world as atoms. He must admit, then, that microscopic anatomy detects reality. It's also an example of scientific misunderstanding, camouflaged as critique. The ears detect vibrations, the skin surface senses texture, heat, moisture, the nose has hairs that detect entire particles. All senses, including vision, send signals to the brain. It's the brain that detects patterns and identifies objects. From sensation to cognition, the process involves aggregation and flow. It's not atomic.

Lawson should stick to the argument that humans see patterns whether they exist in reality or not. But his example of this, star constellations, is weak. Constellations are categorization systems. We know about categorization. You can group things by contiguity, like stars, or you can group them by genetic mutation rates, or wavelength, or periodicity. It's much harder to claim these are merely mental fashions, because you can observe how they're generated, and can falsify their predictions.

Further, categories are not models. Models, which Lawson criticizes too, use observation and categorization, but place objects and processes in sequential or simultaneous relationships, with consequences. There are many ways to disprove models, in fact they're often difficult to generate prediction from. That's why Einstein's General Relativity, for example, is amazing. It's a math model that exceeded Einstein's era's capacity to compute. Yet once computed, it held up. Einstein's intuitive estimate of reality, modeled, was correct.

It seems to me much more interesting to explain why someone's intuition about the speed of light should be accurate, than to claim its a mirage, invented by minds that somehow knew future technology would be built in just the right way to prove them.

Lawson makes numerous mistakes. Some the physicists point out. Others include: he criticizes models because they can be "patched" using the red shift's discovery, which meant models had to make the universe expand. Lawson must admit, then, that astronomy's observation of stars moving away from earth is not a mental construct, but real. If observation detects reality, and models adapt, then models reflect reality.

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