Physics and Reality

What is Physics? What is Reality? Is Physics Reality?

Or so I ask my Introductory Physics students on the first day of class. Why is this important? Well, according a fairly famous and important Physicist named Albert Einstein,

“The very fact that the totality of our sense experiences is such that by means of thinking (operations with concepts, and the creation and use of definite functional relations between them, and the coordination of sense experiences to these concepts) it can be put in order, this fact is one which leaves us in awe, but which we shall never understand.”

Einstein, A. (1936). Physics and realityJournal of the Franklin Institute221(3), 349-382.

All human learning is the coordination of the activation of multiple regions of the brain. The Hebbian law that “neurons that fire together wire together” essentially demands this. Apparently, Einstein was at least partially aware of the nature of human learning given his declaration above. The most important aspect of this paradigm is encoding for “the functional relations” between the concepts that we derive from experience in the perceptual field–otherwise known as “the totality of our sense experiences.”

Here we see that there is a psychological dimension to learning Physics, as well as a philosophical one. The psychology of the perceptual field is conceptually simple as it simply refers to what the various cortices in the brain deliver to our cognition. The philosophy of Physics refers to the logic that we must deploy in our sense-making of our sense perceptions along the way to encoding physical laws, the development of theory, etc.

“What philosophy offers to science, then, is not mystical ideas but meticulous method. Philosophical skepticism focuses attention on the conceptual weak points in theories and in arguments. It encourages exploration of alternative explanations and new theoretical approaches.”

Tim Maudlin – Why Physics Needs Philosophy

Science is a rational, empirical, and metaphorical enterprise. It is not simply brain-busting mathematics. Sure we get some of that along the way; but, that’s not what it is.

Anyway, how would one answer these questions about Physics and Reality?

Q: What is Physics? A: the study of motion.

Q: What is Reality? A: the object of your perceptions.

Q: Is Physics Reality? A: No…it is merely a description of it.


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