Scope & Impetus
In the centuries since Galileo revolutionized human thought by insisting that physical phenomena be observed systematically and described mathematically, physics and cosmology have formed the bedrock of our understanding of the physical world, as well as the pre-eminent source of new insight into our deepest questions of reality. A few examples, now familiar but profoundly radical in their time, will suffice:
Newton showed that most motions of earthly and nearby heavenly objects were well described by simple equations and a clockwork conception of space and time.
Einstein realized that our conceptions of space and time must be fundamentally reworked, and that by doing so we may describe the structure of the entire observable universe within physical theory.
The creators of quantum mechanics produced equations explicating reality on the smallest scales, but were forced to dispense with or generalize prior notions of causality, repeatability, and objectivity, in ways we still may not fully appreciate.
What, if anything, happened before the Big Bang? What determined the characteristics of the universe? Is our observed universe all that exists, or is it just one "universe" among many, a mere part of a much bigger picture, in which we misinterpret local conditions as fundamental laws? What will happen in the distant future? Will dark energy collapse or rip apart our universe? Will all particles and black holes ultimately decay away?
What do the fantastically effective but bafflingly counterintuitive laws of quantum mechanics tell us about reality? How do quantum measurements occur: Are there really "many worlds," and if not, how do quantum possibilities collapse into a single observed reality? Can we find a self-consistent theory of nature that unifies gravity and quantum mechanics?
What distinguishes the future from the past, if the universe is governed by physical laws that make no such distinction? How does duration, which we experience, relate to the time described by physics and mathematics?
What is the relationship between physics, mathematics and information? What determines what exists? How "real" is the world of mathematics—and how "real" is the world of matter?
Why does the universe seem so complex, given its simple initial conditions, and the elegant mathematics that describes it? Is life ubiquitous in the universe (or beyond)? How does matter give rise to consciousness—or does it?
Indeed, many giants of modern science—and their colleagues—were passionately concerned with and inspired by the deep philosophical implications of the novel notions of reality they were engaging. Moreover, their bold discoveries expanded rigorous science to encompass many previously 'speculative' or 'philosophical' matters.
Nonetheless, some—now as then—dismiss such matters as meaningless philosophy or empty metaphysics, encouraging colleagues to eschew such thinking and focus on concrete calculations. Most research organizations institutionalize this pragmatic approach, primarily supporting incremental investigations using known methods and familiar conceptual frameworks, rather than the uncertain and often interdisciplinary methods required to develop and comprehend prospective revolutions in physics and cosmology.
In addition to curtailing the potential for discovery, this mode of thinking greatly diminishes the excitement and meaning of modern science in the public consciousness; partly as a result of this, many otherwise well-educated people maintain either a pre-scientific worldview, or one informed by outdated concepts.
The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) encourages rigorous researchers not to avoid such foundational questions, but rather to tackle them head-on.