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Previous Contests

What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
Sponsored by the Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter & Patricia Gruber Foundation
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Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
Contest Partner: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Fund.
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Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
Contest Partners: Nanotronics Imaging, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and The John Templeton Foundation
Media Partner: Scientific American

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How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American
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What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams
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The Nature of Time
August - December 2008
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FQXi ESSAY CONTEST
December 9, 2018


2017 What Is “Fundamental” Winning Essays


First Prize

Fundamental?
Emily Adlam

Essay Abstract
Changes in our understanding of the fundamental have often been associated with important scientific advances. The moment for another such paradigm shift may be upon us - but this time, we may have to change not only our ideas about what sorts of things need explaining, but also our attitudes about what counts as an explanation in the first place.

Authors Bio
Emily Adlam has recently completed a PhD in quantum information and foundations at the University of Cambridge.

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Second Prizes

The Politics of Fundamentality
Alyssa Ney

Essay Abstract
Those wanting to realign science with our democratic and ethical ideals often challenge the view that physics has some unique status among the sciences, rejecting the claim that it is fundamental. The thought is that the privileging of certain theories as fundamental grants them a status that then allows them a free pass to funding, even in the absence of inductive support. I argue that properly construed, the claim that physics, or some part of physics, occupies a fundamental status is both theoretically reasonable and ethically defensible. However, a plausible understanding of the fundamentality of physics must move beyond interpretations of fundamentality as a kind of explanatory completeness. No present physical theory explains everything, nor is there a good argument to support the claim that any future physical theory will. Nonetheless, there is a significant kind of explanatory power we can claim even for our current physical theories, and this yields the sense in which they are fundamental. This notion I propose of fundamentality as explanatory maximality underwrites two compelling arguments for the continued support and development of research projects in physics, demonstrating that the claim that physics constitutes a fundamental science should be an important element of a vision for twenty-first century science.

Authors Bio
Alyssa Ney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis. She earned her MA and PhD in Philosophy from Brown University, and her BS in Physics and Philosophy from Tulane University. She is the author of Metaphysics: An Introduction (Routledge, 2014) and co-editor with David Z Albert of The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics (Oxford, 2013). Her research focuses on the interpretation of quantum theories and the unity of science. She is past-president of the Society for the Metaphysics of Science and Associate Editor at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

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Of Lego and Layers (and Fundamentalism)
Dean Rickles

Essay Abstract
It is a widespread assumption that scientific progress means finding more basic constituents. It is certainly the received view. This is the common scientific meaning of fundamentality. It is a metaphysical assumption, and drives other assumptions, such as the idea that physics (elementary particle physics, or something like it) should (and can) furnish a complete account of the world: any and all things should be traceable back to the fundamental layer. This paper seeks to pull apart this assumption a little. I suggest that the physicist's version of it might have something to do with the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the description of laws. Ultimately, however, we find that fundamentalism (as a stance) does not demand the elementary particle physicist's more micro-reductive approach, and there are several possible avenues one might take towards `being a fundamentalist' in physics---some of these are well known, others perhaps not so.

Authors Bio
Professor Dean Rickles is Professor of History and Philosophy of Modern Physics at the University of Sydney, where he is also co-director of the Centre for Time. He has written several books, including most recently A Brief History of String Theory (Springer, 2014) and Philosophy of Physics (Polity, 2016).

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Against Fundamentalism
Matthew Leifer

Essay Abstract
In this essay, I argue that the idea that there is a most fundamental discipline, or level of reality, is mistaken. My argument is a result of my experiences with the "science wars", a debate that raged between scientists and sociologists in the 1990's over whether science can lay claim to objective truth. These debates shook my faith in physicalism, i.e. the idea that everything boils down to physics. I outline a theory of knowledge that I first proposed in my 2015 FQXi essay on which knowledge has the structure of a scale-free network. In this theory, although some disciplines are in a sense "more fundamental" than others, we never get to a "most fundamental" discipline. Instead, we get hubs of knowledge that have equal importance. This structure can explain why many physicists believe that physics is fundamental, while some sociologist believe that sociology is fundamental.

Authors Bio
Matthew Leifer is an Assistant Professor of Physics at the Institute for Quantum Studies & Schmid College of Science and Technology, Chapman University. His research is on the foundations of quantum theory, and its intersection with quantum information. His colleagues in mathematics are annoyed that he won a prize in the 2015 FQXi essay contest for claiming that mathematics is physics. He is still trying to be the first person to win first prize in two FQXi essay contests.

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Third Prizes

Fundamentality, Explanation, and the Unity of Science
Gregory Derry

Essay Abstract
The four key attributes of a fundamental explanatory structure are: irreducibility, generality, commensurability, and fertility. Because reductionism ultimately fails as an explanation of all things, a mutually commensurable set of fundamental ideas is required, as opposed to a single fundamental Theory of Everything. However, the unity of science is insured by the commensurable interrelationships between these fundamental (and thus irreducible) explanatory structures.

Authors Bio
Gregory Derry is a Professor of Physics at Loyola University Maryland, with a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S. from Union College. His research interests are in ultrahigh vacuum surface physics, nonlinear dynamics in physiological systems, and epistemological questions in science/religion issues. He has published two books in addition to his scientific research articles.

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When do we stop digging? Conditions on a fundamental theory of physics
Karen Crowther

Essay Abstract
In seeking an answer to the question of what it means for a theory to be fundamental, it is enlightening to ask why the current best theories of physics are not generally believed to be fundamental. This reveals a set of conditions that a theory of physics must satisfy in order to be considered fundamental. Physics aspires to describe ever deeper levels of reality, which may be without end. Ultimately, at any stage we may not be able to tell whether we've reached rock bottom, or even if there is a base level – nevertheless, I draft a checklist to help us identify when to stop digging, in the case where we may have reached a candidate for a final theory. Given that the list is – according to (current) mainstream belief in high-energy physics – complete, and each criterion well-motivated, I argue that a physical theory that satisfies all the criteria can be assumed to be fundamental in the absence of evidence to the contrary (i.e., I argue that the necessary conditions are jointly sufficient for a claim of fundamentality in physics).

Authors Bio
Karen Crowther is a postdoc at the University of Geneva, where she is investigating questions related to scientific theory-change. Before this, she was a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh, and before that, she obtained her PhD in philosophy from the University of Sydney. Karen is the author of “Effective Spacetime: Understanding Emergence in Effective Field Theory and Quantum Gravity” (Springer, 2016), as well as a number of peer-reviewed journal articles. She also holds a BA (Hons.) in philosophy, and a BSc (Hons.) in physics, from Monash University, Clayton.

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The Case for Strong Emergence
Sabine Hossenfelder

Essay Abstract
As everyone knows, physicists have proved that free will doesn't exist. That's because we are made of tiny particles which follow strict laws, and human behavior is really just a consequence of these particles' laws. At least that's what I used to think. But some years ago I stumbled over a gap in this argument. In this essay I want to tell you what made me rethink and why you should rethink, too.

Authors Bio
Sabine is a theoretical physicist and Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Germany. Her research is focused on the foundations of physics. She partly works as freelance science writer and is author of the blog BackRe(action).

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Mad-Dog Everettianism: Quantum Mechanics at Its Most Minimal
Sean Carroll, Ashmeet Singh

Essay Abstract
To the best of our current understanding, quantum mechanics is part of the most fundamental picture of the universe. It is natural to ask how pure and minimal this fundamental quantum description can be. The simplest quantum ontology is that of the Everett or Many-Worlds interpretation, based on a vector in Hilbert space and a Hamiltonian. Typically one also relies on some classical structure, such as space and local configuration variables within it, which then gets promoted to an algebra of preferred observables. We argue that even such an algebra is unnecessary, and the most basic description of the world is given by the spectrum of the Hamiltonian (a list of energy eigenvalues) and the components of some particular vector in Hilbert space. Everything else – including space and fields propagating on it – is emergent from these minimal elements.

Authors Bio
Sean Carroll is a research professor at the California Institute of Technology. Ashmeet Singh is a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology.

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Fourth Prizes

Bell's Theory of Beables and the Concept of `Universe'
Ian Durham

Essay Abstract
From its earliest days nearly a century ago, quantum mechanics has proven itself to be a tremendously accurate yet intellectually unsatisfying theory to many. Not the least of its problems is that it is a theory about the results of measurements. As John Bell once said in introducing the concept of `beables', it should be possible to say what _is_ rather than merely what _is_observed_. In this essay I consider the question of whether a universe can be a beable and what that implies about the fundamental nature of that universe. I conclude that a universe that is a beable within the framework of some theory, cannot be fundamental.

Authors Bio
Ian Durham spends his days as a quantum physicist and reluctant department chair. That's also how he spends his nights. Occasionally he goes fishing.

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Fundamental is Non-Random
Ken Wharton

Essay Abstract
Although we use randomness when we don't know any better, a principle of indifference cannot be used to explain anything interesting or fundamental. For example, in thermodynamics it can be shown that the real explanatory work is being done by the Second Law, not the equal a priori probability postulate. But to explain the interesting Second Law, many physicists try to retreat to a "random explanation," which fails. Looking at this problem from a different perspective reveals a natural solution: boundary-based explanations that arguably should be viewed as no less fundamental than other physical laws.

Authors Bio
Ken Wharton is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at San Jose State University. His primary research field is Quantum Foundations.

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Fundamentality Here, Fundamentality There, Fundamentality Everywhere
Marc Séguin

Essay Abstract
The question “What is fundamental?” elicits widely divergent responses, even among physicists. The majority view is that the mantle of the most fundamental scientific theory is currently held by the Standard Model of particle physics, and will eventually be passed on to its successor, a “Super Model” that will incorporate quantized gravity and explain current mysteries like dark matter and dark energy. But many disagree with this straightforward, reductionist viewpoint. Some invoke the concept of emergence (weak or strong) to argue that science is anchored by many equally fundamental concepts and theories, at every level of description. Some turn the tables around and assign greater fundamentality to higher levels, in many cases, to consciousness itself. Some maintain that the most fundamental level must be an abstract/mathematical structure, and that the physicality of the world we perceive is an emergent phenomenon. In this essay, I will try to make sense of these diverging views while attempting to distinguish between epistemological fundamentality (the fundamentality of our scientific theories) and ontological fundamentality (the fundamentality of the world itself, irrespective of our description of it). There will also be towers of turtles and chains of monkeys.

Authors Bio
Marc Séguin holds two master's degrees from Harvard University: one in Astronomy and another in History of Science. He teaches physics and astrophysics at Collège de Maisonneuve, in Montréal, and is the author of several college-level textbooks in physics and astrophysics.

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Mind before matter: reversing the arrow of fundamentality
Markus Mueller

Essay Abstract
We often hold strong intuitions about what is fundamental (“A is obviously more fundamental than B”), but sometimes, on second thought, a reversal of that judgement suggests itself (“ah, it’s after all possible that B is more fundamental than A!”). Such a change of perspective can yield fruitful new insights, as the example of noncommutative geometry demonstrates. Here I propose that we should consider a similar reversal in our understanding of the relation between the “mind” and the “world”, and take the idea seriously that some notion of the former is more fundamental than the latter. I argue that such a view, if properly analyzed, leads to a surprising kind of “strange loop”: even though it is ultimately more fundamental, the mind can still consistently be regarded as causally supervening on the world. This novel perspective might help to clarify some conceptual problems in the foundations of physics.

Authors Bio
Markus Mueller is a Junior Research Group Leader at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna, and a Visiting Fellow (former Associate Faculty member) at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo. He has held postdoctoral positions in Potsdam and Waterloo before starting his first research group at Heidelberg University. He has subsequently spent two years as an Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Foundations of Physics at the University of Western Ontario before moving to his current position in Vienna.

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Things, Laws, and the Human Mind
Tejinder Singh

Essay Abstract
The physical universe is made up of objects and events in space and time. We refer to them collectively as Things. How does the human mind convert things in the observed universe, into laws? What role does our consciousness play in this conversion process? We propose that the dynamic pathways connecting the neurons in our brains have a dual interpretation, as a thing-law. The pathways are things, by virtue of their material nature. However, our consciousness also accords a pathway the interpretation of a law, which could be a thought, an idea, an emotion, a number, a geometrical figure, a physical law, or a mathematical theorem. The mind's conversion of things into laws is what we call the horizontal fundamental. But are laws different from things? In the emergent complex universe, apparently yes. However, as we dig deeper and deeper into the reductionist layers of reality, a process we call the vertical fundamental, laws and things become more and more like each other, until deepest down, they become one and the same.

Authors Bio
Tejinder Singh is a professor of physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. His research interests are in quantum gravity, gravitation theories with torsion, the quantum measurement problem, and the problem of time in quantum theory.

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Student Author Prize

'Fundamentality' as a Linguistic Paradigm (and Linguistics as a Fundamental Paradigm)
Aditya Dwarkesh

Essay Abstract
The following article is my attempt to analyze the connotations of the word ‘Fundamentality.’ I have given as much emphasis to the nature of language and linguistics as I have to our current position as far as the physical sciences are concerned. By the end of it, it is my hope that the reader knows exactly what he is talking about when he uses the aforementioned word, and that the knowledge which was made in him extremely implicit becomes explicitly known.

Authors Bio
Aditya Dwarkesh is interested in and fascinated by theoretical physics and analytic philosophy with nothing by his side to guide him on these swampy, unused roads but an immense amount of intense curiosity. He is in grade eleven studying at R. N. Podar Institute.

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Creative Writing Prize

Socrates, Atoms, and Being: A Dialogue
Mozibur Ullah

Essay Abstract
Socrates, Theaetetus and Polydorus gather in the the house of Theaetetus to discuss the meaning of atoms, being and what is understood by the word fundamental.

Authors Bio
Has studied mathematics at Oxford and Physics at Imperial College London. Worked as a software engineer in finance. Currently an independent researcher in the philosophy and history of physics.

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