Search FQXi

If you are aware of an interesting new academic paper (that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal or has appeared on the arXiv), a conference talk (at an official professional scientific meeting), an external blog post (by a professional scientist) or a news item (in the mainstream news media), which you think might make an interesting topic for an FQXi blog post, then please contact us at with a link to the original source and a sentence about why you think that the work is worthy of discussion. Please note that we receive many such suggestions and while we endeavour to respond to them, we may not be able to reply to all suggestions.

Please also note that we do not accept unsolicited posts and we cannot review, or open new threads for, unsolicited articles or papers. Requests to review or post such materials will not be answered. If you have your own novel physics theory or model, which you would like to post for further discussion among then FQXi community, then please add them directly to the "Alternative Models of Reality" thread, or to the "Alternative Models of Cosmology" thread. Thank you.

Contests Home

Previous Contests

What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
Sponsored by the Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter & Patricia Gruber Foundation

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.

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


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

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

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

Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American

What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams

The Nature of Time
August - December 2008

Forum Home
Terms of Use

Order posts by:
 chronological order
 most recent first

Posts by the author are highlighted in orange; posts by FQXi Members are highlighted in blue.

By using the FQXi Forum, you acknowledge reading and agree to abide by the Terms of Use

 RSS feed | RSS help

corciovei silviu: on 2/26/18 at 12:06pm UTC, wrote Mr. Leifer I fully enjoyed the way you put things together (esspecialy...

Don Limuti: on 2/26/18 at 7:20am UTC, wrote Hello Mathew, To quote you: "In the throes of intellectual inquiry, it is...

James Hoover: on 2/26/18 at 4:33am UTC, wrote Matthew, Quite an interesting essay, one I would not expect from a...

Alyssa Ney: on 2/26/18 at 3:18am UTC, wrote Hi Matt, Thanks for this. Your network picture reminded me a great deal of...

Juan Ramón González Álvarez: on 2/25/18 at 4:06am UTC, wrote "Through the ingenuity and hard work of thousands of physicists, we have...

Steven Andresen: on 2/22/18 at 7:00am UTC, wrote Dear Matthew If you are looking for another essay to read and rate in the...

Cristinel Stoica: on 2/21/18 at 18:23pm UTC, wrote Dear Matt, I enjoyed reading your essay "Against Fundamentalism". Clearly...

Satyavarapu Gupta: on 2/11/18 at 14:44pm UTC, wrote Dear Prof Matthew Saul Leifer Your arguments are correct sit... Nice op...


Steve Dufourny: "I must explain what is the real meaning of Spherisation in my theory.It is..." in Mass–Energy Equivalence...

Georgina Woodward: "Hi Robert, thank you. I now understand the difference between decisions and..." in Schrödinger’s Zombie:...

Robert McEachern: "Making a decision, means selecting between discrete, a priori established..." in Schrödinger’s Zombie:...

Steve Dufourny: "Hi Eckard,you seems persuaded by your Words and thoughts.I don t understand..." in First Things First: The...

Eckard Blumschein: "In Darwinism/Weismannism there is no first cause, just a causal chain...." in First Things First: The...

Steve Dufourny: "lol no indeed it is not a lot,like I said I liked your general ideas.I have..." in The Demon in the Machine...

Steve Agnew: "There are three that a lot? The aether particle mass, the..." in The Demon in the Machine...

click titles to read articles

First Things First: The Physics of Causality
Why do we remember the past and not the future? Untangling the connections between cause and effect, choice, and entropy.

Can Time Be Saved From Physics?
Philosophers, physicists and neuroscientists discuss how our sense of time’s flow might arise through our interactions with external stimuli—despite suggestions from Einstein's relativity that our perception of the passage of time is an illusion.

A devilish new framework of thermodynamics that focuses on how we observe information could help illuminate our understanding of probability and rewrite quantum theory.

Gravity's Residue
An unusual approach to unifying the laws of physics could solve Hawking's black-hole information paradox—and its predicted gravitational "memory effect" could be picked up by LIGO.

Could Mind Forge the Universe?
Objective reality, and the laws of physics themselves, emerge from our observations, according to a new framework that turns what we think of as fundamental on its head.

October 15, 2019

CATEGORY: FQXi Essay Contest - Spring, 2017 [back]
TOPIC: Against Fundamentalism by Matthew Saul Leifer [refresh]
Bookmark and Share
Login or create account to post reply or comment.

Author Matthew Saul Leifer wrote on Jan. 31, 2018 @ 20:32 GMT
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.

Author 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.

Download Essay PDF File

Bookmark and Share

Jochen Szangolies wrote on Feb. 1, 2018 @ 06:27 GMT
Dear Matt,

you present an intriguing point of view. It's interesting to think about how the spectrum of opinions would look if this contest had taken place at the height of the science wars---I would imagine many more of the physicists would defend a reductionist 'orthodoxy'. As it is, I think it's very refreshing to see that, at least among physicists entering FQXi contests (which may be a...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Jochen Szangolies replied on Feb. 1, 2018 @ 06:34 GMT
...And it turns out I was thinking about the electron charge and Millikan's erroneous first measurement above.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

John C Hodge wrote on Feb. 2, 2018 @ 21:39 GMT
Against the measure of survival, both physics and sociology obey the biological Darwin selection process. Human history has shown a trend to focus to common solutions to sociological structures. Tribes, chiefdoms seem to have nearly the same structure and operation across many geographies. We're still working on states and nations and a world order. We might expect another planet would have the same sociological solutions.


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Feb. 2, 2018 @ 22:45 GMT
Dear Matt Leifer,

It's good to see you back. I think your network model (figure 1) is somewhat related to the two essays on 'meaning' (Brian Josephson and Todd Duncan). I suspect you are correct about the scale-free structure of human knowledge. If so this would seem to have some implication for brain/mind models. I too think alien physics would resemble ours.

One example you treat is Einstein's special relativity. You argue that perhaps Einstein's theoretical explanation of the symmetry of Maxwell's equation contributed to his acceptance. My current essay contrasts this with the Maxwell-hertz equations that he actually referred to in his 1905 paper. I hope you will find time to read my essay and comment in this regard.

Best wishes and good luck in your quest for #2.

Edwin Eugene Klingman

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Luca Valeri wrote on Feb. 6, 2018 @ 13:33 GMT
Hi Matthew,

Thanks for your personal account sociology of science. I fully agree with you that the content of physics is not entirely contained in its mathematical equations. And that “the scientific method” cannot be characterized in a precise way that is applicable in all cases. Different scientific disciplines use different methods and standards of evidence, as you state. Sadly this is also true in physics. Specifically in fundamental physics. What can account as evidence or true has to be sorted out within the physical community. Your theory of knowledge also nicely shows why specific disciplines see locally a hierarchical structure.

When I studied physics, I also attended curses in sociology of science. But I never got really happy with it, because they seems not to be able to explain the great success and unity that underlie our best physical theories.

Recently in philosophy of science I learned something about Quine’s holism, who has also a short appearance in my essay The quantum sheep - In defence of a positivist on physics. I show that in any realistic theory there is not only an underdetermination of the theory by the data, but also a conceptual underdetermination, where it is not clear within the theory, which assertions are analytic (definitions) which are synthetic (observational consequences). There are always conventional elements.

I also provide an Copenhagen type of interpretation of the quantum measurements problem, which I really would like you to read and comment, since I know, you are very critical about the different Copenhagen views.


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Luca Valeri replied on Feb. 6, 2018 @ 13:37 GMT
Hm. The preview of the post is different than it shows after posting. The 'n's where newlines in the preview.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Member Ken Wharton wrote on Feb. 6, 2018 @ 23:05 GMT
Hi Matt,

I was skeptical at first, but you made a quite reasonable case... so it must be a good essay!

Still, you seem inclined to think there's probably one efficient scale-free network (or a close family of similar ones). Wouldn't it follow that the most important hubs in such a network were really "fundamental" in their own right? I know that's a different question than the one you're addressing here, about entire disciplines, but to me that still seems like a reasonable application of the term.

Best, Ken

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Flavio Del Santo wrote on Feb. 10, 2018 @ 12:59 GMT
Dear Prof. Leiter,

I loved your essay; I am just sorry I haven't spotted it before.

Maybe it has a bit of a bitter conclusion, and I am not sure whether I agree on every idea you have expounded, but it is surely fresh air in this contest. Your personal account of the "science wars" is very ejoyable. My essay also point out a failure of physicalism, and although I am maybe less radical in considering that the question '"what is fundamental?” simply evaporates', I argue for a search for fundamentaly that is methodology-dependent. I would be most glad if you find the time to have a look at my essay as well ( that shows some similiraties, but also divergent points, that I would willingly discuss with you.

Meanwhile, congratulations for one of the best essays. 10 out of 10!

All good wishes,


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Feb. 11, 2018 @ 14:44 GMT
Dear Prof Matthew Saul Leifer

Your arguments are correct sit... Nice op "the idea that there is a most fundamental discipline, or level of reality, is mistaken". best wishes to your essay... By the way...

Here in my essay energy to mass conversion is proposed...……..….. yours is very nice essay best wishes …. I highly appreciate hope your essay and hope for reciprocity...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Cristinel Stoica wrote on Feb. 21, 2018 @ 18:23 GMT
Dear Matt,

I enjoyed reading your essay "Against Fundamentalism". Clearly it is very tempting for physicists to see their discipline as more fundamental, and in a sense it is true. I agree that sociological context influences significantly the trajectory of physics. I think history plays a role in our choices not only in the formalism, but also in the preference of one theory over another. Your example with the Copenhagen interpretation seems to me very representative. Also the discussion of the Michelson–Morley experiment, which luckily was confirmed recently with an impressive degree of accuracy at the 10-17 level.

The free-scale network seems to be quite universal, and I think your picture of knowledge as such a network is relevant. I believe there is a relativity of fundamentalness in science, but also in fundamental physics.

Given that (1) the scale-free network applies to so many situations, including, as you propose, to scientific knowledge, and given that (2) all information we have is extracted by observation ultimately from the quantum state, do you think that it is possible that (3) there is nothing but a huge it-from-bit network originating from and consistent with the laws of quantum mechanics? I don't mean in a reductionistic way, but in a participatory way.

Best wishes,

Cristi Stoica, Indra's net

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Steven Andresen wrote on Feb. 22, 2018 @ 07:00 GMT
Dear Matthew

If you are looking for another essay to read and rate in the final days of the contest, will you consider mine please? I read all essays from those who comment on my page, and if I cant rate an essay highly, then I don’t rate them at all. Infact I haven’t issued a rating lower that ten. So you have nothing to lose by having me read your essay, and everything to...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Juan Ramón González Álvarez wrote on Feb. 25, 2018 @ 04:06 GMT
"Through the ingenuity and hard work of thousands of physicists, we have learned that all matter and energy in the universe is composed of interacting quantum fields, and we can in principle predict their behavior to great accuracy using the standard model of particle physics". Nothing more far from reality! Quantum field theory deals with interactions only approximately, isn't valid for full...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Member Alyssa Ney wrote on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 03:18 GMT
Hi Matt,

Thanks for this. Your network picture reminded me a great deal of the web of belief W.V. Quine proposes in his essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism."

You seem to construe physicalism, the claim that physics is fundamental, as the view that, in your words, "In principle, we could use fundamental physics to predict with the greatest possible accuracy what will happen in any given situation, including those relevant to chemistry and biology, and even in those sciences that deal with the human mind, such as neuroscience, psychology, and sociology." But I don't see how the conclusions of the strong program really interact with that. We may have sociological explanations for the uptake of physical theories over time. But this doesn't rule out that there may be more fundamental physical explanations of those same events, as you say, "in principle."



Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

James Lee Hoover wrote on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 04:33 GMT

Quite an interesting essay, one I would not expect from a physicist, unless exposed to a broad range of subjects and influences. It got me to thinking about what my single hub node might be. I suppose it might relate to my latest interest in retirement, cosmology, in which I'm not formally trained. My nodes -- in terms of formal training -- might be humanities and economics. My essay, I think shows my passion for cosmology with a mix of a traditional religion, Catholicism, maybe quantum biology, and a healthy skepticism of traditional theories. Maybe an appreciation of aesthetics comes out in terms of humanities. What I'm actually saying is that I hope we are all a mixed bag, not pigeonholing our knowledge, but reading widely and keeping an open mind. That is what you seem to suggest. I like your emphasis on knowledge to extend your network. At least, that is what I'm gathering from your essay.

I give it high marks. Hope you can get to mine.


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Don Limuti wrote on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 07:20 GMT
Hello Mathew,

To quote you:

"In the throes of intellectual inquiry, it is common to adopt overly extreme views, which later have to be walked back. This happens all the time on the speculative end of theoretical physics, e.g. the claim that the universe is literally a quantum computer [8], or that all entangled systems are literally wormholes [9], or that the universe is made of mathematics [10]. So let’s not hoist all of sociology on the petard of their most extreme proponents, and instead look at the evidence on which their claims are based."

After reading your essay, I will have to give sociology some more respect. Your examples make me shake my head in disbelief. Yes, science can get carried away from being fundamental as can sociology.

Thanks for a very informative essay,

Don Limuti

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

corciovei silviu wrote on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 12:06 GMT
Mr. Leifer

I fully enjoyed the way you put things together (esspecialy when you speak about theory of knowledge) in a clear picture.

I think further words are useless.

Rate it accordingly.

If you would have the pleasure (and time) for a short axiomatic approach of the subject, I will appreciate your opinion.



Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Login or create account to post reply or comment.

Please enter your e-mail address:
Note: Joining the FQXi mailing list does not give you a login account or constitute membership in the organization.