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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...


Georgina Woodward: "I agree that new rules can apply to higher levels of organization or..." in Constructing a Theory of...

Lorraine Ford: "Re the issue of whether new information can be added to the universe: 1...." in Constructing a Theory of...

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Constructing a Theory of Life
An all-encompassing framework of physics could help to explain the evolution of consciousness, intelligence, and free will.

Usurping Quantum Theory
The search is on for a fundamental framework that allows for even stranger links between particles than quantum theory—which could lead us to a theory of everything.

Fuzzballs v Black Holes
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Whose Physics Is It Anyway? Q&A with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Why physics and astronomy communities must take diversity issues seriously in order to do good science.

Why Time Might Not Be an Illusion
Einstein’s relativity pushes physicists towards a picture of the universe as a block, in which the past, present, and future all exist on the same footing; but maybe that shift in thinking has gone too far.

August 14, 2018

CATEGORY: FQXi Essay Contest - Spring, 2017 [back]
TOPIC: Against Fundamentalism by Matthew Saul Leifer [refresh]
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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.

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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...

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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.

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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.


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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

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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.


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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.

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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

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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,


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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...

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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

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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...

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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...

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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."



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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.


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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

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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.



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