Posts Tagged Philosophy of Science

Beautiful mathematics vs. qualitative insights

Which is better for fundamental physics: beautiful mathematics based on pure concepts, or qualitative insights based on natural phenomena?

According to Lee Smolin in a 2015 arxiv paper [1], it’s the latter.

As I understand him, Smolin’s main point is that elegant qualitative explanations are more valuable than beautiful mathematics, that physics fails to progress when ‘mathematics [is used] as a substitute for insight into nature‘ (p13).
‘The point is not how beautiful the equations are, it is how minimal the assumptions needed and how elegant the explanations.‘ (
The symmetry methodology receives criticism for the proliferation of assumptions it requires, and the lack of explanatory power. Likewise particle supersymmetry is  identified as having the same failings. Smolin is also critical of of string theory, writing, ‘Thousands of theorists have spent decades studying these [string theory] ideas, and there is not yet a single connection with experiment‘ (p6-7).

Mathematical symmetries: More or fewer?

Smolin is especially critical of the idea that progress might be found in increasingly elaborate mathematical symmetries.
I also wonder whether the ‘symmetries’ idea is overloaded. The basic concept of symmetry is that some attribute of the system should be preserved when transformed about some dimension. Even if it is possible to represent this mathematically, we should still be prudent about which attributes, transformations, and dimensions to accept. Actual physics does not necessarily follow mathematical representation. There is generally a lack of critical evaluation of the validity of specific attributes, transformations, and dimensions for the proposed symmetries. The *time* variable is a case in point. Mathematical treatments invariably consider it to be a dimension, yet empirical evidence overwhelmingly shows this not to be the case.
Irreversibility shows that time does not evidence symmetry. The time dimension cannot be traversed in a controlled manner, neither forward and especially not backward. Also, a complex system of particles will not spontaneously revert to its former configuration.   Consequently *time* cannot be considered to be a dimension about which it is valid to apply a symmetry transformation even when one exists mathematically. Logically, we should therefore discard any mathematical symmetry that has a time dimension to it. That reduces the field considerably, since many symmetries have a temporal component.
Alternatively, if we are to continue to rely on temporal symmetries, it will be necessary to understand how the mechanics of irreversibility arises, and why those symmetries are exempt therefrom. I accept that relativity considers time to be a dimension, and has achieved significant theoretical advances with that premise. However relativity is also a theory of macroscopic interactions, and it is possible that assuming time to be a dimension is a sufficiently accurate premise at this scale, but not at others. Our own work suggests that time could be an emergent property of matter, rather than a dimension (  This makes it much easier to explain the origins of the arrow of time and of irreversibility. So it can be fruitful, in an ontological way, to be sceptical of the idea that mathematical formalisms of symmetry are necessarily valid representations of actual physics. It might be reading too much into Smolin’s meaning when he says that ‘time… properties reflect the positions … of matter in the universe’ (p12), but that seems consistent with our proposition.

How to find a better physics?

The solution, Smolin says, is to ‘begin with new physical principles‘ (p8). Thus we should expect new physics will emerge by developing qualitative explanations based on intuitive insights from natural phenomena, rather than trying to extend existing mathematics. Explanations that are valuable are those that are efficient (fewer parameters, less tuning, and not involving extremely big or small numbers) and logically consistent with physical realism (‘tell a coherent story’). It is necessary that the explanations come first, and the mathematics follows later as a subordinate activity to formalise and represent those insights.
However it is not so easy to do that in practice, and Smolin does not have suggestions for where these new physical principles should be sought. His statement that ‘no such principles have been proposed‘ (p8) is incorrect. Ourselves and others have proposed new physical principles – ours is called the Cordus theory and based on a proposed internal structure to particles. Other theories exist, see vixra and arxiv. The bigger issue is that physics journals are mostly deaf to propositions regarding new principles. Our own papers have been summarily rejected by editors many times  due to ‘lack of mathematical content’ or ‘we do not publish speculative material’, or ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. In an ideal world all candidate solutions would at least be admitted to scrutiny, but this does not actually happen and there are multiple existing ideas in the wilds that never make it through to the formal journal literature frequented by physicists.  Even then, those ideas that undergo peer review and are published, are not necessarily widely available. The problem is that the academic search engines, like Elsevier’s Compendex and Thompson’s Web of Science,  are selective in what journals they index, and fail to provide  reliable coverage of the more radical elements of physics. (Google Scholar appears to provide an unbiassed assay of the literature.) Most physicists would have to go out of their way to inform themselves of the protosciences and new propositions that circulate in the wild outside their bubbles of knowledge. Not all those proposals can possibly be right, but neither are they all necessarily wrong. In mitigation, the body of literature in physics has become so voluminous that it is impossible for any one physicist to be fully informed about all developments, even within a sub-field like fundamental physics. But the point remains that new principles of physics do exist, based on intuitive insights from natural phenomena, and which have high explanatory power, exactly how Smolin expected things to develop.
Smolin suspects that true solutions will have fewer rather than more symmetries. This is also consistent with our  work, which indicates that both the asymmetrical leptogenesis and baryogenesis processes can be conceptually explained as consequences of a single deeper symmetry ( That is the matter-antimatter species differentiation ( That also explains asymmetries in decay rates (
In a way, though he does not use the words, Smolin tacitly endorses the principle of physical realism: that physical observable phenomena do have deeper causal mechanics involving parameters that exist objectively. He never mentions the hidden-variable solutions. Perhaps this is indicative of the position of most theorists, that the hidden variable sector has been unproductive. Everyone has given up on it as intractable, and now ignore it. According to Google Scholar, ours looks to be the only group left in the world that is publishing non-local hidden-variable (NLHV) solutions. Time will tell whether or not these are strong enough, but these do already embody Smolin’s injunction to take a fresh look for new physical principles.

Dirk Pons

26 February 2016, Christchurch, New Zealand

This is an expansion of a post at Physics Forum


[1] 1. Smolin, L.: Lessons from Einstein’s 1915 discovery of general relativity. arxiv 1512.07551, 1-14 (2015). doi:




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The mystery of time

In this introductory note we identify some of the problems with *time*.

Though intuitively familiar, time is a mystery.  Time is a variable throughout physics: classical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics (QM), and general relativity (GR)  all include it. Yet the constructs in each are very different. Time is a topic that flow through many discourses and fields of study other than pure physics. It has implications in philosophy for how life exists in the framework of finite time, theological questions about what existence there might be beyond time and this universe, and psychological questions about how we perceive time in a cognitive sense.  There are also unsolved integrative problems, like how the time that emerges at the level of atomic clocks  transfers  to the world at large, whether there is an absolute time, how time started, how time dilation works, and how the arrow of time arises.

All these approaches, physics, psychology, philosophy, have models for time. Yet they are poorly integrated, indeed sometimes in conflict. Nor are those constructs always coherent with humans’ personal cognitive perception of time. For example, the idea that time runs differently depending on gravitation or velocity, or that time may have had a beginning (and therefore not existed before the universe), is deeply puzzling to the mental model of most people.


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Physics and philosophy

We are currently working on the problems that arise at  the intersection of physics and philosophy. Questions we are asking include, ‘What is time?’, ‘Does locality exist?’, ‘Is there free-will?’, ‘Why does QM coherence seem to apply, but not to macroscopic objects?’ Applying the cordus idea gives some interestingly novel perspectives to these problems.

We have addressed the time issue, and published a paper on that topic. Likewise for coherence, and again locality.




The results are  interesting for the new insights they bring. They are also radical, and challenge the orthodox interpretations. That radical attribute can be problematic:  We submitted the time paper to a journal, and received a cutting rejection from the reviewers, so that hasn’t got much further! Well, we keep trying.

Next we are looking at FREE-WILL. We have done some preliminary work, and I think we can add novel insights there too.

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Limits of Coherence

Surprisingly, quantum mechanics (QM) does not apply to reality at our macroscopic level of existence, nor to the universe at large. Strangely, it does apply so well to the particle level.

More specifically, quantum behaviour such as superposition of location, is only evident in particles and some microscopic objects of pure composition, cooled to close to absolute zero temperature. Or in warmer objects (e.g. pure diamonds) but only for a tiny fraction of a second. QM suggests should it should be attainable in larger and warmer objects, but this has proved difficult to achieve. It is not clear where the boundary is between the quantum world of particles and the macroscopic world, and quantum mechanics itself cannot identify why there should be a boundary, nor where it would be. Hence one of the great mysteries of physics: why a theory that works so well at the tiny scale does not scale up to the large.

What causes quantum discoherence?  Where are the limits of coherence? What is coherence?

Clearly there is a discontinuity in the physics between the small and large scales of nature. Enter the cordus conjecture, which we have been using to determine where in the scale of things the transition occurs between coherence and discoherence, and why the limits are where they are.

The  results of our thinking are shown in the paper we’ve published here

Briefly, the reasons for discoherence are proposed to be internal shear velocity of the body, temperature phonons, and complexity of assembly (particularly purity of composition). The upper limit for coherence is expected to be at currently achieved levels of material complexity, or slightly beyond. However cordus rules out coherence for warm macroscopic objects and living creatures. 

If this is correct, and of course the cordus conjecture is only a conjecture, then there are some implications for physics. And also for philosophy.

For physics: The theory of QM has created an expectation that coherence is the norm and therefore should be found in macroscopic bodies. Cordus suggests that we should instead view discoherence as the normal state, and coherence as a special state of extended application of the strong force into bonding.

For philosophy:  There has been much philosophical speculation about the role of measurement, including human observation, on the future of behaviour of particles and coherent bodies.  See ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’. Cordus refutes those ideas, and instead suggests that in those rare cases where coherence of macroscopic objects is attainable, this does not mean that the object has two futures, only that it can have two locations. So cordus refutes the Many-Worlds interpretation and Parallel Universe theory.

It seems we only have one universe and only one of each of us in existence. No doppelgangers. Make the most of the time you have been given!

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Neutron stability

Why is  the neutron stable inside the atom, but decays when it is free? Our next paper explores what’s happening in the neutron to cause these effects.

It turns out that the answer, at least when viewed through the cordus lens, is to do with the electric field structures of the neutron. Basically, the neutron does not have a full set of these. This is not a problem when it is inside the atom, because the proton has enough to cover for it. The way the proton and neutron bond together sorts this out.

But when the neutron is free of the atom, then its inadequacies start to show. It has a marginal stability, and eventually something comes along that tips it over the edge and it decays.

We also anticipate what it is that causes that instability. We can also explain why the lifetime of the neutron is an exponential distribution. This part of the paper is really basic, perhaps even pedantic, but it’s important to be clear about what an exponential decay means.

That’s all the paper was originally intended to cover. It was supposed to be the simple closing paper in a bracket of three. But, this being a thought-experiment, we always like to push the ideas to the limit.

Doing so suggests that the neutron decay rates are likely to be variable rather than constant. That is an unorthodox outcome, because these rates are generally believed to be strictly constant. Strangely enough, there is a body of empirical testing that has been done over the years that suggests variable rates, though it is a controversial area of physics (see related articles below). So it is a pleasant surprise to see that the thought-experiment has something  to contribute to the debate in  another indistinct area of physics. So there is a twist at the end of this paper.

Full paper is here at the physics archive vixra:  Stability and decay: Mechanisms for stability and initiators of decay in the neutron

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Terry Pratchett: The deeper physics

Sir Terry Pratchett, British novelist and Alzh...

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Maybe Terry Pratchett came close to to discovering the deeper mechanics beneath QM?!

Terry is author of the ‘Discworld‘ series of humorous fiction books. In one of these, ‘Thief of Time‘, he describes chaos theory, which is personified in a character called Kaos. We  modified this a bit to adapt it to Cordus:

Quantum mechanics is  ‘apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that nevertheless has a simple, deterministic explanation via the cordus conjecture that is a key to new levels of understanding of  fundamental physics’

Terry’s proper quote is shown below:

‘Apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that nevertheless has a simple, deterministic explanation and is a key to new levels of understanding of the multidimensional universe?’ (p358)

Dirk 17 Sept 2011

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