Confessions of a skeptical

flatearthTo be skeptical is not only about laughing at UFOs sightings and esoteric bullshit. It’s a much tougher job. It demands to leave your comfort zone and question your own beliefs. What could be more comforting for a physicist than the laws of physics and the mathematics which they are built upon? It’s time to question them.

I don’t know which – nature or nurture – made me skeptical. I just know that skepticism is deeply rooted into my being. And it is not only about religion, it is about everything.

For a skeptical, the universe is. Full stop. It is not beautiful, or harmonious, or big, it only is.

All predicates (like beautiful, harmonious, big) are meanings constructed by ourselves, with all our cultural biases and biological limitations.

As a student, I was always very uncomfortable when teachers invoked order and disorder when talking about the second law of thermodynamics. Order and disorder are aesthetic concepts. Why would nature care about them?

I do not believe even that the universe is mathematical and follows the laws of the physics. Gosh, it is good to confess that!

Mathematics is a formal language internally consistent created by many generations of clever humans. It is not a platonic thing floating around in the world.

As natural scientists, part of our jobs is to build up mathematical models that express and predict specific phenomena. Sometimes these mathematical tools are so spectacularly successful, as it is the case of the quantum mechanics, that we start to believe that they are intrinsic part of reality.

Nobody can proof or disproof whether mathematics exists independent of us or not. Like religion, it is a matter of faith. But if we want to understand the universe from a completely “natural” perspective, we should ask ourselves what are the things that may or not be out there.

We easily discard a cosmic intelligence and final causes as unreasonable. We love the evolution theory because it gives a route for building up complexity without invoking magical elements or teleological explanations.

Crazy as they sound,  we don’t dismiss multiverse theories because, for similar reasons, they may explain how a universe that may hold condensed matter (not to speak, life) came to be. Without them, we risk to be thrown back to the darkness of the anthropic principle.

For the sake of intellectual hygiene, we should adopt the same prophylactic measures about anything that we may be contaminating our theories of the world with. We must for principle avoid any anthropomorphization of nature. To believe that mathematics is intrinsic part of the universe is as dirty as to believe that love would still exist if humans got extinct.

Galileo believed that mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe. The alternative, much more reasonable in my opinion, is to believe that mathematics is a formal language that we create and use to describe the universe.

Centuries of scientific tradition brought us to an awesome level of success in this description. But there will never be a full isomorphism between our “laws of physics” and our experience of reality. Adjustments will always be needed. Sometimes, full changes of paradigms will be needed.

The secrete in this story is that we should never think that we understand the universe as it is. We should always bear in mind that we are subjects creating the tools to understand the universe. I know, it sounds like playing with words, but it is more subtle: our understanding of the world will be always framed by our cultural and biological conditions.

This is not a concession to any kind of relativism. As any reasonable person, I have no doubts that some theories are much superior to others, as measured by any honest comparison of empirical evidences, prediction capacity, and self-consistency within our overall understanding of the universe.

But I also believe that another civilization evolved in another planet with another biology could come out with similarly successful models of world, without ever referring to anything like the Schrödinger equation or Newton laws of motion.

They would come out with fully alternative mathematical descriptions. Or they would most probably invent other ways of describing nature completely inaccessible to our cognitive powers, but adapted to theirs.

Far-fetched? We do not need to find alien intelligence to prove that.  We have examples of equally successful, but different theories right here.

Anyone who studied physics knows this equation:

\textbf{F} = -\nabla U.

Did you ever note that it connects two completely different theories of world? If not, I will tell you why in a future post.


  • If you enjoyed this post, follow the blog by signing up in the sidebar. Leave your comments or like below. You can also follow me on Twitter.
  • And you, do you think mathematics is part of the universe, or is it a human creation? Let me know your opinion.
  • Not sure? Try this video from the PBS Idea Channel.
  • Multiverse theories? Watch this video from Minute Physics.
  • The illustration of this text is a wood engraving by an unknown artist. In spite of its medieval looking, it seems to be from the late 19th century.
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Categories: Physical Sciences, Scientific Culture

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1 reply

  1. I guess it is more of a human creation than a universal thing. We, the homo sapiens, are one of the most curious ( and idle) species in this galaxy and we always try to find new ways to fulfill that curiosity and in return, be more curious. One fine day, someone invented a zero and then has no idea what to do with it. So he and many more like him went on to find things ( questions) where it can be used. And since then, mother nature has never let her children run out of questions.

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