The Role of Mathematics in Physics Sample

Modern Physics is Applied Mathematics

I have said many times that modern physics (by which I mean physics developed since around the year 1900 or later) is little more than applied mathematics. What do I mean by this?

I mean that many of so-called “physics” theories do not describe the properties and actions of matter. Which is, after all, supposed to be what physics is all about! Instead, it offers a whole lot of advanced mathematical equations which are said to mean this and that but which ultimately do not describe real, physical objects and their actions.

They often claim that they do. Physicists say that quantum theory describes the subatomic particles of the quantum world. But what they are describing cannot possibly be real. There is no way that an electron can be both a wave and a particle. Similarly, there is no way that space, which is a concept, can be curved or that this could explain how gravity works. There is no way for reality to be composed of dimensions, not given that “dimension” is simply a mathematical concept.

All these ideas and more do not describe physical reality as it actually is. But worse, that is the point!

Surely not? Surely, physicists are interested in describing the physical world. After all, that is what physics is all about. And surely this is what physicists want to do!

Check Their Premises

Do they? They might say that they do, but let us check their philosophical premises…

Everyone, physicists included, has some philosophical view of existence. They must have some kind of metaphysics that tells them what they think reality is like. That is if they think that there is any. They must have some kind of epistemology that tells them what knowledge is and if they think it is possible. Even if they regard philosophy as useless, they cannot escape having some metaphysical and epistemological ideas.

If they leave the nature of these ideas to chance, to whatever they pick up in the culture, then they are in trouble. Because the dominant metaphysical ideas in the culture we live in is that reality is some kind of non-objective flux without any identity.

Primacy of Consciousness

That consciousness is primary to existence and can change reality. And that even if this were not so, that it would be unknowable because the senses distort reality and we cannot trust them. Therefore, we can never really be sure that we know what reality really is!

What do these ideas imply in physics? That reality is non-objective and subject to conscious direction. Hence the irrationality of quantum mechanics claiming that observation/consciousness can change the nature of subatomic particles.

Physicists are told that we cannot trust our senses to know reality. So, does it really matter whether what we describe is accurate or true? We cannot really know that, after all. So, the best we can do is mathematically describe what we see. It does not matter whether our descriptions match what really is, as long as we can make predictions.

If reality is non-objective and unknowable, then, of course, physicists are not going to offer rational, objective and provably valid descriptions of the physical world.

Oh look, Plato! I wondered when he was going to show up again …

They are no longer going to be concerned with doing physics!

So, what are they going to do instead? Well, they believe that mathematics still has some use for them. They want to describe what they are observing and be able to make predictions. Not for the purpose of extending their perception of what reality really is, which is the proper purpose of mathematics. But so that they can merely describe what they are observing. So that they can model it and make predictions.

But, the proper purpose of mathematics is not merely to make predictions. Mathematics is supposed to help us grasp attributes of things and relationships between things. Not to merely predict what will happen. However, given that most people now consider reality to be non-objective and unknowable, of course, they will not concede that this is the proper purpose of mathematics. No, it is merely to be able to predict and describe what will happen in given circumstances.

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