Philosophizing Naturally

Science used to be called “philosophy”. More specifically, it was called “natural philosophy”:

From the ancient world (at least since Aristotle) until the 19th century, natural philosophy was the common term for the study of physics (nature), a broad term that included botany, zoology, anthropology, and chemistry as well as what we now call physics. It was in the 19th century that the concept of science received its modern shape, with different scientific subjects emerging, such as astronomy, biology, and physics…. Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) reflects the use of the term natural philosophy in the 17th century [Wikipedia].

It makes some sense, therefore, that well-known physicist Sean Carroll decided to promote “natural philosophy”. This is from the transcript of one of Prof. Carroll’s podcasts:

… One of the bonuses of my new job here at Johns Hopkins is that I got to choose my own title. My title is Homewood professor, but then Homewood professor of what? … Knowing that I would both be involved in the physics department and the philosophy department, I thought it would be fun to call myself a professor of natural philosophy….

Back in the day, before we had separated out something called science and something called physics from philosophy, people like Isaac Newton or Galileo would have been considered to be philosophers. [He then mentions the full title of Newton’s Principia] …There’s a certain kind of philosophy and a certain kind of physics that really, really overlap, that are almost indistinguishable from each other, asking the biggest questions about, what is the world? What is it made of? Where did it come from? Why does it exist? Those kinds of things that really intersect with more down-to-earth physics questions like, “How does quantum mechanics work? What is fine-tuning in cosmology?” Things like that.

After reading that, I came upon an article from Quanta Magazine: “Inside the Proton, the ‘Most Complicated Thing You Could Possibly Imagine’”. Here’s how it starts:

The positively charged particle at the heart of the atom is an object of unspeakable complexity, one that changes its appearance depending on how it is probed….

High school physics teachers describe them as featureless balls with one unit each of positive electric charge — the perfect foils for the negatively charged electrons that buzz around them. College students learn that the ball is actually a bundle of three elementary particles called quarks. But decades of research have revealed a deeper truth, one that’s too bizarre to fully capture with words or images.

“This is the most complicated thing that you could possibly imagine,” said Mike Williams, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In fact, you can’t even imagine how complicated it is.”

Reading further made me want to do some philosophy:

The proton is a quantum mechanical object that exists as a haze of probabilities until an experiment forces it to take a concrete form. And its forms differ drastically depending on how researchers set up their experiment. Connecting the particle’s many faces has been the work of generations. “We’re kind of just starting to understand this system in a complete way,” said Richard Milner, a nuclear physicist at MIT.

As the pursuit continues, the proton’s secrets keep tumbling out. Most recently, a monumental data analysis published in August found that the proton contains traces of particles called charm quarks that are heavier than the proton itself.

The proton “has been humbling to humans,” Williams said. “Every time you think you kind of have a handle on it, it throws you some curveballs.”

There are two things here that don’t sound right. First, what is a “haze of probabilities”? Physicists (and philosophers) disagree about what exists when we refer to a quantum entity. Is there something relatively substantial underlying it that we can’t (yet) identify? Or is there nothing there except “probabilities” that become real or substantial when we do a measurement (or when some other quantum entity interferes)? Speaking philosophically, it makes no sense that probabilities exist in some sort of “haze”. A probability is a possibility. How could a possibility exist without anything to separate it from other possibilities? Why would a possibility be in one place (say, Switzerland) as opposed to another (perhaps Johns Hopkins)? Most physicists would reply that I just don’t understand the quantum world. Unfortunately, according to physicist Richard Feynman’s well-known remark, neither do they:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take [this] lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

But, Prof. Feynman, going down blind alleys from which nobody has escaped is something philosophers do! That’s what they do most of the time! In this case, however, instead of going down the alley, we might suggest that “exists as” be replaced by “appears to be” or perhaps “manifests itself as”: the proton manifests itself as a haze of probabilities.

This brings me to the second thing that doesn’t sound right. The Quanta article says “the proton contains traces of particles … heavier than the proton itself”. The author meant “more massive than” rather than “heavier than”, but putting that aside, how can something’s contents be more massive than the thing itself?

The original study published in Nature says it this way:

Both light and heavy quarks, whose mass is respectively smaller or bigger than the mass of the proton, are revealed inside the proton in high-energy collisions.

It would be clearer to say that when measured, the proton has a certain mass, but when heavy quarks are measured outside the proton, their mass is greater than the proton’s. That’s certainly puzzling, and obviously justifies further investigation, but it’s not as contradictory as saying the proton’s contents are more massive than the proton.