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Edward MacKinnon* - page 45 / 59





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aspects of knowledge, or of physics, correspond to aspects of reality as it exists independent of our knowledge: truth as correspondence with reality; truth as bivalent, i.e. propositions as objectively true or false even if the status can never be determined; key theoretical terms as really referring. The epistemological considerations presented here place me more or less in the first camp, linking 'objectivity' to intersubjective agreement. It would be more precise to rely on Davidson’s idea of triangulation, or of a developing relation between an individual physicist, the ongoing community of physicists, and the reality they share and shape conceptually. Does this entail ontological relativity, or the deconstruction of physics, or a denial that physics is really making progress towards a more basic and comprehensive understanding of reality?

I don't think so. I believe, in fact, that the advancement of physics constitutes the paradigm case of progress in human knowledge. In terms of knowledge of physical reality the type of objectivity physics achieves is the highest humans can hope for. It is misleading to judge the ultimate claims of physics by an appeal to any higher type of knowledge, whether it be a metaphysical system or intuitions of what physical reality must be objectively. On such issues physics sets the ultimate standards, because there is no higher court of appeal. This statement of opinion is open to objections from various fronts. I will only consider one type of objection, one that is pertinent to the issues treated here. The objection is that the type of physics that can be expressed in LCP ultimately represents a secondary type of knowledge. As such it cannot set the standards for objectivity.

This objection comes from two quite different sources: reasonable anticipations of the future of physics; and the critical analyses of Husserl and Heidegger. My answers to the objections take the form of tentative suggestions, rather than a developed position. They are presented primarily to indicate the type of consequences that follow from taking the language of physics seriously. The first objection is fairly easy to state. The standard model is extremely successful in accommodating all the presently available data on particles and interactions. Yet, fundamental particle physicists share a consensus that this cannot be the ultimate theory. It does not include gravity and has two many parameters that have to be put in by hand, as current jargon has it. The theory that will eventually replace it is not clear. However, the leading efforts involve superstrings in 10-dimentsional space, M-branes, supersymmetry, esoteric particles, and undoubtedly features not yet anticipated. The relation between classical physics and present quantum physics is debatable. In a larger perspective, regardless of what theories prove successful, classical physics will have the status of a phenomenological system. How can a phenomenological system set standards for objectivity?

The term ‘phenomenological’ has an established use in physics that is independent of its use in philosophy. Roughly, an explanation of otherwise puzzling phenomena is considered phenomenological if a more fundamental explanation is possible, at least in principle. Thus: geometric optics relative to electrodynamics; classical electrodynamics relative to quantum electrodynamics; S-matrix theory relative to field theory; the standard model relative to a grand unified theory. This fits the reductionist goals that characterize the main thrust of fundamental physics. This involves an ontological reductionism, explaining molecules as atoms bound together by forces, atoms in terms of particles, and particles in terms of more fundamental ingredients. This ontological reductionism should be distinguished from the problem of realism.

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