I’ve thought a lot about my last post and realised that I’m wrong…not everything is arbitrary, just the matters that we give most attention. I started thinking about this when thinking about something that I usually give little attention, particle physics. For whatever reason the discovery of the Higgs Boson has really got me thinking and prompted by several articles claiming that the discovery is meaningless here are my thoughts.
I’m not a physicist. I don’t claim to be. My understanding of physics is very limited in relative terms to many who have studied the subject. I know little about the laws of thermodynamics or quantum mechanics and I am unable to derive the mathematics of elegant theories, such as that of the Standard Model. I wish I could, to me the subject suddenly seems immensely interesting all of sudden. Although you could also make the case that this does not matter because I understand a great deal about physics by living with it. My place in the solar system is very much a question that, I suspect, physics could begin to explain to me. As I type a great variety of questions that physics explores are taking place; gravity, motion, energy transferal. Yet you could make the case that my ignorance to them is unimportant because it doesn’t have anything practical to add to my life. It’s like teaching birds how to fly – they know how to fly but they do it and they certainly don’t need someone to tell them how. It would not add to their competence. But I think this line of thinking ignores something very fundamental to what it is to be human and what separates us and I will explain why.
But to follow this line of thinking there are those that would say that the discovery of the Higgs Boson is of little importance because it has no practical purpose. These same people would argue that it does not add anything to our lives by knowing about it. The Higgs Boson doesn’t alter the way you will go about your day, how you will interact with others or how you will lead you life – so they say. They would argue that subjects like business or law or politics are more important and that developments in these fields matter more. That they serve a practical purpose to how we live our lives. But I would disagree on the strongest terms.
When it comes to questions of truth or questions of right or wrong the practical fields have nothing to add. We can, and if we were in the mood could, have a lengthy discussion about different political regimes or about questions of morality. We could even discuss business strategy or investment approaches and other such topics. However even though our knowledge of the subjects will differ, both in terms of the breadth of our understanding and the depth of our understanding we will eventually realise that our conclusions have been derived from assumptions that we have made along the way. Once we get past the jargon and so on that is usually associated with “learning”, especially with those who do not truly understand a subject because they need to talk in such overly complex terms that only a fellow scholar in that field could understand, we would realise that the assumptions that we have made are arbitrary. We may believe they are true but we cannot ever say that they are. You may be pro-choice and I may be against (I’m not but it doesn’t matter) but there is no reason why one is right and one is wrong, even if we may argue as such in the strongest terms. The statements we make in subjects that are generally deemed practical are in fact very impractical statements because they are opinions and opinions alone, regardless of how well we think that they may hold true. Regardless of how well we make the case either way. It may simply be the case that we just haven’t observed something that would disprove your theory yet (in the time dimension) or yet (in the breadth of knowledge). One observation may disprove your viewpoint. That’s the logic of scientific understanding – a theory is just a best guess until something better comes along.
However there are a special set of circumstances where the problem of arbitrariness and assumptions does not hold. This is the case where we are able to reduce our understanding to an irreducable level. And this is why I believe the Higgs Boson to be immensely interesting. Take a decision that you make – let’s say that you choose to buy a new pair of shoes. A practical person, usually carrying the job title of an economist, observing your decision would attribute this to your preferences. You preferred to have the shoes over having the money when you considered your options, or so they may say. But this statement makes a set of assumptions about the way in which people make decisions. It assumes that you have knowledge of information about other things that you could have bought and that you were able to compute before the purchase that you preferred the shoes over the money. Indeed how can you really know until you’ve experienced it? Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist recognised this criticism of the assumptions of economics and tried to side-step this issue cleverly. He said that it did not matter whether the theory was accurate, that people carried out such a computation, it only mattered that people behaved as if they had carried out the decision in such a manner. But this is like saying that you got lucky and happens to be that your luck is holding out, it doesn’t sound like very solid ground to be standing on. However it still didn’t stop the economics profession from taking over fields of finance and politics with such theories. From public policy decisions to regulatory reforms you will realise that the arbitrary assumptions of economics pervade. And since talking about matters of practicality we cannot avoid quoting the great economist J.M. Keynes who said that “practical men, who usually consider themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.” What he means by this is that these assumptions have very powerful consequences and if they are inaccurate then it has very real consequences.
Following the purchasing decision further though there are some that would them begin to look in to the psychology of your purchasing. They may say that imprints and associations over the course of your life, maybe even within the advertising for the product, will lead you to buy the shoes. Again though this makes a set of assumptions about the way in which people make decisions, linking one thing with the other. Now it may very well be the case that in experiments we cannot disprove the link but that doesn’t mean that it is right. Again – it may be that we haven’t experimented thoroughly in all sets of situations for all types of people. Psychology provides a better set criteria because its conclusions are based on observation rather than inference from a set of assumptions but none the less it is less than scientific. So we can go deeper still and in to the brain. We can look at the regions of the brain that are believed to be associated with decisions. We can look at the physiological process that takes place as you choose to buy the shoes. We can study the chemical reactions or the neurons firing and how they fire, why they fire. But this isn’t deep enough so to truly explain we must dig deeper. We must understand the structure of the neurons and the structure of the cells that cause the neurons to fire. We must then begin to look at the structure of the components of cells and then the structure of the molecules that make up the cells. The we must look at the structure of the atoms before finally looking at the structure of the quarks and we must understand these in order to see how these particles behave in order to know how they make up the atoms that make up the molecules that make up the cells that make up the neurons that make up the brain regions that make up your mind that makes you purchase the shoes.
In order to truly understand anything, if we want to go beyond the arbitrary, then we need to understand questions that those working at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider are seeking to answer. Fundamental questions about why we are the way we are and why we do what we do. These are not impractical questions, these are extremely practical, or at least as I see it. Understanding the full depth of knowledge is what makes it exciting. It is exciting when we get to the stage at which we cannot simplify things any more because this is when we get to real truth – or at least truth as we understand it at this point in time. This is what the Higgs Boson provides. It provides the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle of how we understand how we came to be. With our current level of understanding we cannot simplify any further. We have reached the bottom of the sandpit but the bottom is fundamental to how our sandcastle is built. There’s a beauty in that and there’s a practicality that only serves to enhance everything other aspect of our knowledge that we have built upon these underlying principles, these laws of nature. The quest to understand is why we left the caves of what we may not be sure but of something new and different. It is why we ended up inhabiting every corner of the planet and why we have for so long craved to explore beyond our atmosphere. It is why we seek out new lovers or new friends and it is why we laugh and we cry. Without discovery then the world would begin to lose its colour. And that is why I consider the discovery of the Higgs Boson to be a very meaningful finding.