Friday, April 18, 2014

The purpose of this blog

The purpose of this blog is to operate as a public hub for questions, criticism and commentary about the book "The Foundations of Physical Reality" by Richard Stafford.

It is not a typical book about physics in that it does not make any speculative ontological claims about what reality is according to modern theories. Rather the opposite is true; it is a purely logical analysis of what can we know without making any assumptions about reality. The "Foundations" in the title refers to purely logical epistemological constraints governing the creation of any explanations and theories about anything, including our mental conception of reality.

Thus, it does not present a theory about reality in the usual meaning of the word. It is rather an exact mathematical analysis of the tautological consequences of self-consistencies that must be found within any valid theory.

The conclusions of the mathematical analysis dig deep into the common definitions of modern physics in surprising manner, and carry strong philosophical implications about the way we understand the world around us.

To kick things off, I decided to address couple of the most common questions;

Isn't this just a form of idealism?

No it's not. All the arguments in the book are focused to the logical mechanisms behind generating valid explanations about reality, whatever that reality may be. As such all the arguments are revolving around what kinds of conceptions can be created in our minds to represent information; that is to be our conception of reality. Creating a representation of reality in one's own mind is not the same thing as creating reality itself in one's own mind. The arguments put forth are completely neutral about any speculative true origin of the underlying information that-is-to-be-explained.

If this is not supposed to tell us anything about reality, then what's the point of the whole exercise?

There is value in recognizing accurately what aspects of our own view of reality are simply generally valid definitions; valid regardless of what the underlying information-to-be-explained is. Those aspects are to be seen as features of a general prediction mechanism, or as features of a valid approximated representation of reality. If those generally valid features are recognized, then despite their validity they are not really telling us anything about reality itself, they are just part of a mental terminology we have established as our world view.

Just as an example, in quantum theory the central mystery is related to the role of the observer as part of the whole quantum system; The quantum formalism that represents valid prediction mechanism implies that the observer affects the real state of the system just by the act of observing it. Usually the attempts to explain that conundrum revolve around creating new speculative ontologies (many worlds, backwards space-time causality, various flavors of idealism, and so on). These are nothing but beliefs as they are all based on the same premise, and none is falsifiable.

On the other hand, understanding exactly how quantum formalism is associated with fully general prediction mechanisms will provide a more mature view to the reasons why quantum formalism is valid as a prediction mechanism, while not really telling us much of anything about actual reality.

Furthermore, there is value in exact mathematical understanding of the approximations that are necessary to get from absolutely general explanation to some established specific terminology, such as General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Newtonian Mechanics, or any other important theory of modern physics. Whatever those approximation are, they represent either a correct guess about reality, or just a useful terminology choice. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are not compatible theories, and if they are viewed as ontological arguments about reality both of them cannot be true. At the same time, they are both approximately valid. Therefore, understanding the logical steps that are necessary to derive them from the same general root also entails understanding of where their conflict lies in epistemological and logical sense, without taking any speculative stance as to what reality actually is.

And finally, understanding the epistemological issues behind our explanations does grant us some mental hygiene and also additional tools in creating new useful explanations. The world is full of people who concern themselves with creating new speculative ontologies with very little care about the fundamental limits of our knowledge; what can be known, and what are mere semantics and human conventions. Likewise, the world is full of people who concern themselves with defending a common ontological view of some established physical theory, with poor understanding of the underlying epistemological issues that actually validate the theory, while not validating any implied ontology.

It is extremely common that people defend their arguments with what they believe are well established facts about reality, but are actually just conventions and tacit assumptions they use in their thinking. As many famous philosophers have commented in multitude of ways, it is extremely common error to confuse one's own view of reality with reality itself. It can be hard to appreciate the full depth of this issue without proper focused analysis into the epistemological fundamentals behind creating explanations. That is the purpose of the book "The Foundations of Physical Reality".


  1. Is it that important to know the underlying reality? We are curious creatures, but I am completely satisfied with anything that has verifiable predictive power in my image of reality - whether it is a theory or a crystal ball.
    I started to read the book and I am anxious to get to the end. The idea of arriving at quantum theory and relativity out of pure thought is fascinating so I will spare no effort to understand Richard Stafford's concepts. Hopefully I can share some more meaningful comments.

    1. Indeed. While the desire to know reality has been a big driving force in increasing our understanding, it is tragically common for people to pretend to know things that cannot possibly be known.

      Perhaps we just find it so emotionally taxing to have unknowns in our lives, that we rather believe something - anything - and pretend to ourselves that we thus have filled our questions with knowledge. This is completely irrational way of thinking, but still extremely common in our thought processes.