Sunday, 6 March 2022

Self-floating books

Let's imagine there's a stack of books floating in mid-air. There appears to be no reason for it. 

But suppose someone says we can explain why the top book is there. It's being supported by the book beneath it. The 2nd top book, that is, is exerting a force on the top book keeping it where it is.

Likewise we can explain why the 2nd top book is there -- it's being supported by the 3rd top book. And so on.

But what about the bottom book? Perhaps we can say there's no explanation for that. It's just a brute fact that it can float there mid-air!

But if that is the case have we actually provided an explanation for why any of the other books are there in mid-air? Surely not, we've simply kicked the explanatory can down the road, so to speak.

A similar situation exists in physics.  We observe the regularities of the world and say the reason why there are such regularities is ultimately due to fundamental physical laws and/or due to innate forces as revealed by physics.  Why do these fundamental physical laws or forces exist?  We don’t know, they are just a brute fact about the world with no further explanation.  But given that these physical laws/forces exist, we can explain how they give rise to certain phenomena.

It seems to me though that this is the same type of "explanation" as our floating stack of books. 

Going back to the stack of books.  I said that it might be suggested by someone that the top book remains where it is due to resting on the book beneath it, which exerts an upward force keeping the top book in its place.  But why can’t each book simply be self-floating?  The bottom book appears to have the capacity to be self-floating, so if no further explanation is required here, then why would any of the other books be different?

We imagine that forces exist out there in the world.  But, strictly speaking, we always just see events following each other.  We project forces into the world because we like explanations.  But, especially when we consider such forces do not provide a true explanation, do we have any reasons to suppose that such forces literally exist at all?

Consider computer games.  Our character that we control performs various actions in that game – our character perhaps presses a button in that game environment and a building in that game explodes.  But there are no actual forces here, the game does what it does due to following the rules the computer programmer has implemented.  

Do we have any compelling reasons, or indeed any reasons at all, to suppose our reality is different?  Even if there is no analogical equivalent to a computer programmer or "God", perhaps reality simply exhibits patterns that our physics describes?  But physics doesn't tell us why reality is like it is, it doesn't provide any true explanations any more than it does with our floating stack of books.

Related: 

What physicists claim exists can be doubted

The difference between science and metaphysics

Do scientific explanations actually explain?



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