08 October 2014

The known knowns: we know everything about the physics of everyday life

I would like to thank Sean Carroll. Sean made me appreciate something that I think is quite profound, and that should be much better known than it is: that we understand, at a fairly deep level, how the everyday world works. It’s a theme he’s returned to often in his blogging and writing, but here are a couple of key posts that lay it out.

I cite these two blog posts a lot when I’m answering questions on Quora, because they squash so many questions and speculations about psi and paranormal phenomenon. There is no room for “mysterious unknown forces” that might explain phenomenon.

For instance, for telekinesis to work, you’d need some sort of force that affects large objects (like a brain). But I do not need that hypothesis. We have forces that have been tested, repeatedly, and they explain everything we have ever been able to observe about everyday objects.

I think that I never grasped that we understand everyday object so completely because physicists tend to stress the limits to what we know. We don’t know how gravity connects to quantum mechanics (long standing problem), we don’t know what dark energy or dark matter is (newer problems).

It’s worth taking a moment to think about that achievement. I tend to think of modern empiricism starting around the time of Galileo, which is a little over 400 years ago. While Galileo didn’t start from zero, to go from as knowing as little as he did to a complete description what makes our world, as we know it, tick? That is an astonishing triumph for humanity.

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