Thursday, July 14, 2011

I don't believe in physics

When I first met my wife, and she learned that I was studying to be a physicist, she said, "Oh. I don't believe in physics." I replied, "That's fine. I don't really believe in physics either." We both laughed.

While I do value and enjoy physics as a set of cultural activities to take part in , it's not something I believe in. I'm not sure I know what would it mean to believe in it. For example: I'm fine saying I believe that objects fall toward the earth. And I really like learning about how ideas about falling objects have changed over centuries: from it being about the natural tendencies of objects, to it being about forces acting between massive objects at a distance, to it being gravitational fields propagating through space and time, to it being about how energy curves space-time manifolds, to it being about graviton exchanges, etc.

But do I believe in forces? Do I believe in fields? Do I believe in space-time manifolds? Do I believe gravitons? No, not really. Do I think there is value in humans learning, thinking about, and exploring those ideas? Absolutely. Do I think that playing such physics games requires taking on stances of realism from time to time? Probably. Do I think one has to believe in the ontologies we create to model the world? Not really.

Over the years, I have told lots of people that my wife doesn't believe in physics. That usually gets some laughs as well. Just before we left Maine, a friend of mine trapped my wife into a public display of participating in physics. My wife was explaining to my physics friend something about cooking–how some eggs float and some eggs sink, and how that has something to do with whether the eggs have gone bad. My physics friendly slyly asked the question, "Why does that happen?" And my wife went on explain why... and not long after she was trapped. She was doing physics, explaining sinking and floating in terms of densities. My physics friend called her on it, and she was shamed into believing in physics, at least for a moment. We all laughed.


  1. Hi Brian, just a note to let you know I enjoyed this. Every once in a while a student brings up the relationship between science and faith, and I have to confess I really enjoy making space (at least a little) for those conversations. Last time, we were discussing amplifier fidelity when a student asked genuinely why people call others "infidel." And, if you're not already reading Michael Doyle, I think you would find him to be a kindred spirit.

  2. Thanks for the link. I had run into his blog before, but now I have it in my blog reader. Great stuff. We definitely share a lot of world view.

    Funny thing, the day I wrote this post, my wife came home from the pool telling me about how she was nerding it up around her friends talking about the waves in the pool.