Philosophy of Physics

Feb 2017
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Lebanon
Do electrons exist or are they just models to explain physical phenomena?
 
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The exact same question was asked here.

Were you looking for a different answer?
 
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Benit13

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Do electrons exist or are they just models to explain physical phenomena?
It depends on your definition of "existence". If we take the common definition of existence, which is "something that has objective reality", and if you accept that we live in an objective and material reality, then electrons exist (first option). This is because electrons can be observed by devices and the mathematical models that describe the data have been verified against observations. That is, electrons have objective reality. This point is very important.

By referring to something as "just" a mathematical model or "just a theory", one refers to a hypothesis, a mathematical model of a system that is unverified and has yet to be tested against objective reality. A common trick made by people who don't like something is to claim that something is "just a theory", but those people don't understand that the scientific meaning of "theory" is different from the definition understood by the typical lay-person; theories are verified models and require evidence and the scientific method is the process of turning (successful) hypotheses into theories (unsuccessful hypotheses are discarded). Simply put, if there is no evidence, it is not a theory.

Electrons also have mass and charge, which are common properties of "things" in our Universe. Therefore, any definitions of existence based on the properties of "things" will almost certainly include electrons. After all, the vast majority of the content of our Universe is electrons, protons and neutrons (not including "dark" stuff).
 
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topsquark

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The electron was discovered by J J Thompson in 1897. He was only able to find the ratio e/m, but later on Robert Millikan in 1909 was able to measure the charge on the electron (and thus found the mass of the electron using Thompson's measurement.) Millikan's experiment is called the "Millikan oil drop experiment". I've done that one myself and it's an adventure in eye strain. But pretty cool for all that.

The electron is a real particle and has been experimentally verified. On the other hand all theory can do right now is assume that it is a point particle...it has no volume. So there is more work to do on it.

-Dan
 
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Such a great question. How do we know bricks exist? Maybe the universe consists of all this stuff at many many levels of organization ... or no organization at all. Maybe our brains perceive bricks because that's the range of stuff we can see. A bat lives in a world of sounds. A tree feels the seasons and the centuries.

I don't know, you tell me. A case can be made that neither electrons nor bricks exist. When we do science we're studying the structures of the human mind, not anything about nature.

Surely what I said is true under the simulation hypothesis. If we're a simulation we only know the rules of our simulated world, not the rules of the next level up (which may itself be a simulation). Personally I think simulation theory, uploading yourself to a computer, strong AI, etc. are all bullshit. But a lot of serious people these days believe in them. And therefore, a lot of serious people must believe that physics only studies the rules of the video game we live in.

Well this is the physics forum, maybe this should go to philosophy. But now that you mention it ... Isn't physics itself a little philosophical these days. Thirty years of string theory, multiverse theory ... an entire generation of physicists spending their lives working on theories that can never be experimentally tested. Some contemporary philosophers claim experiments are no longer the defining attribute of science. The physicists themselves are quite proud these days of making it up as they go, as long as the math is interesting and the grant money flows.

tl;dr: I'm impressed by physics and I've always been a big Newton fan. But all experimental science is an approximation. Aristotle to Newton to Einstein and all that. Whether there's anything at all "underneath" is a question that can't be answered. As My Man Ike said: "I frame no hypotheses." He knew that he only had a description and not an explanation. Would that physicists understood Newton's insight.
 
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Surely what I said is true under the simulation hypothesis. If we're a simulation we only know the rules of our simulated world, not the rules of the next level up (which may itself be a simulation). Personally I think simulation theory, uploading yourself to a computer, strong AI, etc. are all bullshit. But a lot of serious people these days believe in them. And therefore, a lot of serious people must believe that physics only studies the rules of the video game we live in.
What model do you lean toward then? i.e., good old fashion normal universe arising from the big bang model. Or perhaps that with a touch of (insert any other contemporary universe model here).

The problem is that every model is just as irrelevant, accurate, and significant as the other.

Therein lies the problem of entities or ideas which cannot be proved or disproved.

I find that quite disappointing. It is bias that confines our minds to a place whose only exit is to eliminate bias itself. And that is no simple task.


Well this is the physics forum, maybe this should go to philosophy. But now that you mention it ... Isn't physics itself a little philosophical these days. Thirty years of string theory, multiverse theory ... an entire generation of physicists spending their lives working on theories that can never be experimentally tested. Some contemporary philosophers claim experiments are no longer the defining attribute of science.
I agree. The more we know, the less we know. I feel like i'm always reading an article on Quanta that discusses the discovery of some 'law breaking phenomena' or something along those lines.

I highly recommend the short documentary series What we still don't know (Martin Rees). I just noticed there is a copy here, but in poor quality. The linked video is my favorite from the series, but there are episodes before and after this one.

The physicists themselves are quite proud these days of making it up as they go, as long as the math is interesting and the grant money flows.
The same could be said about all of science, even math. But i think I've veered too far off topic.

In any case, i would recommend reading (if you haven't already) Thomas Kuhn's - A scientific revolution.
 
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What model do you lean toward then?
There's a world out there but it's far stranger than anything we can imagine. Humans aren't close to figuring it all out. I know I'm not. I don't expect science to ever have ultimate answers. I think it was Weinberg in Dreams of a Final Theory (could be wrong about that) who longed for a simple equation you can put on a t-shirt. The ultimate law of the universe. I can't imagine there is any such thing.

We might be a Boltzmann brain. A momentary bubble of coherence in an otherwise random soup of probability waves. That's a depressing thought.

The more stuff I read the less any of the world makes sense. There are quarks turning into elementary particles turning into atoms of elements that combine to make organic molecules and now here we are? How can any of that be?

It's a real mystery.
 
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Feb 2017
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Lebanon
It depends on your definition of "existence".
Until today what I have read about this concept of the electron is probably closer to the description of physical reality.

By referring to something as "just" a mathematical model or "just a theory", one refers to a hypothesis, a mathematical model of a system that is unverified and has yet to be tested against objective reality.....

So, I can sum up with all of the information; that all performed experiments were remarkably consistent with the predictions of the modern model of the electron?
 

Benit13

Math Team
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Until today what I have read about this concept of the electron is probably closer to the description of physical reality.
What caused you to doubt what you already know?

JamSmith said:
So, I can sum up with all of the information; that all performed experiments were remarkably consistent with the predictions of the modern model of the electron?
Yes and no.

- Yes, current physics is advanced enough to be able to predict that electrons exist and the available theories are powerful enough to predict their behaviour well. As far as I'm aware, there are no experiments which cast doubt on the ability of those theories to predict electron behaviour (but I could be wrong).

- No, the conclusion you stated doesn't follow from what has been posted by us. What can be concluded from what we posted is that "experiments have been performed in the past and those experiments demonstrate the existence of electrons", provided you accept the assumptions I mentioned in my post (that existence is defined as 'something having an objective reality' and the assumption that observed things are real things). Specifically, those experiments would have had different outcomes if electrons didn't exist.

Furthermore, your question was whether electrons exist or whether they're "just mathematical models", not whether human beings understand fully the electron behaviour (which would be a meaningless question if they didn't exist). That latter question could be open to debate. Clearly the electron exists, but its specific behaviour has been hard to pin down over the past 100 years, especially with the electron being the main driver for quantum mechanics and its consequences for electromagnetism, solid state theory, conductivity and many other existing theories. I think we're in a good spot right now, but like I said, I could be wrong.
 
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