QR1.6.3 A Paradigm Shift

Kuhn called changing the foundations of a scientific theory a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1970), where a theory is built on axioms as a house is built on foundations. The axioms of a theory are that upon which it is built, so changing them isn’t easy. For example, Euclid’s geometry axiom that parallel lines can’t converge was accepted without question for two thousand years until it was realized that on curved surfaces like the earth, parallel longitudes do converge (at the poles). Changing that axiom allowed hyper-geometries and made Euclid’s geometry just the zero-curvature case. This paradigm shift allowed a theory that was originally a single apartment to became a set of apartments.

Chaitin, following Gödel, argued that good axioms explain more than they assume (Chaitin, 2006), so just as putting a shack on every new plot of land gives a shanty town not a city, adding a new axiom to explain every new fact is inefficient. Good axioms should be able to support more than one fact just as good foundations should be able to support more than one building floor.

However, adding parameters to explain new facts has been the norm in physics for some time now. The result is that current physics, with its many parameters, particles and fields, is suffering from the theory equivalent of urban sprawl. String theory failed because it had too many assumptions, like a city that needs more land and money than anyone has. A city can only spread so far before it has to use skyscrapers to make better use of land, and for the same reason adding new fields and particles to explain new effects like dark matter, radioactive decay, neutrinos, inflation and quark attraction is no longer cost effective in theoretical terms. A paradigm shift that changes axioms is needed.

In science, changing axioms is disruptive, just as changing a building’s foundations is, but the result can be worth it because disruptive innovations (Sandström, 2010) don’t necessarily deny past progress. For example, allowing curved surfaces still included Euclid’s geometry as a special case and Einstein’s theory of relativity also included Newtonian mechanics as a special case.

In the same way, quantum realism doesn’t change the equations of physics, only their interpretation, so Schrödinger’s equation is the same except it now describes what is real not fictional. The value of this change is that it allows new directions, for just as knowing that the stars don’t revolve around the earth gave new directions in astronomy, knowing that the physical world is generated by quantum processing allows new directions in physics.

Changing Wheeler’s “It from bit” to become “It from qubit” allows a “Physics from scratch” approach (Tegmark, 2007 p6), where the charges say of electron, quarks and neutrinos can be derived from quantum processing first principles (see Chapter 4). Yet paradigm shifts always face another barrier – the hubris that we already have all the answers.