QR2.5.2 Grounded Physics

When Europeans first visited China, they saw a society that made no sense to the bible, king and country culture they came from. Anthropologists eventually realized that concepts like “keeping face” only made sense in the context of that new culture. They had to understand Chinese society on its own terms not theirs. The scientific method used to learn new a cultural context is called grounded theory, which as the name implies, is to first gather ground-level data then theorize. Following this method, anthropologists visiting a new tribe first watch, listen and record, then form a theory to test next day and repeat until they understand the culture on its own terms. The skill of letting the data speak avoided colonial bias but seemed to reverse the usual method of science, until Kuhn noted that science has two phases (Kuhn, 1970):

1. Paradigm growth: Theory predicts new data.

2. Paradigm shift: Data implies a new theory.

In paradigm growth, theory predicts data and in paradigm shift, the data grows a new theory. The first is slow and steady, as water wears away rock, but the latter is often sudden, as an earthquake alters the land in a short time. The history of science is then that established theories rule until an intellectual earthquake raises a new theoretical landscape from the data ground.

Figure 2.14 shows that science, as a way of connecting data to theory, can work from theory to data by a predict-test method or from data to theory by an observe-deduce method. If current physics no longer predicts anything new, it is time to grow a new theory from the ground up.

Figure 2.14 Paradigm shifts grow theories

The computer science version of grounded theory is reverse engineering. It is essentially to understand a new digital system by observing its outputs, form a model of the processing that could produce those outputs, then test the model by further interactions, and repeat until consistency is achieved. The aim of quantum realism to reverse engineer physical reality is thus essentially grounded physics.

The premise is that traditional physics approached quantum reality as colonials approached China, calling what didn’t conform to its traditional culture imaginary. The culture of physical realism handed down from Aristotle is as embedded in physics as King and Country was in colonial societies. The arrogance in both cases is palpable, as physics dismisses what it doesn’t understand just as colonials did. The quantum realism alternative is to understand quantum reality on its own terms, not dismiss it based on our physical tradition. To take this step is not to abandon science but to embrace it.