are sub-atomic particles really particles or mere concepts in our minds? do they exist independently of human thought?

In the tenth century, Ibn al-Haytham initiated the view that light proceeds from a source, enters the eye, and is perceived. This picture is incorrect but is still what most people think occurs, including, unless pressed, most physicists. To come to terms with the Universe, we must abandon such views. The world is quantum mechanical: we must learn to perceive it as such. One benefit of switching humanity to a correct perception of the world is the resulting joy of discovering the mental nature of the Universe. We have no idea what this mental nature implies, but — the great thing is — it is true. Beyond the acquisition of this perception, physics can no longer help. You may descend into solipsism, expand to deism, or something else if you can justify it — just don’t ask physics for help. There is another benefit of seeing the world as quantum mechanical: someone who has learned to accept that nothing exists but observations is far ahead of peers who stumble through physics hoping to find out ‘what things are’. If we can ‘pull a Galileo,’ and get people believing the truth, they will find physics a breeze. The Universe is immaterial — mental and spiritual. Live, and enjoy.

■ Richard Conn Henry is a Professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ How do you propose to tell the difference? $\endgroup$ – David Z May 1 '14 at 18:59
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ This question appears to be off-topic because it is about philosophy not physics $\endgroup$ – John Rennie May 1 '14 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ If you define "really particles" and "mere concepts," this question may be more answerable (but possibly still off-topic). $\endgroup$ – BMS May 1 '14 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @John Rennie: Perhaps the author is asking about a problem similar to virtual particles discussed in the answer to this question by Frederic Brünner, i.e. are they real or are they (some of them) only a "mathematical contribution to the description"? $\endgroup$ – bright magus May 1 '14 at 19:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are concepts in our minds really concepts in our minds or mere concepts in our minds? $\endgroup$ – Mitchell Porter May 12 '14 at 22:57

Let's side-step all the philosophical issues (which would belong to philosophy.SE anyway) by narrowing down the question as follows:

Do subatomic particles exist in the same sense as e.g. stones exist?

Now even in this reduced form, the answer is not as clear-cut as one might think, because there's a big difference between an elementary particle in many experiments and a stone: While a subatomic particle may not have any relevant interaction over (relatively) extended times, a stone interacts with its environment all the time.

Therefore let's narrow down that question even further to:

Do the subatomic particles we detect in experiments exist in the same sense as a stone exists?

Now we arrived at a question which can unambiguously be answered with "yes".

You may object that we only know about the subatomic particles indirectly, but then, we also know about the stone only indirectly as well. We see the photons reflected from it, we can detect the interaction of it with atoms in out hand, etc. There is no principal difference between how we learn about the stone and how we learn about the subatomic particles.

Also note that with the sun, not to mention even other stars, we even have less possibilities: We can only see them (that is, detect electromagnetic radiation — and other particles — from them), but we cannot experiment with them.

| cite | improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ do you mean the flat universe is a thought? is math conceptual? abstract thought? $\endgroup$ – felino May 14 '14 at 22:38

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.