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Sorry about the broad question. I'm still learning to frame the questions on Physics StackExchange. Currently researching the nature of interactions in philosophy.

My question is: When physicists use the term "fundamental", what do they mean?

In philosophy, most seem to claim that to be fundamental means to be the source of causal power. That is, to say that quarks are fundamental means that if we can find exactly how quarks interact, we can explain all phenomena in the world because everything is made up of quarks after all (the behavior of quarks is the primal cause for all phenomena). And philosophers also tend to handpick findings of physical sciences to support this claim.

I sense that this might be an incorrect picture and want to understand what fundamental means in physics to be able to clearly write why we might be using a mistaken notion of fundamental.

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At present for particle physics this graph of links shows how fundamental is used:

funforce

Go to the link to open each elipse.

We start with what are called fundamental forces, which are exchange forces with their accompanying coupling constants. These are the strong, electromagnetic weak and gravity.

So fundamental is used as the simplifying (conceptually and mathematically) and organizing concept for the great plethora of data from the large number of elementary particles and interactions that have been observed.

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    $\begingroup$ A (slight) problem here is that the fundamental forces are believed to be expression of a grand unified force which is as-yet not fully described but would be the actual causal explanation of the forces. Much of the use of "fundamental" depends on the problem context rather than any strict thinking about causal powers and explanations. $\endgroup$ – Anders Sandberg Jun 12 '18 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ @AndersSandberg note I do not claim causal powers I say "as the simplifying (conceptually and mathematically) and organizing concept" . It is the current understanding of fundamental, which may change, or people's beliefs $\endgroup$ – anna v Jun 12 '18 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ Also, there is nothing here about the question of the nature of spacetime, its possible emergence from, well, more "fundamental" physics. Gravity is only addressed by its supposedly coming quantification here depicted by the graviton ellipse, but this does not reflect the depth of the questions involved, nor the width in scope of the many different approaches to the problem of unifying QM and relativity. $\endgroup$ – Stéphane Rollandin Jun 12 '18 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ @StéphaneRollandin I took the simple use of fundamental in courses of particle physics. Sure one can look for "more fundamental" this is just the taught status at this moment. $\endgroup$ – anna v Jun 12 '18 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @AndersSandberg That comes closer to the problem I was trying to state! I am trying to find readings- people who might be talking about fundamentality, causality, of their relation to each other. With your comment, I will think a bit more about the presupposition of a grand unified force. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Sahana Rajan Jun 12 '18 at 13:40

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