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Gell-Mann: Reality is Out There . . . and It’s Beautiful


Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.2, March / April 2008

In case you were wondering, there really is a reality out there independent of human observers. That point—often disputed in philosophical discussions by the intellectual cognoscenti—comes from one who has accomplished his own deep investigations into the fundamental realms of physical reality: physicist and CSI Fellow Murray Gell-Mann, who won the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work leading up to the discovery of the quark, which he predicted and named.

Gell-Mann spoke at the China conference opening plenary session on “Is Nature Conformable to Itself?” But before launching into that topic, he fired some arrows at certain enemies of science. He cited “a number of tendencies” toward “hostility to science” among fundamentalists, governments, and postmodern scholars. As for the latter, he said, “I call them ‘post-rational’ or ‘post-intelligent.’”

The laws of physics “are out there,” Gell-Mann emphasized. “These laws are not just created by the human mind.”
It is scientists’ job to discover them, and beauty, he said, as did Einstein, is a guide to truth. “What is especially striking and remarkable is that in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than a theory that is inelegant.”

What do we mean by beauty or elegance? “A theory appears beautiful or elegant—or simple, if you prefer—when it can be expressed concisely in terms of mathematics we already have.”

Inherent in this discussion is the search for a basic law that would take the form of a unified field theory of all the fundamental forces and all the elementary particles. Yet Gell-Mann scorned the often-used phrase “theory of everything.” He said such a basic law would predict possibilities, but it can’t predict everything because contingency plays a heavy role.

“The basic law cannot be ‘a theory of everything’ because it doesn’t include these zillions of accidents that along with basic law determine the history of the universe. We should never use that term ‘theory of everything.’”

Life and mind can emerge from the laws of physics and chemistry, he said, but all scientific fields must be studied and valued at their own levels. “Reductionism is not wrong, but it is impractical.”

“It does not detract from achievements of humans to know that our intelligence and self-awareness have emerged from the laws of physics and biology, plus accidents.”

What does he mean by nature being conformable to itself? Gell-Mann began with the old analogy of peeling away an onion to discover more and more layers of reality. As we go to higher and higher energies, he said, “the next onion skin resembles the previous one to some extent. There is a self-similarity.” He said Isaac Newton even noticed this in the inverse law effect.

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.