Could sensation make an essential division in physical theory?

Many have argued that the division between our two physical accounts of the universe is unsatisfactory. It seems one universe should have one theory, and it also seems that the division between the “very small” and “classical sized” objects is untenable. Such a division is purely relative, and so cannot be a relevant feature of the things themselves.

On the one hand, we simply have to wait and see what happens, but on the other there seems to be a good reason why there should be two radically different sets of physical theory: physics is given to the senses, and the “very small” is not sensible in a way that “classically sized” things are. Sensation is not a diaphanous window to reality: it involves physical interaction and so to the extent that this interaction is not possible neither is sense knowledge possible. Sight depends on bouncing photons off things, and for “very small things” this will at least cause some interference and change, if not being impossible. If we saw things not by bouncing photons back but by using little bouncy rubber balls, there would a threshold of things that we would only “see” by changing or even destroying, and any number of things we couldn’t see at all. We would have a very different physics for trees than we would have for eggs. For that matter, we would have a different physics for the chicken and the egg, and wonder how anything could ever hatch from a broken egg. Chickens obviously lay some broken eggs. Just look at them!

Seen from this angle, the purely relative difference between the very small and the classically sized takes on an absolute value. Sensation uses physical interaction, and the relative distinctions of large and small make essential differences in physical interaction. Hitting a bug with your car is not the same thing as hitting a tree.


  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    November 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    James, could we say, then, that the seeming disparity between the study of the “classically sized” and the study of the “very small” is caused, in part, because we are studying things so disproportionate to our sensual capacities?

    The farther we get from things naturally sensible, the more our physics might come to resemble metaphysics inasmuch as we must use abstractions (in the case of physics the abstractions would be mathematical) in order to understand reality.

    Perhaps we do not actually have two autonomous and unrelated sciences, it is just that one (the “very small”) will have to look different because we are going beyond what is properly proportioned to us. Viewed from this angle, it should not surprise us that this science is fraught with enough ambiguities, apparent contradictions, and abstractions that it begins to look like an entirely different science altogether.

    • November 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

      ‘Proportionate” is too general – in one sense everything we know must be proportionate to our cognitive power. In the Laval school, “proportionate” is the first universal truth of all knowledge.

      Here I’m interested in the physical action that the sense power uses to know (I keep using the word “use” since nothing knows qua physical, but sense does require physical action as an instrument) And I’m more interested in the medium than the organ.

  2. tevaughan said,

    November 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Have you looked at Wolfgang Smith’s _The Quantum Enigma_? He treats this very issue.

    • November 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      The name sounds familiar, but I’ve never read the work. I’ll poke around for it.

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