Saturday, November 24, 2012

[PHI 3800] If you can smash them, they are real

In Representing and Intervening, Ian Hacking argues for a version of realism known as entity realism.
Entity realism is the view that under conditions in which one can demonstrate impressive causal knowledge of a putative (unobservable) entity, such as knowledge that facilitates the manipulation of the entity and its use so as to intervene in other phenomena, one has good reason for realism regarding it.
Now, consider the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is an accelerator in which particles, such as protons, are accelerated to speeds approaching the speed of light and are smashed together.

Does the LHC provide a good reason to be a realist about sub-atomic particles, such as protons?

An entity realist could argue as follows:
  1. If scientists know how to manipulate phenomena involving theoretical entities, then those entities really do exist.
  2. Using the LHC, physicists know how to accelerate protons to speeds approaching that of light and smash them together.
  3. (Therefore) Protons really do exist.
What do you make of this argument? Is it sound?


  1. What Ian Hacking mentioned about entity realism points to the direction of detection. This is due to the fact that such entities cannot be viewed with the naked eye, but the imprints of whatever event they participated in and therefore their existence is "detected" and displayed upon a screen. As far as the argument of the entity realist, I cannot agree that it is a sound argument. There are many loopholes present within the two premises and I believe they are not strong enough to make such a bold conclusion. The fault within the first premise is that although we can manipulate various phenomena around a particular entity, it doesn't necessarily mean it is due to this entity that we have thought of. That is because no matter what, all possible characteristics regarding that entity can never be attained. So we can never be 100% sure that the phenomena occurring is specifically due to that entity. There is nothing inherently wrong about the second premise as I feel that it is merely stating an occurrence. However, just because that event is happening doesn't provide enough evidence that protons really exist. The phenomena of an entity being accelerated to almost the speed of light could be due to other factors, which physicists are unaware of. Personally, I do believe in the existence of protons, but it would never be due to such a weak and watered down argument such as this.

  2. The physicists at CERN that helped build the Large Hadron Collider are some of the best physicists in the world. These men and women have devoted their entire lives to science, and have an excellent understanding of subatomic particles. Experimental physics is a very difficult job as subatomic particles are not visible to the naked eye. Like many other things that are not visible, we must rely on experimentation and inference to make our judgments. This becomes difficult when there are multiple factors at play. In the case of protons however, they have a quantifiable mass that has already been established by physicists, and this mass can be measured experimentally. The work done using the LHC is reproducible, and reproducibility in science is one of the determining factors to success. Therefore as a scientist, I belief that the argument above is sound.


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