The Trouble with Analysis

No, I’m not talking about psychoanalysis; this is about physics. And I’m not a physicist, so I may be wildly off-base. I’m strictly an amateur armchair physics aficionado (AAPA for short). But I do think about stuff.

In electronic music, we have (and often use) a tool called Fourier analysis. This is a mathematical procedure that is based on a theory. The theory tells us that any sound can be analyzed mathematically as a set of sine waves, each with its own frequency, amplitude, and phase.

This theory is both true and useful — but bear in mind, it’s a mathematical abstraction. In the real world, the natural world in which we live our lives, there are virtually no sounds that consist of pure sine waves. All natural sounds are complex. Fourier analysis is a way of describing this natural complexity, of investigating its properties.

(For the nerds in the room, I should add that the result of applying Fourier analysis to a pure noise signal would give you a potentially infinite number of sine waves whose duration would be vanishingly close to zero. This wouldn’t be useful. But pure noise signals don’t exist in the real world either. If you listen closely to the wind, you’ll find that it has regions of stronger and weaker frequencies. That’s why we describe the wind as “howling.”)

What struck me this morning was that when physicists delve into the subatomic realm, they’re performing something a lot like Fourier analysis. Not mathematically but conceptually. An electron isn’t a thing at all; it’s the result of applying a mathematical abstraction to the real world. An electron is no more real than the sine waves in the roar of a tiger.

To be sure, the analysis processes physicists employ are immensely useful! What I’m suggesting is something metaphysical: In the real world, the world we live in, there are no electrons or photons or quarks. These are purely abstractions created through a process of mathematical analysis.

If you hear the roar of a tiger, stopping to use Fourier analysis on it is perhaps not an ideal response. For the same reason, looking at our lives as assemblages of fundamental particles whose properties physics reveals may not be a smart move. I’m not sure where I’m going with this; I seem to be saying that thinking of human behavior as controlled by genes, hormones, and the synaptic connections in our brains is the wrong approach. I’m not quite willing to endorse the idea of “free will,” which I regard as deeply flawed, but I seem to be oozing in that direction. I’m going to have to keep thinking about this.

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