Charles Chandler — Aether Agnosticism
© Charles Chandler
People keep asking me why I, as a fringe theorist, don't get heavily into aetherology, and how I have remained aether-agnostic, despite the attractive aspects of it.
The principle reason is that like quantum mechanics, it is outside the scope of the work that I'm doing in astrophysics and geophysics.
I am told that a little change in the substrate can make a huge difference in the superstructure, and that such fundamental issues cannot be ignored.
I disagree. The forces that operate at the macroscopic level (i.e., inertia, gravity, and EM) have been well measured. These are not going to start behaving differently if the way we conceptualize them changes. So if we find that there is no action at a distance, or that all matter is made up of standing waves, or whatever, the forces that we measure at the macroscopic level will still be the same. Hence the impact on my work will be terminological at most — we'll get all new names for stuff, but the measurements and relationships will remain the same. So my work will still stand, and thus I can proceed, not worrying that I'm building castles in the sand.
So it's not that I have dismissed aetherology, or quantum mechanics for that matter. There is much to be learned about the physical substrate, and this could solve many low-level mysteries. I just don't think that it will change anything at the macroscopic level.
But I do have a few comments on how aetherologists approach the task.
One of the essential tenets of aetherology is that action at a distance is not possible — there has to be a physical connection between two things in order for there to be an interaction. So action at a distance is mystical, while aetherology acknowledges the medium through which the forces travel.
That sounds reasonable enough. But on closer scrutiny, we're actually not any closer to a mechanistic understanding. What is action by contact? It's easy to imagine billiard balls striking each other, and exchanging momenta. But what is actually happening? Why is inertia a force? And what makes up the impermeability of the balls, such that the momentum is exchanged?
First we have to define forces, and then we can try to figure out what moderates their transmission.
So what is a force?
In the end, we only know a force by its effects. So a force is a mental entity, which is an inference drawn out of many observations. The fact that the effects are reproducible seems to turn forces into metaphysical entities, but that doesn't change the fact that we only know of them by their effects, and we define them by how we measure them.
This makes the problem go away for both action at a distance and action by contact. It doesn't matter whether there is an identifiable mediator — what matters is the effects that we measure, and if postulating the existence of a mediator is not necessary to account for its properties, it offers no advantage.
But defining forces by their effects does more than just "explain away" the whole issue of action at a distance — it changes the way the issue should be approached. It's a conceptual issue. If it can sort out the known forces into a more manageable framework, that's great. The test will then be how much sense it makes. But there will never be any "proof" of aether, any more than we can prove that forces exist. We can demonstrate that postulating the existence of a force can accomplish a vast reduction in the size of the explanandum. So that proves the utility of the construct. But it doesn't prove the metaphysical existence of the explanans.

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