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What my question is really trying to ask, is if it's possible that some alien race possesses technology far more advanced than our own, but also have an interpretation of physical results that is less experimentally accurate and less mathematically consistent?

To provide context, I'll give the story explanation for why this is the case. In my story, it is relevant to the plot that there is a galactic regime limited to strictly galactic or inter-stellar travel. They aren't capable of inter-galactic travel, because they are limited to propulsion that is only fast at the inter-stellar level. The reason for this and other limitations, is that their theories of physics can't account for the physics more advanced tech. This is due mostly to their alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics, gravity, and classical laws. The source of this difference, is that their scientific philosophy isn't concerned with how things really are, because this race only ever pursued science to the end of its' practical applications. They never really had a thirst for "knowledge for its' own sake". This got them quite far, but their interpretations lead to explanations that don't account for higher physics. For example, they don't have a theory of quantum gravity, because the problem doesn't exist; they don't have quantum field theory or general relativity, because they have a different explanation for experimental results.

The reason their solutions are not our own, yet theirs are both less correct but also more useful, is because they don't have our philosophy of science. They don't care about understanding reality's nature, they care about utility, and so they only measure scientific merit by the concrete, tangible ability to give new technologies, rather than our more abstract criteria. If the theory's physics allow for tech, and the tech works, then its' been validated. If a theory allows more tech, then that's the right one; That's all there is to it. Their interpretations work well enough to give them tech, so they don't question it. On the other hand, QFT, GR, etc, satisfy our more abstract criteria for correctness, but that's very different from a scientific method geared towards utility; Our theories may be more likely to be correct according to well-established philosophical criteria for empirical correctness (the scientific method we came up with), but this species measures by model utility, not model accuracy, and more accurate models are not necessarily more practically (read: "engineering-wise") useful models; Our theories are accepted because they are more accurate based on the criteria for empirical correctness, but while our theories do allow for new wonders of technology, they aren't exactly known for their ability to do so, which their scientific method is based on; This means they would logically dismiss our own ideas. Even if the theory is not as mathematically developed or experimentally accurate, simpler but less accurate models can be more useful in engineering than complicated explanations.

Because of this, they did not care about the explanation that best revealed the universe's nature, only what best revealed new technology, and so they never discovered the true ultimate theory. When they realized they couldn't escape the galaxy and couldn't do some other things, they began doing more physics work to reveal technology that would enable this. But, only the universe's nature would reveal such technology, and to find it, they had to solve for another problem; Historically, they had no care for pure mathematics (only applied math, due to their utilitarian views precluding any incentive), which meant that they didn't even have the mathematical concepts required for higher theories. As a result, despite being more advanced technologically, they actually have to catch up with us in the realm of the pure mathematics (i.e., they have no concept of lie-groups or fiber-bundles, and they aren't used to thinking so abstractly). And due to their regime, which is a hard-communism even worse than the soviet union, science doesn't really experience breakthroughs; Only cautious incremental steps. Also due to their regime, alternative knowledge often gets snuffed out, alternative tech rarely gets a chance to flourish, and every other race more advanced was also a predecessor that already went extinct, so their knowledge has been buried in history.

However, I'm not quite certain how to explain their ideas in a self-consistent way. So what I want to know, is if there is a case in physics where a theory couldn't be the real case, due to mathematical inconsistency or experimental inaccuracy, but from an engineering point of view the theory was not just more useful, but useful enough to allow technological advancements faster than the more accurate model? I'm also asking if this could be extended so dramatically, that you could get a situation where a theory allows things like warp-drives soon than a more accurate theory, but experimentally or mathematically isn't as close to truth.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Not exactly what you're looking for, but not entirely out of line, either. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 23 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ they aren't used to thinking so abstractly I don't think you could do science or mathematics at all without this skills. I don't think you could form any technology without being able to design it from abstract principle. Hard to see how you could e.g. build a nuclear power station without abstract thinking as you are manipulating things at a level you can never see or directly sense. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 23 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenG I don't mean that they couldn't think abstractly at all. But mathematics as abstract as the cutting edge of theoretical physics is more abstract than what they've ever had any need to deal with. $\endgroup$ – Aspiring Mad scientist Apr 23 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ Physics tends to be behind mathematics in the level of abstraction. If they have to understand complex technology they will need complex maths and that requires anstraction. Note that inventing a particular branch of e.g. mathematics requires as few as one person. Everything after invention is just "refinement* (complicated and not to be under-estimated but still refinement). The vast majority of humans could not invent group theory, but only some people need to invent. Once invented abstraction is less abstract and humans handle it by e.g. analogies and visualizations. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 23 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ Why do you assume that any alien communism would make the mistakes that the USSR did? From what I've read, the scientific mistakes of the USSR were due to it being a dictatorship rather than a communism. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Apr 23 at 11:29
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Setting aside that different models have just different approximation level of reality and there is no totally wrong one or totally right one, it's perfectly that case already with the theories we have developed so far.

Take the Copernican model of the Universe vs the Ptolemaic model. A civilization using the first one would have no practical advantage against a civilization using the second one, and the outcome of their clash would be determined by other factors, such as weapon development and so on.

Again, take the ancient Greeks. For how much non precise was the Aristotelian description of physics, it was surely more advanced than what the Romans had. Nevertheless overall Rome was capable of conquering Greece since it was better at many other technological aspects.

Last example: unless you want to use very precise timings like in GPS, relying on Newton or Einstein for a gravitational model of motion on Earth will favor those who go for Newton, because it's way simpler to calculate.

Even all the technology that we used in today's devices is based on the physics developed in the first half of the previous century.

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  • $\begingroup$ While this is true, if you want them to have nuclear weapons and advanced computing and telecommunications systems, their theoretical knowledge can't be less developed than our 1960's physics. The difference in development can't be that great. The indo-european tribes that invaded Middle-East at the end of the bronze age were less developed than the early civilizations there... but they were more advanced in metalurgy: they knew iron while the more sofisticated cultures of the fertile crescent were using bronze. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Apr 23 at 11:04
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Your aliens stumbled onto a cache left by someone else. They simply know how to use what they have but have no understanding of either how it works or how to replace what they have if something breaks.

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    $\begingroup$ Dubious. This really only works for very simple devices (turn on, press button, thing happens). Anything requiring more sophisticated control would become more and more difficult. It also ignores that power sources may be a huge difficulty - e.g. could you find a way to charge your mobile phone in 1920 without accidentally blowing it up or setting it on fire trying to with available tech ? Reproducing equipment requires specialist machines and materials and unless you dump an entire civilization (with manuals they can understand) on them, this does not seem plausible to me. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 23 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ If the hardware is actually operated by AI that is advanced enough to adapt to their new owner's language then it could work. The AI would ensure that operationally, everything is safe. $\endgroup$ – Hukk2010 Apr 23 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG: Ahem. This totally works. And it's been done before (seriously, go read the story). Granted, they do have user manuals... $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 23 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenG if there are hundreds or thousands of examples of these technological artifacts, then by trial and error it might be possible. $\endgroup$ – BMF Apr 23 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew My experience is that people (even educated people in a relevant field) can (and do) completely wreck equipment and software they are let loose on without training and/or manuals. The word "Chernobyl" leap to mind. People starting without a linguistic base in common with manuals would be severlely handicapped. It's not impossible, it's just very, very prone to catastrophic mess-ups (i.e. break the equipment). YMMV. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 23 at 21:17
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I see 4 ways this could happen:

The inherited / found / trade their tech.

They dont know how to build their own ships because they are not the builders. Perhaps the ships (and training) were delivered as part of a trade deal.

This is totally plausible and has real world parallels; Australia cant build an F-35 fighter jet but we've arranged through diplomacy to get a few and some flying lessons. We could do some basic maintenance but we couldnt rebuild more from scratch.

They regressed after building it / in transit.

Your aliens used to be smart. They built fleets of ships using advanced physics and maths. Then they focused on other things. Now a few generations later they've forgotten some of the details of the advanced maths but can still use their tech.

Earth is real smart but constrained by economics / politics.

Rather than dumb down the aliens, let's smarten earth up. Every university prioritizes maths and physics, and we start experimenting and learn so much. We learn how FTL can work in models and simulations, but because the ethics board says no, we then move onto even more exciting physics.

The aliens arrive knowing minimal maths and physics required to build ships - we know more theory than they do, we just havent had approval to put any of it into practice yet.

Physics and maths have whole unknown fields allowing multiple tech paths.

Turns out the fields of maths and physics are much vaster than our simple minds can comprehend, and there are multiple perfectly valid paths through both fields that lead to FTL and spaceships, and the tech trees don't intersect.

Two races can meet with FTL and share zero physics or maths, despite their own understanding of physics and maths declaring that to be impossible.

Teams from both earth and alien sides try to communicate with the other using common knowledge, and obviously start with basic mathematical building blocks - that turn out to not be not so common at all. Our puny minds cant grasp the foreign maths and physics, and their puny minds cant grasp ours.

Our scientists sit there going "well obviously they know integers, right? They obviously can count right", whereas their scientists are just scratching their head wondering why we dont understand core mathematical concepts like zzzfff, - a concept so core that all races obviously must understand if they have any tech at all.

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel your RL example is incomplete: you didn't say what higher-tech civilization you can beat, posing yourself as low-tech civilization with imported toys. $\endgroup$ – Oleg V. Volkov Apr 25 at 1:54
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It's an innate physical skill.

Imagine that humans encountered a species without eyes. They had developed cameras and every manner of sophisticated AI pattern recognition. If we lost a crewman somewhere on the Moon, we could never look over photos of the entire surface fast enough to find her. But the aliens could run our satellite feed through their systems, churn over the data, and send back coordinates. Then we say "oh look, she's waving at us", but the aliens have nothing but pixels and color changes to talk about and would have taken weeks to try to model out that explanation.

Now to take your situation, the aliens are the ones with a physical ability. Maybe they evolved in the upper atmosphere of a star, and they can control (really are) magnetic fields and plasma and can move at great speeds from one star to the next. But they might not really understand electromagnetism - odds are, they may not have ever done those old experiments with amber and fur. Their space drive may be little more than a rowboat made out of plasma, shaped with magnetic fields and maintained and navigated according to traditional tribal practices. There might definitely be a place for earthly efficiency experts to run supercomputer models and help them limit leakage - supposing by then we've figured out how to keep a tokamak running for longer than 20 seconds at a time, that is.

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  • $\begingroup$ Something similar is one of base ideas in "Code of the Lifemaker" book by James P. Hogan. $\endgroup$ – Oleg V. Volkov Apr 25 at 1:55
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Go biology instead (with a nod to Harry Harrison's West of Eden)

Have them selectively bred organisms (and even themselves) without understanding the micro science behind it. A bird doesn't know calculus or physics to do their intense aerodynamics. (at least we don't think so) Their abstract thinking could be more purposeful rather than explanatory. They need a starship, they grow a starships, need a reactor, grow....

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Flip it and make humans the ones who specialize in practical models

Human understanding of physics is already geared far more around practicality than reality. The Scientific Method does not actually care about truth, it just cares about things being repeated often enough to get a less than random pattern. Therefore any theory derived from the Scientific Method that is repeatable will appear true, no matter how false it is.

Examples:

  • Quantum Physics does not actually prove that a thing only exists as a probability, it just tells us that we do not know a thing's exact circumstances so all quantum predictions can only be made as probabilities with the technology we have today.
  • The Theory Relativity does not actually prove the existence of a thing called space-time, only observational relationships between local motion, relative motion, and the speed of light.
  • The Bohr Model does not actually tell us what an atom looks like, but it gives us a very practical understanding of it for predicting chemical properties.
  • Biochemistry does not actually tell us how a person will respond to a certain drug, just tell us a probable outcome.

While all 4 of these fields of sciences are either wrong on incomplete, it does not matter because they allow us to get to practical, repeatable outcomes.

In contrast, the aliens have already figured out exactly how the universe works... the problem is that the universe is FAR too complex for the aliens to actually understand. Instead of using simple workable models that they can conceptualize, they model reality through computer programs that have been added onto over thousands of years to the point that the aliens no longer understand how the whole program works together. Their top physicists might only understand 1% of what the program does, but that is okay because they work in RnD teams of hundreds of scientists who each understands his own part in making the absolute reality computation system work

The reason the aliens can not advance any farther than their current level of technology is because they never simplify things. In human math and science, when we face an intractable problem we compromise by simplifying our models until they are solvable. We use heuristics, rounding, and optimal stopping to bring us to answers that are usually correct, even when we know there is a tiny chance the answer will be wrong. The questions that the aliens have been up till now unable to answer are all centered around intractable problems. So, when they see a calculation that would take till the cold death of the universe to complete, a human scientist could come along and say "I can solve this correctly 99.9999999% of the time in 5 seconds." The alien says, "but if you are wrong 0.0000001% of the time, you have not solved the problem". So their dedication to absolute truths keeps them from finding workable answers.

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Yes, but not at our current-technological levels(haha) To mildly elaborate, through human history you'll find plenty of instances where one group was more or equivalently developed but outcompeted, concqred, or just shoved into a historically irrelevant corner by the virtue of having superior technological capabilities, without their education being anywhere near as good as the conquered group

That being said, they were all, roughly speaking in the grand scheme of things, roughly at the same levels of technological development, consequently the short answer might be yes, but humanity would have to be already spacefaring to a degree (FTL spacefaring)to have a greater level of understanding, or at least have the knowledge to be able to be spacefaring, but aren't for whatever reason. You can't really have it otherwise.

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