I have to admit to wondering the same thing Nick talks about here. Do any of these subatomic particles actually exist? At least in the way we conventionally define “exist”? We’re talking about entities that are sometimes a wave, sometimes a point particle and, as far as we can observe, behave randomly within certain probabilities.
Of course, it’s also hard to argue that the standard model hasn’t been productive. It is an enormously successful theory. So thinking of these entities as particles has been productive. But it seems like a case might be made that we’re leaning on an interpretive crutch that might not be as helpful as it once was.
That said, not all particle physicists consider subatomic particle to be actual particles anymore. Physicists like Vic Stenger still insist that there is a particle there, but others like Sean Carroll argue that there are only fields and their interactions. So, many in the quantum physics community might already be thinking along the lines Nick is talking about.
And contrary to Nick’s comments, all of the popular interpretations of quantum mechanics give up some cherished notion of reality, so it’s not entirely clear that this is a community unwilling to give things up to understand what is happening. What’s lacking is compelling evidence to cinch any of these interpretations as the correct one.
Still, I agree with Nick that it’s important from time to time to back up and reconsider the actual empirical data that we have and question our assumptions. Assumptions like whether these basic elements of matter really are particles in any meaningful sense.