Tag Archives: cosmology

Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

In anticipation of a summer touring the Great Plains, I took some time off from the blog to immerse myself in a surprisingly rich literature on the subject, which of course has nothing to do with religion. I will say, however, that anyone who has yet to discover this richness or is thinking about exploring the Plains should consider reading some of the books listed at the end of this post. Having just read each in succession, the immersive effect is pronounced and I’m ready to go but the weather is not yet cooperating. While waiting, and in anticipation of the anthropology of religion course I will be teaching in the middle of the summer, it’s time to round back toward religion.

The good news is that in doing so, I won’t run the risk of being brutally murdered. For the third time this year, a “secular” Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death by irate religionists. These three blasphemous bloggers were writing on subjects and topics similar to those that appear here, but were doing so knowing they would be targeted. Talk about courage.

Here in the United States, we fortunately do not have to confront this sort of thing, though we do have young earth Creationists who are relatively harmless. While I have never paid them much mind because arguing with them is futile, a geology professor thinks that the rocks disprove creationism. He apparently does not know that young earth Creationists have considered his argument and flatly rejected it. They are not interested in science and accept it only when it suits their psychological needs or religious purposes. But having said this, I was a bit shocked to encounter the following sentence in the professor’s piece:

“Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.”

This is an unfortunate choice of words. Why should we have faith in a story told by rocks? Rocks don’t tell stories. Geologists provide us with theory and data based narratives about rocks. These “stories” are subject to challenge, revision, and reversal. This method has nothing to do with faith.

From rocks to the cosmos, which is timely for anyone who has recently seen “Interstellar,” a movie with some brilliant science marred by metaphysical speculations about trans-dimensional love tunnels. It was marred even further by Matthew McConaughey’s overwrought acting, but that is another story. The main story here is the science based on Kip Thorne’s work and book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Though I am only about halfway through and not sure I understand everything, it is great for bending the mind. The cosmos is stranger than fiction and perhaps even myth.

Finally, the cosmos — and cosmological theories — are the subject of this dense piece by Ross Andersen over at Aeon. Cosmology, it appears, is in crisis and may stay that way for quite some time, perhaps forever. While this may unsettle some, I find it invigorating. When it comes to large and perhaps intractable subjects like this, I always find it helpful to read a good history of the field, so thanks to Andersen for recommending Helge Kragh’s Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology. It’s next on my list.

And speaking of lists, here is the one I promised at the beginning of this post, for all lovers of the Great Plains:

Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb
Love Song to the Plains by Mari Sandoz
Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains by Waldo Wedel
The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones
Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains by William Ashworth
Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains by Jack Brink

Did you like this? Share it:

Renaissance Magic & Science

Few things could seem as far apart as magic and science, though if we consider the history of science, we find that the two were intimately twined. This was particularly true during the Renaissance run-up to the classical founding of science in the persons of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). While we might add Copernicus (1473-1543) and Kepler (1571-1630) to this list of founders, I will set them aside for the moment because their status as astronomer-mathematicians is especially pertinent to my later discussion.

It is of course well known that Newton was anything but a pure scientist, at least in the modernist sense of the word: he was steeped in Christian mysticism and believed he was discovering, or uncovering, God’s lawful work in nature. The Principia was, in Newton’s eyes, far more than a founding document of science: it was a tribute to the divine as manifest in matter and mathematics.

Considered in broader historical context, Newton’s mysticism was hardly novel. The Italian Renaissance was inspired in large part by the idea that the universe was a harmonious whole and the heavens emanated continuous influences over all things on earth. These harmonious influences could, moreover, be divined through number and manipulated by math. Those who concerned themselves with such matters were astronomers, astrologists, mystics, and mathematicians, often bound up in the single person of a Magus. Prominent among such persons were Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), both Renaissance humanists and magi without peer. Bruno is often remembered as a champion of the Copernican model who burned at the stake after being tried for heresy by the Inquisition. As such, he has become a martyr of science.

While there may be some truth to this, the matter is more complex, just as Bruno was complex. If one takes a Catholic view of such matters, there can be no doubt that Bruno was a theological heretic. He did, after all, declare that Jesus was not God but merely an “unusually skillful magician.” Had Bruno made this pronouncement (and others like them) as a skeptic, we might justly consider him an early scientist. It appears, however, that Bruno is better placed as a late magician, a Neoplatonic mystic steeped in Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Pantheism. Bruno’s deepest desire was to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and find the true religion, in these traditions. The key, he thought, was number. In Bruno we find a near perfect merger of magic, mysticism, and mathematics: the universe as seamless web and harmonious whole.

It is not hard, on one hand, to see how Bruno’s unorthodox views would have upset Catholic authorities and ultimately led to his fatal-fiery demise. It is not hard, on the other hand, to see how these views are consonant with modern cosmology and mathematics. So where to place or how to figure Bruno? This is the question asked and well answered by Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), a book that has been on my reading list for years but which I only recently bagged. Aside from its inherent interest for Bruno aficionados, it is an important work for the history of science. As part of her inquiry into Bruno, Yates asks why it was that scientific methods, particularly mathematical ones, appeared when they did. She is not satisfied with the standard, simplistic narrative in which science straightforwardly triumphs over superstition and religion. Here are some key excerpts which shed light on her answer:

The intense concentration on the complexities of universal harmony, which is one of the most characteristic aspects of Renaissance thought…so forcefully directed attention on number as the key to all nature that it may be said to have prepared the way for genuine mathematical thinking about the universe. As is well known, Kepler still saw his new astronomy in a context of harmonies, and he was well aware that the Pythagorean theory was also implicit in the Hermetic writings, of which he had made a careful study (151).

Copernicus introduces his [heliocentric] discovery to the reader as a kind of act of contemplation of the world as a revelation of God, or as what many philosophers have called the visible god. It is, in short, in the atmosphere of the religion of the world that the Copernican revolution is introduced (153).

Copernicus’ discovery came out with the blessing of Hermes Trismegistus upon its head, with a quotation from that famous work in which Hermes describes the sun-worship of the Egyptians in their magical religion (154-55). Bruno’s use of Copernicanism shows most strikingly how shifting and uncertain were the borders between genuine science and Hermeticism in the Renaissance. [This is] a theme which I believe may be of absolutely basic importance for the history of thought — namely, Renaissance magic as a factor in bringing about fundamental changes in the human outlook (155).

The mighty mathematician [Kepler] who discovered the elliptical orbits of the planets had, in his general outlook, by no means emerged from Renaissance influences. His heliocentricity had a mystical background; his great discovery about the planetary orbits was ecstatically welcomed by him as a confirmation of the music of the spheres; and there are survivals of animism in his theories (440).

Hence, it is now suggested, when “Hermes Trismegistus” and all that he stood for is rediscovered in the Renaissance, the return to the occult this time stimulates the genuine science. The emerging modern science is still clothed in what might be described as the Hermetic atmosphere (450).

Bruno was an out-and-out magician, an “Egyptian” and Hermetist of the deepest dye, for whom the Copernican heliocentricity heralded the return of magical religion…Through a Hermetic interpretation of Copernicus and Lucretius, Bruno arrives at his astonishing vision of an infinite extension of the divine as reflected in nature (451).

Drained of its animism, with the laws of inertia and gravity substituted for the psychic life of nature as the principle of movement, Bruno’s universe would turn into something like the mechanical universe of Isaac Newton, marvellously moving forever under its own laws placed in it by a God who is not a magician but a mechanic and a mathematician (451). It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics (452).

Yates concludes her book by astutely commenting on the ways in which all this affected Descartes, whose methodological dualism so fatefully separated mechanical or “inert” matter from animist or “spiritual” mind. This powerful legacy remains with us today, despite our alleged modernity and secularity.

I will conclude with two additional observations. First, Yates’ entire theme is proof in favor of Robin Horton’s continuity thesis, by which he argues that the links between traditional religion and modern science are deeper (both historically and structurally) than we frequently suppose. Second, there is irony in the fact that some modern cosmologists, particularly mathematical physicists, occasionally arrive at mystical or “spiritual” positions not so far removed from Bruno’s Hermetic universe. It’s magic, or math, as the case may ultimately be.

— Cris

galileo-mathematics-alphabet-of-universe

Did you like this? Share it:

Scientific Metaphysics & Uncertainty

There is, among a certain group of scientists, a shrill certitude about science which leads to overconfident proclamations on matters of philosophy (and by extension, religion). It is therefore refreshing to be reminded that many scientists have a different and more humble view. In this Scientific American interview with physicist George F.R. Ellis, he discusses Lawrence Krauss’ belief that physics has explained “why there is something rather than nothing.” Krauss’ metaphysical claim is, of course, much loved by New Atheists who believe that science has explained pretty much everything. Ellis, a giant in his field who co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973) with Stephen Hawking, disagrees:

Krauss is presenting untested speculative theories of how things came into existence out of a pre-existing complex of entities, including variational principles, quantum field theory, specific symmetry groups, a bubbling vacuum, all the components of the standard model of particle physics, and so on. He does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t.

Thus what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being.  Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.

And above all Krauss does not address why the laws of physics exist, why they have the form they have, or in what kind of manifestation they existed before the universe existed  (which he must believe if he believes they brought the universe into existence). Who or what dreamt up symmetry principles, Lagrangians, specific symmetry groups, gauge theories, and so on? He does not begin to answer these questions.

It’s very ironic when he says philosophy is bunk and then himself engages in this kind of attempt at philosophy. It seems that science education should include some basic modules on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and the other great philosophers, as well as writings of more recent philosophers such as Tim Maudlin and David Albert.

There are many unknowns and some things that may never be known. While some find this intolerable and feel a need to fill gaps with metaphysical assertions (which come in scientific and religious or mystical forms), I prefer the Lakota or wakan way, which strikes me as being methodologically scientific. By this understanding, some things will always be mysterious, paradoxical, inexplicable, and ambiguous. This should not bother us. Living with uncertainty is, in my estimation, far more invigorating than living with certitude.

At its best or in ideal methodological form, science is also about mystery, paradox, and uncertainty. This sense of science is beautifully expressed by physicist Carlo Rovelli in a recent piece for the New Republic:

Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct. But, at the same time, it’s not taken as certain, and any element of it is a priori open for revision.

Hear, hear! Rovelli also has some interesting things to say about “naive” scientists who think that philosophy is superfluous. These scientists of course have a head full of philosophy, much of it metaphysical, but they don’t recognize it as such. Unexamined assumptions often work this way, and in other contexts we call this lack of awareness what it is: ignorance.

Heisenberg-Uncertainty

Did you like this? Share it:

Powers on Lakota Cosmology

Those interested in Lakota culture and history will be familiar with the work of former Rutgers anthropologist William Powers. He spent nearly 40 years living and working with the Oglala of Pine Ridge Reservation and Brulé (Sicangu) of Rosebud Reservation. I’m not sure how he accomplished this feat, given Lakota suspicions about the anthropological enterprise, but he did. Along the way, Powers published several important books, including Oglala Religion (1977), Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual (1984), and Sacred Language: The Nature of Supernatural Discourse in Lakota (1992). Recently I was reading a Powers article on Lakota cosmology and took special note of the following passages:

I agree that cosmology, which I see as a first-cause mythology, is intended or invented by humans to rationalize symbolically their universe and to justify what they believe to be its orderliness. I believe that cosmology is further invented to account for particular processes through which people believe their universes traverse. Firstly, all people believe in specific attributes which precipitate the origin of their universe. Secondly, they agree that once originated there is an orderliness in the process which their universe evolved or developed, even though occasionally this perceived orderliness may be perplexed by chaos. This second part of the process also explicates their own creation. The third part of the process emphasizes what we know most about, the rituals and myths that are stated and performed for the purpose of maintaining some sense of order between peoples, and between peoples and the other part of the environment, and between peoples and gods. (166)

If we turn for a moment to the ordinary definition of cosmology, in most general terms it is simply that branch of metaphysics that deals with the universe as an orderly system. Cosmogony, which equally applies here, deals with the creation of this universe. I see a great deal of utility in viewing cosmological concepts as a relative system of beliefs and rituals, which are concerned with explaining not only the origins of the universe in culturally differentiated terms, but in explaining the relationships between cause and effect. Perhaps more significantly I should say between effect and cause, because in my way of thinking it is the everyday exigencies (that is, the effect) which are of paramount importance to people, and only secondarily their causes. I would then argue that cosmology is more profitably analyzed when viewed as a dialectic between experience and the need to rationalize that experience and the perceived supraempirical or metaphysical causality believed to account for such experience. (175)

When reading these passages, which have a distinctly Tylorean or “intellectualist” feel to them, I was thinking that Powers had been reading Robin Horton’s essays. Horton contends, rather controversially, that traditional thought or “religion” is primarily about “explanation, prediction, and control.” Powers does not, however, cite Horton. So it seems that Powers developed these ideas on his own and verified the validity of this approach with four decades of fieldwork among the Lakota. This would seem to vindicate Horton’s thesis.

Elsewhere in the article and as an interesting aside, Powers criticizes Black Elk Speaks in ways that I found rather surprising:

It might be argued that a good deal of American Indian cosmological  considerations may have been invented or reinvented by the white man creating a near obsession with literary characters such as Black Elk…And how many Black Elks are appearing on the contemporary cosmological scene today? Not only do we have the fictive culture of a white man’s dream of Indian tradition looming large on the academic scene, but today contemporary Indians have raised his status to that of saint, that is, all but those contemporary Oglala, many of whom are named Black Elk. They recognize that what is appealing about their grandfather is mostly fabricated out of the poetry of a white man, and they understand that a good part of contemporary Lakota culture, if not generalized American Indian culture, is based on the “teachings” of Black Elk, a body of text sometimes more reminiscent of a summer vacation bible school than a Lakota paradise.

This assessment won’t be welcome news to those conceive of Black Elk as something like an Indian bible. While I have never heard such criticisms during my visits to Pine Ridge, perhaps it is because I have never asked. I will do so during my visit next month and report back in due course.

Buffalo-Bear-Butte

Did you like this? Share it:

Invisible Orders & Theory

When we think about invisible entities or forces and use them to explain events, we are theorizing. We are postulating, in other words, an underlying or overarching order which can account for change in the space-time world. This is a functional feature of theory, regardless of content. This content, whether classed as religious or scientific, is at bottom cosmological. There is always an ordering vision of the cosmos which orients and anchors the theory.

In both the religious and scientific theoretical cases, there are pronounced tendencies toward teleology. This is because no matter how energetic or chaotic things may be at any particular time or in any particular place, the event subsides or resolves into a steadier state. It’s almost as if there is an apparent resolution. When we witness such movements, it’s hard not to think the invisibles, whether entities or forces, are “responsible.” Simply putting things this way shows how difficult it is to depersonalize the hidden. The teleological force is strong in all of us.

While writing the preceding paragraphs, my coffee has gotten cold. How and why did this happen? According to this Quanta story, it’s all due to quantum entanglement:

“Finally, we can understand why a cup of coffee equilibrates in a room,” said Tony Short, a quantum physicist at Bristol. “Entanglement builds up between the state of the coffee cup and the state of the room.” The tendency of coffee — and everything else — to reach equilibrium is “very intuitive,” said Nicolas Brunner, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva. “But when it comes to explaining why it happens, this is the first time it has been derived on firm grounds by considering a microscopic theory.”

This is a fascinating example of the hidden or invisible at work. Perhaps even more fascinating is the idea that this entanglement is an “informational” exchange characterized by increased correlations or order:

Using an obscure approach to quantum mechanics that treated units of information as its basic building blocks, Lloyd spent several years studying the evolution of particles in terms of shuffling 1s and 0s. He found that as the particles became increasingly entangled with one another, the information that originally described them (a “1” for clockwise spin and a “0” for counterclockwise, for example) would shift to describe the system of entangled particles as a whole. It was as though the particles gradually lost their individual autonomy and became pawns of the collective state. Eventually, the correlations contained all the information, and the individual particles contained none. At that point, Lloyd discovered, particles arrived at a state of equilibrium, and their states stopped changing, like coffee that has cooled to room temperature. “What’s really going on is things are becoming more correlated with each other,” Lloyd recalls realizing. “The arrow of time is an arrow of increasing correlations.”

While I appreciate this teleological explanation for my cold coffee, I am not sure that movement toward equilibrium in space implicates “time.” Most physicists consider time to be an illusion that arises due to human perception and placement in space. I don’t know what time is, though I do know that not all humans construct and thus experience it the same way. Traditional Aboriginals, for instance, subordinated time to space and construed space as encapsulating the past, present, and future simultaneously. Ironically, physicist Lee Smolin argues the exact opposite to reach the same ontological result. He contends that time is fundamental and space is illusory:

For Smolin, the key to salvaging time turns out to be eliminating space. Whereas time is a fundamental property of nature, space, he believes, is an emergent property. It is like temperature: apparent, measurable, but actually a consequence of something deeper and invisible—in the case of temperature, the microscopic motion of ensembles of molecules. Temperature is an average of their energy. It is always an approximation, and therefore, in a way, an illusion. So it is with space for Smolin: “Space, at the quantum-mechanical level, is not fundamental at all but emergent from a deeper order”—an order, as we will see, of connections, relationships. He also believes that quantum mechanics itself, with all its puzzles and paradoxes (“cats that are both alive and dead, an infinitude of simultaneously existing universes”), will turn out to be an approximation of a deeper theory.

For space, the deeper reality is a network of relationships. Things are related to other things; they are connected, and it is the relationships that define space rather than the other way around. This is a venerable notion: Smolin traces the idea of a relational world back to Newton’s great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “Space is nothing else, but That Order or Relation; and is nothing at all without Bodies, but the Possibility of placing them.” Nothing useful came of that, while Newton’s contrary view—that space exists independently of the objects it contains—made a revolution in the ability of science to predict and control the world. But the relational theory has some enduring appeal; some scientists and philosophers such as Smolin have been trying to revive it.

If that is not enough to bend your mind for one day, in this recent Aeon piece we have a systems chemist teleologically explaining why “life resists disorder.” This is the sort of (scientific) speculation that speaks to the human need to theorize or impose order on apparent chaos. It’s magical.

The-Force-Yoda

Did you like this? Share it:

Space-Time Constructions

When someone claims that “life is a braid in spacetime,” you can expect some crazy talk. In this wonderfully reductionist piece by MIT physicist Max Tegmark, he does not disappoint. Math, he claims, constitutes reality:

That our universe is approximately described by mathematics means that some but not all of its properties are mathematical. That it is mathematical means that all of its properties are mathematical; that it has no properties at all except mathematical ones. If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics, because all properties of our universe can in principle be understood if we are intelligent and creative enough. It also implies that our reality is vastly larger than we thought, containing a diverse collection of universes obeying all mathematically possible laws of physics.

This may or may not be true. I have serious doubts, as do many physicists who grapple with foundational theories. It certainly smacks of a Platonic idealism that has traditionally been the handmaiden of metaphysics. So it’s refreshing to see someone make this argument on behalf of a potentially comprehensible reality rather than a designed universe and god.

These issues aside, Tegmark’s discussion of space and time remind us that there are various ways to conceive and experience both. I’m not talking here of the technical dispute among physicists but of the culturally constructed ways time and space can be considered. While this surely was not Tegmark’s intent, these comments got me thinking about animist worldviews that are rooted in actual physical space or “place” rather than time:

“Excuse me, but what’s the time?” I’m guessing that you, like me, are guilty of having asked this question, as if it were obvious that there is such a thing as the time. Yet you’ve probably never approached a stranger and asked “Excuse me, but what’s the place?”. If you were hopelessly lost, you’d probably instead have said something like “Excuse me, but where am I?” thereby acknowledging that you’re not asking about a property of space, but rather about a property of yourself. Similarly, when you ask for the time, you’re not really asking about a property of time, but rather about your location in time.

But that is not how we usually think about it. Our language reveals how differently we think of space and time: The first as a static stage, and the second as something flowing. Despite our intuition, however, the flow of time is an illusion. Einstein taught us that there are two equivalent ways of thinking about our physical reality: Either as a three-dimensional place called space, where things change over time, or as a four-dimensional place called spacetime that simply exists, unchanging, never created, and never destroyed.

I think of the two viewpoints as the different perspectives on reality that a frog and a bird might take.

I can’t comment on frogs or birds, but can say that for many traditional or indigenous peoples, place was paramount. Everything else flowed from it, including the rather inconsequential idea of time.

Human-Hourglass

 

Did you like this? Share it:

Quantum Surreality

Quantum physics is, for laypeople, mind bending stuff. The good news is that it also bends the minds of physicists, who continue to wrestle with the reality problems and paradoxes created by quantum mechanics. While quantum equations clearly work and have real world applications (hello atom bomb), no one is quite sure how or why.

Given all the weirdness that surrounds the subject, it’s rare to encounter a cogent exposition, one that non-physicists can (with effort) comprehend. For those who have despaired of ever understanding the issues, I recommend this essay by Adrian Kent. These passages, in particular, really resonate:

If we cannot get a coherent story about physical reality from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory and we cannot get a scientifically adequate one from many-worlds theory, where do we turn? We could, as some physicists suggest, simply give up on the hope of finding any description of an objective external reality. But it is very hard to see how to do this without also giving up on science. The hypothesis that our universe began from something like a Big Bang, our account of the evolution of galaxies and stars, the formation of the elements and of planets and all of chemistry, biology, physics, archaeology, palaeontology and indeed human history – all rely on propositions about real observer-independent facts and events. Once we assume the existence of an external world that changes over time, these interrelated propositions form a logically coherent set; chemistry depends on cosmology, evolution on chemistry, history on evolution and so on. Without that assumption, it is very hard to see how one might make sense of any of these disciplines, let alone see a unifying picture that underlies them all and explains their deep interrelations and mutual dependence.

If we can’t allow the statement that dinosaurs really walked the Earth, what meaningful content could biology, palaeontology or Darwinian evolution actually have? It’s even harder to understand why the statement seems to give such a concise explanation of many things we’ve noticed about the world, from the fossil record to (we think) the present existence of birds, if it’s actually just a meaningless fiction. Similarly, if we can’t say that water molecules really contain one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms – or at least that something about reality that supports this model – then what, if anything, is chemistry telling us?

Physics poses many puzzles, and the focus of the physics community shifts over time. Most theoretical physicists today do not work on this question about what really happens in quantum experiments. Among those who think about it at all, many hope that we can find a way of thinking about quantum theory in which reality somehow evaporates or never arises. That seems like wishful thinking to me.

The alternative, as John Bell recognised earlier and more clearly than almost all of his contemporaries, is to accept that quantum theory cannot be a complete fundamental theory of nature. (As mentioned above, Einstein also believed this, though at least partly because of arguments that Bell was instrumental in refuting.)

Bell was one of the last century’s deepest thinkers about science. As he put it, quantum theory ‘carries in itself the seeds of its own destruction’: it undermines the account of reality that it needs in order to make any sense as a physical theory. On this view, which was once as close to heresy as a scientific argument can be but is now widely held among scientists who work on the foundations of physics, the reality problem is just not solvable within quantum theory as it stands. 

This is delightfully dialectical and refreshingly honest. Kent does not go on to suggest that these issues are intractable or that they are not amenable to scientific inquiry, testing, and verification.

His essay, in other words, is not a warrant for mysticism. It is a frank and humble assessment of current knowledge. There is much to be discovered.

Blackboard-with-physical-formulas

Did you like this? Share it: