Posts Tagged ‘physics’

The great Oracle at Delphi once told a young Athenian that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.  When the youth asked Socrates why this was, he replied, “I suppose it is because I know nothing, but I do have opinions on many things!”

We can see that Socrates was using the word knowledge in a special way here ; what he meant was that he had no certain knowledge of anything ; he did not know reality.  This kind of humility was thereafter a persistent character of most of the writings of learned people right through antiquity and up to the modern age.

Then something new happened.  First, we discovered (or invented perhaps) powerful mathematics ; then we invented what we now call the scientific method.  The mathematics enabled us to make statements about the material world that were more or less precise and in a way that had hardly been attempted previously, and the second enabled us to investigate the material world in a highly particular systematic way.

To begin with, these two aids to investigation allowed us to produce a vast amount of information about the world ; and then allowed us to use that information to manufacture new powerful technology – including the technology to make more powerful means of studying the world more closely.  By the end of the nineteenth century, we had a veritable explosion of information in physics and in its technological fruits.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that scientists of every stripe were eager to emulate the methods of the physicists

Now there was nothing wrong with this emulation and there still isn’t anything wrong with it as long as we remember that the methods of physics are directed at the material world ; particularly at the non-living world.

But man is a forgetful creature ; also much given to speculation, and easily deceived by appearances.  Thus it was that he forgot the original purpose of physics and the scientific method, and it was this forgetting that turned initial successes into a disaster.  For he began to see living things in purely physical concepts ; and, from there began to perceive living things as machines.  Biological machines.  Perhaps this new way of seeing things was epitomised by an enthusiastic late eighteenth century stock breeder ; he asked, “What is a sheep but a machine for turning grass into meat?”  Few people then imagined that Man would be characterised as a machine that happens to turn shepherd’s pie into thoughts.

But that is where we are today.  Man is a machine which is governed entirely and exclusively by the laws of physics.  Gone is the mind, gone is the psyche, gone free-will, gone is personal responsibility ; banished is the soul and the spirit together.  We are simply machines, assemblies of particles, at the mercy of our material environment (however you might try to dress it up in the exciting tales from quantum mechanics!).

But there is hope.  Physics as it is done today has almost exhausted itself grappling with the myths of the sub-particular world ; and, having led their colleagues astray, it will be the physicists who start breaking out of the prison they have made for us all.  This repentance began about a century ago with such luminaries as Rutherford and Planck, who sounded the warnings and offered the keys of the prison.

Was it not Rutherford who said, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a spiritual world.”  And was it not Planck who said, “Consciousness is everything.  Matter is derived from consciousness.”

But did their colleagues listen?  No.  For the physical sciences are easy to do ; no great wisdom is required.  And they are profitable ; research grants are readily forthcoming, if only for the sake of the saleable technology.

On the other hand, a science of humanity takes the harder road ; the road trodden by Socrates and most of his successors ; the road of modesty.


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Conventions bring us comfort, if only because they lend structure to the world we live in.  They provide us with points of reference with which to compare one event with another.  And it is these points of reference which make the ever-changing world relatively stable.

One of our major conventions concerns the physical world.  When, for example, our eyes tell us that we see two tree before us, one tall and the other short, we are curious to know whether the tree that appears to be short is really short, or whether it only appears to be short because it is further away.

We know much about space because we have followed up the apparent oddities of its appearance to us.  We feel that we know these apparent oddities well ; so now they are not often oddities at all, but conventional representations of the world.

We have developed fine measurements for space.  We know that we can locate an object in space by specifying just three measurements – length, breadth and height.  We call these the three dimensions of space.  And we can see along these dimensions at will.  We can see to the left and right of us ; we can see backwards and forwards of us ; and we can see above us and below.  And we can see as far as visibility allows.

We also know that time is related to space ; we even call it a dimension.  But there is something apparently mysterious about time : in the ordinary sense, we cannot see along it.  If we wish to know what lies earlier in time, we must rely on our memories for what once was.  If we wish to know what lies later than us, we must use our imaginations to guess what might come to pass.

Of course, a short discussion of space and time must necessarily leave many matters unsaid.  But it’s interesting to meditate on Time ; and to wonder why it is so mysterious to our senses.

Why can we move freely in the three dimensions of space, yet only move ‘forward’ in time?  Why can we move at almost any speed in space, yet be confined to a fixed speed in time?

Are we really constrained to these limitations in moving in time?  Or is it our conventions about time that hold us back?

It is in this context that such things as precognitive dreams are so interesting.  Perhaps we know more than we can say about time.

Timeless beauty

Timeless beauty

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