Posts Tagged ‘Rutherford’

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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I have mentioned before that, while I admire Freud, I am not a Freudian.  It is quite possible to see the virtues in a person without agreeing in the least with his or her ideas ; just as it is quite possible to see the  merits of a theory or of a hypothesis without buying into it completely.  Also it is more than likely that one may form an opinion of an idea only to discover later that the idea actually has a quite different interpretation from the one first seized upon.

I once read, in passing, that Freud considered the possibility that consciousness ‘arose from the very atoms themselves’.  And there is much that arises from that idea.  But in my haste my first thought was, “But this is typical Victorian materialism ! – a product of the Great Mistake that typified that otherwise great age.”  And, if I hadn’t more recently encountered another great thinker, I should probably still hold that opinion of Freud.

The mistake I made was so common that perhaps I may be forgiven ; it was the mistake of failing to ask the right questions.  I had forgotten the advice of Aristotle.  My first question to Freud ought to have been, “What do mean by the word ‘atom’?  I had assumed that he meant ‘the smallest indivisible particle of matter’ ; hence my judgement that he was proposing a materialist notion of consciousness.  (By the way, I had also forgotten that Freud was a near contemporary of Rutherford, and would have known of him.)

But further reading and further contemplation reveals that we do not have sufficient evidence that atoms are material things at all.  It all depends on how we look at the world and how we shape our arguments about it.

It depends on whether we are ‘outward lookers’ or ‘inward lookers’ – and on whether we are able to look both ways.  It depends on what we mean by empirical science.

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The spirit of adventure

Ancient wisdom impresses our minds with a freshness that is truly staggering.  What we name the material world, for example, cannot be said (with any confidence ) to exist anywhere except in a human consciousness.  We can only know the world because we are conscious of it.  We cannot go outside of our consciousness to verify that there is world ‘out there’.  For to go outside of consciousness is to be unconscious – and aware of nothing.

Fireside adventures

When we are truly unconscious, the material world simply dissolves ; so does time ; and so does space.

The great twentieth-century physicist, Max Planck, even went so far as to say, “Consciousness is everything ; matter is derived from consciousness.”

The building blocks of ‘recognizable’ matter are atoms.  But, as Bertrand Russell reminded us, these are known only by sets of difficult mathematical equations whose interpretation is obscure.   For nobody has ever directly seen an atom, and nobody ever will.  The models we learn at school and elsewhere are just that,- models.

But consciousness, where we do our seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and maths, is obviously not a material thing.  Perhaps Ernest Rutherford made it plainest, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a spiritual world.”  We seem to have derived our spirit of adventure from that world.

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