Science & Reality
Science has spurred many of the advances that benefit us in the twenty-first century. It has improved our standard of living by contributing to our material wealth, our increasing longevity and better health outcomes, our exploitation of natural resources and has impacted on virtually every field of human endeavour.
The advancement of science has not been uniform with its progress being quite uneven depending on the discoveries and applications which have occurred often intermittently and sometimes in the face of considerable opposition.
This was convincingly portrayed in Thomas S Kuhn’s seminal book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Here he argued that scientists fell into line behind scientific paradigms and often discounted evidence that didn’t support the thesis they wanted to believe. When we commit to the status quo we have a vested interest in ensuring that it endures.
Many scientific advances occurred in the face of concerted opposition by those who could not afford to have their viewpoints questioned. Just to give a couple of examples (in addition to the convincing instances cited by Kuhn) let us briefly reference the work done by Harvey in the seventeenth century on the circulation of blood and the work of Hubble in the twentieth century on Astronomy.
In the seventeenth century people believed that the Greek anatomist Claudius Galen had correctly described the circulatory system. He believed that the heart was a heater of blood and the brain acted as a radiator and cooled the blood. But William Harvey declared that the heart was a pump that propelled the blood through the circulatory system. He claimed that he could feel a pulse and hear the beating of the heart which indicated that the heart was a muscle that constricted in a regular way pumping the blood throughout the body.
This proposition was denied by his contemporaries. A leading medical doctor of the day, Emilio Parisano of Venice wrote:
“That a pulse should arise in the breast that can be heard when the blood is transported from the veins to the arteries, this we certainly can’t perceive and we do not believe this will ever happen, except Harvey lends us his hearing aid. He also claims this movement produces a pulse, and moreover, a sound: that sound however we deaf people cannot hear, and there is no one in Venice who can.”
Nowadays every Doctor, nurse, first aider and indeed the majority of the rest of us can find the pulse and detect the heartbeat.
In the early twentieth century astronomers were exploring the universe with steadily more powerful optical instruments. The result of this work was that the astronomy community had come to the consensus that the Milky Way virtually encompassed the universe.
Then along came Hubble. Using observations from the recently commissioned Mount Wilson Observatory, Edwin Hubble proposed that there were significant celestial bodies way outside the bounds of the Milky Way. His discoveries showed that the Universe was enormously larger than the Milky Way, and contrary to the consensus view, was expanding.
So what is the point of these examples?
Firstly science is not static. In the late nineteenth century some imminent scientists lamented that physics had been exhausted and that there were no new discoveries of any consequence to be pursued. But of course they were in error and science has continued its inexorable advance.
Secondly it is worth reminding ourselves that the consensus views of scientists (including many of the most eminent) have sometimes been overturned.
Kuhn coined the term paradigm shifts. In the last century the most dramatic paradigm shift was the movement from classical Newtonian physics to Quantum mechanics. Classical physics rested on five basic assumptions about the fabric of reality. They are as follows:
1. Reality – this is the idea that the observed world is objectively real.
2. Locality – this promotes the concept that the only way that objects can be influenced is through direct contact.
3. Causality – this assumes that the arrow of time is inexorably fixed in one direction and the cause and effect sequence is fixed.
4. Continuity – this asserts that there are no discontinuous “jumps” in nature and that the fabric of time and space is continuous.
5. Determinism – this suggests that the future is predictable using the laws of physics if we are aware of all the starting conditions.
Quantum mechanics and relativity challenge each of these assumptions.
To begin with it accepts that reality is influenced by the observer. In this way we help create the perceived reality. So the reality assumption is challenged.
Pairs of particles that have been “entangled” when separated even by huge distances experience changes when the other particle changes. This challenges the locality assumption.
The new reality has dissolved causality because the theory of relativity revealed that the fixed arrow of time is an illusion, a misapprehension sustained by the classical assumptions of absolute time and space. We now know that when events seem to occur depends on the frame of reference of the observer.
The assumption of continuity has been displaced by quantum mechanics which has shown that certainly at the small scale, space and time are not smooth and continuous. Everything at the level of the quanta is lumpy – energy, space and atomic composition reflect discrete discontinuous options.
And then of course belief in determinism is misplaced because it relied upon the assumptions of causality and reality. Even more it is challenged by the findings of quantum theory that at the level of the quanta there is no determined outcome but a range of likely outcomes defined by probability theory.
Now to the casual observer this might not seem very significant but this has substantially changed how we view reality.
Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner from the University of California suggested that an experimenter must conclude that:
“Reality was somehow created by the observation itself, that the observed reality is created solely by the observer’s acquisition of knowledge. If so the observer is inseparably involved with the observed system. That would challenge his view of a physical real world existing independently of his senses perceiving it.”
Pascual Jordan, one of the principal mathematical architects of quantum theory wrote:
“Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. We compel the electron to assume a definite position. We ourselves produce the results of the measurement.”
One of the doyens of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrodinger had this to say:
“If two separated bodies, each by itself known maximally, enter a situation in which they influence each other, and separate again, then there occurs regularly that which I have just called entanglement of our knowledge of the two bodies. I would not call that one of but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics.”
As we saw from the examples I started this essay with. Science develops and changes and the consensus view of one era is often disputed or refuted by the next. Our traditional physicists believed they were illuminating reality by uncovering theorems and equations which helped us understand the underlying reality of the universe. Today’s physicists are coming to an understanding that reality is not there to be discovered because all our efforts in some way help to create it.
Physics has now entered into the sphere of the mystics. Perhaps this was all anticipated by the troubled nineteenth century English poet, Francis Thompson who wrote:
“All things by immortal power
Near and Far
To each other linked are
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.”
At the very least, these emerging paradigms suggest that science and mysticism might be more closely aligned than most people think!