Stanley Jaki on the Copenhagen Theory

‘Whatever the distance of human passions from atomic physics, the real question was whether one’s epistemological attitude was truly general, that is, consistent or not. The impression Bohr gave was that one was to have two kinds of epistemology, one for atomic phenomena, another for everything else, but it was still to be explained whether the understanding, or episteme, could be split in two. On this decisive point Bohr gave at best an impression which was vague and superficial. Staying with superficial impressions means staying on the surface, and this in turn implies the avoidance of deep questions. Typically enough, Bohr completed the final review of his epistemological conflict with Einstein with the remark that “through a singularly fruitful cooperation of a whole generation of physicists we are nearing the goal wheere logical order to a large extent allows us to avoid deep truth.” The most obvious of such deep truths should have been for Bohr the truth of the complementarity of matter and light, waves and particles, atomic stability and indeterminacy. The truth that they were complementary to one another was not a matter of observation, but an inference, and a genuinely metaphysical one, which had no justification in the Copenhagen theory. The truth in question was about the truth of a reality which had complementary aspects. These aspects could really complement one another only if they inhered in a deeper reality, about which Bohr could only be agnostic. A harmony of relations or aspects, complementing one another, such was Bohr’s epistemological message, a message void of reference to the ontological reality of anything harmonious. About the entity which embodied the harmony of relations he was not permitted by his own premises to make any claim and he carefully avoided doing so. In a truly pragmatist way, which he learned from Hoffding, a forerunner of William James, Bohr could speak of fruits, though not of their harmny (which is never a matter of direct observation) and certainly not of the tree which produced the fruits, to say nothing of the soil which supported and nourished the tree. For Bohr the deepest aspect of existence was pragmatic fruitfulness, the rather shallow perspective in which he saw physics itself: “Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the present position of physics is that almost all the ideas which have ever proved to be fruitful in the investigating of nature have found their right place in a common harmony without thereby having diminished their fruitfulness.”

As will be seen shortly, this was not even true of quantum mechanics, a fact which should surprise no one. The really creative elements of quantum mechanics are not the data observed by physicists bu the marvelous ideas formed in their heads. Of those heads few were as impressive as that of Bohr, who for many was a twentieth-century Moses with two flaming horns on his forehead. The horns were the horns of complementarity, but as interpreted by Bohr they could not secure reality to the atomic realm, to say nothing of Moses or Bohr himself. Bohr’s pairs of complementarity resembled pairs of horns from which one could not even infer unambiguously that they were rooted in the same head and thereby truly complementary or that the head itself was real, and even more fundamentally real than the horns themselves.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and he Ways to God’, p. 205-206)

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Note on Intelligibility

I’ve made a fair amount of noise here about the intelligibility of reality – that there is an inherent rationality, order and intelligibility in the universe which is open to our inquiry. But it came to me last night that perhaps there doesn’t need to be built-in intelligibility for us to be able to make sense of things. Consider television static – concentrate on it long enough, and you’ll start to hear or see patterns that aren’t there. I don’t think static has any intelligibility – but the analogy shouldn’t be pushed too far.

The example above does takes place in our universe, so maybe we can’t get away from the built-in intelligibility. Of course, this may just go to show the extent to which we are meaning-makers – the extent to which our minds in their own way give shape to reality. Not idealism, mind you, but what the classical tradition called ‘the active intellect’, which is a kind of formal cause for the sensory data we receive.

At any rate, I slept poorly, so I’ll end my coffee-fueled rant.

Reading Note 12/5/13

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s ‘The Fabric of Reality’, and all I can do is heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in contemporary physics and cosmology. I’ll post some specific quotes and thoughts in the near future, but for the moment, I’ll simply say that it’s so far been the best book on space, time and cosmology that I’ve yet read. Clear, lucid, non-dogmatic writing that makes the learning fun. Do yourself a favour and get this book.

Random Study Notes

Current cosmology: focused on information, holographic principle and black hole event horizons. Lots of conjecture but not as much empirical evidence in favour of one over the other. Importance of mathematics cannot be overestimated in current physics, but seems very easy to mistake the mathematical formulas describing phenomena for the phenomena itself. See Bertrand Russell on the mathematical skeleton of reality.

Idealism: in its classical form a powerful metaphysic, in theology, seems to border on heretical (ie Edwards, Berkeley). Similar to pantheism and emanation and poor distinction between thought, being and reality. Having a mental picture of an object is not grounds to assert that all reality is mental even though the mental plays an obviously key role in our perception of reality.

Hegel: powerful thinker whos ideas, to paraphrase That Individual, would have been brilliant had they been posited as an elaborate theory, but Hegel’s assertion that his philosophy was reality turns his ideas from interesting to absurd and even mad. Chilling ideas on the state, freedom and morality which laid the groundwork for a very bloody 20th century. Thoughts on the nature of reality similar to Heraclitus IE all is flux. History, the Real, Absolute Spirit all powerful ideas that need to be taken seriously as a system of thought.

Critical realism: primary viewpoint of Christianity – God exists independently of our thought or perception of Him. Stratification of truth (T.F. Torrance) distinguishes between kinds of truth IE truth of being, truth of relation, truth of statement. Operation of the human mind naturally realist – the words we employ point to the reality for which they stand rather than themselves. Our mind does not create reality but rather accepts the reality forced upon it, either in natural science or theology.

Relational Reality, Though, and the Universe

The universe is the totality of interacting and relating things, which exists independently of ourselves. We stand in an interacting relation to the universe, and we can therefore inquire, study and come to have knowledge of the universe. We grasp the objective reality of the universe through both our experience and mind, and it is our mental workings which set us apart from the universe. The scholastic definition of man as a rational animal is a good one, I think – a rational animal created in the image of a rational, relational, personal and interacting God, created in a rational universe which we are able to comprehend. Our mental powers and ability to grasp the universe are remarkable, as Pascal noted: ‘Man is a reed, the most fragile reed in the universe, but he is a thinking reed – through thought he comprehends the universe,’ (paraphrase). While the universe we occupy has many aspects to it, aspects which will astound and perplex us (the quantum level of reality being a prime example), they all remain part of a coherent whole. The human mind’s ability to grasp the universe is profound – but it is not unintelligible or mysterious or paradoxical.

‘Just as this very same science cannot be understood without recognizing the existence of a mind able to hold within its reach the wholeness of nature and thereby be superior to it, the understanding which science gives of nature will fully satisfy the urge to understand only when that urge is allowed to carry one to the recognition of that Existence which is not limited by any singularity… With an inexorable urge that limited mind reaches out for the unlimited in existence which, precisely because it is genuinely unlimited, cannot happen but only be and is therefore most aptly called He Who Is. Without keeping him in one’s mental focus, those singularities will appear as that “inexhaustible queerness” which J.B.S. Haldane once cited as the main characteristic of the universe. Cosmic singularities severed from their creator can easily become something akin to that proverbial “mystic chant over an unintelligible universe”.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Roads of Science and the Ways to God,’ p. 277)