Categories 4 Think pieces

Putting the ‘meta’ back into physics

There’s more to things than you may think

The dog barks. We are sitting in the front room, I am unaware of anything – but Daisy barks. I look out of the window and another dog is walking down the street of which I had no awareness. I also notice some bees round the pansies, obviously attracted by the pollen. What I don’t see – and what I’ll never see – are the ultraviolet markings on the petals which direct them to their treasure. In fact I only know this is the case because of clever science which has detected it. When I then go to turn on the computer to send an email I see that it is not working so I ring up the provider who, from the other side of the world, immediately puts it right – how I haven’t a clue, but I am grateful that there are clever people out there who understand these things.

Just a few incidents from a typical day! But they all raise the same question: do we really know what is going on around us? Are we even capable of knowing what is going on around us? We have arranged our cultural world to enable us to survive and we are grateful (or ought to be) for those specialists that enable this to continue, but this is ‘local’ knowledge. Beyond this do we really understand what is happening, is what is ‘out there’ even comprehensible?

We tend to assume that it is, but all the indicators are that we assume wrong. Paradoxically, we now know that perhaps more than 95% (we are not sure) of ‘what is out there’ (so called ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ – just names for what we don’t understand) is incomprehensible. As soon as we resolve one problem and take a leap forward in understanding – as with the recent confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson – a whole host of new questions appear that need to be resolved. Somehow, our theoretical models of  the physical universe always seem to short-change us. All of which tends to confirm the view of the great polymathic British scientist J.B.S.Haldane that the universe may be not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Our knowledge is like the tip of a very large iceberg which floats is a vast unknown ocean. Even of that little bit which we do know it is often mysteriously contradictory to what we hold to be reasonable, like the quantum world of the building blocks of matter which though infinitely small seems intimately interconnected with everything else in the cosmos. We are happy to go along with this as the manipulation of these tiny bits of ‘things’ has delivered some amazing benefits that enables our cultural world to survive. In fact that’s how we have always survived as a species – manipulating things for our benefit and without too much attention to the consequences. Oops! We split the atom only to find the radiation made the earth uninhabitable to us.

And this takes us to the heart of modern hubris – the brash arrogance of over-confidence: we don’t understand the world but act as if we do. We act within a limited range of mechanistic assumptions which sees the world as infinitely comprehensible and manipulable: that if we break things down to the smallest fundamental particles (reductionism) – be they atoms or genes – we will be able to control them. This view has become widespread as a result of the very careful observation of how things interact, like the chemical elements which are the foundation of matter: if know enough about this not only will we know everything but be able to predict all the outcomes and the future as well.

It is a way of thinking which we have come to know as ‘scientific’: not just a body of knowledge or collection of facts but a way of thinking that goes beyond observation embracing intuition, inspiration and serendipitous chance. The periodic table is a case in point. What makes Mendeleev’s achievement so brilliant is that he was able to arrange all the known elements into an order on the basis of the as yet unknown elements whose existence he could only surmise. And he was right! His insight went beyond the evidence and had predictive power.

This points to another interesting thing about the human search for understanding. It is never just about what is out there, it is about what is possible, what will be. The impetus to understanding came from wanting to know the future. The shamans who directed the rituals in the caves of Altimira and Lascaux were not interested in painting animals but determining the outcome of the hunt; the Babylonian astronomers collecting endless detail on the planetary movements did so as astrologers seeking to exert their influence over events. Unlike with other animals, for humans knowledge of the environment was never just about survival but of predicting and controlling the future.

Technology has, since its origins, been driven by a desire to control and understand not only the detail of the present but also the ‘big picture’ of the future and grasp a place in it for ourselves. Again this is very clearly seen in the origins of chemistry. Though we now like to distinguish between chemistry and alchemy, before the eighteenth century there was no such distinction: the words are simply Greek and Arabic terms for the same thing – mixing substances – with Humphrey Gilbert even joining them together in his new scientific method, ‘alchomistery’. It is clear from the title of the seminal work, in the eight century, of Jabir ibn Hayyan’s ‘Book of Royalty’ – one of the most precocious works of chemistry until Lavoisier’s ‘Method of Chemical Nomenclature’ – that not only is the book concerned with the mixing of compounds but with the greater spiritual context of understanding the truth which illuminates and informs the inner light of the mind. For Jabir, as for Gilbert, ‘their working’ was both to enlighten others “the better to follow the good and avoid the evil”. The distillation and purification of the spirit was as necessary as that of the elements if one is to gain understanding; in fact we will only be successful in the latter if we practise the former. Enlightenment is an aspect of a virtuous life.

This is a context of understanding which we have lost. For the Franciscan friar and ‘proto-scientist’ Roger Bacon, prolonged study and a virtuous life would, with divine illumination, restore a complete understanding of creation: we stand in the presence of great unknown truths, of a Truth that is greater than we can ever fully comprehend let alone understand, so reverence is necessary. To the Medieval mind this was self-evident. In the ‘Book of the Secrets of Nature’ – one of the most influential alchemical and hermetic works of the Middle Ages – the reader is offered not just certain techniques with which to master chemistry but a whole philosophy, which begins enigmatically, “Things above come from below; things below come from above.” In terms of its own time this is a form of pantheism; to us it would be a ‘Grand Narrative’ or ‘Unified Theory of Matter’. Regardless of what we may call it, it goes beyond the physics – it is a metaphysics.

All of which is to say that we have to get beyond the basic physics of things to acknowledging some greater context. This may not necessarily be the reintroduction of the spirit as some great unseen hypostasised Power, but as a sense of the greater order of how things are and our need for sensitivity to this. Our new found awareness of eco-systems and ecological consciousness reflects this – we are part of something greater than our immediate ambitions and needs, greater than what our understanding can cope with. We need to stop and reconsider the consequences: perhaps sensitivity can save us

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