The Joyce of Science: New Physics in Finnegans Wake
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The Philosophical Implications of New Physics  
 

Contents:

 
'Symbol of Joyce' by Brancusi (fragment)

"... by the light of philophosy (and may she never folsage us!) things will begin to clear up a bit"
Finnegans Wake (119.04-06)

Physics and Philosophy

Modern man tends to regard science and philosophy as two distinctly separate fields. In this age of specialization few are afforded a chance to investigate both fields and acquire a balanced outlook on the relationship between them. The direction and circumstances of one's education usually result in instilling a mode of thinking which favors one of the two fields over the other. Those with predominantly technical training often criticize philosophy for obscurity of ideas and speculative character; they accuse philosophical methods of vagueness and ambiguity, and blame the supposed stagnation of the field on the age-long antagonism between opposing schools of ideas. In contrast, they believe science to impart exact and experimentally verifiable knowledge. They hail science as a vehicle of progress and praise it for its spirit of cooperation. The humanists, on the other hand, tend to dismiss scientific knowledge as shallow and fragmentary (often failing to see the difference between science and technology), while praising philosophy for its attempts to answer vital questions about human existence. Such antagonistic views on the relationship between science and philosophy are regrettable, for they obscure the vital connection which exists between the two fields, both in regard to their essence and their origin. At the roots of Western culture, in the period of early Greek civilization, physics and philosophy were indistinguishable. Along with other subjects such as logic, ethics or psychology, they belonged to "philosophy" understood broadly and literally as "love of wisdom." Science, as an intellectual pursuit differentiated from philosophy by method or subject matter, did not appear until the Roman times. In spite of apparent differences, then, physics and philosophy are clearly connected for "the physicist is by origin a philosopher who has specialized in a particular direction" (Eddington, Philosophy 8).

The affinity between modern physics and philosophy, however, extends beyond their common roots in antiquity. In part it is also a result of the new relationship between the two fields developed in the course of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution. "The origin of modern philosophy," writes Alfred North Whitehead, "is analogous to that of science and is contemporaneous. The general trend of its development was settled in the seventeenth century, partly at the hands of the same men who established the scientific principles" (Modern World 200). We have already pointed out that the main aspect of that relationship was the introduction of empiricism. That new trend gave the emerging science a philosophical background, while providing philosophy with a new analytical method of investigation. Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, Hume believed that their task was to analyze experience and to evaluate the validity of our inferences about nature. The empiricists' philosophical antagonists, the apriorists, such as Descartes or Leibnitz, also partook in the scientific revolution, both as mathematicians and as philosophers attempting to create their own systems of thought and to establish the place of science in the totality of human experience. This new interaction between physics and philosophy continued well into the end of the nineteenth century with Kant, Hegel or Nietzsche on the apriorist side, and such empiricists as Mill, Russell and many outstanding scientists on the other. Like the development of science in that period, this interaction was a relatively peaceful process, and like science, after two hundred years of complacency, philosophy was significantly transformed by the advent of new physics. This transformation, however, not only paralleled the changes in science; it went further and united the two fields in an even stronger bind than the first revolution, for the new developments in physics suggested that without the recourse to philosophy no further significant progress in physics was possible.

The philosophy of any period has always been interwoven with science and influenced by its development, but the new physical findings suggested that science depends on philosophy in a more profound way:

In the new movement scientific epistemology is much more intimately associated with science. For developing the modern theories of matter and radiation a definite epistemological outlook has become a necessity; and it is the direct source of the most far-reaching scientific advances. (Eddington, Philosophy 5)

This unprecedented impact of philosophy on the course of physics resulted from the peculiar characteristics of the scientific developments in the early twentieth century. The changes of new physics, according to Jeans, "are of a distinctly philosophical hue; a direct questioning of nature by experiment has shown the philosophical background hitherto assumed by physics to have been faulty" (Physics 2).

The faulty philosophical background indicated by Jeans was the mechanistic attitude of nineteenth-century science. Classical physics ascribed to a corpuscular-kinetic view of nature in which the universe "was regarded as an enormous aggregate of bits of homogeneous material whose quantity remained constant while the spatial distribution was continuously changing according to the immutable laws of mechanics" (Capek 6). This corpuscular-kinetic scheme was based on the predominance of two of the human senses, those of sight and touch. Tactile sensations were believed to provide man with a direct insight into the mechanical properties of matter, its solidity and permanence, while visual sensations gave him knowledge of geometrical and kinematic properties, that is, of the arrangement and motion of the particles of matter. All the remaining properties of objects and the corresponding human senses such as color, flavor, sound or scent were denied objective existence. They were relegated to the realm of man's private mental reactions and their presence or absence was said to be irrelevant to the scheme of the physical world. The senses of touch and sight, on the other hand, were believed to verify the existence of an objective reality and they had served as a basis for the classical definitions of space, time, matter and motion (Capek 4-6).

Disintegration of the Mechanistic View of Nature

Classical science viewed space as a homogeneous medium which had an objective existence and was independent of its physical content. In Newton's words: "Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable" (6). This absolute theory of space was criticised by a number of Newton's contemporaries including Leibnitz, Huygens and Berkeley (Capek 11). Leibnitz, for example, claimed that space is no more than a set of relations between the bodies contained therein and he found the idea of space with no bodies in it absurd (Whitehead, Science and Philosophy 254). The notion of matter independent from space, however, was quite compatible with the mechanistic spirit of modern science, and the absoluteness of space remained a firmly established principle for two hundred years. It was reinforced by the parallel notion of absolute time to which classical physics also ascribed. To quote Newton again: "Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and by its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external" (6). Time and space, thus conceived, were distinctly separate entities, although a close analogy could be observed between them since space was said to be occupied by matter just as time was occupied by motions or changes (Capek 38). Matter was believed to possess impenetrability and temporal permanence. Because of persistence through time, a particle of matter could detach itself from a given position in space and move to another. Thus the independence of matter from space and time served as a basis for the classical concept of motion (Capek 389).

This mechanistic view of nature was introduced in the course of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution and was solidified with the development of modern science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The revolutionary change in twentieth-century physics involved a disintegration of this mechanistic scheme and a gradual formulation of a new mode of understanding reality. This disintegration, as we have already observed, was a direct result of technological progress. Constant improvement in obtaining information about regions of the universe removed from the realm of everyday experience gradually showed the inadequacy of a system based on human sensuous perception. In both particle physics and astronomy new data were obtained which directly challenged the classical notions of space, time, matter and motion, and eventually led to their profound transformation.

In the light of new physical findings, matter lost both its solidity and permanence. The fusion of mass and energy proposed in the special theory of relativity removed the essential distinction between a material body and its surrounding space by showing that the mass of a group of particles depends not only on the sum of its components but also on the energy of the binding between them (Capek 388). The general theory reinforced that view by interpreting "particles" of matter as mere points of extreme density of the timespace continuum. In Einstein's words:

Matter which we perceive is merely nothing but a great concentration of energy in very small regions. We may therefore regard matter as being constituted by the regions of space in which the field is extremely intense. . . . There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter for the field is the only reality. (Capek 319)

These inferences from the relativity theory were soon reinforced by new data from particle physics. Quantum mechanics challenged the solidity of matter by renouncing the very idea of the subatomic particle as a minute equivalent of other particles in physics. Bohr's model of the atom as a minuscule planetary system was the last attempt to interpret the nature of particles in terms of familiar mechanistic concepts. Further development of quantum mechanics showed the futility of such endeavors, for the subatomic reality displayed properties incompatible with classical mechanics. The indeterminacy principle of Heisenberg also implied the loss of solidity in the subatomic realm. The principle negated the solidity of matter by precluding our direct experience of a subatomic particle. To observe such a particle would mean to find simultaneously the momentum and position of the particle and that, according to quantum mechanics, we cannot do because such a conjunction of momentum and position does not exist in nature.

The loss of distinction between matter and its enveloping space also challenged the traditional concept of motion. In classical physics motion was conceived as a displacement of material particle in space. A particle, being essentially distinct from its surrounding medium, was believed to travel in space by detaching itself from one position and moving to another. The relativistic fusion of matter and space rendered this explanation inadequate. By removing the qualitative difference between space and matter, the relativity theory showed that the particle cannot be "detached" from its position in any meaningful way. The theory suggested that instead of viewing motion as a displacement of a solid body in space we should conceive of it as a pair of events in which the distortion of the spatiotemporal medium decreases in one area while it increases in the neighboring region. This new idea of motion was formulated as early as 1920. Philosopher Hans Reichenbach wrote:

Space is filled with the field that determines its metric; what we used to call matter is merely condensations of this field. It makes no sense to speak of traveling material particles as a transport of things; what occurs is a progressive condensation process that should be compared rather to the propagation of a wave in water. (103)

The physical notion of time underwent an equally profound transformation as those of space, matter and motion. The special theory of relativity, as we have pointed out, described the effect of motion on time measurement. More specifically, it predicted time dilatation in all systems moving uniformly in relation to the given frame of reference. An important aspect of that time transformation was its admittedly apparent character. The lengthening of time intervals and the accompanying directional contraction of matter were believed to involve a subjective change in perception rather than intrinsic transformation of nature. In Max Born's words, these transformations are "a consequence of our way of regarding things and . . . not a change of physical reality" (189). In Duration and Simultaneity Bergson compared this relativistic dilatation of time to the optical effect of perspective in painting. The diminishing size of more distant objects in a painting is never taken to indicate their actual size but rather conveys the idea of distance between the objects and the artist. Similarly, the temporal dilatation does not involve an actual lengthening of time but rather expresses the contrast of velocities between the two frames of reference (73-74).

Bergson extended this apparent character of time dilatation to the general theory of relativity, but he is now believed to have been wrong in that respect. According to the current interpretation of the general theory, "the course of time itself is lengthened by the action of the gravitational field or, what is the same, by the curvature of space-time" (Capek 200). The time dilatation, which in the special theory was no more than a perspective-like distortion, is considered a genuine modification in the general theory. It results in a plurality of local times whose rhythms depend on the intensity of the gravitational fields in their respective regions. These multiple times, according to Bergson, do not negate the unity of real time; on the contrary, they even "imply and uphold" it (Capek 207). Local times are all one in the sense that each of them joins the same identical sequence of causally connected events. The measured time interval between two such events may vary depending on the frame of reference, but the actual stretch of duration between them must be the same for both measurements since in each case it is bounded by the same identical events. It is not the separation of the events that is affected, but the time units: their dilatation in different gravitational fields results in the variety of local times (Capek 206).

The Unity of Nature

The new concepts of time, space, matter and motion which emerged as a new paradigm of physics were characterized by a closer interdependence than their classical equivalents. Time and space were shown to be inextricably bound to form a fourdimensional continuum, while matter and motion were reduced to a quantitative transformation of the spatio-temporal medium. Such new understanding of the basic physical concepts implied the existence of an intrinsic unity in nature extending beyond the relationships admitted and analyzed by classical science. With matter resolved into the intensity of spatio-temporal field it became clear that any event involving a subatomic particle is in essence a transformation of a portion of the field which cannot be sharply delineated from its wider context. Thus, the individual event lost its independence and had to be regarded as a transformation of a considerable part of the universe.

Physics explained this new emphasis on the unity of nature in terms of wave mechanics. Jeans's exposition of this aspect of new physics is most lucid and worth quoting in full:

In particle-picture, which depicts the phenomenal world, each particle and each photon is a distinct individual going its own way. When we pass one stage further towards reality we come to the wave-picture. Photons are no longer independent individuals, but members of a single organization or whole--a beam of light--in which their separate individualities are merged, not merely in the superficial sense in which an individual is lost in the crowd, but rather as a raindrop is lost in the sea. The same is true of electrons; in the wave picture these lose their separate individualities and become simply fractions of a continuous stream of electricity. In each case, space and time are inhabited by distinct individuals, but when we pass beyond space and time, from the world of phenomena towards reality, individuality is replaced by community. (Physics 204)

Thus the universe has to be regarded not as an agglomeration of particles but rather as an organism whose inter-connectedness is so intricate that no part of it can be clearly delineated from the whole. Jeans further speculates that the unity in nature could possibly extend from objects to perceiving minds. If so, our individual consciousnesses would also merge beyond timespace into "a single continuous stream of life" in a way resembling objective idealism such as that of Hegel (204).

Whitehead
Whitehead

The interconnectedness of nature exposed by new physics soon found its reflectcion in the current philosophical thought. One of the most ardent supporters of the notion was Alfred North Whitehead. His insistence on the unity of being is an essential aspect of the "organic philosophy of nature" which he developed in his later period. Its affinity to the revelations of physics is obvious. According to Whitehead,

The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of "independent existence." There is no such mode of existence; every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe. (Science and Philosophy 91)

The unity of the world was conceived philosophically as a network joining not only the elements of alike nature, but also those which in the classical scheme belonged to clearly separate categories. Objects were now believed to interact with abstract notions; animate matter with the inanimate. "The whole trend of modern scientific views," wrote Eddington, "is to break down the separate categories of 'things,' 'influences,' 'forms,' etc., and to substitute a common background of all experience" (Nature xi).

Non-material Nature of Reality

The emphasis on the unity of all being was not an original notion of new physics. A similar tendency had characterized early Greek physics and, in a modified form, medieval physics. It was perhaps best expressed in the writings of Aristotle, who opposed the atomists by stressing the wholeness of organisms and by ascribing to inanimate matter the notions of purpose and potency (Bronowski, Common Sense 29). These and other non-metrical properties had been removed from the scientific scheme by the seventeenth-century revolution. Newtonian physics had renounced subjective and non-metrical knowledge as irrelevant to the objectively existing universe. New physics restored this type of knowledge to prominence by suggesting that subjective, mental aspect of existence may in fact be more real than the world of objects.

This shocking assertion of new physics followed from the abstract character of the relativistic and quantum phenomena. In both relativity and quantum mechanics, physicists worked with abstract concepts which lacked a parallel in the world of the senses. The phenomena of new physics were expressed verbally but only with a stipulation that the verbal model or picture is merely an approximation of their actual nature. The true reality was said to reside only in the appropriate mathematical formulae. Attempts to go beyond the mathematical expression might assist in understanding the concepts, but they had to be recognized as leading away rather than towards reality (Jeans, Mysterious Universe 150-51). This idea of reality as a purely mental construct has been pointed out repeatedly by physicists and philosophers. Albert Einstein, for example, claimed that "the concepts which arise in our thought and in our linguistic expressions are all--when viewed logically--the free creations of human thought which cannot inductively be gained from sense experiences" (Ideas 22).

The non-material nature of reality, just like its organic unity, could be explained in terms of wave mechanics. The probability waves of quantum physics were said to describe not matter itself but only a potential for matter to come into existence and they could not achieve the status of matter without the participation of the human mind. The matter waves, according to Jeans, cannot have any material or real existence:

They are not constituents of nature, but only of our efforts to understand nature, being only the ingredients of a mental picture that we draw for ourselves in the hope of rendering intelligible the mathematical formulae of quantum mechanics. (Physics 167).

Again, this non-material nature of reality was not an original concept of new physics. Like the notion of the organic unity of nature, it could be traced to the early Greek times as an essential feature of philosophical idealism. In modern times it found its most ardent supporter in the person of George Berkeley, a subjective idealist whose views on the nature of physical reality strikingly resemble the inferences of new physics. In the early eighteenth century, amid general exultation with the triumphs of modern science, Bishop Berkeley accused the scientific materialists of drawing unwarranted conclusions about reality. He refused to accept the existence of an objective material world independent of conscious experience. Reality, according to Berkeley, is no more than a complex of sensations, actual or remembered, in the perceiving mind:

[A]ll the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind. . . . [S]o long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit. . . . From what has been said it is evident there is not any other Substance than SPIRIT, or that which perceives. (Berkeley 67-68)
Berkeley
Berkeley

Two centuries later and by a different method, new physics reached similar conclusions. It renounced the notion of reality as a material entity endowed with objective existence. Instead, it acknowledged the central role of the perceiving mind, by suggesting that the mind takes an active part in shaping the reality. For, according to quantum mechanics, without an act of observation the subatomic realm consists of no more than potentialities. Only through interaction with the perceiving mind can the potentialities turn into actualities and take the form of the familiar everyday reality.

The Mind and the Universe

The central role of the perceiving mind in the world concept of new physics suggested a new philosophical outlook on the relationship between the mind and the universe. The classical view of this relationship was based on the Cartesian differentiation between the physical universe and the perceiving mind. In formulating his metaphysics Descartes had split reality into two separate realms. On the one hand there was the res extensa: the world of solid bodies extending in space and independent of human mental processes; on the other, the res cogitans, or the inner realm of the perceiving mind. Only the former was capable of consistent mathematical description and was gradually developed into the intricate mechanistic concept of reality. The realm of the mind involved primarily notions which precluded strict mathematical treatment. Consequently, it was removed from the mainstream of scientific thought for two centuries.

New physics reversed that tendency and reinstated the human mind to the central position it had in Platonic and Aristotelian world concepts. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, "the world presented for our belief by philosophy based on modern science [i.e. new physics] is in many ways less alien to ourselves than the world of matter as conceived in former centuries" (Jeans, New Background 296). Under the influence of new physics a number of concepts which Newtonian mechanics had dismissed as irrelevant to the scheme of the universe regained their philosophical significance.

Free Will and Determinism

The newly asserted position of the perceiving mind brought new attention to the old philosophical question of free will and determinism. The corpuscular-kinetic view of nature in Newtonian physics implied that the universe is governed by strict determinism. The state of the universe at a given instant was believed to determine unequivocally its future state, just as itself it was determined by the past. With particles of matter subjected to strict laws of motion, a detailed description of their instantaneous configuration and momenta was considered sufficient to determine their future state. This strict determinism was stressed especially by Laplace who claimed that by knowing the position and momenta of all the constituents of matter at a given instant, an infinitely skilled mathematician could in theory predict the future of the universe. Classical determinism thus implied that there is no real novelty in nature: everything that will happen has already been predetermined, and contingency in nature is "nothing but a symptom of human ignorance" (Capek 138).

The strictly deterministic scheme of classical science was dethroned by the disintegration of the corpuscular-kinetic view of nature. The changes of new physics involved a transformation of both components of the Laplacian model: the possibility of instantaneous configuration of particles was negated by the relativity theory, while the notion of a definite particle associated with a specific momentum and location was dismissed by quantum mechanics. The world of quantum phenomena showed indeterminacy to be an intrinsic feature of nature and suggested that while every moment is partly dependent on its antecedent, it also contains an element of genuine novelty:

In such a growing world every present event is undoubtedly caused, though not necessitated by its own past. For as long as it is not yet present, its specific character remains uncertain for one simple reason: that it is only its presentness which creates its specificity, i.e. brings an end to its uncertainty, by eliminating all other possible features incompatible with it. Thus every present event is by its own nature an act of selection ending the hesitation of reality between various possibilities. (Capek 340)

Causality

The denial of absolute determinism in nature also argued for a need to reevaluate the classical notion of causality. The principle of causation was established by the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution as a driving force in nature. The task of the classical scientist was to describe reality by isolating individual causes and analyzing their effects. The relation between cause and effect was conceived in strictly mechanical terms, and it led to the interpretation of the material universe as a vast machine. For the classical scientist there were no alternatives to this mechanical mode of understanding reality. Christiaan Huygens, the first proponent of the wave theory of light, observed in his Traite de la lumiere (1690):

In true philosophy, the causes of all natural phenomena are conceived in mechanical terms. We must do this, in my opinion, or else give up all hope of ever understanding anything in physics. (Jeans, New Background 38)

And yet in the early twentieth century physicists were forced, by their own findings, to renounce the principle of strict causation. In particle physics, for instance, the phenomenon of radioactive disintegration was analyzed, raising disturbing questions. In some chemical elements a certain number of atoms were found to transform regularly into radiation. The process was puzzling because there was no apparent reason for the radioactive decay: it appeared to be an effect without a cause.

Physicists thus found it necessary to renounce strict causality as a fundamental feature of the physical world. With no substitute in sight, scientists were forced to acknowledge their shortcomings by admitting a lack of a definite stance on the subject. Eddington wrote in 1928:

Strict causality is abandoned in the material world. Our ideas of the controlling laws are in the process of reconstruction and it is not possible to predict what kind of form they will ultimately take; but all the indications are that strict causality has dropped out permanently. (Nature 332)

Amidst the confusion created by renouncing strict causation, several physicists attempted to redefine causality and determinism in the light of new findings. Their tendency was to acknowledge man's ignorance of the true nature of causality rather than accept an essentially a-causal world. Einstein's belief was that "events in nature are controlled by a much stricter and more closely binding law than we suspect to-day, when we speak of one event being the cause of another," although we have not been able to grasp that law due to our limited, narrow perspective. According to Einstein, " our present rough way of applying the causal principle is quite superficial. . . . We are like a juvenile learner at the piano, just relating one note to that which immediately precedes or follows," unable to grasp the sense and beauty of the whole composition (Jeans, New Background 233). A similar opinion was expressed by Hermann Weyl in The Open World (1932):

These considerations force upon us the impression that the law of causality as a principle of natural science is one incapable of formulation in a few words, and is not a self-contained exact law. Its content can in fact only be made clear in connection with a complete phenomenological description of how reality constitutes itself from the immediate data of consciousness. (43)

Jeans offered yet another perspective on causality. According to him, "if we still wish to think of the happenings in the phenomenal world as governed by a causal law, we must suppose that these happenings are determined in some substratum of the world which lies beyond the world of phenomena, and so also beyond our access" (Physics 145).

Being and Becoming

The denial of absolute determinism and causality by new physics had another philosophical repercussion: it marked a return to an essentially dynamic view of nature, or a reinstatement of the concept of becoming in the physical world. Newtonian physics described the universe as an essentially static entity. Changes in nature had only a superficial character as ultimately they could be reduced to rearrangement of a finite number of permanent elementary particles. These particles, then, were characterized by being--they remained always the same, regardless of their configuration. While it had been the task of the classical physicist to investigate and describe that objectively existing world, new physics indicated that another aspect of reality must also be considered:

In sorting out the confused data of our experience it has generally been assumed that the object of the quest is to find out all that really exists. There is another quest not less appropriate to the nature of our experience--to find out all that really becomes. (Eddington, Nature 110)

The essentially dynamic view of physical reality became a recurrent motif of early twentieth-century philosophical thought. In The Nature of the Physical World Eddington observed that "we must regard the feeling of `becoming' as (in some sense at least) a true mental insight into the physical condition which determines [the world outside us]" (89). William James spoke of "the everlasting coming of concrete novelty into being." "Time," he observed, "keeps budding into new moments, every one of which presents a content which in its individuality never was before and will never be again" (148-49). Alfred North Whitehead expressed a similar view when he wrote about "the creative advance of nature . . . which we experience and know as the perpetual transition of nature into novelty" (Concept 178). Finally, the same belief in the genuine novelty in nature underlay Bergson's discussion of time in Creative Evolution. "The universe endures," he wrote. "The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new" (14).

The reinstatement of the notion of becoming as a fundamental feature of the physical world resulted in part from the findings of particle physics. A subatomic particle turned out to be nothing but a modification, often temporary, of the spatiotemporal continuum and the term "particle" with its connotations of solidity and permanence seemed inappropriate to denote the final constituents of nature. The term "event" then was adopted by several philosophers as a substitute for "particle": Russell, Jeans, Whitehead, Bergson and Bachelard all saw the term "event" as expressing more accurately the essence of the fundamental constituents of the subatomic world (Capek 368). Jeans, for example, observed:

Thus the events must be treated as the fundamental objective constituents, and we must no longer think of the universe as consisting of solid pieces of matter which persist in time, and move about in space. . . . Matter gives us a rough and easily understood, but not a true, picture of the reality underlying physical phenomena. But we now begin to suspect that events and not particles constitute the true objective reality. (New Background 294-95)

In Science and the Modern World Whitehead reached a similar conclusion:

Thus nature is a structure of evolving process. The reality is the process. It is nonsense to ask if the colour red is real. The colour red is ingredient in the process of realisation. The realities of nature are the prehensions in nature, that is to say, the events in nature. (106)

Transformation of the Scientific Language

This need to readjust the language to the new mode of understanding reality became another prominent feature of new physics. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries the scientific language developed into a powerful, dependable tool. It was based on ordinary language, but gradually it lost the looseness and ambiguity of everyday usage. Common terms within a scientific context became clearly defined, precluding the possibility of any ambiguity or misunderstanding in interpreting the text. The belief in the exactitude of the scientific language, however, was shattered by the advent of new physics. The formulation of the relativity theory and the exploration of the subatomic realm showed that at its most basic level nature transcends language and reasoning: in Heisenberg's words, the "new aspects of nature . . . cannot be described in terms of the common concepts" (167-68).

Heisenberg
Heisenberg

Although since the time of Galileo the mathematical description of the physical world was considered the most accurate, the physicist has had to rely upon linguistic description to communicate his findings to laymen. Moreover, as Heisenberg points out, "even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the understanding that had been reached" (168). New physics, however, introduced a number of concepts which denied visualization and image-making since they lacked an equivalent in the familiar everyday reality. Such concepts as "the fourdimensional continuum" or a particle's status as "a tendency to exist" clearly indicated the inadequacy of language to express the essence of the physical reality. Consequently, scientists were forced to re-examine their assumptions about the workings of language. Definitions, for example, had always been trusted to guarantee the exactitude of meaning. But, as Heisenberg observes, a language cannot fully describe itself because "definitions can be only given with the help of other concepts, and so one will finally have to rely on some concepts that are taken as they are, unanalyzed and undefined" (169). Furthermore, a "logical analysis of language involves a danger of oversimplification":

In logic the attention is drawn to very special structures, unambiguous connections between premises and deductions, simple patterns of reasoning, and all the other structures of language are neglected. These other structures may arise from associations between certain meanings of words; for instance, a secondary meaning of a word which passes only vaguely through the mind when the word is heard may contribute essentially to the context of a sentence. The fact that every word may cause many only half-conscious movements in our mind can be used to represent some part of reality in the language much more clearly than by the use of the logical pattern. (170)

The same danger of oversimplification was noted by Whitehead:

One source of vagueness is deficiency of language. We can see the variations of meaning; although we cannot verbalize them in any decisive, handy manner. Thus we cannot weave into the train of thought what we can apprehend in flashes. We are left with the deceptive identity of the repeated word. (Science and Philosophy 136)

Faced with the inadequacies of strict scientific language, physicists were forced to accept the use of a somewhat vague, ambiguous idiom to convey the meaning of their experimental findings. Heisenberg pointed out that the language employed by physicists to describe subatomic events "is not a precise language in which one could use the normal logical patterns; it is a language that produces pictures in our mind, but together with them the notion that the pictures have only a vague connection with reality, that they represent only a tendency toward reality" (181). This admitted vagueness of language when applied to relativity and quanta stressed again the connection between new physics and philosophy. Unlike modern science, which found its primary language in mathematics, philosophy had always struggled "to express itself in the inadequate words of common speech" (Jeans, Physics 83). Indeed, Whitehead once defined philosophy as "an attempt to express the infinity of the universe in terms of the limitations of language" (Science and Philosophy 21).

The admittance of vagueness and ambiguity in scientific language marked not only a reaffirmation of the ancient link between physics and philosophy but also the emergence of a new alliance with the fine arts. Literary language had always depended upon such vaguely perceived shades of meaning and associations as those now admitted into scientific discourse. This new convergence of physics and literature, however, extended beyond the use of a common tool. As the discoveries of new physics opened for man's scrutiny new regions of the physical universe, it became more and more obvious that man is incapable of directly experiencing reality on its most elemental level. Consequently, all the attempts at describing it amount to no more than creating fictions. In the light of the new physical data, Jeans observed,

space begins to appear merely as a fiction created by our own minds, an illegitimate extention to nature of a subjective concept which helps us to understand and describe the arrangement of objects as seen by us, while time appears as a second fiction serving a similar purpose for the arrangement of events which happen to us." (New Background 99-100)

And, if this line of thought is pursued further still, literature can be identified with life: for the contact between consciousness and the world "reduces merely to a contact between mind and a creation of mind--like reading of a book or listening to music" (Jeans, Mysterious Universe 53).

The link joining new physic and fiction writing was imagination. In literature imagination always played a predominant role but in classical physics, while imagination was considered an important factor in breakthrough discoveries, its role in describing the physical reality was believed to be marginal. To develop relativity and quantum mechanics, however, physicists found imagination indispensable. Deprived of a direct experience of the subatomic world, only through creating an image could the physicist announce to the non-scientific community the results of his findings. Niels Bohr is reported to have said to Heisenberg: "When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images" (Bronowski, Ascent 340).

The immediate impact of this fusion of science and art was minimal in comparison with the technological outcome of new physics. The long-term results are still in the making and it is too early to assess them. But the general trend of the change is clear: the intuitive and the rational aspects of human existence are regaining the balance they lost with the advent of modern science in the seventeenth century. Only through such merging of reason and intuition man hope to fully understand the world.

 
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Copyright © 1997 Andrzej Duszenko duszenko@wolf.northern.edu