Oct 042010

1) Mysteries

Light and energy, gravity and inertia; these are material mysteries. We cannot explain them.

A mystery is not the same as a puzzle. A puzzle can be figured out. A mystery, in the religious sense, cannot. A mystery cannot be figured out, because it defies figuring.

We are accustomed to talking about spiritual mysteries. We accept that the spiritual world cannot be explained, since all explanations are rooted in the material world, all language being built on metaphor – images of material things and experiences. Thus we gladly accept the fact that science can never speak to religious matters, simply because religious matters are not of the “material” category. And vice-versa. Thus, we are happy to accept the obvious fact that to make a statement about the existence or non-existence of God is by definition to make a non-scientific statement.

Fine. We are OK with that. God is safe from scientists (thank goodness).

But that science can no longer speak to material matters is quite something else indeed. We are not as easy with that. And yet here we are in the 21st century, where we now suspect that 96% of the mass and energy in the universe is of a type not explainable by our current physics. The vast majority of the cosmos is beyond the scope of the laws of physics we know. Most of reality is invisible, undetectable, unknown, and unexplained.

Moreover, the 4% that we think we know, we don’t know all that well. We have measurements, but no real good explanations. When physicists try to explain the meaning of the equations that “describe” the material universe, they get into disputes with one another that are so interminable, that they have long since given up such attempts at such explanations, leaving this pursuit to the philosophers.

Yes, science has given up.


It’s not me saying this, that’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman!

So here we sit, with no explanation of light, no explanation of gravity, no explanation for inertia, no explanation of the strong force. Worse yet, the hardest of the hard sciences tell us without equivocation: there can be no explanation. This, of all things, being an essential law upon which all of physics – the Mother of all Scientific Knowledge – is built.

2) Known knowns

The Greeks have different words for knowledge. There is propositional knowledge, or knowledge-that, and there is procedural knowledge, or knowledge-how.

Knowing-that is called  episteme. The study (logy) of  episteme is called epistemology.

Knowing-how is what Plato called techne, or skill. This is where the word, technology comes from. Technology and Epistemology are two ways of knowing. We have an abundance of one, while the other remains so elusive and mysterious that science has abandoned it.

For example, we “know-that” light travels at a certain speed, has certain energies, etc. But to this very day, we have no explanation for how it does what it does. In other words, we have a lot of “know-that”, or epistemological, information about light. But we have very little “know-how”, or technical, mechanical information about light. We do not understand the mechanism by which it operates.

Again, we do not “know how” light works. We simply “know that” it does. We know that it does X, Y, and Z when A, B, and C are present.

We have literally taken lightening out of the sky and made it to sing, yet in a very real sense, we have no real knowledge of it all.

3) Known Unknowns

Here is a video of Feynman talking about his discovery of inertia when he was a child. He asks his father for an explanation, but his father, having a “deep” understanding, said that no one knows why things have inertia. We only know that they do.

Socrates understood that he did not “know” much. This is wisdom. That there is still so much that we do not know, cannot know, in this world; this is sublime.

Here is another video of Feynman talking about what it is that we ask when we ask why.

4) Physics reaches the brink

So, we know that light has certain properties, and we know that light does this and does that under certain conditions – we just don’t know how. Moreover, as Richard Feynman has remarked, science has long ago given up (yes, science has given up) the attempt to discover how light works.

This question is a matter of philosophy and religion now. Why? Because the “how” question has no material (Newtonian) answer. Which is to say the rules of logic – of cause and effect – do not apply, therefore, “explanations” fail, simply because to explain something is to use the rules of logic to show the causes and effects. But in the quantum world, current principles tell us that we cannot know these things – not because we are not clever enough, but because they are true mysteries.

One might still like to ask: “How does it work? What is the mechanism behind the law?” No one has found any machinery behind the law. No one can “explain” any more than we have just “explained.” No one will give you a deeper representation of the situation. We have no ideas about a more basic mechanism from which these results can be deduced.

Truly, we have reached the brink of the knowable.

We would like to emphasize a very important difference between classical and quantum mechanics. We have been talking about the probability that an electron will arrive in a given circumstance. We have implied that in our experimental arrangement (or even in the best possible one) it would be impossible to predict exactly what would happen. We can only predict the odds! This would mean, if it were true, that physics has given up on the problem of trying to predict exactly what will happen in a definite circumstance. Yes! Physics has given up. We do not know how to predict what would happen in a given circumstance, and we believe now that it is impossible, that the only thing that can be predicted is the probability of different events. It must be recognized that this is a retrenchment in our earlier ideal of understanding nature. It may be a backward step, but no one has seen a way to avoid it.

The Newtonian, material, (know-that) world is but a puzzle. The quantum (know-how) world, in contrast, is a true mystery in the religious sense of the word. And yet the Newtonian, material world is made up – everywhere and in all parts – of the quantum. In other words, the quantum world IS the material world! All of physics, every phenomenon in the history of the universe from the Big Bang to my lunch break yesterday can be explained with the QED, which is a mathematical framework that describes the interaction of photons with electrons. When it comes to the material world, this is all there is. This is the sum of the smallest to the largest and all the in-between. This explanation is science’s greatest achievement. But it is all “know-that” and no “know-how”. Even worse, at it’s very core is this fact: that it is ultimately an unsolvable mystery. The “know-how” is un-knowable.

Here is a video of Feynman talking about this.

The problem he is discussing is the problem you encounter when you come to the end of language. All language is metaphor. Which is to say that our words use material objects as maps to concepts and meaning. It has always been so. But with particle physics, we have no corresponding material experiences with which to map the concepts of what is happening. We have equations but no words.

We have the theory right but we haven’t got the pictures that will go with the theory. Is that because we haven’t caught on to the right pictures, or is it because there aren’t any right pictures?

Feynman goes on to suggest that only by immersing oneself in the quantum world for prolonged periods of time can the student attain an instinct for such an unfamiliar realm for which there is no language or images from which to draw explanations. This is the philosophy of “efficient practice precedes the theory of it.” This is reminiscent, not so much of physics, as it is of religious mysticism. In fact, this is the very same mechanism behind many religious rituals dating back through antiquity and further. Philosophy until Aristotle was a practice, a way of life, more than a mere intellectual exercise. Religious experience was precisely the experience Feynman describes. It is the experience of that for which we have no words. The experience of the immaterial.

The modern enlightened intellectual may find him or herself far removed from such mystical, religious practices. But we have come full circle. Once again, to understand the mysteries of this world, we come back to the silence that transcends words. Psychologists have defined this mystical experience as “flow“. Athletes call it being in the “zone”. Religion simply calls it God, or Nirvana, or Enlightenment. These may not all be the same experience, per se, but they are the same kind of experience.

And this is the way of Feynman, master of the secrets of light. Like a Zen master, or Christian mystic, more than a physicist, he suggests that the only way to understand light is through something that can best be described as transcendent.

Thus, studying particle physics brings the student to the same place that the religious mystics find themselves: to experience that  which is beyond words, beyond the material world, beyond cause and effect, beyond binary logic. The Greeks had a word for this kind of knowledge too, they called it gnosis, or knowledge of the spiritual.

The same thing happens when we try to “know-how” gravity works. And with so many other mysteries in our lives. Not only can science not explain the spiritual, it cannot even adequately explain the material. Whether you are studying science, or religion, you will inevitably come to the end of words, the end of pictures, and be confronted with the brink.

Crossing the brink is what Kierkegaard describes as making a leap of faith. It is the point at which you can go no further unless you let go of what some may call “reason”. But science is pure reason, you declare! Yes, but logic dictates that a material object can only be in one place or another. However, Science now tells us that light is a particle and yet is always in more than one location at a time. Good bye logic. Beyond this point you are no longer needed. All who enter here leave Science behind. There is but one way through the Mystery. Welcome to the brink.

Further examples and explanations:

Again, here is Feynman explaining the “know-that”, which physicist possess vs the “know-how”, which they do not.

Once again, here he explains the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing the theory of something.

Ernest Rutherford once made the comment that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Well, even physicists are stamp collectors now.

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