Science after Einstein: asking the hard questions

The New Story of Science, by Robert M. Augros and George N. Stanciu. Lake Bluff, Ill.: Gateway Editions, Henry Regnery. $6.95 (paper). This book tells a startling tale. It records how ideas emerging in the debates of modern science may alter our attitudes and civilization in regard to materialism -- the despairing doctrine that man's origin and destiny result from accidental gatherings of finite, inanimate elements. While intellectual in tone, the thought and writing in the book are very clear. At times the flow of ideas seems touched by the kind of light shafts that burst out of Mozart's music. The discussion reaches into all areas of our civilization, as the sciences inevitably, inexorably do.

It is certainly right to ask: ``How legitimate is it to use science as the basis for such a broad discussion of man and his world?'' This approach -- which is really an interpretation of the results of scientific research -- seems not only valid, but crucial, given the dehumanization that several centuries of materialistic dogmas have brought us.

There were some instructive encounters along these very same lines in the 1920s among physicists wrestling to understand the weird world of subatomic particles. Werner Heisenberg had advanced the theory that it simply wasn't possible to measure accurately at the same time the position and the momentum (energy) of an electron.

The world of physics thus received its most striking example up to that time of indeterminancy -- the inability to predict specific events of the physical world in a determined way. Erwin Schr"odinger, a physicist in the middle of the unfolding drama, confronted Heisenberg with the view that a denial of ``sharp values for position and momentum amounts to renouncing the very concept of a particle (mass-point)'' (see the ``Dictionary of the History of Ideas,'' Volume II, Page 590, for one version of this encounter).

Schr"odinger saw in the then-heretical theory the clear inference that matter at the subatomic level was not what everyday experience tells us matter is -- and he didn't like it. Yet Heisenberg's theory remains accepted today (as does the related one that says a particle can be observed as either a particle or a wave). Max von Laue said at the time that Heisenberg's conclusions were unwarranted and hasty. Another expert said that this theory of indeterminancy gave ``a causal explanation why causal explanations are impossible.''

In other words, investigations based on the scientific method were saying that truth was hidden, or else that truth, when and however found, would shatter expectations that were a function of belief in empirical knowledge.

Other scientists of the time saw additional inferences. One had to do with the conflict of determinism and free will. If the physics of particles involved indeterminancy, perhaps men really had free will after all and were not locked into the reductionism of materialism.

The English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington advanced this point. A related concept was that the subject-object issue was addressed by the Heisenberg theory -- that is, truth had to be seen in relation to the mind of the observer and was not really ``objective,'' or outside consciousness.

This could mean that perhaps our very mental process includes the materialism we see. This question -- not new to the intellectual world even then -- was raised by Ernst Cassirer, the famous German philosopher who specialized in the philosophical foundations of natural science.

There still remains today a fascinating reluctance among many scientists to see the radical implications in some of the findings of experimental science -- and to bring them out in a type of discourse that bears broadly on society.

One reason frequently given today for this reluctance -- and it is certainly understandable why scientists might feel this way -- is that such discussions have often been used to spin off ideas akin to Eastern thought. Quantum theory has been used, for example, as justification for those Eastern-thought systems that tend to wipe out individuality (still the keystone of Western thought) on the grounds that matter is just an illusion.

However, there is another and perhaps even more tenacious reason for the reluctance of scientists to see the broader implications of quantum theory discussed. Albert Einstein's experience with this theory provides the most famous and graphic example. Despite the soaring power and beauty of his own theoretical accomplishments, he attempted more than once to prove that quantum theory was wrong.

His opposition seemed based squarely on a sincere belief that experimental methods and intellect would someday show that there is an ultimate reality and logic to the physical universe, which can be explained by human rationality. And Einstein justified this view with his now-famous statement: ``God does not play dice'' with the universe. For a recent presentation defending this view, one can read an excellent and entertaining article called ``Quantum reality,'' by Jeremy Bernstein, the author and physicist, in the American Scholar (Winter 1984/85), essentially defending Einstein's approach and questioning the value of recasting the quantum theory ``as a religious text.''

This belief that experimental science and intellect will someday explain the material universe on a rational basis (a belief that many scientists hold to) happened also to be a central philosophical goal of the Enlightenment, which helped set modern experimental science on its charging and often highly useful course.

But many Enlightenment figures did not credit God with government of the universe, as Einstein apparently did. Some were quite content to prove God's irrelevancy. Thus natural science has included, for generations, a mental heritage burdened by aggressive atheism.

Along come the authors of ``The New Story of Science.'' They build up, clearly and convincingly, the startling argument that modern science itself -- properly interpreted and understood -- is going to put down the doctrine of materialism. They take the results of work in physics and cosmology, neurophysiology, and to some extent psychology and argue that new knowledge now shows that man is not a mentally blind creature of determinism whose consciousness is only a function of matter.

Individuals, they argue, can, and to some extent do, live above the dictates of matter through conscious effort to be moral and rational. This argument against materialism declares that such desire does not originate in any chemical-electrical basis. They quote others who say that such a moral universe includes ``room for a God.''

The authors are, in fact, documenting a recent intellectual trend that has been gathering force for several decades. More and more students of contemporary thought believe that the doctrine of materialistic determinism is already dead for lack of experimental and logical evidence. The new-old truth of science is, they say, that the spirit of man is free, that conscience and consciousness can be in control of events and history, of all that matters. The subtitle of the book is ``Mind and the Universe.''

The authors use the metaphor of cultural historian Thomas Berry, who has said that Western culture is ``between stories.'' The book would show that the implications of the findings of modern science will gradually sink into thought and culture, transforming civilization into a more hopeful, progressive, happy one.

The old story of science, they say, is scientific materialism. This doctrine holds that only matter exists and that all things are explicable in terms of matter alone. According to this theory, free choice must be an illusion, since matter cannot act freely. And since matter cannot plan or aim at anything, morality and a spiritually rational purpose would be out of the question. Mentality itself, according to the doctrine of materialism, is considered to be but a helpless, irrational byproduct of brain activity.

A key implication of the book is that science, when rightly understood as the investigative power of free thought, can continue to be useful for mankind. That is, science is useful if it can be separated from the doctrine of materialism. Now this may seem a contradiction in terms. But it certainly needs thought and explication, for the natural sciences face their share of criticism.

Leon R. Kass asks in his excellent article, ``Does science mean better: Modern science and ethics,'' in the University of Chicago Magazine (Summer 1984): ``Is there any elevated view of human life and goodness that is proof against the belief [of experimental science] that man is just a collection of molecules, an accident on the stage of evolution, a freakish speck of mind in the mindless universe, fundamentally no different from other living -- or even nonliving things?''

This expert on the ethics of the biological sciences also points out that some feel experimental science even threatens the spirit of democracy itself, which depends on perception and support of the moral and spiritual roots of such things as family life, law, and government.

But what if science were, to a much larger extent than today, purged of the materialism that makes its implications so negative? It is, after all, human beings that ``do'' science. These two authors seem to be saying that this purging is in effect happening already and that the reason for this it is that man has an inherent capacity for free thought, for spiritual rationality. They don't speculate about why man has this freedom to elevate his goals and to control his destiny. They stick to what is happening to science and to current thinking about it.

Are these authors identifying an answer to the most fundamental questions of our times? Or are they whistling into the growing darkness of materialism?

They answer with a story from the history of science. When Einstein advanced his explanation of electromagnetic wave phenomena, he also abandoned the theory of physics in his day that there was a universal material medium, called ``ether,'' which was thought essential to carry wave phenonema. He said no one had found the ``ether'' and that a wave didn't need such a medium. Those who couldn't accept his intuitive jump also couldn't understand his new theory, because it lacked a mechanical model. But soon physicists just stopped asking what ``ether'' was like, because they stopped looking for it! They moved to Einstein's higher insights and began asking better questions.

Augros and Stanciu argue that modern science is showing a new (and controversial, it must be added) interest in the nature of intelligence, freedom of thought, and other prime values of humanity. They see a possible revolution in the making, and they are saying that we live in the midst of it.

David Mutch is a student of religious trends in contemporary society.

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