The science of awe

Despite the correspondences, physics and metaphysics haven't merged

Religious mystics report an invisible reality, beyond the world we observe with the five senses. Now, so do modern physicists.

Traditionally, the deeper reality of the natural scientist has been a clockwork universe of dead matter in motion - hardly consistent with what religious mystics have described. But a few physicists now claim that 20th-century discoveries in their field require a new scientific view of reality, more like what religious seers report.

The latest book to claim this connection between 20th-century physics and religious mysticism is "Nature Loves to Hide," by physicist Shimon Malin. I must admit I haven't found previous attempts along this line to be very convincing. But Malin avoids the major errors that have marred other books of this kind and offers the reader a fascinating introduction to the strange world of quantum physics and its wider implications.

One error that Malin avoids is the claim that philosophical and theological conclusions can be deduced from the science itself. Modern physics consists of mathematical equations and prediction-making procedures that are neither theological nor philosophical. Thus, we can draw such conclusions only if someone adds an interpretation to the bare physics and then connects this interpretation with some larger system of thought.

Although Malin argues passionately and persuasively that the bare physics is suggestive of his own mystical vision, he does not make the mistake of implying that his system can be deduced from the theory. "Although quantum mechanics is not a comprehensive world view," he writes, "it is replete with suggestions."

Malin also won my confidence by acknowledging that not all physicists draw the same conclusions from quantum theory, and he summarizes alternatives to his own view.

Unfortunately, some of Malin's predecessors have ignored this lack of agreement and the technical nature of physics itself in order to claim that quantum physics proves matter to be a purely mental phenomenon. To be accurate, they should say that one of several competing interpretations places the transition from the quantum to the everyday realm inside human consciousness. They should also admit that there are unanswered objections to this interpretation and that it has few followers in the physics community.

In Malin's more believable interpretation, the transition to the everyday realm occurs outside of consciousness when "nature makes a choice." Then, an invisible network of evolving possibilities suddenly becomes an observable event. Thus, Malin leads his readers to a novel but still objective definition of matter: "According to Newtonian physics," he writes, "matter is made of enduring objects called 'atoms.' By contrast, according to quantum mechanics, the basic units of the physical world are events that flash in and out of existence."

Having given quantum physics his own interpretation, Malin then proceeds to connect his interpretation to a larger worldview. Thus, the second part of "Nature Loves to Hide" "culminates in a presentation of Whitehead's magnificent 'process philosophy' and an analysis of its astonishing correspondence with the findings of quantum physics."

Clearly, the existence of these correspondences is no proof of the grand, mystical vision with which Malin ends his book. But they do illustrate an important flexibility of interpretation and worldview that is the new situation in physics.

Given this new flexibility, some will attach a mystical worldview to quantum physics; others will attach a material worldview. This lack of conclusiveness may be disappointing to those who hope for a closer connection between 20th-century physics and some form of religious mysticism. But the fact that materialism is no longer the only option should be as encouraging to other spiritual seekers as it is to Shimon Malin.

***

David Nartonis is a freelance writer living in Boston.

'The crux of the quandary: Local realism is an eminently reasonable world-view; it is, in fact, the world-view we hold, tacitly or explicitly. According to quantum mechanics ... it has to be given up. What will take its place?'

- From 'Nature Loves to Hide'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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