Damien F. Mackey
“Anxious theologians scan the latest scientific theories to see if they do or do not support the existence of God. Grave scientists issue their pontifical pronouncements. Sir James Jeans tells us that God is a great mathematician; Einstein says ‘God is slick but not mean’; Laplace, answering Napoleon who taxed him with not mentioning God in his Mécanique Céleste, said: ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’.”
Aquinas and Kant
Recently I tuned in to watch an SBS TV documentary with the title “Inside Einstein’s Mind”, and I was intrigued to learn that Einstein had managed, with his theory of General Relativity, to unlock the laws of nature.
This documentary is being promoted in the following laudatory terms:
“In November 1915, Einstein published his greatest work: General Relativity, the theory that transformed our understanding of nature’s laws and the entire history of the cosmos. This documentary tells the story of Einstein’s masterpiece, from the simple but powerful ideas at the heart of relativity, to the revolution in cosmology still playing out in today’s labs, revealing Einstein’s brilliance as never before. (From the US) (Documentary) G CC”
One had to marvel at Albert Einstein’s mathematical skill, his ability to think outside the square and to embark upon a new course, his powers of concentration, and his tenacity.
But did he really succeed in coming to grips with the laws of nature and the origins and history of the cosmos?
Is the warp and woof of Einstein’s universe, with its lumpiness and bumpiness, really the way that the universe is, or the way of Einstein’s own imagination?
Can God be defined by an elaborate physico-mathematical equation?
Gavin Ardley well summed up the nature of the new theoretical physics in his classic book, Aquinas and Kant: the foundations of the modern sciences (1950).
I take here a part of his:
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PROCRUSTEAN SCIENCE
The ‘Otherness’ of Modern Physics
Post-Galilean physical science is cut off from the rest of the world and is the creation of man himself. Consequently the science, in itself, has no immediate metaphysical foundations, and no metaphysical implications, in spite of popular beliefs to the contrary. These beliefs arise from the failure to realise the science’s ‘otherness’, that it belongs to the categorial order and not to the real order.
Only that which belongs to the real order is directly linked with metaphysics. The ancient and medieval science of physics belongs to this real order, and is, in principle, an integral part of philosophy in general. It has metaphysical foundations and metaphysical implications. [Footnote: This is not to say that all the particular Aristotelean doctrines of the Earth, the Skies, the Heavens and so on, are essential to Aristotelean metaphysics. They are integrated with metaphysics only in their general intention, and not in particular formulation. They could be modified without necessitating any change in metaphysical principles since the principles of metaphysics are founded on more general grounds. Many of the particular Aristotelean opinions about phenomena were abandoned in the 17th century with the increasingly detailed knowledge of Nature. Galileo’s Dialogues on the Two Great Systems of the World is a classic account of this revision of detailed theories of phenomena. Galileo himself, unlike many of his more extravagant followers, generally pursued this revision with considerable moderation. (See Ch. XVII). He is careful to distinguish what is true an abiding in Aristotle from what is erroneous and non-essential.]
But the ‘new science’ shifted across by degrees into the categorial order and consequently severed its immediate link with metaphysics. Few people were aware of this, [Footnote: See Ch. XVII on the enlightened views of such men as Cardinal Bellarmine in the very early days of the movement. Unfortunately, Bellarmine’s wise observations were forgotten in later years. See, too, Ch. VI on Immanuel Kant, who held the clue in the hollow of his hand, but by excess destroyed it.] least of all the physicists themselves. The general run of physicists and philosophers have gone on writing learned works on the metaphysical foundations, and more particularly the metaphysical implications, of modern physics, oblivious to this change of character. If the theory of the nature of modern physics put forward in this book is correct, then both these enquiries are vain.
Works on the supposed metaphysical foundations of modern physics may have some value however, even if not in the sense intended by the authors. For, although logically the supposed foundations are not there, yet psychologically the metaphysical background may well have prompted the physicist to introduce this or that Procrustean bed. It is one of the sources of inspiration. [Footnote: See Ch. XI on Scientific Method.] Such enquiries then are of great interest to the historian of science as indicating one possible factor which led physicists to do what they in fact did. But they do not in any way provide a metaphysical foundation for the science, since a categorial science has no such foundation, dwelling apart, as it does from the real world. [Footnote: Such a work is the valuable study of Burtt: The Metaphysical Foundaions of Modern Science (London, 1925). We might say that the significance of this work is not logical, as Burtt apparently intended, but psychological and historical. It is significant that Burtt practically ignores Kant and his Copernican revolution, which is of vital importance in this matter and leads to quite different conclusions from Burtt’s (see Ch. VI).
Reference should be made to E. W. Strong: Procedures and Metaphysics (Univ. of California Press, 1936) for an examination of the origin of modern physics from the non-metaphysical point of view advocated in this work. Strong writes (pp. 10-11):
The operational autonomy of science and the irrelevance of the metaphysical tradition was a conclusion arising from, rather than being a premise leading to, the present study. The theory with which the inquiry began was not confirmed by the evidence, for let it be confessed at the outset that the original intention was to consolidate the claim that the Platonic tradition was the metaphysical godfather of modern scientific thought. The study of the scientific work and opinion of the early-modern period conjoined with a correlated study of the mathematical aspect of the Platonic tradition revealed that the original theory was untenable. The problems of mathematicians and physical investigators were found to be methodological rather than proceeding from, or based on, metaphysical concepts. The meaning of concepts employed by mathematicians and scientists in their work was found to be established in the limited operations and subject matter constituting their science. The conclusion finally driven home was the conviction that the achievements of Galileo and his predecessors were in spite of rather than because of prior and contemporary metaphysical theories of mathematics.
This contention that there are two lines of activity, one of autonomous procedures, and the other of metaphysics, is diametrically opposed to Burtt’s thesis of homogeneity. Strong goes on to develop it with a wealth of historical evidence. Strong’s conclusions from his examination of the origins of modern mathematical-physical science in the 16th and 17th centuries lend powerful support to our basic contention that there are two orders: an autonomous order of physico-mathematical science, and a real order which is the province of metaphysics. The contention as advanced here is founded on an examination of the nature of physical science as we have it today. Strong’s historical examination of origins is complementary to, and confirmatory of, the present work.]
While discussions of the metaphysical foundations of modern physics are comparatively rare, discussions of its supposed implications are extremely popular. In fact the implications of science are the happy hunting grounds of generations of philosophers, and physicists turned amateur philosophers.
Anxious theologians scan the latest scientific theories to see if they do or do not support the existence of God. Grave scientists issue their pontifical pronouncements. Sir James Jeans tells us that God is a great mathematician; Einstein says ‘God is slick but not mean’; Laplace, answering Napoleon who taxed him with not mentioning God in his Mécanique Céleste, said: ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’.
Puzzled philosophers delve into the intricacies of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to determine if man does or does not possess free will, or to see if the law of causality remains valid, or if it has to be replaced by statistical probability.
[Footnote: As representative of a multitude of contemporary philosophers, let us quote one of the most acute, John Wisdom:
In general philosophers concern themselves with paradoxes arising from facts that come under their observation. It is important that they should be alive to the paradoxes arising from quantum facts. Such facts cannot be shelved as merely technical or as belonging to a special department; they are facts along with all the other more familiar facts about nature they are no less real because revealed by complicated laboratory apparatus than are those revealed by the human eye. (Mind, Jan. 1947, p. 81)
These remarks of Wisdom’s are largely vitiated by the author’s failure to take into account the Procrustean character of physics. He is tacitly assuming a realist theory or a passive phenomenalism (Ch. XVIII). ….
As an amusingly ironic account of the extravagances into which popular opinion is led by hypostatising the world of physics, let us quote from Aldous Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop (London, 1945), Ch. 8.
‘As I was saying, Mr Barnack, everyone ought to know something of Einstein’.
‘Even those who can’t understand what he’s talking about?’
‘But they can, the other protested. ‘It’s only the mathematical techniques that are difficult. The principle is simple – and after all, it’s the understanding of the principle that affects values and conduct’.
Eustace laughed aloud.
‘I can just see my mother-in-law changing her values and conduct to fit the principle of relativity!’
‘Well of course she is rather elderly’, the other admitted. ‘I was thinking more of people who are young enough to be flexible. For example, that lady who acts as Mrs Gamble’s companion …’
‘… Mathematically speaking, almost illiterate’, the young man was saying. ‘But that doesn’t prevent her from realizing the scope and significance of the Einsteinian revolution’.
‘And what a revolution’, he went on with mounting enthusiasm. ‘Incomparably more important than anything that had happened in Russia or Italy. For this was the revolution that had changed the whole course of scientific thinking, brought back idealism, integrated mind into the fabric of Nature, put an end for ever to the Victorians’ nightmare universe of infinitesimal billiard balls’.
‘Too bad’, said Eustace in parenthesis. ‘I really loved those little billiard balls’.]