Wednesday, 25 January 2017

COPENHAGEN: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics

The following is  a  topic currently featured in the 21st  revised edition of V.H. Ironside, Behold! I Teach You Superman (see below):

“Blessed, however, is he who is thus charged! And verily, long must he hang like a heavy tempest on the mountains, who shall one day kindle the light of the future."
            The classical physicist was an Euclidean purveyor of the law, a man experienced in gravitation and thermodynamics, versed in electromagnetism, three-dimensional geometry and the
principle of the conservation of energy. The modern physicist has become a conceptualist, and the practical experience of physics has been replaced by his virtual engagement. His conception proclaims a great change of principle - from the rational to the irrational, from the mechanics of causality to the mystery of chance and probability. In fact, only now, in a world qualified by the essentially virtual character of quantum mechanics and informed by relativistic understanding, can George Berkeley’s idealism be properly appreciated. What modern physics achieved is in large measure a corroboration of the ideas he sketched out some four-hundred years earlier. The idea, namely, of treating a physical system as an arrangement of elements whose primary or secondary qualities, though seemingly a matter of abstruse technicality, needed a participator as well as a creator.
            Truth to tell, it is impossible to state adequately the sheer force and consequence of the Uncertainty Principle - the essence of the actual Copenhagen Interpretation - after the inauguration of quantum mechanics by Niels Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger between 1925 and 1927, except
perhaps to say that it heralded a new, Promethean age.  The atom, in sum, could no longer be understood by itself. It was related to human consciousness and the way the mind works. It was as though we had looked for the truth outside of ourselves, and, in discovering it, become absorbed by it. Indeed, the physicist himself became a reluctant demonstration of the atom’s limited functional possibilities and its dependence upon immediate conceptual participation. 
          Psychosomatic this may be, but the blurring of the classical distinctions between subject and object generated subtle and unconscious realignments, precisely because one could no longer separate the material description of physical reality from the compound ideational activities involved in perception. Which is indeed why I am taking the view that the sub-atomic domain has become an extension of the self rather than something independent of it. That a new genus was emerging: Man's engagement with the atom had become the atom itself.
            Elevated to the status of a feedback principle, it is in fact only when we become part of the experiment, that Being is sufficiently raised to that high structural awareness where it becomes representative of a material concept. For here is the point of all this. In the realm of the atom, mind and matter are inextricably linked. What we are dealing with is not an entity but a shared event. Not
just an atom, but the gateway at long last to those strange two worlds which are without doubt an analytical discovery of the Freudian age: ‘wave’ and ‘particle’ - located, as it were, in two entirely different parts of the brain.
           Indeed, I think it is fair to say that if this almost schizophrenic separation of ideas was a
product of the culture of the time, it nevertheless corresponded to a real distinction in human minds and perceptions, rather like two halves of a puzzle. Because there is always some undercurrent of double meaning which the observer shares with the event, the only way to make sense of it is to say that both, the subject and the object, are caught in the same condition of growing mutual awareness. Something apparitonal, almost animate,  procures itself in the course of mutual comprehension; something  that cannot be reduced to either form or being, but which has to be accepted as such if we are to understand the dawn of the New Enlightenment. If time and space were now represented as indistinguishable from each other as energy and mass, then the same was true of matter and mind. Matter was mind that had arrived at self-expression in intelligible structures, and these structures were cognizant and evolving. And because they had nothing to sustain themselves except that evocative unfathomable, their constitutional uncertainty, the well-defined paths of electrons were exchanged for clouds of probability. In fact, the more enigmatic and inscrutable these sums-over-histories became, the more it was felt that in them we were touching upon a basis of reality that no longer proceeded from the properties of matter, but from the propensities of the human mind. 
            Like a glimpse of another world, the effect on the twentieth century of the new physics defies precise evaluation. Yet, as finest hours go, it was unique. It was the rising of a curtain. In fact, that which was now being determined was no longer a causal mechanism, nor an effective reality. It was a holistic concept. The living mind had become phenomenal form, still subject to uncertainty, but
possessing it in antithesis to the formless. Not functional science anymore, but a conceptual catalyst, indeed a post-mechanistic Weltanschauung which revolutionized, at one stroke, the entire universe of human thought. It signified a sweeping entry into a world of transformed ideas and purposes; an emergency measure, indeed,  like the stealing of fire from heaven, or an apocalyptic sign of immediately impending succession, like the coming of age of an heir.
            And so physics was no longer truly Archimedean or Euclidean, let alone Newtonian. It was the story of the human ape that raised himself above the powers of Nature and became himself Creator. For if we wish to understand the most charismatic and pervasive of scientific revolutions, we can hardly get closer to it than this handful of men who were at that time of an entirely new mind-set.  What passed largely unnoticed was Bertrand Russell’s premature pronouncement that the progress of human knowledge had reached the limits of its viability. In the closing stages of the century in which he came of age, it sounded like an epitaph.


VH Ironside is the author of  the fabled Willers of the Will, first published in 1996, now out of print!

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