Reality Check

September 24, 2016

Reality TV

For Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest physicist of the twentieth century, everything in the physical world had to have an independent reality.  That is, it had to exist independently of any observation or measurement of it.  This applied to large objects as well as to particles, like the electron.  This concept of an independent reality of the physical world originated with Galileo in the seventeenth century.  He did two things which affected all subsequent science.  First, he removed the entire divine world of Greek and medieval philosophy from science.  Up to then, this had been a real world, though one which was quite independent of human participation.  Its reality, therefore, had been objective, while the reality of the physical world, which did depend on human perception through the senses, was of subjective reality.  After Galileo, the upper, divine world became one of belief only.

That left only the physical world for investigation.  Galileo agreed with the Greek philosophers that the subjective nature of sense impressions made them so dependent on purely personal factors that they were unsuitable for any scientific investigation.  This led to his second fundamental change:  he divided all natural phenomena into two classes, or sets of “qualities”.  His “secondary qualities” included the majority of what we perceive in nature, namely all that is known through the senses of smell, touch, taste and hearing.  He felt that all these perceptions needed the presense of sense organs in human beings, so that they were hopelessly subjective and therefore had to be excluded from science.  That left only his “primary qualities” as subjects fit for science.  These primary qualities were very few in number and Rene Descartes later reduced them to just two, matter and motion.  For Galileo, the matter and motion of objects persisted even without a human presence.  He therefore felt that their reality was objective, even though they belonged to the physical world.

Although Galileo focused his new science of physics on just matter and motion, he thought that these two qualities alone could unlock all the secrets of nature and explain completely the behavious of all objects.  Later thinkers agreed with him.  Descartes famously said, “give me matter and motion and I will create the universe”.  All Newton’s laws involved only matter and motion.

As time went on, physicists began to ascribe this independent, objective reality to everything physical, not just the matter and motion aspects of objects.  By the end of the nineteenth century, for anything to be considered “real” it had to be physical and the only reality was the physical world.  This exactly explains Einstein’s feelings and assumptions.  He, the observer, was quite independent of the object observed, and his observations or measurements of the object did not influence or interfere with the independent existence of that object.

Most of us feel the same way as Einstein, in fact this whole argument up to now might seem to be belaboring the obvious.  So here comes the point:  modern quantum physics has shown that Einstein was wrong!  There is no objective world of independently existing objects.  All natural phenomena are perceived through our senses and thus have no more than a subjective reality.  They are appearances, not realities.  Galileo had made a fundamental philosophical error in assigning an objective reality to his “primary qualities”: he ignored the fact that you still needed the sense of sight to perceive matter and motion, so that these were just as subjective in nature as anything else perceived through any of the other senses.  He was led to make this error by his genuine feeling that he, the observer, no longer had the kind of connections that the medieval man felt with observed nature.  There was no more unseen but felt participation with the processes in the natural world.  Galileo, the first modern man, saw nature analytically, as a specimen on a slab, to be examined with a view to finding a mathematical explanation for what was going on.  As he put it: “The language of nature is mathematics”.  Later thinkers, like Descartes and Francis Bacon, agreed with him.  Newton’s laws were mathematical expressions of processes involving matter and motion which, to him, were enough to lay bare all the secrets of nature. 

Later developments in physics in the early part of the twentieth century, when relativity and quantum mechanics showed the limitations of Newtonian physics, never addressed Galileo’s errors specifically, so that even a luminary like Albert Einstein (together with most ordinary people) still felt that the world had to be independently real.  What finally broke the spell was the increasing dominance of quantum mechanics, a branch of modern physics that Einstein himself, ironically, helped to found.  Its most vocal proponent, Niels Bohr, was engaged in a decades long argument with Einstein and the final proofs, giving Bohr the victory, did not emerge until the 1970s, after the death of both of these friendly rivals.

The implications of quantum mechanics are so outrageous and counterintuitive that physicists for the most part have ignored them and concentrated instead on the highly successful mathematical explanations of events and their experimental proofs.  Quantum mechanics is the most successful system in physics today.  None of its predictions has ever been proved wrong.  It has become the bedrock of the modern science.  Yet it states flatly that observation not only marks the behaviour of the object observed, it also brings it into existence.  As one eminent quantum cosmologist put it:  “No microscopic property is a property until it is an observed property”.  Before the observation, there was no object, but after the observation the object existed for everyone else also.  Furthermore, quantum theory states that events in one location can instantaneously “influence” events in another, even one far away, say in another galaxy.  This runs counter to the accepted truism that nothing in the universe can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. 

It is clear that these developments in quantum mechanics have a devastating impact on our sense of reality.  Werner Heisenberg (the author of thePrinciple of Indeterminacy) put it this way:  ” In the experiments about atomic events we have to do with things and facts that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life.  But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

But the “things” or facts of daily life that Heisenberg refers to are merely accumulations of enormous quantities of elementary particles.  If these particles are not real, how can the “things” of which they are composed be real? It is clear that the “reality” which Heisenberg refers to is the same as Einstein’s “reality”, that is the independent reality of physical objects.

If our observations are as important as quantum theory states, it is clear that any explanation of events in the physical world comes up against our consciousness, if we are trying to explain what is going on, that is to find the meaning of events.  No mere interpretation of quantum theory can avoid the encounter with consciousness.  As another thinker put it: “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances to say that the world exists “out there” independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.  There is a strange sense in which this is a ‘participatory universe’.”

All these conclusions and all this language of the latest quantum mechanical musings is beginning to sound eerily familiar.  To start with, Galileo’s worldview (still reflected by Einstein), has now been decisively overturned by quantum mechanics.  Before Galileo, the Greek worldview prevailed, right through the Middle Ages.  This worldview was highly “participatory”, with man and nature connected in many ways.  The latest physics is now returning to this view.

Modern physics has also overturned other Galilean axioms, like the one saying that mathematics is the language of nature.  The Platonic view of mathematics was that is was purely a construct of the human mind, without any outside reality.  This is once more the view of modern physics, which maintains that a hypothesis, no matter how many times it is proved right, will always remain nothing more than a hypothesis, which might be overturned the next day by new facts or arguments.

What we are seeing is that modern physics is showing a very complete agreement not with Galileo, the founder of the science, but with the very Greek traditions which Galileo was at such pains to overthrow in the seventeenth century.  For the Greeks, all physical phenomena, perceivable through our senses, were not independent (that is objective) realities but merely subjective appearances.  Using different language, modern physics agrees with this position. 

Greek thinking about these “appearances” also included the concept that they were the “actual forms”, on earth, representing the “potential forms”, existing in the immaterial, objective world of the divine.  The subjective, physical world had its origin in this objective, immaterial world.  Heisenberg’s use of the word “potentialities” to describe the microscopic world, which is not “real”, is telling.

Physics has tried to find the origin of matter within our world of nature.  For hundreds of years it has looked for the ultimate, irreducible matter particle, this origin of matter, by dividing matter into ever smaller particles.  Classically, the atom was thought to be this ultimate particle.  It was not.  The proton was not.  Finally, it was realized that the size of a particle really depended on the amount of energy that could be directed at it, to smash it into even smaller particles.  The end of this process was not within this world of nature because, at a certain energy level, all matter and force particles would merge into an undifferentiated stream of energy.  This realization led to the concept of the string particle, as the ultimate matter particle, by definition.  The string particle is a one-dimensional particle which, as such, cannot exist in our phenomenal world of nature.  If it is to be the origin of matter, however, it must be “real” in some fashion, which suggests a further convergence with Greek thought.  If the string particle were to be the objectively real origin of matter, in an immaterial world, it would fit well into a long-established philosophical framework, with which modern physics agrees in every other way.

The other outrageous results of quantum theory also become manageable if the concept of both a subjective reality is used for the physical world of appearances and also one of objective reality for the immaterial world of origins and “potential forms”.  This objective world could then be thought of as sustaining the physical world of appearances in our absence, without having to worry about what role our consciousness has to play in the creative process. Within such an expanded frame of reference, physics could perform its functions of dealing with the world in a practical manner without constantly bumping up against contradictory absurdities.

Werner Thurau was born in December 1927, in Havana, Cuba. In 1929, his family returned to his father’s native Germany. He spent the entire 1930s in Berlin, but came to England in 1939 and was then further educated in that country, ending with an engineering degree from London University. His further career took him all over the world on technical projects, moving first to Mexico and then to the United States, where he lives now. At school in England, he was exposed early in life to the world of ideas. Some of his teachers were friends of C.S. Lewis and Lewis’s Oxford group, the Inklings, and his father was a philosophical bookworm. Werner combined this background with a lifelong interest in physics, especially modern physics after it breached the atomic barrier. This interest extended to Galileo, the founder of our age, and what made him so different from others of his time, as well as to the effect physics has had on other related sciences, such as evolutionary theory (and its polar opposite, creationism). He came to see that the latest developments in physics bring in subjects not normally associated with a book on that science, such as consciousness, reality concepts and even ethics.
For my book on this whole argument and its implications, visit:


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