Friday, 21 April 2017


The following is the gist of a  topic featured in the 22nd  revised edition of V.H. Ironside, Behold! I Teach You Superman :

                                                                  "The eye sees, the ear hears, and the brain believes."
Robert McMacon
                                                                                                                 "The eye is the lamp of the body." 
Matthew 6:22

                Relativity is a ‘classical’ theory. But in the opening stages of the 20th century, theoretical physics was redefined by a string of discoveries wholly incompatible with the classical mechanics of motion and force. Not only had X-rays been identified as a variant form of Maxwell’s electromagnetic radiation, but Einstein’s idea of quantum particles of light as physically independent ‘atoms’, or parcels of energy that could also function as a wave, actually became the raw material for a science with which  he himself would never entirely come to terms. He explicitly expressed his confidence in scientific determinism,  convinced that the invariant laws that underlie relative appearances were the same for all observers. Without sacrificing the essential quality of subjectivity, Einstein  did not think that the world itself was subjective.
            After that came a time of deluge; a period of psycho-analytical and social revolution during which the entire world, in parallel with the revolution of atomic theory, was engaged in a series of ground-breaking changes. It was also an acute evocation of an era that seemed boundlessly indeterminate, dissolving into elementary particles, and ultimately into symmetries, uncertainties and
complementary or conceptual transformations. The atom caught the imagination divided, not indivisible.  And since heat and light, subsequent to Maxwell, Hertz, and Lorentz, were indeed understood as electromagnetic oscillations of various wavelength, the prevailing belief that the world could exist independently of humans and their perceptions, was left thoroughly impaired. 
            When light falls on the retina,  chemical changes occur that stimulate certain electric activities by which the human brain translates to itself the substance of its sensory experience. But because the brain does not regulate its own condition, it allows us to make visual associations  capable of putting to use an essentially ‘fictional’ representation of the world. Nor does it have sufficient self-awareness to consider that the correlation between electrical activity and imaginative reasoning is essential to the understanding of its own resourcefulness. For even though the supposed correspondence between image formation and the brain’s electric firing is not conventionally thought of as literally representative of visual perception, at no point in this equivalence does anything actually happen in the real world, except of course for the order of causes projecting themselves as the real world. Which is to say, for the so-called ‘model-dependent’ laws that describe the behaviour of light and other electromagnetic radiation of which only an infinitesimal fraction is perceptible to our eyes. Not hues, tones, shades, tints, blushes or dyes, but the brain’s visual association cortex projecting images from within the mind onto the world. The universe, in short, is one of the best attested if most improbable of illusions.

                   So are we dreaming a dream?
            The answer is by no means as obvious as it might seem, seeing that we are unable to distinguish dream from reality. Or – in the well-known estimation of Bishop Berkeley - from a
system of thought which consists solely of objects of the mind that have no existence independent of the mind. Truth to tell, physicists have been more or less compelled to defend this idealist, or ‘anti-realist’, position because, clearly, light comes into existence only as a result of the interactions of photons with cone cells in your retina which then conveys precise electrical constituents all the way to the  visual cortex at the back of your brain. We may refuse to deduce the world’s structure from the way light  interacts with the brain, but, in the idealist’s final analysis, without the brain, the entire universe is plunged into existential darkness. Suns may shine within, but not without. Or in words fashioned by Lord Byron, “Darkness has no need of aid from them – she is the Universe!”[1]

            The brain, on the other hand,  can have nothing helpful to add to this. Because it does not acknowledge its own cerebrations, it proceeds to attribute them to reality itself. And since this point is often overlooked it is worth emphasizing, perhaps,  that its own criteria of proof are infinitely
lower than those of empirical science. As the nineteenth century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann observed: “We infer the existence of things only from the impression they make on our senses. It is thus one of the most beautiful triumphs of science if we succeed in inferring the existence of a large group of things that mostly escape our sense perception.”[2]  

            And in this capacity they belong to the corpus of secondary qualities, such as sight, sound, taste and smell, by which the philosopher differentiates between a substance and its attributes, or ‘qualities’  which, literally, only exist in the mind.  For these precisely are the values which determine the difference between our cerebral judgment and the kind of self-sufficient entity whose attributes or modifications are explicable in terms of ourselves alone. We are, as nearly as one can tell, inextricably entangled in what we see, affected by no causes other than ourselves. Consequently, no man can claim to speak for the ‘Universe’. For while it may be difficult to convey a proper appreciation of the collective fund of sensory experience brought to bear on chaos and disorder, it is an ‘effective certainty’ – to use a categorical imperative George Berkeley might have liked - that once the secondary qualities are abstracted from our psychological understanding, the world as perceived by the eye and the ear is but a figment of the mind.

            Indeed, it is all very well to acknowledge material conditions and proceed from a so-called ‘a priori realist ontology,’ but it is materialistic nonsense nevertheless to talk of autonomous causes for a world that assumes from the outset a very high order of abstraction. Ernst Mach was plainly dismissive: “The world consists only of our sensations.” Inspired by philosophical and psycho-analytical sources, the followers of Mach even held that no reality could exists other than the complex mental and physiological processes involved in perception, and that we can only describe its attributes in terms which derive their meaning from cerebral associations. As adherents of the Viennese movement which espoused a line of thinking called logical positivism, they were questioning what is self-evident to anyone of us, a practical fact of life: the assumption of a knowable physical reality independent of the observer. And to say that they used immaculate logic to reach ‘absurd conclusions’ would not be too farfetched.

            Not everyone agrees, but this is as deft and concise a statement of a realistic philosophy for the working theoretical physicist as one can find. Roger Penrose firmly believes that reality should never pander to the observer but exist on its own terms. Intriguingly, it was also over this very point that Einstein parted company with Bohr – lest “one ends up in a situation that strongly resembles that of the good Bishop Berkeley.”[3] Which is, of course, precisely where the matter stood with Bohr and Heisenberg in Copenhagen. And that’s the problem with modern  physics. It reflects a profound contradiction in Western humanistic tradition.  A contradiction which not only testifies to the anthropic predicament of contemporary physics but to a potentially cataclysmic transition.


[1] Byron, Darkness.
[2] Quoted in David Lindley, Boltzmann’s Atom. The Free Press, London, 2001, p. 178
[3] Quoted in Jeremy Bernstein, Quantum Profiles. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton New Jersey (1991), p. 161

No comments: