“…the concepts of language are ambiguous in a rather drastic way: one can change them in a manner that violates basic linguistic rules…without stopping to speak, explain and argue. One can start talking nonsense and, having produced a sufficient amount of it, be praised as the discoverer of a new and profound sense. Physics is full of events of this kind. Planck’s quantum theory contained the equation E=h/T, where E was the energy of a particle, i.e. of a localized entity and 1/T the frequency of a wave process which, in the case of well-defined energy would be infinitely long. “We were all dumbfounded by this situation,” wrote Wolfgang Pauli, one of the most critical and most imaginative physicists of his time. Formally, the equation was quite useful; it led to correct predictions. But what did it mean?…. the fact that some scientists think they have nailed things down while still coming up with revolutionary discoveries and that science students are trained to be precise in a very narrow sense and have to catch up with ambiguity later on only shows to what extent we are ruled by ideology…” –Paul Feyerabend, The Tyranny of Science
Most laymen have no idea that quantum mechanics essentially destroyed classical western “materialism.” Along with relativity theory, in which energy and matter are the same thing, quantum mechanics is not based on the traditional western analogy in which the ultimate constituents of the universe are indivisible little marbles. Instead, a particle is a wave and a wave is a particle. The “double slit experiment” has played a key role in this conclusion. (Google “double slit experiment.”)
A particle is something which occurs as a concentration of energy in a wave. The wave is infinitely long. The particle may have no mass, extension, or internal structure. It may be nothing more than a point in space — a piece of geometry. The wave “collapses” into a particle when it is observed. Otherwise, the location of the particle in space and time is indeterminate. It is in a “superposition.” Particles arise spontaneously, one might say ex nihilo, throughout space in what is called the “quantum flux.” Two particles can occur in the same space (since they have no mass or extension) or be in two different places at the same time. Every particle in your body is supposedly accompanied by a wave of which it is the collapse. Your body also produces a wave throughout the plenum of quantum energy. So does everybody else’s. So does every object in the universe. Imagine the complexity of the interaction of all these waves.
How does a natural object arise? Well, it must be some form which disrupts the coherence of all these waves at a particular place and time.
“Material” objects, according to Alfred North Whitehead‘s classic philosophical interpretation of modern physics, are “events.” They are processes, not material objects in any brute, traditional sense. The chair you are sitting on is a process, an event. If you kept trying to walk through a wall for thousands or millions of years, it might just happen, because neither your body nor the wall are, once again, material in the classical sense.
Some philosophers of science have wondered if quantum mechanics has violated the principle of non-contradiction by claiming that both light and matter are both a wave and a particle. These “waves” have no medium to move through if they are themselves the particles. We think of a wave in the ocean as moving through a huge number of molecules of water. The water wave has a particulate medium. But perhaps until we actually start observing “parts” of the water those parts do not exist. The wave perspective and the particle perspective are just two different views of something which is not reducible to either of them — some coherent process exemplified in the double slit experiment and our everyday experience.
At this point, apart from being overwhelmed by what seems to be a lot of metaphysical nonsense — science as philosophy — you can understand why one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, Wolfgang Pauli, found it difficult to interpret the success of the formulas of quantum mechanics in terms of any clear metaphor or analogy about Reality, let alone some literal picture of Reality. He admits to the difficulty of understanding what it all “means.” And indeed, there are competing understandings of “Quantum Reality.” In Wolfgang Smith‘s understanding of it (The Quantum Enigma) everything truly physical is ironically, and in principle, non-observable. Like Whitehead’s original interpretation of the new immaterialism, these are speculative metaphysics.
We have traveled a long way from any naïve Newtonian understanding of Reality in which there are these atoms out there doing what they do, in an absolutely determinate fashion, whether we know about it — observe it — or not. In other words, contemporary physics has undermined the traditional objectivism of classical western science. We once believed that we were observing subjects with some inexplicable capacity to somehow gain a literal apprehension of objects which could, in principle, exist totally outside of our consciousness. I cannot recount the long history of this “bifurcation” of the subject and object in western science and philosophy. Suffice it to say that if Reality really is a bunch of irreducible atoms existing completely apart from your consciousness, we cannot possibly know much about them. All they can do (and we cannot prove even this) is cause subjective phenomena in us which may not, for all we know, be the slightest bit analogous to anything actually going on out there.
The loss of the irreducible material object in contemporary physics may mean the end of this inherently skeptical “bifurcation” of the subject and object, but the cost is a tendency to collapse into “idealism” — the notion that the only thing which actually exists is the observer with a mind which is programmed to experience what it experiences with no foundation in anything existing separately from mind. Every event in the universe becomes a computation. The traditional western analogical explanations suddenly become digital. What is the computer, where is the computer, where these computations occur? It could only be your consciousness.
I drag you through this raft of speculation only to help you understand that if science is supposed to be a literal, verified view of Reality in itself, based on experiments which are somehow able to see beyond readings on instruments to that Reality in itself, then science is dead. There is no direct observation of the metaphysical objects of contemporary physics. String theory, because it relies on a dozen or more spatial dimensions too small to observe with any instrument, is not even in principle subject to experimental falsification let alone confirmation. The double slit experiment cannot tell us why light behaves as both a particle (when we expect this) and a wave (when we expect this). All it can do is induce this experience. It does not itself present us with the inevitable, metaphysical explanation, which may be that God has programmed our experience so that light, like a wave, does not simply disappear behind objects facing it while still allowing us to exploit it, as a particle, in everything from photography to computer chip manufacturing.
Contemporary physics is not fundamentally rooted in direct experience. It is based on logical coherence, which is just the coherence of a pattern of language. That is, contemporary physics is the advancement of a paradigm of language in which coherence is the consistency of the results, the goals, of that paradigm. A few hundred years ago, we called this “natural philosophy.” Just a few hundred years ago we knew that science is not what it naively came to be regarded as during and after the “Enlightenment” — some literal description of Reality. The Enlightenment ironically darkened our understanding about many things, especially science.
Western science died as early as the Middle Ages when Aristotle’s notion that things had purposes, goals — that their behavior was to be explained teleologically — was considered passe’ because this purposiveness was supposedly impossible to observe directly and implied causation by a future event. But this Aristotelian view of reality is no more speculative than the views of Reality currently suggested by physics and is, in fact, compatible with some of the oddities of contemporary physics.
In any event, Aristotle might have asked later “scientists” what the purpose of science itself is if not to discover the purpose, that is, the morality of things. If it is not the purpose of science to discover those ends, then science has no interesting purpose of its own beyond spawning technology which has no clear moral purpose and is, in the meantime, so far removed from any literal and verifiable description of Reality, that it has, in effect, died.