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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 10 : The Science of Evasion

The basic tenet of modern science is 'Thou shalt not think.'

Nietzsche once observed: 'If there were God, how could I bear to be no God? Consequently there is no God.' This is not logical. Modern science, which otherwise has no noticeable affinity with Nietzsche, uses arguments of a similar kind. 'If the universe had a beginning, we did not observe it.'

'Consequently it had no beginning.' (I do not know if any scientist has said this yet. If not, I offer it freely to modern science as my own humble contribution.) 'If electrons are different from one another, we cannot observe it. Consequently electrons are identical.' 'If there is a reason why this event happens rather than that, we cannot observe it. Consequently there is no reason.'

Arguments against thinking are presented with every appearance of intellectual sophistication. They are difficult to understand, but this makes them seem the more profound.

The prevailing spirit of science owes much to linguistic philosophy. A generation which understands that thinking is identical with talking finds it easy to accept that discovery is identical with making measurements.

The human evasion is seen at its best in theoretical physics. In doing physics it is difficult not to notice that some things are inconceivable. So physicists lay down special laws for not-thinking. Just as linguistic philosophy counsels us not to ask what a word means, but how we use it, so modern theoretical physics tells us not to think what a concept means, but only how we measure it. We might be tempted to ask what things like charge and mass were.

In a sense, the situation is similar to being asked to spell a word. If we were asked to spell the word cat, we would, of course, say c-a-t. If pressed for a further explanation, we could only state that the letters c, a, t, were part of the alphabet and represent sounds. To explain the letter a, for example, we would have to make the appropriate sound. There is no other way of conveying meaning. In a similar way, the concepts of charge and mass are part of the alphabet of physics. To become acquainted with charge, we need to experiment with it.[1]

It is pointed out that when you use concepts derived from everyday experience they are not wholly appropriate to describing events on the subatomic level. Therefore you must be particularly careful not to think when you use these concepts.

We must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that because an elementary particle has a spin, we must think of it as turning about an axis in itself, and that therefore it must have a finite radius, since a point turning about itself is a meaningless idea. Such a conclusion would be an unwarrantable extrapolation of our macroscopic ideas. Instead, we must simply accept the fact that certain experiments can be explained only on the assumption of elementary particles having spin and magnetic moment.[2]

Our approach must be operational. We define concepts by referring to the manipulation of them in experiments; we only ask questions which can be answered by performing experiments. A slight snag here is that you might eventually think of a different kind of experiment if you were worried enough about lack of information. This is not, however, a snag to a sane person. Sane people, including physicists, have no undue interest in reality and finding out about the universe is to be regarded as a rather unfortunate by-product of a certain kind of human activity. It is important to realize that physics is something people do.

Physics is ... based on training and practice and on human behaviour that has evolved with the growth of experience in doing physics.[3]

Physicists have great humility, as the sane understand the word. They accept, not that there is infinitely more to be discovered, but that they can never discover more.

This acceptance is based on their belief in something called the Uncertainty Principle. The Uncertainty Principle does not, of course, express the uncertainty that must always prevail about what the next theory in physics will be like. It describes a limitation in the knowledge of the human race which, it is confidently asserted, can never be surmounted. Young physicists find it difficult to see why it never could be, and it is an important stage in their intellectual maturation when they can.

The Uncertainty Principle arises from the fact that commonsense concepts do not apply very well to subatomic particles. You can say they are something like waves, or something like particles, but you cannot use both of your ill-fitting notions at once. (Still less may you try to have an idea of a single extraordinary entity that is exactly like a subatomic particle.

Whether or not you succeeded, this would be likely to give you feelings about inconceivability, and it is very important to avoid such feelings in physics.) So physicists have evolved a complicated and blurry way of using the concepts the human race already has. This is known as the Quantum Theory. The fact that it is blurry is expressed in the Uncertainty Principle, which states that so long as you use these concepts in this way the result will be blurry.

The human race does not know what other concepts it could use, and certainly has no intention of thinking about it. It therefore elevates the statement about the blurriness of reality to the status of a metaphysical absolute.

(Yes, I know the human race doesn't usually like metaphysical absolutes, but this one is different.)

There is a kind of earnest astonishment made popular by linguistic philosophers. ('This man says he thinks without words. What can we possibly infer about the past life of a man who makes such a statement?') This has been taken over by the theoretical physicists for use on anyone who suggests that there might be a theory completely different from Quantum Theory, even perhaps using different concepts.

'What precisely is the concept we are asked to entertain...? What picture is being painted for us...? What exactly will microphysics be like...? What is the physicist being asked to do...?'[4] asks Norwood Russell Hanson, boggling hard.

So we all accept that reality is blurry and that the laws of nature are statistical. (Not -- 'our descriptions of nature are statistical', you notice.) This brings us to statistics. Emotionally, if not indeed intellectually, statistics is no longer felt to provide description, but explanation. It is not difficult to see why it should be so appealing. It is, as you might say, democratic (in every sense). It depends on counting, which is fair and equitable (why should one electron be singled out for special attention?) -- and then again, counting is a thing nearly everyone can do.

There used to be a philosophical error known as 'reification', which was what happened when people forgot that abstract nouns were not things, and imagined Truth sitting in state in a scarlet robe, for example. This is a very, very unfashionable kind of mistake to make today (because sometimes when people did it, it was a sign that they were taking the Outside too seriously).

So no one has noticed the reification of statistical concepts that goes on, and physicists talk of a thing being 'caused by chance' as if 'chance' sat there pushing the right proportion of electrons to the left. If an electron chooses to turn left, this is either caused by something, which may or may not be known to the human race at present, or it is caused by nothing, which is shockingly inconceivable. In neither case is it caused by a cosy little homebody figure called 'Chance'.

To do theoretical physics properly requires a very special kind of thinking.

Suppose that you find that all particles of a certain kind, when placed in a given situation, behave in one of two ways. Half of them do one thing and half do the other. First, you do not allow yourself to think that the particles might not be identical, or that there might be some unknown influence, which causes half of them to do one thing, and half to do the other. You must say 'I can make a statistical prediction. The laws of nature are statistical' with no sense of being puzzled or astonished, and without falling into a state of radical scepticism about the concept of 'cause'.

To perform this kind of mental manoeuvre to perfection requires years of training and great intellectual maturity. (Einstein always found it rather difficult. He expressed his inability in the curious, subjective statement: God does not play dice.)

The next manoeuvre to be described is comparatively easy. It is a technique for ironing infinity out of the universe. The technique depends on the fact that people cannot visualize a fourth dimension. So you say to them: 'The universe is infinite in a sense -- you can go wherever you like and never come to an edge. But it is also finite in a sense -- if you go on long enough you will come back to the same point.' People feel that this is a difficult kind of thing which they should pretend to understand. It also makes them feel happy, because it is a way of saying 'The universe is an Inside without an Outside.'

If this description of the universe is expressed with fewer dimensions it becomes clear what is really being said. The surface of a sphere is unbounded in that you can travel all over it without coming to an edge; it is also finite in that it has a certain definite area. But -- (since we can visualize things in three dimensions, as we cannot in four) -- it is clear that the sphere does have an Outside.

Or consider this exposition of a method for muddling yourself about infinity:

To construct a hypothetical three-dimensional world which is finite and unbounded, we will assume that our bug lives with a whole family of bugs in a space which has no physical boundaries or barriers. If we further assume that the bugs are very massive, then none of the bugs will be able to leave the group because the gravitational attraction of the group as a whole on each bug will prevent it. Furthermore, since the gravitational attraction is so strong, light rays will not be able to leave the mass of bugs either.

Thus, even if a bug looks off in the direction of space beyond the group, his line of sight will curve back towards the group, always producing 'bugs in his eyes', and he will never be able to see beyond the group.

'Straight ahead' for each bug always will mean towards the centre of the group. The bugs will not be conscious of any physical barrier, though; as far as they know, they will live in a world which is unbounded. Their world is finite, since the size of the group as a whole is finite and the group constitutes their world.[5]

Obviously the emotional force of this passage depends on the ease with which the sane mind can accept that 'they cannot see beyond the group' is a statement precisely equivalent to 'there is nothing beyond the group'.

Modern scientists have learnt their function; to make reality sound so dull that no one will be tempted to think about it. Stephen Toulmin gently chides Jeans and Eddington for popularizing science in a disturbing, thought-provoking way.

... Jeans, for instance, relied on finding a happy analogy which would by itself bring home to his readers the chief features of the General Theory of Relativity. And how did he invite them to think of the Universe? As the three-dimensional surface of a four-dimensional balloon. The poor layman, who has been brought up to use the word 'surface' for two-dimensional things alone, now found himself instructed to visualise what for him was a self-contradiction, so it was no wonder if he agreed to Jeans' calling the Universe a mysterious one.[6]

Whatever else the universe may be, every sane person knows it isn't that.

[1] Reuben Benumof, Concepts in Physics, Prentice-Hall, 1965, p.6.

[2] L.R.B. Elton, Introductory Nuclear Theory, Sir ISaac Pitman and
    Sons, Ltd, 1959, p.4.

[3] W.H. Watson, Understanding Physics Today, Cambridge University
    Press, 1963, p.xi.

[4] N.R. Hanson, The Concept of the Positron, Cambridge University
    Press, 1963, pp.30-31.

[5] James A. Coleman, Relativity for the Layman, Penguin Books,
    1961, p.108.

[6] Stephen Toulmin, The Philosophy of Science, Hutchinson and Co.,
    1960, p.12.

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