Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger

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The Material Cosmos

In that quotation from 1916, writing as both Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sums his comprehensive vision of the wholeness of the universe. Today, his ether terminology sounds completely archaic, but the subsequent development of the quantum theory in physics has made his vision even more clear.

The early idea that space is permeated with some special background substance prevailed until the speed of light experiments. If there were some sort of space-ether, the earth would have to push it aside as it moves very rapidly through space, and that would create an "ether wind." That would also be expected to effect the speed of a north-south beam of light compared to an east-west one. Yet speed of light experiments show no such effect. The speed of light is a constant. Further, if there were an ether wind, there would be detectable distortion in the apparent positions of distant stars, but experiments do not show that either. *

Einstein's relativity work established the speed of light as a cosmic speed limit, and also explained many of the properties formerly attributed to the ether. Therefore, our ideas about the void of space are different from those of the nineteenth century, and ether is no longer a technical concept in physics. Nevertheless, space is not a void.

Even though a region of space may be emptied of ordinary matter, it still has a complex structure which cannot be eliminated. It remains filled with electromagnetic radiation that cannot be suppressed. Everything in the universe is subject to a field. Yet in Einstein's view, that field is not merely a background influence:

Teilhard also spoke of the "fantastic mass of granular energy" in the "primitive substance of the cosmos." That view is not unlike the description by physicist Hermann Weyl. Weyl described a material particle such as an electron as merely a small domain of the electrical field where the field strength achieves enormously high values. He called the particle "an energy knot." Today, physics has abandoned the classical distinction between matter and the space between it.

Certain particles can come into being spontaneously and disappear spontaneously without any other strongly interacting particle being present. These are called "virtual particles" because they may exist for only ultra-short periods of time. Nevertheless, the void is not void at all, but is a dynamic field which contains the potentiality for all the forms of the particle world. In the universe as it is understood today there is no "nothingness."

In terms of the cause and effect world of classical science, that of course sounds very weird. It is in fact, a quantum jump in weirdness. Hiroshima taught us all that the atom can be split, but it is the level below the atom at which the weirdness begins to appear. That field of study is called quantum theory.

Quantum theory refers to the behavior of the elementary particles that make up atoms -- the lightweight things like electrons, and the heavier-weights like protons and neutrons. Of course there are other kinds of particles in each category, but our purpose here is only to review some major lessons from the New Physics.

The word quantum refers to a precise amount of something. In waves, such as light and heat, the energy is not continuous, but moves in precisely measured "energy packets" as Einstein called them, or quanta. And particles can absorb only a certain quantum or "packet" of energy. For example, an electron spinning around the nucleus of an atom can be on only certain orbits, and it takes a certain quantum of energy to get it to step from one orbit to another.

The quantum world is a world of uncertainty. There are some very weird aspects about particle and wave behavior -- weird because one cannot visualize them or explain them by classical physics laws. For one thing, a particle may behave like a wave, and a wave like a particle. It depends on how you study it. The world of reality depends on the observer. It is not really a particle, or really a wave. It is one or the other depending on the concept that the observer forms. The observer's concept is based on the experiment that he uses. That of course raises the question whether there is really anything there when no one is looking.

There is always uncertainty about a particle's location and its momentum. The best that an observer can do is to establish the probabilities. The more certain one feels about the particle's location, the more uncertain one must be about its momentum. And vice versa. It seems that one may only be certain that in the quantum world we are always confronted with uncertainty.

There is also uncertainty about the amount of energy involved in an atomic event and the length of time the event takes. That's because the particle is really a wave packet that takes a while to pass the observer, and there's a different amount of energy at every point along the wave. The quantum world is a world of paradox and probabilities, not certainties.

No blank space between things, no void, no nothingness? Spontaneous creation of particles? No certainty? The most elementary reality is an illusion? Quantum weirdness is weird indeed. Today, a physicist sounds like an Oriental priest. In fact that is seen best in Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics which draws the parallels quite overtly.

There are so many parallels to Eastern thought that Capra's position does not sound far-fetched. The tao is empty and formless yet it produces all forms. The Chinese also have the concept of the ch'i as the "gas" or "ether" which is the vital breath or energy animating the cosmos. A sutra says "Form is emptiness, and emptiness is indeed form." A Chinese sage said "When one knows that the Great Void is full of ch'i, one realizes that there is no such thing as nothingness." Modern physics can demonstrate that the apparent void pulsates with the rhythm of creation and destruction. Today indeed it seems that physics can demonstrate Shiva's cosmic dance.

The interrelatedness of the universe is apparent at the macro level too. Ernst Mach showed that the inertia of an object, its resistance to acceleration, is not a property of matter itself. It is a measure of the object's interaction with all of the rest of the universe. The interactions extend to even remote bodies in the universe. According to astronomer Fred Hoyle,

In one sense, it is very attractive to think about the interrelatedness of all things. Yet these lessons from quantum physics also bring some unsettling ideas. For most people, one of the most unsettling features of the quantum world is that its changes take place randomly. In classical science, the world was seen as a machine in which a cause (action) had a predictable effect. Moving one end of a lever causes the other end to move predictably.

However, in the quantum world, before an event happens (before an interaction between particles), one cannot be sure what the outcome will be. One can only say that there is a certain probability of a certain outcome. But that next particle event might not be the outcome that was the most likely. Particle events have to be expressed statistically.

Even Einstein resisted the idea, and expressed it in his famous quotation about God not playing dice. For Einstein, physical reality consisted of independent, spatially separated elements. At the atomic level, events do follow the relativity theory and occur in a causally related predictable series. Yet at the particle level, events follow quantum theory, which is incompatible with the idea of independant and separate units of matter.

The new physics presents us a worldview in which everything is not exactly pre-determined, and random events play a role. In the development of an ethic based in reality, uncertainty of outcome is a principle problem. In ethics, we have traditionally looked for absolutes that can guide actions with certainty and consistency. Here, we find that random events play a role in limiting the range of options at any particular moment. The outcome of any particular action cannot be completely known, only predicted within a range of probabilities. What can we depend on?

The second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system, a system will always tend toward disorder. Yet life and the universe itself exhibit a high degree of order and consistency. And despite the change, despite the uncertainties and paradoxes, there is also a certain constancy. These are expressed as the symmetries or conservation laws. An interaction will take the same amount of time regardless of when it occurs. The orientation of the particles in space will not change the result either. The total amount of energy (which includes the mass of the particles) is conserved. The momentum, the spin, and the total electrical charge of the particles are also conserved.

One of the biggest challenges in physics remains the finding of a unified theory that harmonizes gravity and the macro-world with the interactions of the particle world. At the moment there is not a unified theory. The search for a unified understanding of the universe has lead to descriptions of more and more "things." Particles act as if they are made of even smaller entities called quarks, each charmingly and colorfully named. But no one has yet demonstrated a quark in a free state. The search for harmonization of the force of gravity with the nuclear forces has lead to a theory of multiple dimensions beyond the spacetime dimensions.

The fact that quarks and more and more dimensions have to be postulated has led some physicists to concentrate on another type of explanation. The answer may lie in the universe's own inter-relatedness. Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics reviews one alternative to quark theory which, although a minority view among physicists, points even more strongly toward a view of the universe as a wholeness. The theory is built on Heisenberg's S-matrix theory.

To express all the probabilities of all the potential outcomes of particle interactions takes a number of large interrelated lists of values, called a matrix. One may think of a matrix as a series of related checker-boards, with a different value in each square. The value on a square of one checker-board relates to the value in the corresponding position of another board. The S of Heisenberg's S-matrix theory refers to the scattering of particles after an interaction. The values in the matrix are the values for the probability of a particular interaction.

For a particular reaction, we are dealing with a small zone of the matrix. From the web of possible interactions, one finds that a particular particle can be made of interactions between other particles; that new particle can in turn participate in the formation of the types of particles from which it was itself made.

The theory which is an alternative to quark theory is called the "bootstrap" theory. It holds that the basic or elemental state of the universe is not found in still-smaller particles, but in the complex web of particle interactions "across the matrix", so to speak. In this theory, the impression of quarks results from the pulsations in the web of energy transfers as particles form one another.

Perhaps one way to say it is that "bootstrappers" see quarks as waves, not as particles. They see the universe as composed, not of building blocks, but of a continuous flow of energy moving in well-defined pathways. The universe acts as if it is continuously pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, which is how the slang term got started.

It is apparent that these uncertainties make it difficult to say what reality "really" is. Indeed, there are several different realities, depending on how physicists interpret the findings. In Quantum Reality, Nick Herbert * has made us a list of these realities, conveniently numbered:

1. "There is no deep reality." This view held by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg has been called the "Copenhagen Interpretation" because it was developed in Bohr's institute there. Bohr has written:

2. "Reality is created by observation." This is the second part of the Copenhagen interpretation. Theorist John Wheeler wrote:

3. "Reality is an undivided wholeness." This view has been put forward by Walter Heitler and others, and is the strong current in Capra's Tao. David Bohm writes:

4. "Reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes." This view was presented by Hugh Everett as a graduate student in 1957. Though the idea of each act of measurement creating another universe sounds outrageous, it does solve a major problem dealing with quantum measurements.

5. "The world obeys a non-human kind of reasoning." David Finkelstein sees in quantum interactions a new kind of logic, distinct from the classic Aristotle-like syllogism and even different from the computer world's and/or/not Boolean logic. This view holds, basically, that if the quantum world seems weird, it's because we are not thinking correctly. We need to learn quantum logic.

6. "The world is made of ordinary objects." This neo-realism was advocated by French physicist de Broglie. Einstein also held out for such an idea:

7. "Consciousness creates reality." This minority view goes beyond the problem of the influence of the observer's measurement in theory Number Two. It is distinguished not by it's logic, but by the stature of some of its adherents, notably von Neuman who was important in part because of his work in computer theory. He also wrote a major work on the fundamentals of quantum theory. His colleague Eugene Wigner writes:

8. "The world is two-fold, consisting of potentials and actualities." Werner Heisenberg's work is most importantly associated with Realities One and Two, but he has also dealt with the question: "If observation makes reality, what does it make it out of?" Even though there is no deep reality, there is potential. Heisenberg:

The newest reality is expressed by physicist John Bell who has given us Bell's Theorem. It seems to require the strangest thinking of all, but it has stood up as proved, against solid challenges. It says in effect that no local model of reality can explain the quantum facts. Reality is non-local.

Compressing complex theoretical work into too-succinct summaries of course can lead to distortions. In these complex matters of dealing with reality, I myself am reliant on summaries of teacher-writers, since long ago I tripped over the conceptual realities of the calculus. While it is beyond our scope to detail Bell's work, Herbert gives us a succinct summary. Quon is Herbert's generic word for a subatomic particle. The EPR experiment was a famous Einstein-designed experiment which asked: Is quantum theory a complete description of reality? It ended in a paradoxical result that has led to long debate. Herbert writes,

A local interaction is one in which there is direct contact or direct transferrence of force in some mediating field. A non-local reaction is action-at-a-distance without any intervening medium or mediating mechanism. We all "know" that such non-local action is as implausible and impossible as voodoo. If there were such a thing, the interaction would not be bound by the rules.

For example, there would be no speed-limit for light, no diminishment by distance, no field mediating it. But Bell has proved that reality is non-local. He has changed the view of reality. Though phenenomena are local as ordinary experience shows us, the reality in which phenomena occur is non-local. Herbert again:

Which of the realities is true? Can each of them be true, depending entirely on the axis along which we view it? Is truth composite? As weird as all of the realities are, the one most inconsistent with the evidence is the idea that the world can be explained by our experience of ordinary objects. We live in a world, not of ordinary objects put together by "rules" of classic mechanics, but in a new reality which we don't entirely understand. We understand only that we must seek new ways of thinking.

The cover illustration of Douglas Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach * is a complex figure hanging in the middle of three screens. When looked at directly it makes no sense at all. With lights shining on it, each along a different axis, a distinctive design is projected onto each of the screens. The designs are letters. Together the letters refer to the title of the book. Faced with confusing realities, we too must each project light from many different axes if we are to find the meaning and the way.

In the world today many worldviews live side by side. Each of us has a pet idea of reality, our own nugget of truth. Yet even a diamond nugget has many facets. It sparkles best when it is ground, then turned in the light and examined from many angles. One problem is that most of us generally have not been willing to turn the diamond. After all, our particular gem might not sparkle. However, if we are to acquire a satisfactory worldview, we must be prepared to expose reality itself to inquiry, reflection, and to testing.

Related exhibits from Religion Confronting Science:

[ The Cosmic System ] , [ Unity of the physical forces ] , [ Dimensionality ] , [ Bell's Theorem ]

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