Some forty-three years ago I attended a series of most fascinating symposiums on Science, Religion, and Philosophy sponsored by the United States Air Force. It was held at their Weapons Laboratory on Kirtland Air Force Base (Albuquerque, New Mexico) as a very well intentioned effort. The purpose was to expose their personnel involved in awesome weapons of destruction to moral as well as technical issues. At that time I was working as a research engineer at the Air Force Civil Engineering Research Facility on highly secret military work.
It was truly an impressive occurrence, but even more impressive, to me anyway, was the caliber of the speakers that were brought in for this, all with national or international reputations in their fields. For instance, at least three of the eminent speakers at the first two symposiums (the only two I attended, the first on August 11th and 12th of 1964 and the second one on the 3rd and 4th of August of 1965) had personally known Albert Einstein, one of whom was Dr. I.I. Rabi, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics for his study of the magnetic properties of the atomic nucleii.
Among the others were Dr. Ernest Nagel, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University since 1955 and author of numerous books, including Logic Without Metaphysics and The Structure of Science; Professor Henry Margenau, Yale's first Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics and Natural Philosophy and a leading authority on the philosophical foundation of physics as well as a significant contributor to the technical field of physics (also, rather interestingly, a member of the World Council of Churches Committee responsible for formulating a Christian attitude toward the problem of nuclear war); Dr. James Albertson, a Jesuit priest, an assistant professor of physics at Loyola University of Los Angeles and Director of the Loyola Forum for National Affairs; Dr. Henry Eyring with five honorary doctoral degrees, president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, author or coauthor of five advanced chemistry books, and a member of the General Sunday School Board of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; Dr. Filmer S.C. Northrop, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Law at Yale and author of numerous books; Dr. William F. Pollard, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, then Priest-in-Charge of St. Albens Chapel in Clinton, Tennessee, author of a number of books, and Executive Director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies; Dr. Robert Henle, a Jesuit Roman Catholic Priest and a past Dean of the Graduate School but then Research Administrator and Academic Vice President of St. Louis University; and Father Clarke an associate professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly with specialties in metaphysics and the philosophy of God.1
I think that possibly the most memorable and pivotal to me of the talks and exchanges that followed during those two exciting symposiums of thought provoking discussion, however, was the presentation of Dr. Margenau, which basically opened up an avenue for the what he called his fond hope of "amalgamating science with religion." It, combined with Dr. Northrop's talk the year before, which gave an extremely enlightening and brilliant picture of the drastic change that came to the mind of science with the advent of the Theory of Relativity, form the basic platform from which I intend to address the rest of the following article. That, combined, I might add, with the very lucid and understandable works of Paul Davies (particularly God & the New Physics and The Mind of God).
"For the urge to comprehend the visible and invisible universe and to find man's place within it is common to both science and religion." Dr. Rabi, 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics2
As anyone knows, it is possible to study nature as we find it de facto and that this study, the collecting of objective facts about the thing we wish to study will inevitably give us a true picture of it. That is, the objective study of the facts, freed from subjective input, will inevitably reveal the truth about anything. Contrary to the religious approach which is subjective and only peripherally objective, science is the pure objective study of nature to the end of "reading" from that objective study the bald, untainted truth. Right?
Wrong! In fact, wrong, wrong, wrong! And if you still subscribe to this view of science, which is called naive realism, you are about a hundred years behind the engine that is driving man forward into the vast reaches of the unknown. Yet the thing that has come about only recently, so to speak--this radical revolution occurred when Einstein brought out his Theory of Relativity--has nothing to do with the objectives of science or in the methods themselves. Which is why even the majority of well educated people in the world today have not been able to adapt to it or understand what it is all about. They simply are not yet aware of this basic revolution in scientific thinking.
That is because, perhaps, the revolution is an epistemological change, epistemological being the study of "human knowing qua human knowing," or "human knowing acting as human knowing." Basically, it is the study of how we go about understanding anything so that it does not question the instruments we use or the procedures but the way we interpret the results and view them as a concept having meaning beyond our own personal experience. And it is really only a forward step, if a truly a giant step, in the evolution of our kind, humankind. It is as significant to us in our evolution, a thinking, contemplative creature, as the growing of legs are to an evolving animal going from the primordial ooz onto dry land for the first time. It has to do with survival in a sometimes danger fraught universe as our "spaceship" Earth hurtles through it.
Aristotle, who many consider the father of modern science, developed an epistemology that was primarily that of a superb natural-history biologist, a science he founded. All modern natural-history biologists owe their work to the base he established. But modern physics began when Galileo and Newton rejected the epistemological theory of Aristotle's meaning of the word "heat" and went instead for the epistemology of Democritus, Plato, and the Stoics. It was the basis for the rule of naive realism that has persisted and been so successful until less than a hundred years ago. Furthermore, it still persists because of its efficacy in the crude world of everyday pragmatics.
It is nevertheless doubtful that "the rule of naive realism" has ever been used in practice, by Newton (in spite of his claims) or anyone else. The reason is that, as Hume pointed out, the facts do not of themselves establish anything. They just are. We observe things as they happen and then speculate as to what we are seeing. Our conclusions are colored by our position, our frame of mind and a host of other things not related to the event itself. In the past we have not realized it but we have been forming mental constructs all along. We see an apple fall to the ground and begin to mentally explore the phenomenon. By mentally picturing the Earth as a large round ball---because otherwise, we do not actually "see" it as such---we draw the conclusion that there is a force we call gravity acting between the two. Still, the process is a "model" speculation which is tested later and found to be "true." But is it? And have we done much of anything final? Do we know what "gravity" is, this assumed force? "Well, it is the thing that holds things together in the cosmos." So? What is it? Is it an invisible "string?" How does it hold things together through a vacuum? Or is there really ever any pure vacuum? Now we are finding that there is not such a thing as a pure vacuum. "Empty space" is filled with a jumble of excited sub-particulates. But what is a sub-particulate? Is it a "thing" or an asomatic some-nothing (as we here will call it from now on). The truth is that we must of necessity do no more, now or later, than form a mental construct (model) of reality through introspective speculation and refine, reform or scrap it later as we grow more knowledgeable.
However, we did not realize this in general until the Michelson-Morley experiment came up with results that were contrary to five hundred years of Newtonian physics (i.e. the speed of light was not additive, was not effected by the speed of its source but in a vacuum was always at a constant maximum of 186,000 miles per second) our epistemology had to change to account for it. It made no sense otherwise.
And "sense" is really what it's all about. Sense or common sense is, after all, a result of how we have experienced things around us since our birth. If we regularly saw and spoke with "ghosts" then ghosts would make perfect sense to us. But we do not (that is, most of us) and so we think of ghosts as nonsense. The trouble is that we historically have ignored the fact that what we perceive and how we perceive it is limited by the limitations of our perceptive senses. If our eyes are astigmatic then we see things in a fuzzy way. What's more, the fact is (as Einstein realized, based on the philosophy of Hume) that even if our eye sight is perfect (and whose is?) we all perceive things in a unique way, from a particular vantage point. Ten different observers see anything from ten different perspectives.
How many times do we in our everyday life use words like "perfect", "absolute", "pure" or "exact"? Yet in the lexicon of the physicist these words have no meaning. They are not realizable in the real world. They are abstract concepts which are, if we really analyze it, meaningless even as an abstract concept. But we use them anyway and get some value out of them even so. For instance, the "straight beam formula" of the structural engineer (mc=Ió) is derived by the use of a second order differential equation that is unsolvable until a second order term is dropped as insignificant. It is also based on the assumption that the material we are applying it to is "perfectly elastic", "perfectly isotropic" and "perfectly homogenous", none of which are realizable in the real world. That is, the one thing we know that a real beam will not do is have stresses according to those derived from this formula. But we use it anyway. Why? Because it provides us with a solution that while not exact, is a close enough approximation "for government work." In everyday engineering it gives us a practical answer that "works." Then, to make sure, we add a safety factor of two or more.
The truth is--and I want to emphasize this as very important for understanding all that is to follow--that the understanding of the truth about anything, from the smallest particle in the universe to the totality of it, and of all and everything between, is always and inevitably an approximation at best. Mathematically speaking, truth about the nature of anything is represented by an infinite mathematical series of terms. The more terms we know, the closer we are to the truth about our object, but we are always an infinite number of terms away from knowing, "the truth." To know everything about a single atom in the universe we must know everything about every atom in the universe and then some.
With Einstein, the epistemology of science changed drastically and firmly, and although this new epistemology may change or "readjust" in the future as we mature as a thinking, perceiving creature, it is at this time in history and this juncture of human evolution, a more accurate picture of how we should search for the truth.
Yet it was not easy even for Einstein. It was too radical a departure from five hundred years of Newtonian physics. Einstein confided in Dr. Northrop (another eminent speaker and scientist at the Kirtland symposium in 1964)that after he had discovered his new assumptions for the Special Theory of Relativity to explain the history making results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, he did not dare at first to publish his findings. His reason was that he was convinced of the epistemology of Sir Isaac Newton, who said that he made no hypotheses but had deduced the basic fundamentals of his Principia (ideas of mass, mathematical space and time, and his laws of motion) from the experimental results alone, making him a naive realist.
However, Einstein finally threw over naive realism (the idea that objective knowledge is possible for human observers and is directly observable--naively--in spite of the fact of their differing subjective feelings, their differing senses, places of observation, frames of reference, and times of observation). He said instead (and thus became what is termed a radical empiricist) that all naively perceived (directly observed) knowledge is relative to the observer, his relative senses, and other relative aspects that mark his position and condition at the time.
Which is precisely why no two witnesses to an accident or crime ever have the same story. They see the event from different perspectives. And conversely, radical empiricism also requires by definition that direct awareness is subjectively perceived and can never result in objective knowledge. It does not mean or imply, though, that objective knowledge does not exist, only that if it is to be known meaningfully it must be known by some means other than direct observation alone.
To the radical empiricist of today, everything is cyclic and in motion, "Everything definite in it [i.e. the radical empiricist's world]," as Dr. Northrop explained in his poignant talk at Kirkland Air Force Base in 1964, "is a sequence of perishing particulars which succeed one another in time. Human beings are similar. They are the birth, the springtime of life, the maturity of life, the fall of life, and finally its winter. Good conduct consists of taking factual immediacy with equanimity."3
What convinced Einstein that Newton had been wrong when he said that he had made no hypotheses but had merely made deductions by observing the facts? It was, as he told Dr. Northrop, from reading Hume. Hume said that we do not observe or sense causality (one thing causing another or necessary connections) but observe simply a succession of fleeting images, which we put together mentally to construct an abstract idea of causation. That is, Newton, contrary to what he said he had done and thought he had done, did not make objective observations and deduce mass (which itself is not observable) simply from those observations but speculatively introduced a relational entity or construct (which he called mass). Which in turn was indirectly confirmed as existing objectively through and only through a thoughtful correlation of its mathematically deduced consequences with radically empirical experimental data. That is, mass itself is not a "thing" but an abstract construct used to describe a succession of discrete observations. Nothing is mass in a Newtonian sense but has mass.
As Einstein said, "The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science. Since, however, sense perception only gives information of this external world or of 'physical reality' indirectly, we can only grasp the latter by speculative means."4
The human mind is a truly remarkable thing but again only relative to our subjective sense of awe, which in turn is a function of our own minute and presently deplorable and inadequate state of knowledge. It will likely always be a remarkable thing to us because the more we learn and evolve socially, technically, and epistemologically, the more expanded our sense of awe will be. Nevertheless, we should now begin to think about ourselves in the vast scheme of things, not just as a clever animal but as something that is in a class by itself.
Berkeley said, "Man is not an animal erect but an immortal god," and whether we wish to use the word "god" or something else, serious reflection will usually bring us to the intuitive feeling, at least, that we are indeed something more than an "animal erect." Not that by this (i.e. "man") I mean, homo sapien, an erect creature with two eyes, two arms, two legs, etc. I mean that creature, however formed and physically evolved, having a thinking, self-contemplative mind, the essentials that make us unique in our part of this scheme. So that should we find other such beings out in the void of space, be they of any shape or life cycle, they are by the definition I use here and throughout this book, "men." Just as color or ethnic and genetic variations do not classify the collective of ourselves as anything but man. So must we think of other variations, however bizarre at first glance to either us to them or them to us. It is our spiritual and mental essence that distinguishes us, not our physical attributes.
But most important, I think, is that we need to try and begin thinking about ourselves in a holistic way as far as the universe is concerned. Rather than thinking of ourselves as an oddity, as unique in this vast, vast assortment of materially condensed bodies in varying stages of development in their cyclic evolution from formation to dissolution., we must understand that we are the natural end product of all that is and have a natural functional responsibility to that whole.
When we were less knowledgeable about even our own planet--indeed unaware that it was a planet--it is not surprising that we should have viewed what we knew as unique and special. The truth is that we by nature tend to think that what we know (since we are aware that only our kind in our experience is aware of much of anything) is most of what there is to know. The reason is that while we are sometimes acutely aware of what we know, we are ignorant of what we do not know. While we may reasonably recognize that there must be some things we do not know, the extent of that ignorance is masked in the face of the overwhelming amount that we think we do know. In Fred Hoyle's The Nature of the Universe, published in 1958, he made a statement that illustrated this to me. He said, "Is it possible that the cosmology of 500 years hence will extend as far beyond our present beliefs as our cosmology goes beyond that of Newton? It may surprise you to hear that I doubt whether this will be so. I am prepared to believe that there will be many advances in the detailed understanding of matters that still baffle us... But by and large I think that our present picture will turn out to bear an appreciable resemblance to the cosmologies of the future."5 And perhaps he is still right, although I doubt it personally. In fact in the half century since he published this things have really changed pretty dramatically in the view of astro-physics and cosmology.
As our technology continues to accelerate in development and our epistemic sophistication sharpens, who knows what we may find that we have not found or find at odds with what we now think we know, as happened with the Michelson-Morley experiment. Did anyone foresee that? Did anyone even postulate the possibility of something as revolutionary as that? Or better yet, how could anyone guess that such a thing could happen when everything in our experience contraindicated it? The fact is that our ignorance is certainly greater than our knowledge but that since its subject field is unknown it stands overshadowed by what we know.
This does not mean that we have not learned a lot over time, only that for most of our history we have been unaware of anything beyond our immediacy or in the case of the things beyond our planet, unaware of anything much except that something was there. The abstract constructs we made to account for what we saw, took the form of gods or back-lighted holes in a dome-like ceiling. So it is not surprising that in our egocentric immediacy we should see our obvious uniqueness as something fundamental to "everything," which to us has been, due to ignorance, what we see clearly and in detail around us. And in fact, even now, as our detailed knowledge is beginning to extend beyond our planet, we keep expecting (and basing our experimental probes on) and searching for other forms of life based almost exclusively on this sense of uniqueness, that is, carbon-cycle types of life.
Supposing, though, we postulate that we are not unique, that is, not unique simply in being the only planet with life as we know it but in not being unique (not just man but all life itself), as being, somehow, an accidental oddity that is not a natural extension of the natural totality that is our universe. Especially now that quantum mechanics seems to indicate a sort of symbiotic, or at least effectual, relationship between our human intellectual activity (i.e. experimental probing) and the state of the fundamental constituents of matter. As Paul Davies says, "The bizarre conclusion from this exchange [an counter exchange of theories between Einstein and Niels Bohr] is that we--the experimenters--are involved in the nature of reality in a fundamental way."6
We can also look at ourselves holistically as being something analogous to a termite or ant colony but operating volitionally as such, realizing that in addition to such a unity of cooperating individuals being an intellectually recognizable adoptive advantage, this drive to unify "volitionally" is coincidentally also a universally natural principle or law. Which applies differently to us from ants, for example, only in that we are aware of what we are doing and as highly individualistic beings act partly by instinct as ants do but in an aware way that obscures the instinctive motivation. That is, it is no accident that it has occurred to us to organize. Rather, it is because we are a self aware creature that we assume the organizational process took place strictly because of our intellectual wisdom.
Furthermore, we can look at religion as a universal operative for this unifying process, which works on us through our higher cognitive powers or abilities. But if so, we must think of "religion" in the general sense rather than the specifics of church, denomination or other divisive conveniences adapted over the ages to maintain pragmatic power over masses of evolving intellects not yet otherwise capable of responsible, cognitive, self control and the organizational discipline to obey that natural impulse volitionally. So that while those competitive variations of that unifying process in its de facto application (i.e. the churches and clerical administration) was also a natural consequence and necessary stage, perhaps, in our evolutionary intellectual growth, it does not necessarily follow that that device for preserving the efficacy of the process in our more immature state continues now to be needed. In fact, it now becomes counterproductive to the process itself (which it always was) with no mitigating necessity existing today as a result of the raising of the general level of intellectual capacity and education in the population.
In fact, it is no fault of religion or the basic religious process itself that we remain fragmented in our unifying process. All major religions have as a central principle that they are not unique except in time and place but are part of a process that is cyclic and continuous. As an example, Jesus of Nazareth (whose name, incidentally, was not Jesus but Joshua, meaning the help of Jehovah) said "I have many things yet to say to you, but YOU are not able to bear them at present. However, when that one arrives, the spirit of the truth, he will guide YOU into all the truth, for he will not speak of his own impulse, but what things he hears he will speak, and he will declare to YOU the things coming."7
That is, as pronounced reportedly by Jesus, religion can be looked at as a natural phenomenon of the universe that is only fractional and divisive when it is institutionalized and interpreted for self interest by supposedly divinely inspired followers. Sometimes in Christianity this comes about when individuals use the justification for proselytizing their own beneficent interpretation that they are inspired by the "Holy Ghost" or the "Holy Spirit."
But religion in is purest form without hieratical management and manipulation, is not a human invention but a natural phenomenon that is instinctive to this self aware creature we call "man." As such, it includes not only revealed religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Bahá'i, etc.) but "religion" as manifested in the beliefs of such as Einstein or other "non-committed" individuals without necessarily subscribing to the specific doctrines of any group.
1. The Symposium reports given later to participants were hastily prepared from recordings and some speakers did not have the time or opportunity to check for errors, etc. Therefore, all quotes from these reports that follow should be taken under advisement and considered in the light of these restrictions.
2. Science Philosophy Religion, Symposium Report, Air Force Weapons Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, August 1965, p.21
3. Ibid, p. 41.
4. Einstein, Albert, The World As I See It, Covici, Friede, New York, 1934, p. 60
5. Hoyle, Fred, The Nature of the Universe, Harper And Brothers, 1950, p. 121.
6. Davies, Paul, God & The New Physics, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1983, p. 110.
7. The Bible, New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, NY, John 16:12-13, p. 1352.