Thursday, December 08, 2011

Words in Science

A pretty convinced article on "climate change" in the October Physics Today makes an excellent point about the unusual way scientists use words (and how this keeps them from communicating effectively to the public). They provide this marvelous table of examples.

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public
Scientific termPublic meaning Better choice
enhanceimproveintensify, increase
aerosolspray cantiny atmospheric particle
positive trendgood trendupward trend
positive feedbackgood response, praisevicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theoryhunch, speculationscientific understanding
errormistake, wrong, incorrectdifference from exact true number
biasdistortion, political motiveoffset from an observation
signindication, astrological signplus or minus sign
valuesethics, monetary valuenumbers, quantity
manipulationillicit tamperingscientific data processing
schemedevious plotsystematic plan
anomalyabnormal occurrencechange from long-term average

In light of these ambiguities, perhaps all parties can agree on this formulation:

The theories of climate-change scientists have bias and the data themselves have been manipulated as part of a scheme growing from deficient values. Everyone is doubtful that recent actions of climate change scientists are anomalous. The Earth has witnessed a positive trend toward enhanced temperatures. The unanimity of climate-change scientists comes from an excess of positive feedback within that community.

The larger point that the article misses is that scientists, including physicists, use words with a specialized meaning all the time. Missed meanings help journalists to sensationalize and sell science to a public that's been hyperstimulated to the point of insensibility. Often this suits the scientists very well, because selling science to the public ensures government support. For example, "dimension" as in "time is the fourth dimension" is a surefire way to sex up an article. It conjures images of walking in time the way we walk down the street, whereas a dimension is really nothing more extraordinary than a parameter in a mathematical expression, and time by nature is really quite different from space.

Other times these words invade our vocabulary to such an extent that we don't even realize how they have changed our conception of the world. This is true especially in physics. Some examples follow.

Science – used to mean any sort of knowledge, now it's restricted to the modern empirical study of the natural world, especially those objects that succumb most readily to quantitative treatment and prediction and control.

Physics – from phusis, the Greek for "nature" – used to refer to all natural philosophy, now it is restricted to the mathematical principles of mechanics as proposed most forcefully in Newton's Principia, whose full title is The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. (As an expression of the mechanical philosophy, it really tries to do away with nature.)

Force – usually means an external cause or power, but in physics something insidiously dissimilar. In modern physics, there is in reality no inside or outside, and forces are not really causes in the full sense. One of our most fundamental experiences of ourselves is as causes, e.g., we are the causes of our locomotion, as in walking. But since in Newtonian mechanics, self-motion is not allowed, we need to invoke "reaction forces" to "explain" animal locomotion. So the sidewalk is what pushes you along. Thus, forces are not causes in any simple sense.

Causality – in physics this word typically refers to the idea that cause must precede effect, so that two phenomenon that succeed each other in less time than it takes light to travel between them cannot have a cause-effect relationship.

Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, "Communicating the science of climate change," Physics Today 64:10 (October 2011), p. 48.

Note: Been really busy trying (fruitlessly it turns out) to save my job this semester, but figured I should post this in at least the same calendar year as the article it refers to.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Science & Faith Conference

Franciscan University is holding a conference on "Can Science Inform Our Understanding of God?" Friday, December 2 through Saturday, December 3. Dan Kuebler is one of the organizers.

Lots of prominent speakers, including:

  • Edward Feser
  • William E. Carroll
  • Benjamin Wiker
  • Mark Ryland
  • Steve Barr


  • What is the precise relationship between faith and reason?
  • What is the status of the Intelligent Design movement?
  • What are the uses and abuses of scientific investigations?
  • Where lie the boundaries between science, philosophy, and theology?
  • What role do philosophical and theological positions have in scientific explorations?

Of course, it's taking place in Steubenville, OH, about an hour west of Pittsburgh.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Limits of the "Cosmic Speed Limit"

No doubt you've seen the news of the reported observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Aside from throwing out a century-old law of physics, it sounds like a credible result. Of course, the result will have to be duplicated by other groups before we count it confirmed.

Luboš Motl explores some possible measuring errors. I myself am rather doubtful that there's a problem with GPS. After all it's the military that put it up and for these guys accuracy is a matter of life and death. On the other hand, the military could for security purposes be leaving in some consistent errors in the interpretation of GPS for us civilians (a natural analog of the "GPS blurring" they removed some years ago).

For my part, I don't have expertise to evaluate their experimental procedure or analysis, but I can communicate some pointers about what it might mean.

First, it would likely be good news, because it means new physics. The Standard Model of particle physics works, but there's widespread dissatisfaction with it. It produces all the right numbers, but it fails to provide a deeper understanding, or at least the unification that physicists have come to associate with it. (Observed by Lee Smolin in The Trouble with Physics, but it's hardly unique to him—we physicists are always seeking after the new.)

Second, to understand what this result could mean, it helps to step back and examine the terms that we use. Notice that what we mean by such concepts as "distance" and "speed" are purely electromagnetic (EM). Phenomenally, it's through our knowledge of the hard surfaces of solid bodies we establish distance and even the passage of time. And of course, another unquestioned assumption is that light is a "thing" or body, in the exact same sense as other bodies. People have lost sight of the fact (no pun intended) that light is that by which we see, not that which we see, except in a different sense of the word.

We have no direct experience of strong and weak nuclear forces; our experiences of these are mediated by electromagnetic interactions. We do experience gravity directly, but would have no notion of space to be aware of it, were it not for EM. There's no way to shield gravity or to create zones of gravitational neutrality, because there is no second gravitational "charge." In fact the entirety of what we mean by force (from Newton's Laws of Motion) as such is entirely EM.

Neutrinos, while not vector bosons, in some sense carry the weak force, that is, they only interact weakly. The weak force is supposed to have been unified with EM, but meanwhile previous results from CERN seem to be endangering the plausibility of that argument.

It could be that the "speed of light" only applies to electromagnetism. Regardless of the durability of the OPERA result, it's good to remember how small our universe of experience actually is, even augmented by scientific apparatus.

Geoff Brumfiel, "Particles break light-speed limit: Neutrino results challenge cornerstone of modern physics," Nature (22 September 2011).

The OPERA Collaboraton, "Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam" Arxive (22 Sep 2011) arXiv:1109.4897v1 [hep-ex].

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Inhumanity of Teilhard de Chardin

Once upon a time, among comments on Albert Camus's The Plague, Thomas Merton wrote a trenchant critique of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin1:

The current apologetic reply to Camus’ dismissal of Catholicism goes something like this: Camus was exposed to Augustine when he was not ready for him. He paid too much attention to Pascal and to “sick” Christianity like that of Kierkegaard. And of course he was not favorably impressed by the French Catholic collaborationists and their jeremiads over sin and punishment at the time of the Nazi occupation. But it would have been a different story if Camus had been able to read Teilhard de Chardin.

Is it that easy? To begin with, let us state the question more exactly. It would be impossible to say whether or not Camus, under this or that set of “favorable circumstances,” would ever have become “a believer.” Such surmises are usually nonsense. The problem with Camus was that he simply could not find Christians with whom he was able completely to identify himself on every level. The closest he got was with some of the French priests in the resistance, and evidently that was not close enough.

What would Camus have liked about Teilhard?

Obviously, first of all, he would have been happy with Teilhard’s com­plete acceptance of nature and of material creation, Teilhard came as close to developing a Christian mystique of matter as anyone has ever done; and Camus, in some of his essays, extols the material, the phe­nomenal, the sensible, the experience of the fleeting moment, in quasi-mystical language.

A study of Teilhard’s writings and especially of his own spiritual de­velopment shows us to what extent he rebelled against the mentality we have seen in Paneloux: the self-righteous, censorious repudiation of a beautiful world created by God’s love. Writing from the trenches in World War I. Teilhard confessed, in a letter to a friend, that even in the midst of war he was meditating and keeping notes on the “real prob­lem of my interior life”—“the problem of reconciling a passionate and legitimate love of all that is greatest on earth, and the unique quest of the Kingdom of Heaven.” He explicitly rejects any concept of the world as “only an opportunity to acquire merit.” Rather he sees it as a good creation, coming from the hand of God and given us “to be built up and embellished.”

[215] It is of course typical of the spirituality of Paneloux to regard the created world merely as something to be manipulated in order to amass an abstract capital of merit. Paneloux is a spiritual profiteer, and his kind of Christianity is a reflection of the social establishment, with which it exists in a symbiotic unity. Of such Christianity, Teilhard says it makes one less than a man and a traitor to the human race. Those who observe it from the outside are repelled and “blame my religion for it” That is precisely what Camus does in his portrait of Paneloux. Teilhard’s criti­cism of this false supernaturalism is that in trying to divert man’s capacity to love and turn it aside from concrete human reality to the purely abstract and spiritual, it deadens and distorts man. “The capacity to love cannot with impunity be dissociated from its object: if you try, mis­takenly, to cut off our affectivity from love of the universe, are you not in danger of destroying it?” This is what has happened to Paneloux: a good, sincere, strong-willed man, with a strong tendency to intellectualize, he has fallen a victim to an abstract and inhuman spirituality. His power of love has atrophied. His affectivity has been channeled into will-to-power and rigid authoritarianism. When he tries to recover the warmth of love, he ends in a self-immolation which is part heroism and part algebra, an irrefutable conclusion to an argument which no one is able to understand.

Teilhard, on the contrary, wants to transform and divinize the human passions themselves. “I shall put the intoxication of pagan pantheism to Christian use, by recognizing the creative and formative action of God in every caress and every blow … I would like to be able to love Christ passionately ... in the very act of loving the universe.” And he asks: “Is there communion with God through the Earth, the Earth becoming like a great Host in which God would be contained for us?”

Camus’ basic sympathy for the element of Greek theoria in Mediter­ranean culture would incline him to accept this “Christian gnosis” up to a point. He could identify with the “passionate love,” if not with the theological elaboration. Teilhard also completely and totally accepts man; and the God of Teilhard is not simply a remote judge and creator, but a God who seeks to complete his epiphany in the world of man by bring­ing all humanity to convergence and unity in himself, in the Incar­nation. The Incarnation for Teilhard is, then, not just an expedient to take care of sin and bring the kind of “grace” that Paneloux was happy about. The Incarnation is ultimately the full revelation of God, not just in man but in the “hominization” of the entire material world.

Camus would have heartily agreed with Teilhard’s love of man and [216] with his aspiration toward human unity. But it is rather doubtful whether he would have been able to accept the evolutionary and historical scheme of Teilhardian soteriology. To be precise, it is likely that Camus would have had a certain amount of trouble with the systematic progress of the world toward “hominization” and “christification” by virtue of laws im­manent in matter and in history.

The point cannot be adequately discussed here, but anyone who wants to investigate it further had better read Camus’ book on Revolt (L’Homme révolté), which he wrote after The Plague and which he thought out at the same time as The Plague. This study of revolt, which precipitated the break between Camus and the Marxists (especially with Sartre), is a severe critique of Hegelian and post-Hegelian doctrines which seek the salvation and progress of man in the “laws of history.”

Camus was suspicious of the way in which totalitarians of both the left and the right consistently appealed to evolution to justify their hope of inevitable progress toward a new era of the superman. In particular, he protested vigorously against their tendency to sacrifice man as he is now, in the present, for man as he is supposed to be, according to the doctrine of race or party, at some indefinite time in the future. In Camus’ eyes, this too easily justified the sadism and opportunism of people who are always prepared to align themselves on the side of the executioners against the victims.. In other words, a certain superficial type of eschato­logical hopefulness, based on evolution, made it easy to ignore the ex­termination camps, the pogroms, the genocide, the napalm, the H-bombs that so conveniently favored the survival of the fittest, got rid of those who no longer had a right to exist, and prepared the way for the epiphany of superman.

At this point, it must be admitted that one of the most serious criti­cisms of Teilhard bears precisely on this point: an optimism which tends to look at existential evil and suffering through the small end of the telescope. It is unfortunately true that Teilhard, like many other Chris­tians, regarded the dead and wounded of Hiroshima with a certain equanimity as inevitable by-products of scientific and evolutionary prog­ress. He was much more impressed with the magnificent scientific achievement of the atomic physicists than he was with the consequences of dropping the bomb. It must be added immediately that the physicists themselves did not all see things exactly as he did. The concern of a Niels Bohr and his dogged struggle to prevent the atomic arms race put Bohr with Rieux and Tarrou in the category of “Sisyphean” heroes that are entirely congenial to Camus. After the Bikini test, Teilhard exclaimed that the new bombs “show a humanity which is at peace both internally [217] and externally.” And he added beatifically, “they announce the coming of the spirit on earth.” (L’Avenir de l’homme)

No matter how much we may respect the integrity and the nobility of this dedicated Jesuit, we have to admit here that at least in one respect he resembles his confrere Paneloux. True, they are at opposite extremes of optimism and pessimism; but they do concur in attaching more im­portance to an abstract idea, a mystique, a system, than to man in his existential and fallible reality here and now. This is precisely what Camus considers to be the great temptation. Lured by an ideology or a mystique, one goes over to the side of the executioners, while arguing that in so doing one is promoting the cause of life.

There is no question whatever that Teilhard believes in the “new man,” the homo progressivus, the new evolutionary leap that is now being taken (he thinks) beyond homo sapiens. Science certainly gives us a basis for hope in this development, and perhaps Camus needed to have more hope in the future of man than he actually seems to have had. Perhaps Camus was too inclined to doubt and hesitate. Perhaps his “modesty” tended too much to desperation. Perhaps there was much he could have learned from Teilhard. But it is not likely that he would purely and simply have agreed with Teilhard’s statement in Peking, in 1945, that the vic­torious armies of Mao Tse-tung represented “the humanity of tomorrow” and “the generating forces and the elements of planetization,” while the bourgeois European world represented nothing but the garbage (le déchet) of history. No doubt there may be good reason to think that a “new humanity” will arise out of the emerging Third World. Let us hope that it will. But Camus would not be so naïve as to identify this “new humanity” with a particular brand of Marxism, or to pin his hopes on a party which announced its own glorious future as a dogma of faith.

Both Camus and Teilhard firmly took their stand on what they con­sidered to be the side of life. Both saw humanity confronted with a final choice, a “grand option,” between the “spirit of force” and the “spirit of love,” between “division” and “convergence.” Man’s destiny is in his own hands, and everything depends on whether he chooses life and creativity or death and destruction. Teilhard’s scientific mystique and long-range view, extending over millennia, naturally did not delay overlong to worry about the death of a few thousands here and there. Camus could still pause and have scruples over the murder of an innocent child. He refused to justify that death in the name of God. He also refused to justify it by an appeal to history, to evolution, to science, to politics, or to the glorious future of the new man.

In short, Teilhard de Chardin's devotion to the powerful generalities of modernity blinded him to the plight of particular men living in the world.


1. Thanks to Patrick Henry Reardon, whose mention of this analysis in the last issue of Touchstone alerted me to its existence.

Thomas Merton, "The Plague of Camus: A Commentary and Introduction," The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, ed. Patrick Hart (New Directions Publishing, 1985), 214-217.

Patrick Henry Reardon, "A Many-Storied Monastic: A Critical Memoir of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey," Touchstone (September/Octobober 2011), 50-57.

Note: These past couple months I've been completely occupied with an important project; it will take another few months to see it through to the end.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Physical Intuition, Not Mathematics

I ran across an excellent passage in one of Feynman's "extra" lectures about the need to develop physical intuition in learning physics:

Now, all these things you can feel. You don't have to feel them; you can work them out by making diagrams and calculations, but as problems get more and more difficult, and as you try to understand nature in more and more complicated situations, the more you can guess at, feel, and understand without actually calculating, the much better off you are! So that’s what you should practice doing on the various problems: when you have time somewhere, and you’re not worried about getting the answer for a quiz or something, look the problem over and see if you can understand the way it behaves, roughly, when you change some of the numbers.

Now, how to explain how to do that, I don’t know. I remember once trying to teach somebody who was having a great deal of trouble taking the physics course, even though he did well in mathematics. A good example of a problem that he found impossible to solve was this: “There’s a round table on three legs. Where should you lean on it, so the table will be the most unstable?”

The student’s solution was, “Probably on top of one of the legs, but let me see: I’ll calculate how much force will produce what lift, and so on, at different places.”

Then I said, “Never mind calculating. Can you imagine a real table?”

“But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!”

“Never mind how you’re supposed to do it; you’ve got a real table here with the various legs, you see? Now, where do you think you’d lean? What would happen if you pushed down directly over a leg?”


I say, “That’s right; and what happens if you push down near the edge, halfway between two of the legs?”

“It flips over!”

I say, “OK! That’s better!”

The point is that the student had not realized that these were not just mathematical problems; they described a real table with legs. Actually, it wasn’t a real table, because it was perfectly circular, the legs were straight up and down, and so on. But it nearly described, roughly speaking, a real table, and from knowing what a real table does, you can get a very good idea of what this table does without having to calculate anything—you know darn well where you have to lean to make the table flip over.

So, how to explain that, I don’t know! But once you get the idea that the problems are not mathematical problems but physical problems, it helps a lot.

This passage makes a point similar to the one in Glen Coughlin's introduction to his translation of Aristotle's Physics: that knowledge and thoughts about the physical world are prior to the abstract knowledge of modern mathematical physics:

To understand Newton's argument for universal gravitation, one must have experience of weight in things and in oneself, of the motion of the stars and planets and moons. Knowing calculus is not enough. This hybrid science [mathematical physics], then, comes after the consideration of nature through non-mathematical means.

Richard P. Feynman, Michael A. Gottlieb, Ralph Leighton, Feynman's Tips on Physics: A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics (Boston: Pearson, 2006), 52-53.

Aristotle, Physics, or Natural Hearing, trans. Glen Coughlin (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), xii.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Academia, Encapsulated

A baccalaureate Mass I recently attended featured this hymn at the offertory:


For the splendor of creation that draws us to inquire,
for the mysteries of knowledge to which our hearts aspire,
for the deep and subtle beauties which delight the eye and ear,
for the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear,
for the unexplained remainder, the puzzling and the odd:
for the joy and pain of learning, we give you thanks, O God.


For the scholars past and present whose bounty we digest,
for the teachers who inspire us to summon forth our best,
for our rivals and companions, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise,
for the human web upholding this noble enterprise,
for the common life that binds us through days that soar or plod:
for this place and for these people, we give you thanks, O God.


The tune was Holst's Thaxted (a.k.a. central section from Jupiter in The Planets, a.k.a. "I vow to thee, my country"). It seems to have been written by Rev. Carl P. Daw, Jr. in 1989.

What an apt way to give thanks to God for the grandeur and folly of academia!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Inward and Outward Activity

I haven't posted for quite a while now since I've been very busy with work. I'm also preparing a paper for a conference this summer, for which I've thrown aside many extra activities. I probably won't be posting again for another month or so.

In the meantime, I thought you might find interesting this great quotation from David Bohm on rest mass as inward movement, and light as pure outward movement:

In this connection it must be noted that every form of energy (including kinetic as well as potential) contributes in the same way to the mass. However, the “rest energy” of a body has a special meaning, in the sense that even when a body has no visible motion as a whole, it is still undergoing inward movements (as radiant energy, molecular, electronic, nucleonic, and other movements). These inward movements have some “rest energy” E0 and contribute a corresponding quantity, m0 = E0/c2 to the “rest mass.” As long [91]as the energy is only “inward,” the rest mass remains constant, of course. But as we have seen, internal transformations taking place on the molecular, atomic, and nuclear levels can change some of this to-and-fro, reflecting “inward” movement into other forms of energy whose effects are “outwardly” visible on the large scale. When this happens, the “rest energy” and with it, the “rest mass,” undergo a corresponding decrease. But such a change of mass is seen to be not in the least bit mysterious, if we remember that inertial and gravitational masses are merely one aspect of the whole movement, another aspect of which is an equivalent energy, exhibited as a capacity to do work on the large scale. In other words, the transformation of “matter” into “energy” is just a change from one form of movement (inwardly, reflecting, to-and-fro) into another form (e.g., outward displacement through space).

It is particularly instructive to consider how, in this point of view, one understands the possibility for objects with zero rest mass to exist, provided that they are moving at the speed of light. For if rest mass is “inner” movement, taking place even when an object is visibly at rest on a certain level, it follows that something without “rest mass” has no such inner movement, and that all its movement is outward, in the sense that it is involved in displacement through space. So light (and everything else that travels at the same speed) may be regarded as something that does not have the possibility of being “at rest” on any given level, by virtue of the cancellation of inner “reflecting” movements, because it does not possess any such inner movements. As a result it can exist only in the form of “outward” movement at the speed c. And as we recall, the property of moving with the speed of light is invariant under a Lorentz transformation, so that the quality of the movement as purely “outward” does not depend on the frame of reference in which it is observed. (On the other hand, movements at speeds less than c can always be transformed into rest by a change to a reference frame with velocity equal to that of the object under consideration).

Bohm's insights here have significance when combined with Hans Jonas's insights on "mediacy."

David Bohm, The Special Theory of Relativity (New York: Routledge, 1996), 90-91.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

More Passages from Burtt's Book

Last post I excerpted selections of E.A. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science on Newton as a metaphysician (in the pejorative sense). In this post I have collected other scintillating selections from the book, and grouped them into a few categories. The divisions are somewhat artificial, because the categories are interrelated, and some passages could arguable appear in more than one category.

On Qualities and the Mind

The moderns, starting with Descartes, distinguished primary from secondary qualities. (Though as far back as Peter Ramus, there was a movement to sever the mind from the real contact with the world we call knowledge.) Primary qualities are predominantly geometrical, while secondary qualities are those that, to put it briefly, give the world its vibrancy, such as colors, tones, tastes, smell, textures. Here are some selections on qualities, quantities and the modern project of divorcing the mind from the natural world of qualities, and draining life from the universe. (The two longer ones are real gems.)

[Kepler:] "Wherever there are qualities, there are likewise quantities, but not always vice versa." (67)

[Galileo:] "Now this tickling is all in us, and not in the feather, and if the animate and sensitive body be removed, it is nothing more than a mere name. Of precisely a similar and not greater existence do I believe these various qualities to be possessed, which are attributed to natural bodies, such as tastes, odours, colours, and others." (86)

Why, now, are we sure that the primary, geometrical qualities inhere in objects as they really are, while the secondary qualities do not? How is it that "all other things we conceive to be compounded out of figure, extension, motion, etc., which we cognize so clearly and distinctly that they cannot be analysed by the mind into others more distinctly known?" Descartes' own justification for this claim is that these qualities are more permanent than the others. In the case of the piece of wax, which he used for illustrative purposes in the second Mediation, no qualities remained constant but those of extension, flexibility, and mobility, which as he observes, is a a fact perceived by the understanding, not by the sense or imagination. Now flexibility is not a property of all bodies, hence extension and mobility alone are left as the constant qualities of all bodies as such; they can by no means be done away with while the bodies remain. But, we might ask, are not colour and resistance equally constant properties of bodies? Objects change in colour, to be sure, and there are varying degrees of resistance, but does one meet bodies totally without colour or resistance? the fact is and this is of central importance for our whole study, Descartes' real criterion is not permanence but the possibility of mathematical handling; in his case, as with Galileo, the whole course of his thought from his adolescent studies on had inured him to the notion that we know objects only in mathematical terms, and the sole type for him of clear and distinct ideas had come to be mathematical ideas, with the addition of certain logical propositions into which he had been led by the need of a firmer metaphysical basis for his achievements, such as the proposition that we exist, that we think, etc. Hence the secondary qualities, when considered as belonging to objects, like the primary, inevitably appear to his mind obscure and confused; they are not a clear field for mathematical operations. (117-118)

All the non-geometrical properties are to be shorn from the res extensa and located in the mind. (122)

Now Hobbes recognizes that he has obligated himself to give an explanatory account, in terms of bodies and motion, of these images [that make up reasoning], inasmuch as they do not obviously present themselves as either bodies, or motions, or located in the brain. This explanation, which appears first in the Treatise of [sic] Human Nature, is of profound significance in the early development of the new doctrine of the human mind, and represents Hobbes' chief importance in the current which leads on to the metaphysics of Newton. (129)

[Isaac Barrow holds that] the attempt to speak of the mathematician as dealing with an ideal or intelligible realm as opposed to the realm of sensible objects is mistaken: it is the sensible realm, so far as it is intelligible, especially as it reveals quantitative continuity, that is the object of all science. Thus physics, so far as it is a science, is wholly mathematical, likewise all of mathematics is applied in physics, hence we may say that the two sciences are co-extensive and equal. (151-2)

Descartes, bold metaphysician that he was, had answer ready as regards space—he seized upon it as the very substance of the material universe, crowding into the immaterial world of thought whatever could not be fully treated geometrically. (160)

[Boyle's general solution to the problem of secondary qualities:] it is that in objects themselves these secondary qualities exist as "a disposition of its constituent corpuscles, that in case it were truly applied to the sensory of an animal there would be no such thing as pain, yet a pin may, upon the account of its figure, be fitted to cause pain in case it were moved against a man's finger..." Inasmuch, however, as there are men and animals in the world, such a "disposition" or "fitness" in things is just as real as the qualities it possesses in itself. (182)

[Descartes sought to avoid] attributing to either ethereal matter or other bodies any qualities not deducible from extension. As we have observed, the mere fact that the ether assumes and maintains the vortical form implies in it qualities that go far beyond extension... (192)

The world of physics is the sensible world, but it is uniquely characterized by the qualities which its reduction to mathematical laws necessarily emphasized. (232)

The gloriously romantic universe of Dante and Milton, that set no bounds to the imagination of man as it played over space and time, had now been swept away. Space was identified with the realm of geometry, time with the continuity of number. The world that people had thought themselves living in—a world rich with colour and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love and beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals—was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world hard, cold, colourless, silent, and dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity. The world of qualities as immediately perceived by man became just a curious and quite minor effect of that infinite machine beyond. In Newton the Cartesian metaphysics, ambiguously interpreted and stripped of its distinctive claim for serious philosophical consideration, finally overthrew Aristotelianism and became the predominant world-view of modern times. (238-9)

It was difficult for thinkers really to carry through Descartes' bold suggestion that everything in the world that is not mathematical is to be shoved into human minds as a mode of thought.... (265)

[Are sensible objects distinct from their subjectively sensed qualities?] In practice we correct dubious perceptions by appealing to further perceptions; we never correct them by comparison with something unperceived. (316)

... it does seem like strange perversity in these Newtonian scientists to further their own conquests of external nature by loading on mind everything refractory to exact mathematical handling and thus rendering the latter still more difficult to study scientifically than it had been before. (320)

On Final Causes

The moderns likewise sought to eliminate teleology or purposes from the objective, non-human world. This movement began before Descartes, as for example, in Machiavelli, though Burtt doesn't discuss this line of precedents. Of the major figures in the book, Boyle seemed to me the most sympathetic, and teleology was one issue on which he seemed close to correct.

But Descartes is not much interested in the res cognitans, his descriptions of it are brief, and, as if to make the rejection of teleology in the new movement complete, he does not even appeal to final causes to account for what goes on in the realm of mind. Everything there is a mode of the thinking substance. (119)

Boyle's chief points of disaffection with Descartes were the latter's banishment of final causes on the ground that we cannot know God's purposes, and his main postulates about motion. The English thinker holds it obvious that some of the divine ends are readable by all, such as the symmetry of the world and the marvelous adaptation of living creatures, hence it is foolish to reject teleological proofs of the existence of God. (169)

[Boyle] proposes to use the term form, for example, to mean (instead of the scholastic essential qualities) "those mechanical affections necessary to constitute a body of that determinate kind." Nature, too, he wishes to rescue from the vague and varied uses to which it had been put in ancient and medieval discussions, and define it in terms of the new dualism—it is not a collection of substances not a mysterious wielder of incalculable forces, but a system of mechanical laws, i.e., it is the world of matter and motion distinct from rational souls and immaterial spirits. (177)

Boyle criticized teleological explanations; the validity of final causality, unlike Descartes and Hobbes, he does not at all call into question, but points out that an answer to the ultimate why of anything is no substitute for an answer to the immediate how. "For to explicate a phenomenon, it is not enough to ascribe it to one general efficient, but we must intelligibly show the particular manner, how that general cause produces the proposed effect. He must be a very dull inquirer who, demanding an account of the phenomena of a watch, shall rest satisfied with being told, that it is an engine made by a watchmaker; though nothing be thereby declared of the structure and coaptation of the spring, wheels, balance, and other parts of the engine, and the manner, how they act on one another, so as to co-operate to make the needle point out the true hour of the day." (178)

It is important indeed for the onward march of the new philosophy of science that Boyle's acceptance of teleology as a valid metaphysical principle did not lead him to apply it in physics; here he follows his predecessors in holding that the immediate and secondary cause of any effect is always a prior motion of some sort. (179)

[Boyle:] "But inanimate bodies are utterly incapable of understanding what a law is... and therefore the actions of inanimate bodies, which cannot incite or moderate their own actions, are produced by real power, not by laws." This thought, that inasmuch as the world cannot know what it is doing, its orderly and law-abiding behavior must be accounted for by real, constant, intelligent power, occurs in other passages in Boyle. Nowhere is there any clear attempt to reconcile this with the position that the laws of motion and the phenomena of gravity represent quite self-sufficient mechanical operations. (199)

Now it may well be that science, despite its rejection of final causes, reveals the presence and functioning of values in the fundamental categories it selects and the way it applies them. If so, then an adequate scientific metaphysic will not be able to manage without teleology in some form, and it becomes a question of first-rate importance what that form is to be. (310)

On Space and Time

In a purposeless universe, no place can be any more special than another; bodies move blindly in a featureless void. At Newton's hands, space and time were absolutized, that is, given an existence apart from the rest of the world, as if they were containers waiting for bodies to fill them. According to Burtt, this source of this assumption comes from the theology fashionable at the time.

Just as space had ceased [in the sixteenth century] to appear accidental to objects and relative to magnitudes, and became a vast, infinite substance existing in its own right (except for relation to God) so time ceased to be regarded as merely the measure of motion, and became a mysterious something ultimately of religious significance, but quite independent of motion, in fact measured now by it, flowing on from everlasting to everlasting in its even mathematical course. From being a realm of substances in qualitative and teleological relations the world of nature had definitely become a realm of bodies moving mechanically in space and time. (161)

The ethereal medium, whatever may be said about tangible bodies, was not a mere machine [according to More]. If it were, the universe would rapidly dissipate, by the first law of motion. Qualities and powers were assumed in it which were not mechanical. Therefore it must be spiritual, incorporeal, the active executor of the divine will, holding the frame of the world together in the phenomenon of cohesion, magnetism, gravity. At the same time its effects are regular and orderly, doubtless reducible to exact scientific law. All this complex of ideas was shared by Boyle, and passed from More and Boyle to Newton, in whose philosophy it played a distinctive part. (166-7)

[H]ow does Newton, the experimentalist and ejector of hypotheses, dare to introduce [absolute space, time, and motion] with his definitions of mass an force and his axioms of motion? How, even, we might add, would be he able to tell whether this hypothetical celestial body were really at rest in absolute space, even though it fell under our observations, inasmuch as space by its own nature is infinite and homogeneous, its parts indistinguishable from each other? (249)

But thus far alone we can go with Newton; no farther. For note: absolute space and time as thus understood, by their own nature negate the possibility that sensible bodies can move with reference to them—such bodies can only move in them, with reference to other bodies. Why is this so? Simply because they are infinite and homogeneous entities; one pat of them is quite indistinguishable from any other equal part; any position in them is identical with any position; for wherever that part of position may be it is surrounded by an infinite stretch of similar room in all directions. Taking any body or system of bodies by itself, therefore, it is impossible to say intelligibly that it is either moving or at rest in absolute space or absolute time; such a statement only becomes meaningful when another phrase is added—with reference to such and such another body. things move in absolute space and time, but with reference to other things. A sensible centre of reference must always be definitely or tacitly implied. (256-7)

[T]ime is conceived as a homogeneous mathematical continuum, extending from the infinite past to the infinite future. Being one and entire, its whole extent is somehow present at one; it is necessarily bound together and all subject to knowledge. The laws of motion, together with the doctrine of the constancy of energy, inevitably result in this picture of the whole sweep of time as a realm mathematically determined in terms of an adequate present knowledge. But carry this conception to the limit, and does not time quite disappear as anything ultimately different from space? Once the Platonic year is discovered, everything that can happen is a present event. (263)

[T]he space of perception is too much like the space of real objects to reveal any essential difference from it. All it needs is to be freed from illusions, private images, and other experiences lacking social objectivity, to function quite acceptably as real space. And once this point has been reached there seems no longer any excuse for maintaining the distinction between sensed qualities and the real characters to which they correspond. (317)

On God and His Relationship to the Universe

In the heterodox climate of post-Reformation England, all sort of weird beliefs flourished, and, according to Burtt, this was the unexamined source of many presumptions on which scientific investigations were based. This is not to say that some fundamental Christian beliefs did not manage to shine through.

Barrow's religious interest appears above all in his postulate of the constancy of nature; he goes on to affirm that all demonstration presupposed the existence of God. "I say that all demonstration assumes the truth of hypotheses [postulates, we should say]; the truth of an hypothesis attributes to the thing which is assumed a possible existence; this possibility involves an efficient cause of the thing (otherwise it would be impossible for it to exist); the efficient cause of all things is God." (155, bracketed insert by Burtt)

[Barrow reasoned that] God can create worlds beyond this world, hence God must extend beyond matter, and it is just this superabundance of the divine presence and power that we mean by space. (155)

It is noticeable, however, that Boyle is eager not to overstress the importance of miracles; the main argument for God and providence is the exquisite structure and symmetry of the world—regularity, not irregularity... (201)

From the Protoplast of the whole, God has now descended to become a category among other categories; the facts of continued order, system, and uniformity as observed in the world, are inexplicable apart from him.... [In the scholastic system] God had no purpose; he was the ultimate object of purpose. (297)

How could intelligence grasp an inaccessible world in which there was no answering or controlling intelligence? It was by no means an accident that Hume and Kant, the first pair who really banished God from metaphysical philosophy, likewise destroyed by sceptical critique the current overweening faith in the metaphysical competence of reason. (301)


Burtt's book is full of interesting historical facts and insightful observations. Here are a few that don't fit into any of my categories. I particularly appreciate Boyle's rejection of the practice of the time of thinking of spirits as somehow material.

In fact, we know that, by many, astronomy was regarded as closer to the geometrical ideal of pure mathematics than arithmetic. Typical lists of the mathematical sciences offered by Alfarabi and Roger Bacon place them in the order: geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, music. (46)

Galileo himself remarks that Aristotle would change his opinion if he saw our new observations, for his method was essentially empirical. "I do believe for certain that he first procured, by the help of the senses, such experiments and observations as he could, to assure him as much as was possible of the conclusion, and that he afterwards sought out the means how to demonstrate it; for this is the usual course in demonstrative sciences. And the reason thereof is, because when the conclusion is true, by the help of the resolutive method, one may hit upon some proposition before demonstrated, or come to some principle knowns per se; but if the conclusion is false, a man may proceed in infinitum, and never meet with any truth already known." (78)

Further, it is to [William] Gilbert's experiments on magnetism that we owe the first beginnings of the use and conception of the word "mass" as we find it later matured in Newton. According to Gilbert, the strength and reach of a loadstone's magnetism varies with its quantity or mass, that is, if it be of uniform purity and from a specified mine. Galileo and Kepler borrowed the notion of mass from Gilbert in this sense and connexion. (164)

Boyle is eager to affirm, however, in refutation of Hobbes, that this applies only to secondary causes—to assert absolutely that motion is impossible except by a body contiguous and moved, is to involve oneself in an infinite regress and to deny ultimate causality by a spiritual deity. (180)

[Boyle rejects More's doctrine of spirits having extension and holds spirits to be immaterial and immortal.] "When I say that spirit is incorporeal substance... if he should answer, that when he hears the words incorporeal substance, he imagines some aerial or other very thin, subtile, transparent body, I shall reply, that this comes from a vicious custom he has brought himself to, of imagining something whenever he will conceive anything, though of a nature incapable of being truly represented by any image in the fancy." (183-184)

Newton was thus the common heir of the two important and fruitful movements in the preceding development of science, the empirical and experimental as well as the deductive and mathematical. He was the follower of Bacon, Gilbert, Harvey, and Boyle, just as truly the successor of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes; and if it were possible to wholly separate the two aspects of his method, it would have to be said that Newton's ultimate criterion was more empirical than mathematical. (213-4)

[To Newton,] anything that is not immediately deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis and has no place in science, especially attempts to explain the nature of forces and causes revealed in the phenomena of motion. (226)

(Perhaps I should have included the last passage in the previous post.)

E.A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1954). Same pagination as Dover Books edition.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Newton the Metaphysician

I finally got around to reading a book I've had in my library for some years now and am sorry that it took me so long to get to it. E.A. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science is a superb analysis of the sources and content of Isaac Newton's philosophical thought, and thus an incisive critique of the entire enterprise of science and modernity.

The first two thirds of the book explicates the thought of Newton's influential predecessors, and the last third is about the thought of Newton himself. There are many great passages throughout the book, but in this post I will confine myself to excerpting from the parts that most directly deal with Newton as a metaphysician.

[I]n his decisive portrayal of the ultimate postulates of the new science and its successful method as they appeared to him, Newton was constituting himself a philosopher rather than a scientist as we now distinguish them. (33)

[Newton] disliked hypotheses, by which he meant explanatory propositions which were not immediately deduced from phenomena. At the same time, following his illustrious predecessors, he does give or assume definite answers to such fundamental questions as the nature of space, time, and matter; the relations of man with the objects of his knowledge; and it is just such answers that constitute metaphysics.1 (33)

An interesting question remains however to be asked about [Newton's] method. Do not the very initial experiments and observations, as a result of which the mathematical behavior of phenomena is defined, presuppose something which we can only speak of as an hypothesis, to direct those experiments to a successful issue? (223)

This section, in which Burtt expresses the profound and ultimately insurmountable problems with the positivism Newton left us, is worth quoting at length:

[227] To begin with, there is no escape from metaphysics, that is, from the final implications of any proposition or set of propositions. The only way to avoid becoming a metaphysician is to say nothing. This can be illustrated by analysing any statement you please; suppose we take the central position of positivism itself as an example. This can perhaps be fairly stated in some such form as the following: It is possible to acquire truths about things without presupposing any theory of their ultimate nature; or, more simply, it is possible to have a correct knowledge of the part without knowing the nature of [228]the whole. Let us look at this position closely. That it is in some sense correct would seem to be vouched for by the actual successes of science, particularly mathematical science; we can discover regular relations among certain pieces of matter without knowing anything further about them, The question is not about its truth or falsity, but whether there is metaphysics in it. Well, subject it to a searching analysis, and does it not swarm with metaphysical assumptions? In the first place it bristles with phrases which lack precise definition, such as "ultimate nature", "correct knowledge", "nature of the whole", an assumptions of moment are always lurking in phrases which are thus carelessly used. In the second place, defining these phrases as you will, does not the statement reveal highly interesting and exceedingly important implications about the universe? Taking it in any meaning which would be generally accepted, does it not imply, for example, that the universe is essentially pluralistic (except, of course, for thought and language), that is, that some things happen without any genuine dependence on other happenings; and can therefore be described in universal terms without reference to anything else? Scientific positivists testify in various ways to this pluralistic metaphysic; as when they insist that there are isolable systems in nature, whose behaviour, at least in all prominent respects, can be reduced to law without any fear that the investigation of other happenings will do more than place that knowledge in a larger setting. Doubtless, strictly speaking, we could not say that we knew what would happen to our solar system if the fixed stars were of a sudden to vanish, but we do know that it is possible to reduce the major phenomena of our solar system to mathematical law on principles that do not depend on the presence of fixed stars, and hence with no reason to suppose their disappearance would upset our formulations in the least. Now this is certainly an important presumption about the nature of the universe, suggesting many further considerations. Let us forebear, however, to press our reasoning further at this point; the lesson is that even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates.

[229]For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument. That a serious student of Newton fails to see his master had a most important metaphysic, is an exceedingly interesting testimony to the prevailing influence, throughout modern thought, of the Newtonian first philosophy.

Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics will actually hold metaphysical notions of three main types. For one thing, he will share the ideas of his age on ultimate questions, so far as such ideas do not run counter to his interests or awaken his criticism. No one has yet appeared in human history, not even the most profoundly critical intellect, in whom no important idola theatri can be detected, but the metaphysician will at least be superior to his opponent in this respect, in that he will be constantly on his guard against the surreptitious entrance and unquestioned influence of such notions. In the second place, if he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful. Some of the consequences of succumbing to such a temptation have been abundantly evident in our discussion of the work of Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes. Finally since human nature demands metaphysics for its full intellectual satisfaction, no great mind can wholly avoid playing with ultimate questions, especially where they are powerfully thrust upon it by considerations arising from its positivistic investigations, or by certain vigorous extra-scientific interests, such as religion. But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic. Each of these three types is exempl[230]ified in Newton. His general conception of the physical world and of man's relation to it, including the revolutionary doctrine of causality and the Cartesian dualism in its final ambiguous outcome (which were the two central features of the new ontology) with their somewhat less central corollaries about the nature and process of sensation, primary and secondary qualities, the imprisoned seat and petty powers of the human soul, was taken over without examination as an assured result of the victorious movement whose greatest champion he was destined to become. His views on space and time belong in part to the same category, but were in part given a most interesting turn by convictions of the third sort. To the second type belongs his treatment of mass, that is, it gains its metaphysical importance from a tendency to extend the implications of his method. Of the third type, mainly, are his ideas of the nature and function of the ether, and of God's existence and relation to the world uncovered by science. We can hardy do better than allow this analysis of the three types to furnish us with an outline of the succeeding sections.

Newton's genius brought mankind great success, but at a great cost that we his children are still paying. Our liberation from nature has enslaved us to ill-conceived philosophy.

Magnificent, irrefutable achievements gave Newton authority over the modern world, which, feeling itself to have become free of metaphysics through Newton the positivist, has become shackled and controlled by a very definite metaphysics through Newton the metaphysician. (230)

The book might be characterized as a reflection on the unexamined presuppositions of modern science, and it does highlight some of the odd religious presumptions on which Newton based his thought (e.g., absolute space as the "sensorium" of God). If one is to believe Wikipedia, Burtt was one of the writers of the first Humanist Manifesto, but not a signatory. Nevertheless he is a broad enough thinker (in some ways comparable to Whitehead) that his own views never intrude to cloud his judgment; I spent the first half of the book thinking he was a mild ally of scientism, and the second half thinking he was a moderate Aristotelian! That he was a professor at Cornell may not be his only similarity to Carl Sagan—but I write no more on that now.


1. That Newton assumed a metaphysics (or more properly a philosophical physics, a.k.a. a natural philosophy) rather than drawing it from rational reflection on nature is what sets Newton's work as far less general than Aristotle's, and far inferior in actual knowledge of the world. It is the reason that his mechanics required correction in the 20th century (viz., quantum mechanics and relativity)—and even these corrections are incomplete.

E.A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1954). Same pagination as Dover Books edition.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Heisenberg on Nature and Science

Last post, I mentioned how I have been reading Werner Heisenberg's Gifford Lectures (1955-56), and I related an incisive insight of his on peace declarations to Christmas.

Of course, Heisenberg has written much more of interest on science than on peace. His philosophical observations are surprisingly well informed—or at least seem so these days in which prominent scientists seem to have taken it upon themselves to prove the depth of their education in philosophy is inversely proportional to expertise in their own field.

This is not to say that everything Heisenberg says is flawless, but simply that his remarks are surprising in their philosophical sanity. Below I've excerpted several of the better passages.

To begin with, it is important to remember that in natural science we are not interested in the universe as a whole, including ourselves, but we direct our attention to some part of the universe and make that the object of our studies. (52)

In classical physics science started from the belief—or should one say from the illusion?—that we could describe the world or at least parts of the world without any reference to ourselves. This is actually possible to a large extent.... Certainly quantum theory does not contain genuine subjective features, it does not introduce the mind of the physicist as a part of the atomic event. But it starts from the division of the world into the "object" and the rest of the world, and from the fact that at least for the rest of the world we use the classical concepts in our description. This division is arbitrary and historically a direct consequence of our scientific method... (55)

The concept of atom does ... has its origin in ancient Greek philosophy and was in that early period the central concept of materialism taught by Leucippus and Democritus. On the other hand, the modern interpretation of atomic events has very little resemblance to genuine materialistic philosophy; in fact, one may say that atomic physics has turned science away from the materialistic trend it had during the nineteenth century. (59)

In the theory of general relativity the answer is given that geometry is produced by matter or matter by geometry. The answer corresponds more closely to the view held by many philosophers that space is defined by the extension of matter. (66)

It has been pointed our before that in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory we can indeed proceed without mentioning ourselves as individuals, but we cannot disregard the fact that natural science is formed by men. Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is a part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning. This was a possibility of which Descartes could not have thought, but it makes the sharp separation between the world and the I impossible. (81)

Our perceptions are not primarily bundles of colors or sounds; what we perceive is already perceived as something, the accent here being on the word "thing," and therefore it is doubtful whether we gain anything by taking the perceptions instead of the things as the ultimate elements of reality. (84)

The limitations of the field [of physics] can generally not be derived from the concepts. The concepts are not sharply defined in their relation to nature, in spite of the sharp definition of their possible connects. The limitations will therefore be found from experience, from the fact that the concepts do not allow a complete description of the observed phenomena. (101)

In order to give a quantitative description of the laws of chemistry one had to formulate a much wider system of concepts for atomic physics. This was finally done in quantum theory, which has its roots just as much in chemistry as in atomic physics. Then it was easy to see that the laws of chemistry could not be reduced to Newtonian mechanics of atomic particles, since the chemical elements displayed in their behavior a degree of stability completely lacking in mechanical systems. But it was not until Bohr's theory of the atom in 1913 that this point has been clearly understood. In the final result, one may say, the concepts of chemistry are in part complementary to the mechanical concepts. If we know that an atom is in its lowest stationary state that determines its chemical properties we cannot at the same time speak about the motion of the electrons in the atom. (101-2)

Just as in the case of chemistry, one learns from simple biological experience that the living organisms display a degree of stability which general complicated structures consisting of many different types of molecules could certainly not have on the basis of the physical and chemical laws alone. Therefore, something has to be added to the laws of physics and chemistry before the biological phenomena can be completely understood. (102-3)

It is very difficult to see how concepts like perception, function of an organ, affection could be a part of the coherent set of the concepts of quantum theory combined with the concept of history. On the other hand, these concepts are necessary for a complete description of life, even if for the moment we exclude mankind as presenting new problems beyond biology. (104)

We would never doubt that the brain acts as a physico-chemical mechanism if treated as such; but for an understanding of psychic phenomena we would start from the fact that the human mind enters as object and subject into the scientific process of psychology. (106)

But the kind of stability that is displayed by the living organism is of a nature somewhat different from the stability of atoms or crystals. It is a stability of process or function rather than a stability of form. (154)

As Bohr has pointed out, it may well be that a description of the living organism that could be called complete from the standpoint of the physicist cannot be given, since it would require experiments that interfere too strongly with the biological functions. (155)

Therefore, we have here actually the final proof for the unity of matter. All the elementary particles are made of the same substance, which we may call energy or universal matter; they are just different forms in which matter can appear. ¶ If we compare this situation with the Aristotelian concepts of matter and form, we can say that the matter of Aristotle, which is mere "potentia," should be compared to our concept of energy, which gets into "actuality" by means of the form, when the elementary particle is created. (160)

The physicist may be satisfied when he has a mathematical scheme and knows how to use it for the interpretation of experiments. But he has to speak about his results also to nonphysicists who will not be satisfied unless some explanation is given in plain language, understandable to everybody. Even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached. To what extent is such a description at all possible? This is a problem of language as much as of physics.... (168)

Furthermore, one of the most important features of the development and the analysis of modern physics is the experience that the concepts of natural language, vaguely defined as they are, seem to be more stable in the expansion of knowledge than the precise terms of scientific language, derived as an idealization from only limited groups of phenomena. This is in fact not surprising since the concepts of natural language are formed by the immediate connection with reality; they represent reality. It is true that they are not very well defined and may therefore also undergo changes in the course of centuries, just as reality itself did, but they never lose the immediate connection with reality. On the other hand, the scientific concepts are idealizations; they are derived from experience obtained by refined experimental tools and are precisely defined through axioms and definitions. Only through these precise definitions is it possible to connect the concepts with a mathematical scheme and to derive mathematically the infinite variety of possible phenomena in this field. But through this process of idealization and precise definition the immediate connection with reality is lost.(200)

We know that any understanding must be based finally upon the natural language because it is only there that we can be certain to touch reality, and hence we must be skeptical about any skepticism with regard to this natural language and its essential concepts. (201-2)

Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958).