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Does Physics Need Mysticism?

  1. Jan 28, 2005 #1
    It is clear that a large number of physicists know little about the early development of quantum theory. Many do not attach much importance to that early development, and normally, I would be in that group. But today, our incredible new technologies may allow a very profitable reexamination of the fundamental basis of physics. In the 1920s, the concept of working with single particles was almost unthinkable. So, a statistical basis for physics seemed perfectly rational. And while Bose-Einstein had mathematically explored many particle coherent systems, the gedanken experiment was the only kind of experiment that could actually be done. Today, man is becoming the master of both single systems and many particle coherent systems and the seemingly mystical properties of the world of the very small may actually be subject to very close scrutiny. Maybe, just maybe, we might not need the statistical basis and the mysticism.

    The mystical quality of today's physics has a definite root cause and, as I hope to show, that root cause has almost nothing to do with Nature. Neils Bohr loved playing the role of sorcerer - I suspect that he had a lot of fun with his presentations. What astounds me is that several generations of physicists have taken on the role of sorcerer's apprentice. Physics has been turned into a poparie of mystical qualities attributed to nature. In his defense, Bohr tried many times to stop the attribution of the features of QM to Nature such as when he stated: "There is no quantum world. There is only
    an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature *is*. Physics concerns what we can say about nature." [J. C. Polkinghorne (1989), The Quantum World, Princeton University Press.]

    The fact is that QM has almost nothing to do with Nature or reality. All of the weirdness is in QM, not Nature -- Bohr's injection of his Copenhagen Program into QM is the perfect example of Garbage In - Garbage Out. In 1909 (spring), Max Planck, as a foreign lecturer, delivered a series of eight lectures titled "The Present System of Theoretical Physics" at Columbia University. In the first lecture, Planck expressed his greatest fear:

    "To sum up, we may say that the characteristic feature of the actual development of the system of theoretical physics is an ever extending emancipation from the anthropomorphic elements, which has for its object the most complete separation possible of the system of physics and the individual personality of the physicist. One may call this the objectiveness of the system of physics. In order to exclude the possibility of any misunderstanding, I wish to emphasize particularly that we have here to do, not with an absolute separation of physics from the physicist--for a physics without the physicist is unthinkable,--but with the elimination of the individuality of the particular physicist and therefore with the production of a common system of physics for all physicists."

    Up until the inception of "the collapse of the wave function", the earth-centric universe was the most obvious example of an anthropomorphic concept. Today, "the collapse of the wave function" is easily the the most anthropomorphic concept ever devised by man. Read Ed Jaynes work for many more examples of anthropomorphic concepts in QM. It appears that Planck's greatest fears have been fully realized in QM.

    The following is from Davis Wick's "The Infamous Boundary":
    "The final topic of this chapter concerns Bohr's philosophical agenda not derived from physics. The extent to which Bohr based his views on psychological theories popular in his day is not generally known to physicists; when they hear of it they usually react with disbelief. The naive realist -- who is frequently accused of harboring a philosophical prejudice -- is well advised to learn a few of these facts for purposes of self defense.

    There seems to be a reference to psychology in every exposition Bohr wrote on complementarity. In the post-Como paper, Bohr wrote 'The idea of complementarity is suited to characterize the situation, which bears a profound analogy to the general difficulty in the formulation of ideas, inherent in the distinction between subject and object.' In a paper of 1929, he remarked that 'the necessity of taking recourse to a complementarity, or reciprocal, mode of description is perhaps familiar to us from psychological problems.' Later in the same paper there appears the following passage:
    In particular, the apparent contrast between the
    continuous onward flow of associative thinking
    and the preservation of the unity of personality
    exhibits a suggestive analogy with the relation
    between the wave description of the motions of
    material particles...and their indestructible

    Max Jammer made a credible case in 1974 that this peculiar passage is a direct paraphrase of one in 'Principles of Psychology' (1890), by the American psychologist William James (the brother of the novelist Henry James).

    William James (1842-1910), who in turn taught physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard, was America's most influential thinker at the turn of the century. His Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism are still widely discussed today. In a chapter titled "The Stream of Thought," James compares conciousness to the flight of a bird: a journey alternating between flights and perchings. The "perchings" represent resting places occupied by sense impressions, and the "flights" are thoughts, which form relations between the impressions.

    James suggests the virtual impossibility of contemplating such a "flight" at the moment that it occurs: "As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop, so, instead of catching the feeling of relation moving to its term," we arrive instead at a resting place. "The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is...like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up a gas quickly enough to see how darkness looks."

    The similarity to Bohr's language is apparent, but Jammer further suggests that Bohr's coinage of the term "complementarity" may be traced to James. (I have always thought it suggestive that Bohr adopted a neologism, "complementarity," rather than the available term "duality," which he avoided. Perhaps he reasoned that the "duality principle" would be harder to sell to physicists, with their fondness for unifying everything.) James discussed an experiment performed by Pierre Janet, a psychologist and neurologist studying hysterical disease at the same time as Freud. (They were pupils of the same teacher, the physician Charcot.) Janet hypnotized a patient a patient named Lucie, covered her lap with cards, each bearing a number, and then instructed her that she could not see the cards whose numbers were multiples of three. Upon awakening from the trance, Lucie denied that there were any cards labeled 6,9,etc., in her lap, but her hand, while she was otherwise engaged in
    conversation, picked up just those cards that bore multiples of three on their faces. James concluded thay "in certain persons the total possible consciousness may be split into parts which coexist but ignore each other, and share the objects of knowledge between them. More remarkable still, they are *complementary*." James even refers to these cases as representing "relations of mutual exclusion" a few pages later. Jammer's case is convincing.

    To criticize a scientist for drawing inspiration from another discipline would be anti-intellectual and mean spirited. But a distinction can be made here. When Charles Darwin imported Thomas Malthus's concept of an endless "struggle for existence" from political thought into biology, transforming it into the "survival of the fittest," he was *borrowing a mechanism* and not adopting a new methodology or epistemology. The creative muse visits so rarely that one welcomes any source of inspiration, from art, music, another science, or even one's dreams-- if it helps to uncover *an unknown mechanism*. But if James's musings on the paradoxes of the mind contemplating itself did inspire Bohr, it was not to make a new model of atoms. Instead, Bohr tried to convince physicists they should learn to think that way. Which raises the question of whether James' ideas proved useful to psychologists. The small sample to which I read the quotations above were visibly annoyed at James' paradoxical remarks.

    There is overwhelming evidence that Bohr was pursuing a philosophical agenda dating from long before quantum mechanics and having little to do with physics. One more selection, this time from a memoir of Heisenberg, should clinch the case. Remembering a sailing trip with colleagues, including a chemist and a surgeon, in which Bohr waxed eloquent on his new interpretation of quantum theory, Heisenberg wrote:
    'Bohr began by talking of the difficulties of language, of the limitations of all our means of expressing ourselves, which one had to take into account from the very begining if one wants to practice science, and... how satisfying it was that this limitation had already been expressed in the foundations of atomic theory in a mathematically lucid way. Finally, one of the friends remarked drily, "But, Niels, this is not really new, you said exactly the same [thing] ten years ago.'

    Bohr's philosophy of complementarity is a dualistic doctrine derived from contemplating mentalistic and linguistic paradoxes. Its supporters made unhelpful and occasionally foolish remarks about biology--and, one suspects, about physics as well."

    All the best
    John B.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2005 #2


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    Maybe it is mystical to you, but I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    So after everything you have said, what do think is more elegant? (I assume there is no description which is more practical.)
  4. Jan 28, 2005 #3
    Physics should conform to Nature - not Bohr, or String Theory mathematics. String Theory *is* elegant, it just doesn't have anything to do with Nature. I do like elegant mathematics.
    All the best
    John B.
  5. Jan 29, 2005 #4

    Kane O'Donnell

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    I don't know about other countries, but the *vast* majority of Physics students in Australia are CRAMMED full of the early development from Year 11 all the way until third year Quantum Mechanics. For example, we see Planck's proof of the blackbody radiation formula, the Rutherford scattering calculations, a rigourous development of the ideas Bohr proposed, including the Sommerfield extensions, etc, over and over and over....

    Then we get to third year QM and realise that QM is *soooo* much more useful as a theory that we move on. :smile:


  6. Jan 29, 2005 #5
    I guess Mr Barchak has contributed far more to science than Mr Bohr. Perhaps he will earn the Nobel prize for reintroducing an atomic model where electrons are tiny, classical white moons orbiting tiny planets. And perhaps we will discover miniature life on those planets. Even so, I think he is being a bit disrespectful to Bohr, who earnt the right to his opinions.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2005
  7. Jan 31, 2005 #6
    What was the question?
  8. Jan 31, 2005 #7

    Tom Mattson

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    I would suspect that the number of physicists who don't know the early development of quantum theory is a round figure. Like "0".

    Then why do the predictions of QM agree so well with nature and reality?

    You are making a ridiculous claim here that is epistemologically unjustifiable. To justify it, you would have to already have a complete knowledge of what nature really is like. But how would one know that? Through experimentation, that's how. We have no other way of knowing it.

    The position you adopt here is actually anti-scientific. Scientists judge theories by how well they stand up to the test of experiment. Experiment is the final court of appeals. The objective 3rd party. The blindfolded lady with the scales. You are saying that it doesn't matter how well QM stands up to experiment, because it's wrong. That sets you up as the objective 3rd party. That such a paradigm is rubbish should not require any more elaboration.
  9. Feb 1, 2005 #8
    QM is antiscientific

    Einstein's Principle of Local Action has never been violated and it is clearly at odds with QM:

    Principle of Local Action
    In 1948, very early atomic age, Albert Einstein was in the twilight of his career. He published an article in the journal Dialectica. He hoped that his clear definition of locality and explanation of why locality is an essential part of the scientific method would be a major part of his legacy.

    Here is Einstein's Principle of Local Action
    "The following idea characterises the relative independence of objects far apart in space (A and B): external influence on A has no direct influence on B; this is known as the Principle of Local Action, which is used consistently only in field theory. If this axiom were to be completely abolished, the idea of the existence of quasienclosed systems, and thereby the postulation of laws which can be checked empirically in the accepted sense, would become impossible."

    The import of this principle is that without the Principle of Local Action, science, engineering and law as practiced today would not be viable. In fact, if the Principle of Local Action were to be completely abolished, the Bell Test experiments would have no validity since the test apparatus could be influenced (in unknown ways) by events at the other side of the universe. It should be clear that Bell Test experiments cannot disprove the Principle of Local Action. To make it perfectly clear, the Principle of Local Action would be needed to disprove the Principle of Local Action.

    All the best
    John B.
  10. Feb 1, 2005 #9
    Yes, physics needs the mystical aspects of existence.

    Mystical means mysterious which means there are things that mystify people. Without mystical, mysterious things going on within those things we observe we would not strive to understand them. Understanding things that mystify us is what got the study of physics started.

    I'm not sure there is such thing as need. There are perceived needs. There are needs that are a means to an end. In such a case physics needs mysticism to continue as a science that de-mystifies the mysterious or explains the previously unexplainable.

    I hope this answers the question.
  11. Feb 1, 2005 #10
    When does the demystification part of it start?
  12. Feb 1, 2005 #11
    Its a continuous process. Like I said, if everything was demystified we'd stop studying it. A few generations later we'd be sacrificing shuttle crafts to the colour blue because the sky would seem so mystically blue with no apparent explaination.
  13. Feb 1, 2005 #12
    I didn't read the term 'mystical' in that way. I thought the question was asking - does science need to consider first-person evidence as well as third-person or intrasubjective evidence. (Hence the link to James, psychology and the subject/object distinction). If this is what was meant then I'd say yes, it does need mysticism, and very urgently. However if 'mystical' was meant in the other sense then I'd have to agree with JB, that so far science hasn't been awfully successful at demystifying anything much.

    Strangely the the perceived blueness of the sky still has no explanation. It's hard see how it will ever one unless we start studying subjects as well as objects.
  14. Feb 1, 2005 #13


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    I get what the guy is saying. Just because QM describes the behavior of small objects very well doesn't mean that the fundamental substance in the universe is a wave function waiting to be collapsed. I don't see the controversy there. QM is, after all, a physical theory, not an ontological theory. He isn't invalidating the theory. It's still arguably the most useful descriptive and predictive tool that physics has ever had. If it proves to only be an extremely close approximation of a more fundamental theory that can unify all of physics, it will certainly retain its utility. Even if that happens, that more fundamental theory will still be a physical theory, not an ontological theory.
  15. Feb 1, 2005 #14


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    Maybe it's the Hume in me, but I think that's exactly what science does. It studies the perception of perceiving subjects. We never study the actual objects. The best we can do is assume a one-to-one correspondence between those objects and our perception of them.
  16. Feb 1, 2005 #15
    As we have been talking about Einstein, it might be worth mentioning that he published a paper on this in 1911. It was generally accepted to be a very good and mathematically detailed account of why the sky is blue. Here is a link I found:

    http://www.weburbia.demon.co.uk/physics/blue_sky.html [Broken]

    Of course, knowlege always leads to deeper questioning, so nothing has a complete explanation. This shouldn't be mistaken for ignorance.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  17. Feb 1, 2005 #16
    My understanding of QM is that you can keep a belief in Local Action and still agree with experiment but you must sacrifice a belief in scientific realism to do so. You appear to be at odds with QM but Local Action is compatible.
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2005
  18. Feb 1, 2005 #17

    Tom Mattson

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    Saying that QM is not an ontological theory and saying that it has almost nothing to do with nature are two different things altogether. The agreement of QM with experiment is its connection with nature. If QM has nothing to do with nature, then what scientific theory does?
  19. Feb 1, 2005 #18
    Mystical blue

    As light moves through the atmosphere, it continues goes straight until it bumps into a bit of dust or a gas molecule. Then what happens to the light depends on its wave length and the size of the thing it hits.

    Dust particles and water droplets are much larger than the wavelength of visible light. When light hits these large particles, it gets reflected, or bounced off, in different directions. The different colors of light are all reflected by the particle in the same way. The reflected light appears white because it still contains all of the same colors.

    Gas molecules are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. If light bumps into them, it acts differently. When light hits a gas molecule, some of it may get absorbed. After awhile, the molecule radiates (releases, or gives off) the light in a different direction. The color that is radiated is the same color that was absorbed. The different colors of light are affected differently. All of the colors can be absorbed. But the higher frequencies (blues) are absorbed more often than the lower frequencies (reds).

    This process is called Rayleigh scattering. (It is named after Lord John Rayleigh, an English physicist, who first described it in the 1870's.)

    The blue color of the sky is due to Rayleigh scattering. As light moves through the atmosphere, most of the longer wavelengths pass straight through. Little of the red, orange and yellow light is affected by the air.

    However, much of the shorter wavelength light is absorbed by the gas molecules. The absorbed blue light is then radiated in different directions. It gets scattered all around the sky. Whichever direction you look, some of this scattered blue light reaches you. Since you see the blue light from everywhere overhead, the sky looks blue"...provided that weather conditions are favorable.

    "As you look closer to the horizon, the sky appears much paler in color. To reach you, the scattered blue light must pass through more air. Some of it gets scattered away again in other directions. Less blue light reaches your eyes. The color of the sky near the horizon appears paler or white"... under favorable conditions.
  20. Feb 1, 2005 #19

    The mystical qualities that science needs are imagination, wonder, and a sense of the miraculous.

  21. Feb 1, 2005 #20


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    Maybe he's saying more than I thought he was. It just seemed to me that he was using inflammatory language to get a rise, but that he was really just stating that QM is only a model and not a description of any substance that instantiates reality.
  22. Feb 1, 2005 #21

    Ivan Seeking

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  23. Feb 2, 2005 #22
    Yes, I see what you mean, and agree. What I meant was just that science does not study or try to explain the subjective experience of blue, rather it studies why the light that reaches our retinas has a certain average wavelength. Nothing wrong with that of course, however to explain fully why the sky appears blue involves dabbling in mysticism (in one sense of the word) since it requires an investigation of subjective experience, and the only one anybody can study is their own.
  24. Feb 2, 2005 #23
    Thanks, but I know the explanation of why light reaching our retinas from the sky has a certain character. What has not been explained yet is why the sky appears blue, or why it appears like anything at all.
  25. Feb 2, 2005 #24
    The OP is an interesting essay on Bohr. I think it has value in its history and interpretive quality. However, it also seems to have a reach that far exceeds its grasp. There are quite a few statements made that are not properly supported, and – more importantly – it seems to make some rather grand assumptions that do not follow from a mere critique of Bohr.

    For instance,

    No amount of criticising Bohr will make the above statement true. QM is only accepted as a system because it predicts observables. There really isn’t a reasonable way to define reality such that it does not include observables, and the OP certainly didn’t try. Since QM predicts observables that are part of reality, there really is no reason to believe that QM doesn’t have quite a bit to do with reality. The OP certainly doesn’t attempt to make a case that it doesn’t, we are just supposed to blindly accept this as fact. Seeing as how many of the foundations of QM occured because science of the time did not conform to reality, and QM was created such that it conformed to reality as best anyone could, there is little reason to accept this "fact."

    Probably the biggest error the OP makes is in its fundamental premise, that “ our incredible new technologies may allow a very profitable reexamination of the fundamental basis of physics.” The problem isn’t factual, but is in the implication (or assumption, as the case may be). This quote implies that there haven’t been reexaminations all along, or at least that they are not already ongoing now. There is no reason to believe this is true, and the OP certainly doesn’t make a case for it.

    Since there have been those who disagree with Bohr arguing against his philosophical perspective for the past 60 years, it would be nice to know what the original poster thinks makes today so different than then, and why those who don't agree with Bohr today simply don't count.

    Overall, I give it a C+. It is a worthwhile critique of Bohr, but critiqueing one scientist does not a philosophical revolution make.
  26. Feb 2, 2005 #25

    Tom Mattson

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    :rofl: You're a big softie.

    And good post, too. This thread is typical of the internet breed called the "engineer-crackpot". They think that they understand physics better than physicists, after having taken 3 whole semesters of it. :rolleyes:
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2005
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