Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Werner Heisenberg

Modern education seems to be failing us, but we seem to be at a loss as to why that is the case.  I would posit that it is because a large portion of the populace is ignorant of the most exciting discoveries and insights of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  My Sunday contemplation has focused on that literature that offers wisdom regarding human insight, but what of insights into our universe that point into larger ones that include the human condition and our social structures and perceptions?

Werner Heisenberg, the father of modern quantum mechanics, whose concept of the origins of the universe and the contingent nature of cause-and-effect at the level of quanta proved to be the correct theory over Einstein’s unified theory.  This is the context of the oft used Einstein quote that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Einstein was wrong–the universe is not fully predictable, there is uncertainty in outcomes.  At our level of existence we measure this amount of “free will” by probabilities: outcomes based on the condition of the universe at any particular point in what our brains interpret as “time.”  This is a concept that is often misinterpreted by polemicists and others.  The universe and its processes, such as evolution, are not based on “randomness.”  The universe is deterministic but with some variation in prediction.

werner heisenberg

What marks Professor Heisenberg for mention today is not only his insight into the technical aspects of the physical universe but understanding how these discoveries inform the human condition.

The source of this wisdom comes from his book Physics and Philosophy.  It is a fairly slight tome and a good book for the layman interested in a survey of the physical sciences written by the man responsible for many of the 20th century’s most important discoveries from the point just prior to the next wave of discoveries that would confirm, strengthen, and advance them.  He writes on the history of the theory of quantum theory and how it has changed our view of the universe and the older philosophical traditions that were either displaced or modified by it.  His exposition regarding other areas of our knowledge begins on page 60 speaking from the perspective of 1959, in which he speculates on things that still need to be proven in the other natural sciences and the role of human language in understanding nature (bold for emphasis added by me).

“…(T)he structure of present-day physics the relation between physics and other branches of natural science may be discussed. The nearest neighbor to physics is chemistry. Actually through quantum theory these two sciences have come to a complete union. But a hundred years ago they were widely separated, their methods of research were quite different, and the concepts of chemistry had at that time no counterpart in physics….When the theory of heat had been developed by the middle of the last century scientists started to apply it to the chemical processes, and ever since then the scientific work in this field has been determined by the hope of reducing the laws of chemistry to the mechanics of the atoms. It should be emphasized, however, that this was not possible within the framework of Newtonian mechanics. 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 had 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.

The present relation between biology, on the one side, and physics and chemistry, on the other, may be very similar to that between chemistry and physics a hundred years ago. The methods of biology are different from those of physics and chemistry, and the typical biological concepts are of a more qualitative character than those of the exact sciences.  Concepts like life, organ, cell, function of an organ, perception have no counterpart in physics or chemistry. On the other hand, most of the progress made in biology during the past hundred years has been achieved through the application of chemistry and physics to the living organism, and the whole tendency of biology in our time is to explain biological phenomena on the basis of the known physical and chemical laws. Again the question arises, whether this hope is justified or not.

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.

With regard to this question two distinctly different views have frequently been discussed in the biological literature. The one view refers to Darwin’s theory of evolution in its connection with modern genetics.  According to this theory, the only concept which has to be added to those of physics and chemistry in order to understand life is the concept of history. The enormous time interval of roughly four thousand million years that has elapsed since the formation of the earth has given nature the possibility of trying an almost unlimited variety of structures of groups of molecules.  Among these structures there have finally been some that could reduplicate themselves by using smaller groups from the surrounding matter, and such structures therefore could be created in great numbers.  Accidental changes in the structures provided a still larger variety of the existing structures.  Different structures had to compete for the material drawn from the surrounding matter and in this way, through the `survival of the fittest,’ the evolution of living organisms finally took place.  There can be no doubt that this theory contains a very large amount of truth, and many biologists claim that the addition of the concepts of history and evolution to the coherent set of concepts of physics and chemistry will be amply sufficient to account for all biological phenomena. One of the arguments frequently used in favor of this theory emphasizes that wherever the laws of physics and chemistry have been checked in living organisms they have always been found to be correct; there seems definitely to be no place at which some `vital force’ different from the forces in physics could enter….

    When one compares this order with older classifications that belong to earlier stages of natural science one sees that one has now divided the world not into different groups of objects but into different groups of connections.  In an earlier period of science one distinguished, for instance, as different groups minerals, plants, animals, men.  These objects were taken according to their group as of different natures, made of different materials, and determined in their behavior by different forces.  Now we know that it is always the same matter, the same various chemical compounds that may belong to any object, to minerals as well as animals or plants; also the forces that act between the different parts of matter are ultimately the same in every kind of object.  What can be distinguished is the kind of connection which is primarily important in a certain phenomenon. For instance, when we speak about the action of chemical forces we mean a kind of connection which is more complicated or in any case different from that expressed in Newtonian mechanics. The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.

    When we represent a group of connections by a closed and coherent set of concepts, axioms, definitions and laws which in turn is represented by a mathematical scheme we have in fact isolated and idealized this group of connections with the purpose of clarification.  But even if complete clarity has been achieved in this way, it is not known how accurately the set of concepts describes reality.

     These idealizations may be called a part of the human language that has been formed from the interplay between the world and ourselves, a human response to the challenge of nature.  In this respect they may be compared to the different styles of art, say of architecture or music.  A style of art can also be defined by a set of formal rules which are applied to the material of this special art.  These rules can perhaps not be represented in a strict sense by a set of mathematical concepts and equations, but their fundamental elements are very closely related to the essential elements of mathematics.  Equality and inequality, repetition and symmetry, certain group structures play the fundamental role both in art and in mathematics.  Usually the work of several generations is needed to develop that formal system which later is called the style of the art, from its simple beginning to the wealth of elaborate forms which characterize its completion.  The interest of the artist is concentrated on this process of crystallization, where the material of the art takes, through his action, the various forms that are initiated by the first formal concepts of this style.  After the completion the interest must fade again, because the word `interest’ means: to be with something, to take part in a process of life, but this process has then come to an end.  Here again the question of how far the formal rules of the style represent that reality of life which is meant by the art cannot be decided from the formal rules.  Art is always an idealization; the ideal is different from reality — at least from the reality of the shadows, as Plato would have put it — but idealization is necessary for understanding.

    This comparison between the different sets of concepts in natural science with different styles of art may seem very far from the truth to those who consider the different styles of art as rather arbitrary products of the human mind. They would argue that in natural science these different sets of concepts represent objective reality, have been taught to us by nature, are therefore by no means arbitrary, and are a necessary consequence of our gradually increasing experimental knowledge of nature.  About these points most scientists would agree; but are the different styles of art an arbitrary product of the human mind?  Here again we must not be misled by the Cartesian partition.  The style arises out of the interplay between the world and ourselves, or more specifically between the spirit of the time and the artist.  The spirit of a time is probably a fact as objective as any fact in natural science, and this spirit brings out certain features of the world which are even-independent of time, are in this sense eternal.  The artist tries by his work to make these features understandable, and in this attempt he is led to the forms of the style in which he works. Therefore, the two processes, that of science and that of art, are not very different.  Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language….

Here is a truly beautiful mind grounded not just in mathematics and scientific theory, but informed by human experience.  In the rest of the work Heisenberg outlines the philosophical implications of modern physics on the history of human thought.  His conclusion speaks to our own time, 55 years from where he stood.  Though his primary concern was in the conflict between the West and the Communist dictatorships–and the possible use of nuclear weapons for which modern physics, he felt, bore a great deal of responsibility–he also foresaw a different type of conflict.  This was coming conflict originating from those parts of society upon whose foundations relied on, to use his term, narrow doctrines of understanding which would feel threatened as the coming discoveries in modern physics would reveal new knowledge of the universe and humanity’s place in it.  His final note is hopeful but what other choice did he have but to be hopeful?  The alternative is the extinction of the human species, and perhaps it is that–self-preservation–that will bring about, in the end, his final sentiment.

“…Finally, modern science penetrates into those large areas of our present world in which new doctrines were established only a few decades ago as foundations for new and powerful societies.  There modern science is confronted both with the content of the doctrines, which go back to European philosophical ideas of the nineteenth century (Hegel and Marx), and with the phenomenon of uncompromising belief.  Since modern physics must play a great role in these countries because of its practical applicability, it can scarcely be avoided that the narrowness of the doctrines is felt by those who have really understood modern physics and its philosophical meaning.  Therefore, at this point an interaction between science and the general trend of thought may take place.  Of course the influence of science should not be overrated; but it might be that the openness of modern science could make it easier even for larger groups of people to see that the doctrines are possibly not so important for the society as had been assumed before.  In this way the influence of modern science may favor an attitude of tolerance and thereby may prove valuable.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of uncompromising belief carries much more weight than some special philosophical notions of the nineteenth century.  We cannot close our eyes to the fact that the great majority of the people can scarcely have any well-founded judgment concerning the correctness of certain important general ideas or doctrines. Therefore, the word `belief’ can for this majority not mean `perceiving the truth of something’ but can only be understood as `taking this as the basis for life.’  One can easily understand that this second kind of belief is much firmer, is much more fixed than the first one, that it can persist even against immediate contradicting experience and can therefore not be shaken by added scientific knowledge.  The history of the past two decades has shown by many examples that this second kind of belief can sometimes be upheld to a point where it seems completely absurd, and that it then ends only with the death of the believer.  Science and history can teach us that this kind of belief may become a great danger for those who share it.  But such knowledge is of no avail, since one cannot see how it could be avoided, and therefore such belief has always belonged to the great forces in human history.  From the scientific tradition of the nineteenth century one would of course be inclined to hope that all belief should be based on a rational analysis of every argument, on careful deliberation; and that this other kind of belief, in which some real or apparent truth is simply taken as the basis for life, should not exist.  It is true that cautious deliberation based on purely rational arguments can save us from many errors and dangers, since it allows readjustment to new situations, and this may be a necessary condition for life.  But remembering our experience in modern physics it is easy to see that there must always be a fundamental complementarity between deliberation and decision.  In the practical decisions of life it will scarcely ever be possible to go through all the arguments in favor of or against one possible decision, and one will therefore always have to act on insufficient evidence.  The decision finally takes place by pushing away all the arguments – both those that have been understood and others that might come up through further deliberation – and by cutting off all further pondering.  The decision may be the result of deliberation, but it is at the same time complementary to deliberation; it excludes deliberation.  Even the most important decisions in life must always contain this inevitable element of irrationality.  The decision itself is necessary, since there must be something to rely upon, some principle to guide our actions.  Without such a firm stand our own actions would lose all force.  Therefore, it cannot be avoided that some real or apparent truth form the basis of life; and this fact should be acknowledged with regard to those groups of people whose basis is different from our own.

Coming now to a conclusion from all that has been said about modern science, one may perhaps state that modern physics is just one, but a very characteristic, part of a general historical process that tends toward a unification and a widening of our present world.  This process would in itself lead to a diminution of those cultural and political tensions that create the great danger of our time. But it is accompanied by another process which acts in the opposite direction. The fact that great masses of people become conscious of this process of unification leads to an instigation of all forces in the existing cultural communities that try to ensure for their traditional values the largest possible role in the final state of unification.  Thereby the tensions increase and the two competing processes are so closely linked with each other that every intensification of the unifying process — for instance, by means of new technical progress — intensifies also the struggle for influence in the final state, and thereby adds to the instability of the transient state.  Modern physics plays perhaps only a small role in this dangerous process of unification.  But it helps at two very decisive points to guide the development into a calmer kind of evolution.  First, it shows that the use of arms in the process would be disastrous and, second, through its openness for all kinds of concepts it raises the hope that in the final state of unification many different cultural traditions may live together and may combine different human endeavors into a new kind of balance between thought and deed, between activity and meditation.

 

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