Monday, August 13, 2007

Physics as Metaphysics -

I am back from a fabulous trip to Eretz Yisrael. My wife and I had the opportunity to spend a quality time with our son Aryeh and his lovely wife Orly both on a two day trip to the North and the two Shabbatot we spent together. Now I am back to reality and daily routine.

I am in the middle of reading a very interesting book, Uncertainty, by David Lindley. It describes the development of Quantum Theory in the early 1900’s describing the interactions and thought processes of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg as they struggled to understand this new science. What to me was so interesting is the difficulty scientists had in accepting that there are things, even in nature, that we know are there but also know that we will never understand their essence. My knowledge of Physics is quite rudimentary and limited but what intrigued me is the similarity of the issues dealing with the Quantum Theory and understanding God. Here is a short quote from the book, and I will leave it to the more scientifically minded to expand on this. In discussing Heisenberg’s insight in developing his theory of uncertainty, David Lindley writes (page 110):

Forever gone now was the old Sommerfeld style of model, with electrons following well-defined orbits governed by classical mechanics. Of course, Heisenberg had nothing yet to put in place of such thinking. But his focus was inexorably shifting. Worry less about what atoms are. Think more about what they do.

And a little further, he continues:

The idea suggested itself,” he [Heisenberg] said in a lecture three decades later, “that one should write down the mechanical laws not as equations for the positions and velocities of the electron but as equations for the frequencies and amplitudes of their Fourier expansion.”

Heisenberg’s bland phrase doesn’t begin to convey the bizarre and radical nature of what he was aiming to do. In classical physics, a particle’s position and velocity are its defining characteristics, the basic elements to which the law of mechanics applied… the central idea of old Quantum theory had been to figure out how electrons move in an atom and deduce from those notions the atom’s spectroscopic frequencies. Heisenberg however turned this logic exactly backward. The characteristic frequencies would be the basic elements of his atomic physics, and the notion of electrons would be expressed only indirectly.

Here we have an interesting parallel. If one cannot understand the atom particle’s essence look at what it does and use inductive reasoning to get a picture of it. Our knowledge of God follows a very similar reasoning as I have written many times.

Einstein’s difficulty in accepting these new concepts was because he compared it to religion rather than science. He told Bohr, “The theory delivers a lot but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One. I for one am convinced that He does not throw dice.” In another comment, he said “The soothing Heisenberg-Bohr philosophy – or religion? – is so nicely contrived that for now it offers the true believer a soft pillow from which he is not easily rousted.”

The defining line between Physics and Metaphysics is again starting to become blurred as it was during antiquity and the middle ages.


  1. Welcome back! I must say, my morning blog-reading suffered a severe lack during your absence, and I am quite happy that you are posting again.

  2. Now this is Aristotle! the change is from a definition based on structure to one based on function. i.e. electrons are defined by their function, and form is regarded as a result of this. that is a classical teleological argument. I think the Rambam uses that thinking, except that he regards function as a property of the nefesh, so the the external physical form (the 'to'ar' of MN 1-2) is a reflection of the essence, or something like that.