George Walford: Wu Li – Who He?

Gary Zukav is the author of The Dancing Wu Li Masters; an Overview of the New Physics (Fontana Paperbacks, London 1984, first published 1979). Physics as we encountered it at school was no dancing matter, and the book has little to do with those laborious simplicities; its emphasis is upon “new,” the theme is that a fresh and exciting world is being opened up. Wu Li is the Chinese term for physics; it also expresses, according to the tone in which it is pronounced, several other meanings, among them “patterns of organic life,” “nonsense,” and “enlightenment.” Zukav uses this ambiguity to convey the air of paradox surrounding the results of the search for the elementary particles.

The new physics has shown that our everyday approach to the world does not work in the subatomic realm. Zukav quotes Heisenberg:

The, mathematically formulated laws of quantum theory show clearly that our ordinary intuitive concepts cannot be unambiguously applied to the smallest particles. All the words or concepts we use to describe ordinary physical objects, such as position, velocity, color, size, and so on, become indefinite and problematic if we try to use them of elementary particles.

The book is readily available and we do not propose to summarise it here. The theme and much of the material have been familiar to interested laymen for decades, although seldom put with the same vivacity; the general proposition, that the elementary particles of which the world studied by physical science is constituted are themselves not fully material, was being popularised by Jeans and Eddington in the thirties, and Zukav places the beginning of the “new” physics in the opening years of the century, with Max Planck’s introduction of quantum mechanics in 1900 and Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1905. There have been further developments since then, Einstein’s general theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Schroedinger’s wave equations being three of the better-known ones, but there has not been another new approach to physics. The new theories link up together, each of them supporting the others rather than any component of the Newtonian system; they too constitute a system.

Zukav says of the new physics that it claims only “to correlate experience correctly,” not to present nature as it really is; it occupies itself with the study of particles (some of them being at the same time waves – “wavicles”) which cannot be directly observed, with the statistical behaviour of systems rather than with things. It predicts probabilities rather than events; what it deals with cannot be pictorially represented and cannot be observed without changing its behaviour. Subatomic particles do not possess objective existence, they are no more than “tendencies to exist.”

The new system has not been universally welcomed. Since Francis Bacon at least there has been a spreading tendency to regard science as the spearhead of humanity’s conquest of its environment, and reliance on it has been justified. That science should now come to oppose common experience, declaring that the latter which confronts us consists largely of empty space and “fogs of probability,” has been felt as a betrayal. Over some three centuries physical science had seemed to be building up a solid body of reliable knowledge, incomplete certainly but broadening down from experiment to experiment and, once established, not to be called in question. The news that the world which physical science had been so profitably studying had turned out to be composed of particles whose behaviour could not, even in principle, be accurately predicted, seemed to unsettle the foundations of an increasingly mechanised civilization.

It was not only the people identified with existing society and the way it was developing who clung to the “old,” Newtonian physics. Revolutionary movements had come to associate science with their own thinking against (to use some of Karl Marx’ terms), the illusions, speculations, dogmas and mystifications of their opponents, and they took science to be the study of a real, solid, material world “out there.” The suggestion that this seemingly independent reality might be an illusion resulting from the grossness of our senses was intolerable. It called in question some of the thinking that had led to the prediction of revolution, it even raised – and the thought made the red flag tremble in their hands – it raised the spectre of idealism. (See, for: example, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism).

One way of expressing the outcome of the new physics is to say that the physical world it studies, apparently self-subsistent, is found on analysis not to be completely independent of the observer; Zukav reports the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics as saying that “what we perceive to be physical reality is actually our cognitive construction of it.” This being so, if we are to understand the physical world studied by science it will not be sufficient to study that world alone; the activity which erects this cognitive construction must also be studied, and as the new physics has developed so the activity, methods and procedures of science have come to attract increasing attention. Belief in a fully independent objective world studied by science tends to produce a picture of the scientist as a repository of knowledge about that world; thus Bacon explained the formation of theories as an inductive process; by observation and experiment facts are accumulated until (in a way which was never made quite clear) a theory able to integrate a larger amount of material than the previous one emerges. On this view the scientist has only to exercise proper care and his theorising, being the inevitable outcome of the facts, will be unshakable. It is mainly this view of what scientists were doing that has rendered “scientific” the highest accolade that can be accorded to a theory or a method of investigation. But once the belief that science studies a fully independent world has been shaken the supremacy of science is no longer secure, and there are three writers in particular whose work tends to bring the professional activities of scientists down to a human scale.

Paul Feyerabend is inclined toward anarchism but finding the anarchist movement distasteful (as many anarchists do) prefers to describe himself as “a flippant Dadaist;” a passage encapsulating the principal theme of his work appears in his book Against Method (Verso,1982,first published 1975):

The history of science, after all, does not just consist of facts and conclusions drawn from facts. It also contains ideas, interpretations of facts, problems created by conflicting interpretations, mistakes and so on. On closer analysis we even find that science knows no “bare facts” at all but that the “facts” that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are, therefore, essentially ideational. This being the case, the history of science will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains, and these ideas in turn will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as are the minds of those who invented them. (p.19)

Feyerabend is not supporting the new physics against the old, he is urging that no scientific theory at all is entitled, to carry authority:

Science gives us theories of great beauty and sophistication. Modern science has developed mathematical structures which exceed anything that has existed so far in coherence and generality. But in order to achieve this miracle all the existing troubles had to be pushed into the relation between theory and fact, and had to be concealed, by ad hoc approximations and by other procedures. (p.64)

He holds this to be true not only of the new theories but also of the old certainties; he pays such attention to the history of the heliocentric theory and quotes Galileo as saying that Copernicus succeeded in establishing it against the evidence available at the time. The key phrase appeared in the first quotation above: “the ‘facts’ which enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are therefore essentially ideational.”

Sir Karl Popper’s writings have none of the irreverence and iconoclasm of Feyerabend’s but Popper also helps to demolish the picture of science as a repository of certainty. He demonstrates the inadequacy of Bacon’s account of induction, showing that a theory is no automatic outcome of accumulated knowledge, that mental activity also enters into it. He goes farther, claiming to show (and it is a claim that has gained acceptance) that a scientific theory can never be proven; what renders it scientific is the possibility of disproving it.

Thomas S. Kuhn cuts deep into the supports of the view that science, and particularly physical science, is the way to final truth with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press 1975, first published 1952). The effect of his work is to deny the possibility of final knowledge not only in physics but in all other fields of science also. He presents the progress of each distinct science (and thus of science as a whole) as a succession of revolutions introducing new “paradigms,” each such change being effected against a degree of resistance (and sometimes a bitterness of recrimination) that fully explains his use of the term “revolutions.” A paradigm once introduced is developed until its explanatory power has been exhausted (this development being “normal” science), leading to another revolution. Only work consistent with the paradigm in force at the time is recognised as fully scientific, with the result that “science,” in the sense of an accumulation of results, is seen to be not so much a collection of facts about an objective and independent world as the articulation of a paradigm.

These three authors all work independently, and there is no reason to think that any one of them would appreciate being classed with the others, but their different lines of work all point in the same general direction: they tend to dissolve away the concept of science as the accumulation of knowledge about a solidly objective physical world independent of human thought. When, during the Napoleonic Wars, England was facing the prospect of invasion by the French, St. Vincent raised a chuckle in the House of Lords: “I do not say,” he said, “that they cannot come. I only say they cannot come by sea.” In a similar spirit these authors do not say there is no completely objective and independent physical world; they only say that no such world is known to science.

If this is so, then the question arises: what determines the thinking of scientists? Belief in a fully independent and objective world makes it possible to see the activity of science as the effort to produce a system of thought which shall, accurately and in detail, correspond to that world. But once that belief has done then this model of scientific thinking goes with it. Yet the thinking of scientists is obviously not random; it is highly organised, the outcome of their activities is not nonsense and not a heterogeneous collection of insights, it is a coherent and integrated system. If it is not (as Lenin, for example, thought it to be) the reflection of a fully independent external world, how does it come to possess these qualities?

Of the four authors mentioned Kuhn seems to come closest to giving an adequate answer to this particular question; his work implies that the internal coherence of each science in each principal stage of its development arises from its being the articulation of a paradigm. This is a powerful concept, but it seems incomplete; he offers no theory of relationships directly between paradigms although systematic inter-relations seem to be implied by some of the developments he discusses. His book is intricate, closely argued, and does not go in for sweeping generalisations, there is danger of reading into it conclusions, the author did not intend, but to one reader it conveys the suggestion that each paradigm will disappear in the face of its successor, while the history of science presents rather the deposition of strata which, once established, endure through later upheavals. Kuhn himself remarks that earth-centred astronomy is still taught to surveyors (p.102; one can add: to navigators also), and those who write on the subject regularly stress that the new physics has complemented the old, not destroyed it (Zukav, for example, has a paragraph to this effect on p. 45). The Einsteinian Paradigm has not ousted the Newtonian except from the growth-point of physics; even today the physicists who use quantum mechanic, wave equations or general relativity theory in their work are outnumbered by those using gravitation end action-reaction. It also appears, with a little thought, that the new theories depend upon continuing acceptance of the old for their survival. The cloud-chambers that demonstrate the curious behaviour of electrons, the clocks and measuring-rods used to show the validity of relativity theory (even if, in “thought-experiments,” they are used only in conceptualised form), these are all solid, old-fashioned material objects. The direct evidence for the new theories is sometimes a matter of the most precise measurement, and the visible behaviour of “a fog of probability,” or of “a tendency to exist,” provides no precise evidence of anything. Among the flurry of novelties it is easy to overlook that the greater part of scientific activity is still conducted upon Newtonian premises, as if the belief that science studies a fully objective and independent physical world had never been questioned.

Physical science today is neither Newtonian nor Einsteinian nor a compromise between the two nor a synthesis of them. It includes both of them, it is both Newtonian and Einsteinian, and when we consider how the two of them are related within it then the principles governing its growth begin to appear. They are related historically; the Newtonian approach appeared before the Einsteinian. They are related in dependence, the Einsteinian depending upon the Newtonian. This dependence is asymmetrical; the Newtonian is able to maintain itself (as it has shown, over some three centuries) independently of the Einsteinian. They are related quantitatively; the dramatic achievements of the nuclear physicists (and the equally dramatic expense of their equipment) tend to capture the headlines, but when all scientific work is taken into account it is the Newtonian approach that absorbs the greater quantity of resources and provides the theories on which the greater amount of social activity is conducted.

This is a set of relationships we have met before; it appears between the right and the left in politics. The efforts of the right wing to minimise change find their parallel in the stability of the Newtonian universe. (And also in those pre-Newtonian “scientific” activities, imprecise and largely untheorised, which assume the existence of an independent physical world). The eagerness of the left to pursue reform and revolution, their promotion of the ought-to-be against the is, echo the contention of the new physics that the apparently objective and self-subsistent physical world is, at least partly and in some sense, dependent upon the observer. (It is true that the loft are seldom eager to recognise any identity-between their thinking and that of the Einsteinian physicists, clinging rather to the old, familiar paradigm, but the degree of success achieved in their own field; of politics, gives little reason to credit them with any deep understanding of their position).

These two activities, politics and science, are among the great undertakings of the human spirit; when they are found to be exhibiting similar patterns of thought there is ground for regarding this as significant. The indications are that each of them expresses, in its own context, the two principal phases of intellectual development, those appearing ,in systematic ideology as the eidostatic and the eidodynamic.

from Ideological Commentary 16, January 1985.