Nothing appears to be more certain than our scientific knowledge of the physical universe. But the, what is the physical universe? We are told that it consists of space, time, and matter, or of space-time and energy, or perhaps of something else still more abstruse and even less imaginable; but in any case we are told in unequivocal terms what it excludes: as all of us have learnt, the physical universe is said to exclude just about everything which from the ordinary human point of view makes up the world. Thus it excludes the blueness of the sky and the roar of breaking waves, the fragrance of flowers and all the innumerable qualities—half-perceived and half-intuited—that lend color, charm, and meaning to our terrestrial and cosmic environment. In fact, it excludes everything that can be imagined or conceived, except in abstract mathematical terms. ~ Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence
Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent, the nightingale for his song, and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation and the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soulless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly. ~ Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
We are generally in agreement in thinking that humanity has arrived at an important turning point in its history. The Cartesian spirit which destroyed scholastic philosophy is now in turn being left behind. The logic of history demands a new spirit. The divorce between traditional knowledge, of which religion is a trustee, and acquired knowledge, the fruit of science, threatens to make sterile the Christian civilization which in origin is so rich with promises. Yet it is an aberration to believe that Science by its very nature is opposed to Tradition, and it must also be firmly stressed that Tradition does not include any tendency opposed to Science. ~ Boris Mouravieff, Gnosis
Despite the incredible accuracy of its predictions and the elegance of its mathematical models, quantum mechanics still remains unintelligible. In other words, there is no answer to the “what” question (which is qualitative), but rather there are several wildly different interpretations – all mathematically equivalent—of the equations. Wolfgang Smith offers his own interpretation in terms of Traditional metaphysics.
Metaphysics envisages different strata or degrees of being from the most dense to the most sublime. The naïve mind takes our everyday, corporeal, plane as the only reality. The materia prima is the lowest level. According to Rene Guenon (see Chapter II of The Reign of Quantity), this is the passive principle of universal manifestation or pure potentiality. As such, it is the “subject of all the substantial transformations of the corporeal universe”. Hence, materia prima is unintelligible since things are known through their form. In the Vedanta, this level is called Prakriti or avyakta in the Sankhya.
The next level is materia secunda, which is material, extended, quantitative, not yet a substance. That is, it has quantity but not quality and Guenon claims that this is what physicists actually mean by matter.
Unfortunately, modern science knows nothing about such levels and tries to understand things horizontally rather than vertically. Specifically, it view the world on a quantitative scale from subatomic particles, to atoms, to man, all the way to the largest structures of solar systems, galaxies, etc. The larger structures are not grasped as a whole, but are assumed to be built up from lower structures.
Now when this is applied to quantum events, we start seeing anomalies. For example, we consider the sun to be a “ball” and we know about balls in our corporeal world. Hence, we envision an electron, say, as just a very small ball. Yet, it doesn’t always act as ball (i.e., a particle), but sometimes like a wave. Smith interprets that to mean that what we “see” are not electrons, but rather probabilities; i.e., electrons as such are quantitative, not qualitative.
Smith takes this to mean that the quantum world is actually a stratum of matter between the corporeal plane and the materia secunda. This, then, is the physical world, the world studied by physicists. In fact, we never actually experience the physical world directly, but we know it indirectly through its interactions with the corporeal world (i.e., instruments, cloud chamber, and other measuring devices).
Now these two strata are intimately related, since behind every object X in the corporeal world, there is a physical object SX in the subcorporeal world that corresponds to it. The physicist investigates SX, not X. This is Smith’s unique contribution to the proper understanding of quantum mechanics.
The alternative horizontal view is that the object X is “composed” of various subatomic particles. Hence, we hear that the table we see is “really” most empty space. However, there is obviously no physical explanation for the table, since quantity cannot explain quality. That is hardly an increase in understanding, but rather a reversion to the first philosophers who believed that corporeal substances were just aggregations of atoms. It ignores the deepening of understanding from that view to Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas.
In 1964, the physicist John Bell discovered a flaw in the equations of quantum mechanics. Up to that point, it was simply assumed that physical objects acted locally, hence were constrained to the known physical forces. In particular, signals between object could not exceed the speed of light. Bell’s Theorem asserts, on the contrary, that reality is nonlocal. Not just in theory, this has been verified experimentally.
Smith sees this as a fundamental limitation of physics: it cannot in itself tell us about the universe, but it can only describe phenomena. It takes a metaphysical explanation to deal with the strata of cosmic reality. Smith relates this to the teaching on Heaven, Earth, and the metaxy as Plato called it, or the spiritual, corporeal, and the intermediate. Corporeal things are intermediary things subjected to spatio-temporal constraints. Smith claims that the alchemical processes of solve and coagula represent the transitions between those two strata.
Nonlocality can be understood by the traditional distinction between the corporeal and the intermediary levels; in the Vedanta, these are called the sthula or gross level and the sukshma or subtle level. Thus physics is consistent with this teaching:
- Quantum mechanics affirms the ontological discontinuity between the physical, subcorporeal, world and the corporeal by state vector collapse
- Nonlocality illustrates the discontinuity between the corporeal and the intermediary
Physics qua physics cannot explain this. The physicist himself is at the corporeal level. On the one hand, he is looking downward toward the materia secunda, away from essences. Hence, he simply cannot see the corporeal and perforce the intermediary levels.
Summing It Up
This has ramifications beyond just physics. Corporeal beings have a “double birth”:
- A pre-temporal birth in the divine creative Act (vertical)
- A temporal birth bringing it into the corporeal domain (horizontal)
Debates about science and religion are pointless without this understanding. Being blind to the vertical strata above the corporeal world, science will misinterpret metaphysical explanations as pertaining just to the corporeal world.
A couple of decades ago, quantum mechanics “light” was made popular in New Age circles in a few books. We don’t need it to make us aware of higher dimensional reality, just the opposite, actually. I recall one woman, a school guidance counselor, who assured me that she was “dabbling” in quantum mechanics. I was the wrong person to hear that, since I could actually do the math involved, while she just wanted the false authority of science to back up her weird worldview. We hope that readers aren’t just dabbling, but are reading with the aim of achieving an intellectual conversion.
Forthcoming posts will deal with Cosmology, Biology, and Psychology.