Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fr. Jaki's Contribution to Theoretical Physics

After reading physicist Prof. Steven Barr's tribute to Fr. Jaki, now may be the time to consider Fr. Jaki's contribution to the body of knowledge in theoretical physics.

"The piece is a simple rewriting of Heisenberg's uncertainty relation Δx.Δp ≥ h, which means that the product of the uncertainties in measuring the position Δx and momentum Δp in an interaction cannot be smaller than h or Planck's quantum divided by 4π. Shortly after Heisenberg proposed in 1927 that relation or inequality, it was recognised that it has an equivalent form in ΔE.Δt ≥ h, where E is energy and t is time. But although no formula of physics has been better known than E = mc², nobody cared to rewrite ΔE.Δt ≥ h as Δmc².Δt ≥ h. In this form the inequality reveals that, since c or the speed of light is invariable, there will necessarily be on hand an uncertainty in measuring m or mass. Further, this uncertainty or margin of error increases or decreases inversely with the error of measuring t." [A Mind's Matter p.164-165]

So what does the equation mean? Is everything now uncertain? Has causality been refuted? Is there no difference between being and non-being? Let us continue now with the philosophy.

"Suppose then that in terms of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics one takes operational uncertainties for ontological ones. Then the uncertainty in measuring, say, the time of the emission of an alpha particle from a radioactive nucleus turns the uncertainty of measuring the mass into an ontological uncertainty. This can only mean that the mass defect Δm must come from nothing, unless one assumes that the Creator supplies it in each radioactive decay, which, of course, would be absurd to assume.
In the case of an alpha emission, that defect may not exceed 10-31 grams, an unimaginably small amount of matter. Why then should one worry about accounting for its providence? No petty theft could be more "petty" than a swindling with such a small quantity. But endless acts of swindling can only make one insensitive to what is actually being done. At the end, the Heisenberg uncertainty relation would then inspire an oversight of matter of cosmic accounts, such as entire universes. And this is actually what happened." [A Mind's Matter p. 165]

This brings us nicely to the key criticism that Prof. Barr has of the work of Fr. Jaki.

"The fear of subjectivism led both Jaki and Hodgson to a vehement rejection of the traditional understanding of quantum mechanics, against which they inveighed constantly. They hoped that physics would eventually return to a more Newtonian framework, despite the fact that this would entail a return also to the mechanistic and deterministic cosmos from which quantum mechanics had once delivered physics—a deliverance that Jaki celebrated in many passages. In any event, such a return is highly unlikely. In my view, they despaired far too quickly of the possibility of reconciling the traditional understanding of quantum mechanics with a sound metaphysics, challenging though that task may be. They might have paid greater heed to one of Jaki’s own observations: “Truly, there is no exaggeration in the words of H. Margenau, who referred to the ‘enormous metaphysical wealth reposing largely untapped in modern physical theory.’” [First Things Jun-Jul 2009]

As can be seen from my quotations above it was hardly a "fear of subjectivism" that led Fr. Jaki to reject the Copenhagen Philosophy, but it was rather his fight to protect the reality of the universe, of those within it and of the One who is their savior. I also never recall reading that Jaki wished that physics would return to a more Newtonian framework and this is further evidenced by Haffner's statement that "Jaki has spoken highly of quantum mechanics from The Relevance of Physics onwards, yet always distinguished it from the Copenhagen antiontology grafted onto it by Heisenberg and Bohr." (p.168, Creation and Scientific Creativity, 2e)

I am led to despair when I read that Prof. Barr thinks that quantum mechanics has delivered us from a "deterministic cosmos". Re-read that point - he said "cosmos" not "philosophy". What is it exactly that Fr. Jaki has celebrated? Perhaps I am mistaken here (please correct me!), but I will let Fr. Jaki speak with his own words:

"Quite believable will sound, I think, the indignation which a President of the German Philosophical Society voiced on hearing me expound the anticausal misinterpretation of Heisenberg's principle. Do you mean, he asked me, that we have to return to universal mechanical causation, which swallowed up even man's free will? The question illustrated the fact that one can hardly endorse a philosophical error without endorsing some other as well. It was erroneous to identify causation with mechanical causation: the former is an ontological matter, whereas the latter is merely a manner of causation. But once that error was made, and the universality of mechanical causation firmly asserted, it was easy to draw the inference that this also meant the refutation of the reality of free will. One could, of course, retort that the refutation itself could not be a blind mechanical reaction if it was still a valid refutation, which has to be an act of free reasoning. Apart from this the question revealed a confusion between the manner or the how of causal interaction among physical bodies and the ontological reality of that causation. This confusion is endemic in the literature. No wonder that so many saw in the indeterminacy principle a scientific vindication of free will. One can hardly imagine a less reliable life belt thrown to humanists who still care about free will." [A Mind's Matter, p. 166]

Prof. Barr quotes (from The Relevance p.367) the eminent physicist's H.Margenau's observation about the metaphysical wealth untapped from modern physical theory. Margenau, the author of Scientific Indeterminism and Human Freedom, however, also recognised the laws of science are forever subject to revision (c.f. Relevance p.347). Fr. Jaki did not advocate concordance of the science of the day with scripture or with philosophy and he would not find Prof. Barr's declaration that the return of mechanistic physics was "highly unlikely" particularly reassuring.

The bedrock of the perennial philosophy was never far from Jaki's thought. His realism always started with things and never thoughts, even mathematical formulas. The words of F. Wilhelmsen in his introduction to E.Gilson's Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge are particularly apt: "Once the critical starting point is adopted, once our living contact with the world of existing beings is cut, and we start from thought alone, no amount of abstract manipulation of concepts will ever reunite us with the world...". And the sad reality is that due to the Copenhagen philosophy, physicists do extol all sorts of basement-induced universes while reposing at the feet of Kant and other critical "realists". A clarification from Fr. Jaki is in order:

"The science of quantum mechanics states the impossibility of perfect accuracy in measurements. The philosophy of quantum mechanics states ultimately the impossibility of distinguishing between material and non-material, and even between being and non-being. Physicists who fail to realise what this means for their science should remind themselves of a remark of James R. Newman, for many years the editor of Scientific American and always full of admiration for the work of physicists: "The more creative physicists have in recent years cultivated philosophy. They are usually disinclined to admit to this weakness. But there is no escape, even if it be only to embrace anti-philosophical philosophies. For the physicist has come to realise that if he throws philosophy into the fire, his own subject goes with it." [Chance or Reality and Other Essays p.14]

I do not doubt that there will be other reviews like that of Prof. Barr and they serve a useful purpose. They witness the possibility of the peaceful co-existence of faith and reason . However, it is imperative that we ensure that the work of our masters does not follow the well trodden path. That path was the subject of a talk by Fr. Jaki, it was named - "Damned with faint praise or the Fate of Pierre Duhem".

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