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In search of reality we grasp at everything we accept as facts and interpret that totality with what we hope is reason. And since science presents itself as a view of reality based on facts, we should look carefully at the reasonableness of those facts to see if they have something to offer our other two pillars of thought, religion and philosophy.

Western science started with the Greeks in the sixth century before the common era. Three different approaches to reality emerged that have persisted to the present day. The first, put forward by Pythagoras and Euclid, was that a hidden reality was to be found in numbers and geometry. This emerges in the modern view that reality is not found in science but in mathematics. It also gave us the idea that a point in space had no dimensions, allowing points to be infinitely close together.

Leucippus and Democritus differed. They argued reality arises from a few different atoms combined into in myriads of different combinations. This led to Dalton’ table of the elements representing each type of 90 or so atoms and to the quantum theory of elementary particles.

Parmenides and Plato dismissed this line of reasoning as absurd. For them, our perception of the world is distorted by our senses so that we fail to recognize an underlying reality based on eternal truths. These are reached by philosphical or religious thought, not by experiment. This held up the acquisition of scientific knowledge for twenty centuries until, supporting rational thought with  facts gained from experiments, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell,  Einstein and Planck uncovered eternal laws governing motion and energy.

And while mathematics was essential to the formulation of these laws, the idea that science can be based on mathematics is to mistake the relationship between these two disciplines. A staunch opponent of atomic theory, Max Planck, found by mathematics alone a much-sought formula for the spectrum of light radiated from a hot object. As his formula lacked a physical basis, this was not well received and he searched for a formula via a physical model involving a series of springs . After weeks of getting nowhere, he turned in desperation to atomic theory, following the example of Ludwig Boltzmann. Planck assumed the springs could vibrate at only specific frequencies, meaning energy came in small indivisible chunks. The correct formula for the spectrum emerged immediately, together with the basis for a quantum theory of reality.

The subsequent development of quantum theory was a major advance in physics. Unfortunately, as a guide to reality it does not do well. It produces logical and mathematical paradoxes and perplexing ideas about a subjective universe obedient to the dictates of privileged experimenters. It claims, paradoxically, that an element of reality can exist with two contradictory properties, acting both as a point-like particle and as a wave distributed throughout space, depending on how you look at it. Perhaps with Platonic spectacles?

From this absurdity, quantum field theory developed, predicting the physical outcomes of this duality with superb accuracy. It provides the basis for many scientific advances and for much of modern technology. But its later mathematics only works by depending on a fudge that disposes of awkward infinities it creates, by balancing them out with artificial infinities. As Richard Feynman, one of the inventers of this “renormalization” process, remarked “It is what I would call a dippy process! . . . hocus pocus. . . perhaps the idea that two points can be infinitely close together is wrong.”

And as for subjectivity: in quantum mechanics, if you look for a particle, you find a particle, if in the same situation you look for a wave, you find a wave. And if you check whether one of two likely outcomes is found by your experiment, then the one you found becomes part of your universe, whereas the absent alternative creates a new universe which warms the heart of an alternative experimenter. A deeper reality indeed!

Relativity is in a similar situation. It has made great advances, revealing mass as condensed energy (E = mc2),  producing highly accurate predictions of the unexplained rotation of mercury’s orbit, and successfully predicting the bending of light near the sun. But with its black holes, contradictions appear. Such an object has a gravity so intense that its escape velocity is the speed of light. Hence its perfect blackness. But this also means matter falling into the “hole” arrives at the speed of light. This achievement is not explained. Other paradoxes involve matter swallowed by the hole being digested at a location beyond physics. A future explanation is expected to require a quantum theory of gravity, which may also be paradoxical, because the two theories are as incompatible as particles and waves.

To top all this, standing modestly in the background is the discovery that the familiar material of the universe, all of it, amounts to less than five per cent of the whole. Ninety-five per cent is something totally unknown.

To complain in this way about the state of science as a guide to reality is, perhaps, a willful and impertinent act of ingratitude towards the many scientists of the past century who advanced our knowledge to degree unmatched by the previous twenty-five. In fact, it is the extraordinary rate of advance that has left us the rough edges and paradoxes, passed over in the enthusiast rush to explore the implications of knowledge gained from extraordinary new instruments and technologies.

So, rather than grumbling about the present interpretation of new scientific findings, it is more productive to face the challenge of offering an alternative. So that is what I plan to do. All the information is out there. No need for massive expenditures on massive new telescopes, atom smashers, or spacecraft. Just rethinking what we know already can lead to an alternative view of the universe and reality.

The alternative? Ask “What would Max Planck do?”. And the answer is, turn in desperation to atoms of space and time. We have been trying to understand reality Platonically, as if space and time were perfectly continuous and infinitely divisible, as if two points could be infinitely close together. But this is not true of energy. It comes as indivisible quanta. And it is not true of matter either. It comes as indivisible elementary particles. If the entire contents of spacetime are quantized in this way, then spacetime, the unity of space and time uncovered by Einstein, is likely to be quantized too. Maybe it is the assumption that spacetime is continuous and infinitely divisible that leads to those tendentious  paradoxes. Zeno, a follower of Parmenides, certainly thought so when he used  this as a basis for showing that motion is impossible. 4/27/2020

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