It is often claimed that towards the end of the 19th century, there was a feeling in the physics community that all the great problems had been solved, that there were some issues which needed clearing up, but on the whole physics as a scientific search had come to an end. A speech by Albert Michelson in 1894 is quoted: “While it is never safe to say that the future of Physical Science has no marvels even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice”¹.
This seems to be something of an over-simplification, and the situation was not quite so clear cut. Some eminent physicists were already expressing doubts about the ability of classical mechanics to resolve the problems, for example James Clerk Maxwell in 1859, and Lord Kelvin in 1900. For the purposes of this article, however, this is not crucial. The important point is that classical mechanics had indeed gone as far as it could go, and what was needed to resolve the remaining problems unleashed a scientific revolution, a new paradigm. It is not necessary to go into the scientific details but, in a nutshell, one problem was the nature of light. The Michelson-Morley experiment had suggested that light could not be considered a wave in a mechanical medium. Also, when the filament of a light bulb was heated with electricity, it glowed, and the colour of the light changed as the filament got hotter, but the physics to explain this was a mystery. Other relevant topics are the equipartition theorem, black body radiation, the ultraviolet catastrophe, and the photoelectric effect, should anyone wish to research them.
Einstein, in 1905, had to think the unthinkable and come up with a new theory. His solution was that light consisted of bullet-like particles (quanta); they were tiny lumps of energy. At the time the idea seemed crazy, it was considered heretical and revolutionary, but it solved all the problems with light at a stroke. It provided a wonderful explanation of the photoelectric effect, and also solved the mystery of the light bulb.
However, the problem then became deeper. The mystery of the nature of light became a battle about the nature of reality. In the 1920s, came the quantum revolution, which completely overturned the classical system. Even the scientific genius Einstein was vehemently opposed to it. Within 30 years of Michelson’s speech, physics had been turned on its head.
What should we learn from all this? One suggestion is that on those occasions when scientists seem to have discovered just about all there is to know, this is an indication that an enormous revolution is about to take place. Despite that, the science writer John Horgan thinks that we may indeed have reached the end of science, and is so confident that he has even written a book (first published 1996) with that as the title². He wonders: “Was it possible that science could come to an end? Could scientists, in effect, learn everything there is to know? Could they banish mystery from the universe?” He thinks: “By far the greatest barrier to future progress in pure science is its past success” (p16).
He does not seem to be aware that not all physicists were content with classical mechanics, and goes along with the idea that they were reasonably satisfied that physics had come to an end — he has a section entitled ‘That’s What They Thought 100 Years Ago’. From the point of view of his argument that science now is coming to an end, this is quite clever. Even though he thinks that the last time physicists thought they understood just about everything, but were soon afterwards shown to be completely mistaken, he still makes the claim that scientists in modern times have understood just about everything.
What are his grounds for saying this? He talks about an “impressive, if not terribly detailed, narrative of how we came to be”. (It’s interesting that he is not bothered by the lack of detail; science, as I understand it, is meant to give complete, detailed explanations.) This narrative, impressive in his mind, turns out to be the Big Bang, DNA, natural selection, Darwinian evolution. He continues: “My guess is that this narrative that scientists have woven from their knowledge, this modern myth of creation, will be as viable 100 or even 1,000 years from now as it is today. Why? Because it is true… There will be no great revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick” (p16).
This is similar to something the biologist Ursula Goodenough wrote: “The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures — this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true”³.
Are such statements clues to what the next revolution will be? Are the Big Bang, Darwinian evolutionary theory, the advent of consciousness precisely the ideas which need to be challenged and overturned? That is what spiritual traditions have suggested, along with some significant new-paradigm thinkers. Let’s have a look at those ideas one at a time.
According to the old paradigm, matter is the fundamental reality, life evolved from non-life, and consciousness mysteriously evolved from brain activity. According to the new paradigm, consciousness is primary, and matter is a manifestation of consciousness. This a view which has become more familiar in modern times with the advent of quantum physics. There was therefore no advent of consciousness in the sense that Goodenough intends.
Regarding evolutionary theory, there is no problem with DNA and the science of genetics. The problem begins when Darwinian theory is used to support a materialist or atheistic philosophy. Richard Dawkins says that Darwin made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist. This is what needs to be challenged by a new paradigm.
Regarding the Big Bang, if it is a false idea, which is what spiritual traditions suggest, then this will be the most difficult of the three challenges to win, since there is almost complete unanimity among scientists that it really happened. I’ve been invited to give a talk later in June, the core of which will be a challenge to Big Bang theory, so I don’t want to publish my material just yet, but I will do so nearer the time. At this point I’ll just say that whether or not there was a Big Bang, the theory is based on some poor science.
At some point in the future, these three key ideas will hopefully have become historical curiosities. If and when that happens, then the new paradigm of a spiritual science will truly have arrived. Horgan says, however, that there are scientists “who are seeking to misread and therefore to transcend quantum mechanics or the big bang theory or Darwinian evolution”. These points of view are at best interesting, but do “not converge on the truth. (They) cannot achieve empirically verifiable surprises that force scientists to make substantial revisions in their basic description of reality” (p7). ‘Misread’ and ‘transcend’ are interesting words to choose; are they a materialist’s substitutions for ‘challenge’ and ‘argue against’? What is wrong with wanting to ‘transcend’, i.e. go beyond, previous knowledge? Perhaps he’s right, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
“Unconvinced, in each generation (the rationalist) believes himself to be in possession of the last and final word; and he simply cannot see that his sons and successors will have a different ‘last’ and even more ‘final’ word, which in turn will be surpassed or disproved by their sons and successors. That is one of the most absurd aspects of the behaviour of Western science: for centuries on end it has patted itself on the back every twenty or thirty years for having reached the pinnacle of scientific inquiry and in this arrogant pose has passed its findings on to its students and successors”⁴.
Bibliography, for the first section:
1. The Secrets of Quantum Physics, BBC4, December 9th 2014
1. at the dedication of the University of Chicago’s Ryerson Physical Laboratory
2. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, Little, Brown and Company, 1997
3. in The Sacred Depths of Nature, quoted by Jon Turney in The Big Questions in Science, Harriet Swain (ed.), Jonathan Cape, 2002, p233
4. Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Nada Brahma: The World is Sound, East West Publications, 1988, p40