The age of relativity and quantum mechanics

The first fatal blow to determinism with its static view of the universe comes from Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in 1905, in his special theory of relativity. An event is defined with four numbers: three for the position in space and one for time. These constituents do not exist individually; it is not possible to imagine time without space, or vice versa. When a star is observed at a distance of one hundred light- years, the star is not only this far away in space but it is also observed as it was one hundred years ago. The four-dimensional space with its space/time continuum was introduced.

The contradiction between this theory and Newton’s theory of gravitation posed a problem. Einstein solved it in 1915 by introducing the general relativity theory, where gravitation is a consequence of the non-flat curving space/time caused by the content of mass and energy. The mass of the sun curves the space/time into a circular orbit in the three-dimensional world even if it is a straight line in the four-dimensional world. Einstein’s synthesis of the fundamental quantities of time, space, mass, and energy was confirmed first in the 1930s through astronomical observations.

Obviously, Einstein has been able to see both deeper and longer away than other members of the scientific community, exemplified by this poem:

“Man has two eyes

One only sees what moves in fleeting time

The other

What is eternal and divine”                         (/. Scheffler)

For the general public living in the first part of the twentieth century, the scientific world view represented by Einstein’s theories was sometimes more than incomprehensible. When he showed that two spatially separated events judged to occur simultaneously by one observer can occur at different moments for another, even the educated classes shook their heads. A contemporary view of the general relativity theory may be found in the following limerick:

There was a young lady girl named Bright,

Whose speed was far faster than light,

She travelled one day,

In a relative way,

And returned on the previous night. (R. Buller)

Another   death   blow   to   determinism   was   quantum   theory.   It   had   been enunciated already 1901 by the German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947), yet without attracting attention. When he discovered that light can be apprehended like a small physical entity (called light quantum) or like a waveform, both of them propagating in space, the classic concepts of mechanics started its reformulation. The causality of physics and the possibility to create comprehensible and down-to-earth models of reality had now come to an end. Central scientific concepts like identity and objectivity now lost their firm contours. The conception of the world changed. The focus of the research was moved from objects to transformations, processes and transitions. From having been explanatory, investigating, arranging and partially comforting, natural science at the turn of the century became increasingly confusing, menacing and unintelligible.

In 1927, it was ‘Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) who framed the uncertainty principle: it is fundamentally impossible to simultaneously define position and velocity for a particle. Heisenberg’s principle must be considered a special case of the complementarity principle, also articulated in 1927 by Niels Bohr (1885-1962). This states that an experiment on one aspect of a system (of atomic dimensions) destroys the possibility of learning about a complementarity aspect of the same system. Wave and particle behaviour of, for example light, are not contradictions, but complementary aspects of the one and same reality. Physical systems can exist as superpositions of different states. A defined underlying reality does not exist. Together these principles have shocking consequences for the comprehension of entropy and determinism.

The new mechanics, quantum mechanics, thus includes indeterminism as a fundamental principle in the processes of nature. Consequently, when taking measurements, the very measurement is defining what is measured. Every measurement of a quantum system will influence it by interchange between the system and the equipment. The measurement defines quantities which earlier was undetermined. A quantity cannot be assigned a meaning before the measurement has been done. The answer we get is dependent of how we put the question. Furthermore, it proves the impossibility of determinism when it focuses on the atom and its particles. It is not even possible to suppose that scientific laws has a similar function on all levels between macrocosmos and microcosmos. Earlier uncertainty was the same as ignorance while today it is part of knowledge. In the small-scale system of the atom, the predominant and special circumstances are explained with the help of quantum theory. This theory concerns probabilities rather than certainties. Thus quantum mechanics is a statistical theory, differing from other such theories by the fact that its probability charachter is an integrated part of the very theory.

Although concerned solely with extremely small particles, the theory revealed some extraordinary circumstances in physics. One is ‘A spooky action at a distance’, as Einstein called the spectral effect or ‘entanglement’. A pair of correlated particles which have at one time been connected continue to influence each other instantly even after they have moved to separate parts of the universe. According to the laws of nature, energy and or information cannot be transmitted from one place to another faster than light. This guarantees, that in the chain of cause and effect, the effect never occurs before the cause. The velocity of light here seems to have an exception which up to now not has got its explanation. The spectral effect is an example of one of the main qualities of quantum theory, namely non-locality, the technical name for a signal-less, instantaneous action at a distance.

Another remarkable effect is that electrons will not jump from one energy level to another while they are being watched, the zeno effect or the principle of inseparability. This illustrates a basic phenomenon within quantum physics; the interpreter and the interpreted do not exist independently. Thus, interpretation is existence and existence is interpretation.

The mysterious behaviour of particles in quantum theory has inspired the following small poem:

Neutrinos, they are very small

They have no charge and have no mass

And do not interact at all

To them the earth is just a silly ball. (/. Updike)

A compressed summary of the quantum theories is presented in the main points below.

  • In quantum mechanics, individual events have no cause.
  • Quantum mechanics never explains how someting happens. It only explains probabilities for that it should happen.
  • A quantum-mechanical event has both non-local and local influence backward in time.
  • Quantum mechanics is stochastic. Which one of different possi­bilities becomes realized can never be predicted.
  • Quantum mechanics does not give explanations or descriptions of a measurement process. In this things happens outside time.

Thus quantum fluctuations are not caused by anything. They are genuinely spontaneous and intrinsic to nature at its deepest level — something unitelligible for human brains which are hardwired to think in terms of cause and effect. However, by operating without cause and effect they leave room for free will and spontaneity.

While quantum theory is not the final answer in physics, it had definitely opened a completely new way of thinking; its impact on the perception of reality and our world view should not be underestimated. Today, most scientists agree on a world view in which global determinism points in a main direction; they agree that local development determines its own non-predictive path, open to causal influences coming from both lower and higher levels.

The predominant cosmological view, called the standard model, tells us that the universe is expanding and has as its starting point in time the big bang of 15 billion years ago (the greatest effect of all with no cause!). The universe has then developed from an incredibly tightly-packed system, a singularity, where the natural laws as we know them did not exist. This condition cannot be described with the help of either a theory of relativity or the quantum theory. These can at most be seen as components of a not yet existing final theory. A part of the standard model is what is called the cosmological principle. This states that the Universe has no centre and is essentially the same everywhere and that materia and radiation are uniformly distributed in space at the greatest scale.

Today, the standard model is one of the most verified theories of natural science. Hitherto it has been able to stand all scientific tests and all experiments has given the same results. Predictions regarding things which should exist in the Universe but not were observed have later been detected and confirmed by help of the theory.

We are now nearing the end of the 20th century. What was begun by Galileo, continued by Newton and finished by Einstein has over time inspired even poets:

‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hidden in night

Let Newton be God said and all was light.’

(Alexander Pope)


‘But then the devil cried that Einstein had to do

his work and reestablish status quo.’

(John Collings)

These small poems implicitly question whether we can understand the world surrounding us and theories about it. Theories such as the quantum theory cannot actually be proved. If they are mathematically consistent and observations coincide with predictions, the probability is however high that they describe reality reasonably well. Today, the rules of quantum theory have been around for a long time and must be considered neither wrong nor incomplete. But modem science based on quantum theory has come to realize that it is impossible to conclusively describe and understand the natural world. To this may be added that even if modern science was able to explain how the Universe is structured, it cannot say why.

Scientists today tend to agree that when we formulate the theories of the atomic world, we are doing it vis-à-vis not the reality but rather our knowledge regarding reality. Physics, for example, does not claim anything about something actually existing, but rather informs our knowledge concerning the structure of our psyche. The models of physics no longer explain, they only describe. Therefore, in a way, fundamental physics today is a matter of philosophy, while cosmology has been a kind of scientific poetry. On its most fundamental level, nature is not possible to comprise with traditional knowledge. However, the everyday world where we live in and which is based on quantum mechanics, is possible to understand and comprise.

A consequence of this attitude is that it is possible to claim that the world only exists in the spectator’s mind, that an observation is dependent upon the observer. This philosophical shattering of reality echoes the claim of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that the concepts of space and time were necessary forms of human experience, rather than characteristics of the universe. Kant considered that it is not only the consciousness which adapts to things, but things also adapt to the consciousness. This kind of physical idealism is well expressed in another limerick:

There once was a man who said ‘God

Must think it exceedingly odd

If he finds that this tree Continues to be

When there’s nobody else in the quad.’

(Ronald Knox)

The view that only one truth about reality exists and that the various scientific disciplines describe different parts of it is no longer tenable. What exists is only subjective and often contradictory conceptions of reality. The decline of the illusions of the pre-Einstein natural science shows that not even scientific results are absolute. In due time they are replaced by theories and models having an extended descriptive and predictive value. Present-day knowledge is only the best description of reality we have at the current moment in time.

Werner Heisenberg is reported to have said: ‘A quantum world does not exist. The only thing which exists is our abstract description of the physical reality.’ Niels Bohr also said: ‘Physics is only about what we can say concerning nature.’ Even Max Planck who was thoroughly educated in classical mechanics had, during his whole life, difficulties in accepting the verified results of his own theories. There is no point in asking how matter could be constituted behind our observations of it, as these are the only evidence we can ever have. According to this view, quantum theory should not be understood as a description of the world, but rather as an instrument enabling the human mind to make predictions and calculations. Quantum theory suggests that the subatomic world—and even the world beyond the atom — has no independent structure at all until defined by the human intellect.

Albert Einstein took a dedicated rationalist view when he said: ‘The firm laws of logic are always valid, and nature’s laws are indifferent to our attitude’ and ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible’. Thus Einstein claimed that the world exists independent of human beings and that it is only in part comprehensible. Einstein’s pursuit of the old rationalist tradition in Western science that reality has an objective existence independent of the observer is, however, today questioned by many researchers. The multiple perspectives, issuing from the modern, relativistic science, have actualized the dualism between substance and awareness, the classic body/mind problem. Our conventional definition of self-consciousness includes totality and consistency in time and space. Such self-consciousness can be achieved only by a creative human intelligence. Quantum physics claims that consciousness per se may be seen as the particle’s mental existence in wave form defined by cooperation, interference and overlapping. It exists everywhere and has knowledge of what happens in other places. The particle’s physical existence is its permanence as matter with mass and position in space. On the basis of the above we can identify the following internal respective external opposites:

A number of proposals taken from the area of relativity theory and quantum physics are presented below. Many of these are paradoxical but one has to bear in mind that they relate to microcosmos and not our conventional environment.

  • There is an infinite number of worlds and we exist parallel in them.
  • Time goes both backward and forward at the same time.
  • Matter and consciousness are the same thing.
  • A particle exists in several places at the same time when manifested as a wave form. Although it can only be observed in one place at a time, it does exist in several spaces simultaneously.
  • Quantum physics concerns probabilities. Quantum wave functions express all probabilities simultaneously. When someone observes, the probability becomes a reality with fixed properties. Other possibilities vanish.
  • In the world of quantum physics everything is interconnected. Everything exists everywhere simultaneously, but can only be observed as an object in one universe at a time.
  • The quantum wave is a connection through all time both in future and past time.
  • What we remember of past times has been determined by something in the future. Both past and future have existed before, the future in a parallel universe.
  • When we choose to observe something, we create and influence it.
  • Observations create consciousness and consciousness creates the material universe.
  • The existence of matter and consciousness is the same thing.
  • The existential basis for all matter is meaning.
  • Radio-transmitted music confined in the form given by the radio wave exists as a potentiality; it is heard only when the receiver is turned on.
  • Quantum fields of potential information are everywhere omni­present. Their meaning is existence. To change the meaning changes the existence.
  • The mental and the physical world are two sides of the same coin. They are separated by consciousness only, not by reality.
  • Meaning and purpose are inherent parts of reality, not an abstract quality in the human mind.

Quantum theory has seriously undermined science’s faith in an external, material reality and has implied a repudiation of scientism and a rigorous positivistic empirical science. The potential of dead matter to produce living matter and consciousness signifies a recognition of purpose, of creation and self- organization. Living systems inevitably emerge as soon as the prerequisites are by hand. According to this view, life is a consequence of the structure of the Universe rather than a random event. The function of living matter is apparently to expand the organization of the universe. Here, locally decreased entropy as a result of biological order in existing life is invalidating the effects of the second law of thermodynamics, although at the expense of increased entropy in the whole system. It is the running down of the universe that made the sun and the earth possible. It is the running down of the sun that made life and us possible. And the price of indentity in life is mortality — conteracted by the fact that family and species live longer than one of us.

Strict determinism is no longer valid; the development of our universe is decided both by chance and necessity, by random and deterministic causes working together in entropy, evolution, continuity and change. These universal principles — sometimes called syntropic (Fuller 1992) — counteracting decay and destruction (the second law of thermodynamics), will create a new and more flexible world view.

Another challenge to positivistic science is the idea that the universe itself is a living phenomenon, irrespective of its organic inhabitants.

The creation of new stars, their growth, reproduction and death, together with their metabolism, justify the use of the term ‘living’ in the eyes of many scientists.

The concept of value is not inherent to science; classical science never asks why or what for. Nor is speculation as to the cause, meaning and ultimate goal an attribute of its method. The second law of thermodynamics, expressing the diffusion and deterioration of matter and existence, has long represented the classical science mentality and influenced the construction of methods and instruments. Today, with a growing awareness of the universe undergoing a creative and problem-solving evolution, values can add new and fruitful dimensions to classical science.

On the basis of the above outline of this scientific development and the consequences thereof for the present-day world view, some observations can be emphasized. The first is that the disintegration of classic physics initiates the dissolution of art and morality. Proust’s soundings in human memory, Picasso’s insurrection against the perspective and Schonberg’s musical revolution in tone, harmony, and rhythm is coherent with a new scientific world-view. There, the concepts of time and room have got a new and radical change. The discoveries of Planck and Einstein corresponded better with Freud’s mapped dream-world than with the conventional perceived, empirical world. The reaction of the then existing man against modernism was an uneasiness caused by the ever increasing enstrangement of science and art from the area of immediate intelligibility. Today art and literature reflect the fragmentation of Western civilization.

A second and astonishing observation is that the classic natural laws formulated by Newton, for example, are still going strong. While piece after piece has been added to the theoretical building by new generations of scientists, it has not yet been necessary to demolish its main structure and start from scratch again. In the domain of classical physics regarding motions of objects, there is no contradiction between deductions done by Newtonian mathematics and quantum theory. This is called the correspondence principle, and was formulated by Bohr.

The Newtonian gravitational theory has influenced Einstein’s theory of relativity. Through Einstein’s theories, Newton’s equations have become more complex; Newton’s original theory is nonetheless still valid and gives us in most cases very good approximations. Newton’s mechanics has now become a ‘special case’ within Einstein’s theory of relativity. The counter-intuitive subatomic paradoxes of quantum physics do not interfere with the common sense of everyday life, although they are very extensive in for example microelectronics. Regarding the relation between relativity theory and quantum theory, the latter suggests that space and time are approximate concepts, which may have to be abandoned when the infinitely small is contemplated. Thus large-scale mechanics and quantum mechanics have been forced to co-exist, because neither is any good at explaining the other.

Another observation is that the classical division of the disciplines was to a great extent conditioned by — but also reflected — the order of nature, mind and society of its time (that is, the well-organized Victorian society). This is expressed by Comte’s hierarchy of development in science with its three stages.

  • The theological stage (corresponding to the scholasticism) with magic and religion.
  • The metaphysical stage (corresponding to the the Renaissance) where theology has been replaced by philosophy.
  • The positive or the scientific stage (corresponding to the mechanistic era).

At the same time it is possible to see a reductionist hierarchy in the various scientific disciplines when arranged in order according to ‘size’.

  • Astronomy
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Further, the various disciplines in science have undergone a similar development and show a parallelism in their development of methods. Every field of human knowledge thus passes through distinct stages.

  • Intuition
  • Fact-finding
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis

Synthesis is a prerequisite for the systems thinking of our own time, just as analysis was for the mechanistic era. A system inasmuch as it is a whole, will lose its synergetic properties if it is decomposed; it cannot be understood through analysis. Understanding must therefore progress from the whole to its parts — a synthesis. Synthesis takes the steps of analytical science (see p. 15) in reverse order.

  • Identify the system of which the unit in focus is a part.
  • Explain the properties or behaviour of the system.
  • Finally, explain the properties or behaviour of the unit in focus as a part or function of the system.

Synthesis does not create detailed knowledge of a system’s structure. Instead, it creates knowledge of its function (in contrast to analysis). Therefore, synthesis must be considered as explaining while the scientific method must be considered as describing.

Systems thinking expands the focus of the observer, whereas analytical thinking reduces it. In other words, analysis looks into things, synthesis looks out of them. This attitude of systems thinking is often called expansionism, an alternative to classic reductionism. Whereas analytical thinking concentrates on static and structural properties, systems thinking concentrates on the function and behaviour of whole systems. Analysis gives description and knowledge; systems thinking gives explanation and understanding. With its emphasis on variation and multiplicity, rather than statistically ensured regularities, systems thinking belongs to the holistic tradition of ideas. However, what really differentiates this kind of thinking from ordinary linear cause/ effect reasoning is that none of these concepts can be regarded as more primary than the other. A change can be initiated everywhere in an event cycle and after a certain time be read off as either cause or effect elsewhere in a system.

Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena. As an attempt to solve the crisis of classical science it has formulated new approaches in scientific investigation. Primarily, it dates back to the 1920s when emergent properties in living organisms were generally recognized. Born in biology, it is easy to understand that the systems movement has acquired the major part of its terminology from that area when considering terms like autonomy, survival, etc. It is now possible to note how the specific tools in the various areas have emphasized the different stages. The tools for the analysis were par excellence the microscope and the telescope, tools which must be considered to be reductionist promotive. The tools of the emerging systems age are designed to enhance synthesis and have often taken over the function of the classical laboratory. The computer has become a viable substrate for experimentation. It has enabled what we can call functionalism. This is the view that functional properties of a system can be studied independently of the underlaying implementation. Research in many fields such as nuclear, aerodynamics, biology, chemistry, etc. is now being simulated instead of actually performed. A computer simulation is a form of science standing halfway between theory and experiment. An equation, for example, solved by a computer can unfold patterns  never predicted as it may be far too complicated to solve by hand. Research in many fields such as nuclear, aerodynamics, biology, chemistry, etc. is now being simulated instead of actually performed. The particle accelerator combines analytic and synthetic properties in a kind of super microscope capable of the resolution of objects less than the diameter of the atomic nucleus. Geostationary or orbiting satellites give outstanding possibilities for the understanding of global phenomena and for the first time in history humanity has now the opportunity to look upon itself from the outside. Tools with the above- mentioned properties are often called macroscopes. Together these tools has done that which earlier only was intellectual experiments now can be real ones.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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