Slaying the Dragons of Scientism

Taking our minds for a time off the grim immediacy of the present, we would do well to look ahead to a goal we have in mind, a new Christendom. Such a society would not be a carbon copy of what once existed — indeed, it could not be — but it would be a new embodiment of the same Catholic ideals.

Included among those ideals would be the following: There would be a moral and functional union of the civil society with the ecclesiastical (“union of Church and State”); a system of civil laws that rejects legal positivism and embraces both the natural and the revealed law of God as the foundation of social governance; a hierarchy of the sciences that recognizes the importance of philosophy, especially metaphysics, over the empirical sciences, while respecting what is valid in emerging sciences; a “consecration” of the arts to the sacred and the beautiful, rather than the immoral and the ugly; an economic system that is subjected to the moral law and is therefore anti-usurious and pro-family; a recognition of Theology as “Queen of the Sciences,” while also respecting Biblical inerrancy as a bulwark against fake science. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but I would be remiss if I did not include in it the vigorous reassertion of the necessity of the Church for salvation.

To be sure, we must evangelize in order to make that future Christendom happen. It won’t just drop out of the sky. That evangelization must perforce include venturing forth into the various disciplines (law, science, philosophy, the arts, etc.) armed with heavy-duty Catholic intellectual weaponry.

It is gratifying to know that there are people who have long and patiently been doing just that. Their work is bearing fruit now. Among the examples that come immediately to mind is the DVD series produced by the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation and Restoring Truth Ministries: Foundations Restored, a Catholic Perspective on Origins. Another example is The End of Quantum Reality, a documentary written and produced by Rick Delano that features the life and work of the amazing nonagenarian mathematician-philosopher-physicist, Dr. Wolfgang Smith — who is also, by the way, one of the many scholars who participated in Foundations Restored.

When a child is baptized in the traditional rites of the Church, there are multiple exorcisms that take place before the actual administration of the sacrament. Evil is driven out first that good may enter in. There is a similarity between this and how the Church historically approached the cultures she evangelizes. As Pope Saint Gregory the Great directed to the English missionaries under Saint Augustine of Canterbury in his “The Letter to Mellitus” (601), “[T]he temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed.” After that, these beautiful temples could be consecrated to the worship of God (see the larger context here). Drive out the evil, bring in the good. Hence the need to slay the dragons of scientism to uphold true science — and reality as God created it.

When quantum mechanics challenged the world of Newtonian physics in the twentieth century, the stability of the former system gave way, and a great deal of uncertainty entered in. Physicist Nick Herbert wrote in his 1985 book, Quantum Reality, that physicists have “lost their grip on reality.” Since many physicists consider their science to be the most reliable guide to determining ultimate reality — and many in the media and the academy grant it that lofty status — the result has been a more widespread confusion.

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), who formulated the “Schrödinger equation,” also came up with a thought experiment to explain the enigma that lay at the heart of quantum physics. The name subsequently given to this thought experiment is “Schrödinger’s Cat.” Owing to what is called “superposition,” quantum mechanics postulates that all of the states a quantum particle can occupy at any given time are indeed occupied simultaneously. The math works (so I’m told), and if the theory were not sound at some level, the engineering of many of our most commonly used technological devises simply would not work. It’s only when we use a corporeal measuring device that we learn that the quantum particle is not in “superposition,” but is, in fact, in one place. This is what is known as the “measurement problem,” the solution to which has led to the manifest absurdity of the so-called “multiverse,” which is about as reality-defying a world-view as one can hold.

The problem at the heart of the matter is that this stunningly accurate equation, so highly effective at engineering the computers and smart phones we use all the time, does not at all correspond to what we observe in our daily life. Schrödinger illustrated it this way with his famous feline thought experiment:

A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The first atomic decay would have poisoned it. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts. [source]

Only when you open the steel chamber after an hour to “measure” the result do you discover the cat to be either dead or alive. We know that, in reality, the cat can only be either dead or alive at any given time, but “superposition” tells us he is both dead and alive simultaneously, until measured, when he assumes one or the other of a “classical state” of physics. It defies common sense, I know. It is this common-sense defying characteristic that divorces so much of modern physics from reality, and prominent physicists have admitted as much. This is why the line between PBS science documentaries and Marvel Comics is about as solid as a quantum particle in superposition.

The physicist Werner Heisenberg (1909-1976) made a very helpful discovery when he stated that what quantum mechanics considers are “Aristotelian potentiae.” In simple terms, he had the insight that quantum theory does not tell us about actually existing things, but about potencies, a simple yet extremely important intuition. Thus the Aristotelian concepts of act and potency, so fundamental to a sound metaphysics, come to the rescue of modern science.

Based upon this insight, Wolfgang Smith, who had deeply studied perennial philosophy as well as math and physics, made a very important distinction. He began by noting that the entire world-view of the modern empirical scientist is philosophically Cartesian (even if the scientists don’t actually know this owing to their lack of philosophical formation), and that René Descartes (1596-1650) had done us all the profound disservice of bifurcating the world into two realms, one composed of res extensa (extended things), the other, of res cogitans (thought things). In doing so, Descartes reduced corporeal reality to quantity only. The man was a mathmaticist who effectively replaced the category of substance with the accident of quantity, throwing the scientific world into a philosophically barren landscape for over four hundred years.

This critique of modern scientism provided Dr. Smith with a lofty vantage point from which to contemplate the so-called “quantum enigma.” What he concluded is that there are two realms under discussion here: the physical universe and the corporeal universe. By “physical universe” he does not mean what the term means in common parlance, but, rather, the theoretical universe of the physicist. The corporeal universe, on the other hand, is that realm where “we live, and move, and are” (Acts 18:8). Developing Heisenberg’s insight regarding Aristotelian potentiae, Dr. Smith argues that what quantum theory considers — with stunning accuracy — are mere potencies. He then situates the quantum realm in a philosophical “place” that inhabits the space between two other planes: (1) what Aristotelian philosophers call “prime matter” (pure potency) and (2) the corporeal universe, where matter is actually determined by substantial forms to be the very substances we encounter daily — mineral, vegetable, and animal, including ourselves.

In developing his solution to the “measurement problem,” Wolfgang Smith did not disregard what is true and useful in quantum physics. Rather, he situated this study, with its valid insights and conclusions, into a hierarchical structure of true science, with metaphysics appropriately placed on the top, thus restoring it to its proper place, as its very name assumes, above physics.

All of the potential states that a quantum particle theoretically inhabits all at once give way to one and only one position when measured. That is because measurement with a bodily measuring device brings the physical world into contact with the corporeal world. The corporeal world always exists in this “measured” state because there is no such thing as particles actually existing in a superposition — just as there is no such thing as prime matter as such; matter is always informed. Denying the actual existence of a particle in superposition does not reduce quantum theory to bunk; rather, it forces us to admit higher causality at work, one that the physicist qua physicist does not study. This, Dr. Smith calls “vertical causality,” and it depends upon the philosophical concepts of teleology (Aristotle’s “final cause”), substantial form and prime matter, and that other complementary philosophical pair we mentioned earlier, act and potency. This Aristotelian world-view that we call “hylomorphism” is absolutely essential for us to keep what is valid in that body of knowledge known as quantum theory from degenerating into the comic-book absurdities of the multiverse.

When I listen to Wolfgang Smith in Rick Delano’s documentary or read his brilliant words in the book of his I’m currently reading, how I wish he and Brother Francis had met. Math and physics were Brother’s world, too, before he found the wisdom of perennial philosophy and the higher wisdom of divine revelation. To great profit, Brother Francis’ The Problem of Change: A Mystery of The Natural Order, Plato and Liberal Education, The Dangers of Scientism, and Mathematics and Christian Education could all be read in tandem with Dr. Smith’s Physics and Vertical Causation. They are complementary. I believe Brother Francis would wholeheartedly embrace Wolfgang Smith’s concept of vertical causation.

The alternative to vertical causality is horizontal causality, and that is precisely the bankrupt world-view of scientism: Democritus’s atoms smashing into each other in the void as the explanation for all that is: a bird, a man, the Mona Lisa. Billions of years of slam-dancing atoms in the void gave us not only the Grand Canyon, but Socrates and Vivaldi, too. Darwinism is a species of horizontal causality whereby nothingness crossed the threshold into existence, life came from non-life, and higher functioning life (e.g., orangutans and Charles Darwin) came from bacteria. Time, chance mutations, and natural selection: all horizontal causality at work. It makes no sense because it defies the dictate of right reason and common sense we call “the principle of sufficient reason”; it therefore merits scorn and ridicule, not the breathless awe and unqualified respect that most self-professed Christians give it.

To borrow a trope from another author enjoying well-deserved appreciation these days, we can say that Dr. Wolfgang Smith has enlightened the world on “the logos of physics.”