Sunday, November 11, 2007
The Search for a Unified Field Theory and the Thrust Towards Meaning
The Aesthetics of the Pursuit of Knowledge
Aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty in nature and in art. This is a rather general definition, but it will suffice for my purposes here. The German philosopher Kant gave the real impulse to aesthetics as a separate study in philosophy. In Kant’s view, aesthetic judgment is unlike either theoretic (that is, cognitive) judgment or practical (that is, moral) judgment, in that it is effected entirely subjectively, solely in reference to the subject himself or herself. In his Critique of Judgment (1790) Kant was to argue that aesthetic judgment provides the essential focus for connecting the theoretical and practical aspects of our nature. It can thus reconcile the worlds of nature on the one hand and freedom on the other. I find Kant’s understanding of aesthetics helpful.
Mlodinow writes about the beauty of physics, especially the beauty of theoretical physics, with great passion and clarity. One can see its appeal immediately. It shares its beauty, I would argue with mysticism (or spirituality, not necessarily religion or theology which, uncoupled from spirituality can be both very rigid, partisan and in short down right fascist), and certain types or styles of philosophy and theology which are more open-ended, more open-minded and far more speculative. I return here to Dr. Mlodinow’s clear words on the relation between physics and aesthetics – they are worth quoting: “Most physicists seeking a unified field theory demand even more: They seek to show how all the forces of nature arise from a single more fundamental force, an underlying principle. Though there is little experimental evidence that this is actually true of nature (or that it isn’t), they seek such a theory anyway, out of an aesthetic sense, or out of faith that somewhere there is a single key to all of nature’s laws. Such a unified theory would be the ultimate triumph of Greek-style physics. It is in the search for such a theory that Einstein spent most of his life, his post-relativity years, gradually drifting from the mainstream of physicists, who were more focused on more practical issues.” (op.cit., pp. 67-68. The italics in this quotation are mine.)
I am reminded here of that old dry stick of a character in George Elliot’s wonderful philosophical novel Middlemarch. I refer to, of course, the Rev Dr Casaubon who was seeking the “elusive key to all mythologies.” While this Rev Dr was far from open-minded his quest is somewhat universal. One is also reminded here again of what now seems rather futile and arcane, namely, the quest of the Alchemists who sought to transmute the common or base metals into gold or silver and also their quest to find the “elixir of life," also called the “panacea of life,” that is, a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. They also sought a “universal solvent,” a substance in which everything would dissolve. However, it is important to point out that Alchemy plays a legitimate and historical role in the development of Science. No matter how silly it may appear now, it did play a role as a stepping stone to solider ground as it were. In this light they WIKI gives a comprehensive definition of Alchemy as “In the history of science, alchemy refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force.” In short, then, it is the “aesthetic” thrust of spirituality, meditation, open-ended philosophy and non-denominational theology, alchemy and indeed of all the arts and sciences of which physics is a proud member that I refer to here in keeping with Mlodinow’s approach to theoretical physics.
Dr. Mlodinow refers to the beauty of the quest for the underlying principle of all of nature or of reality as we know it as the quest for “a unified field theory.” (op. cit., passim) Here, it is important to inform the reader that there are four known forces in nature: (1) Electromagnetism, (2) Gravity, (3) The Strong Force and (4) The Weak Force. We may describe (1) thus: Electromagnetism works on the principle that an electric current through a wire generates a magnetic field. This magnetic field is the same force that makes metal objects stick to permanent magnets. In a bar magnet, the magnetic field runs from the north to the south pole. In a wire, the magnetic field forms around the wire. If we wrap that wire around a metal object, we can often magnetize that object. In this way, we can create an electromagnet. Then there is the theory of “Quantum Electrodynamics” upon which Feynman did such valuable work in explaining, namely the theory of the electromagnetic force that governs, among other things, the behaviour of the electrons that orbit the nucleus of the atom. We may describe (2) above thus: Each particle of matter attracts every other particle with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is Newton’s definition as I learned it in Leaving Certificate Physics over 30 years ago. Newton called it the Law of Universal Gravitation. Needless to say Einstein went on to transcend this brilliant law with his own mind-blowing theories. The Strong Force (3) refers to the potentially much more violent interactions that take place within the nucleus of the atom – between the protons and neutrons. Though protons are subject to the same electromagnetic force that governs the behaviour of the atomic electrons, “these interactions are dominated by a new force, a force that is far stronger than the electromagnetic force. It is fittingly called the ‘Strong Force.’ ” (Mlodinow, op. cit., p. 3) The theory describing this new force is called “Quantum Chromodynamics.” As regards this fourth force (4) called “The Weak Force” I am a very confused neophyte. From reading bits from here and there in books and on the Web it would appear to be a fundamental force of nature that underlies some forms of radioactivity, and that governs the decay of unstable subatomic particles such as mesons (I don’t know what they are at all), and initiates the nuclear fusion reaction that fuels the Sun. Now it seems physicists are engaged in finding a “unified field theory” that would link all these four forces together. It appears that a physicist called Schwartz has suggested a very workable theory called “String Theory” which seeks to explain and elucidate such a “unified theory.” This is all beyond my elementary grasp of physics. But the whole aesthetic thrust of the enterprise inspires and excites me like when I first read with growing excitement The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism some twenty or more years ago. This title says it all, I suppose. It was written in 1975 by physicist Fritjof Capra, published by Shambhala Publications of Berkeley, California It was a bestseller in the United States, and has been published in 43 editions in 23 languages.
Whatever about all the possible criticisms one can level at Alchemy, modern New Age approaches to Science, spiritualities and mysticisms of all types, and indeed the work of the physicist Fritjof Capra and his colleagues, not to mention the researches and findings of more mainline scientists, I feel Mlodinow has put his finger on the basis of the whole thing, namely humankind’s desire for meaning which is so brilliantly illustrated in his aesthetic sense and thrust of all forms of knowledge. I think such great psychologists and psychiatrists like Jung and Frankl would very much agree. After all, the search for meaning of Frankl is precisely Jung’s theory of individuation and surely this thrust for meaning at the very heart of the human psyche is mirrored in Mlodinow’s aesthetic sense of the search for knowledge in the sciences in general and in physics in his particular case.
Above I have placed my favourite symbol that of the Yin Yang which in my opinion is one of the more inclusive symbols we have at least as regards spirituality and psychology.