Sunday, January 13, 2013

Psychology and world-view in the new science

The more we attempt to make sense of reality the more we appreciate that it is perhaps beyond human perception and intuition. In other words, our rational mind and common sense are just not capable of understanding the true nature of reality.

There was a time, a more naive time, when classical physics explained matter and energy at scales familiar to our experience. We began to think all that can be learned is learned. We even gave ourselves a suitably appropriate, although somewhat premature and greatly optimistic name for the period. It was the Age of Enlightenment.

In 1915, Einstein introduced a new way of looking at the physical properties of the universe (theory of relativity). The Newtonian constraints of absolute time and space were abandoned. Time and space were unified and made relative, it formed a continuum that curved and enfolded about itself. Gravity was a distortion of this continuum caused by the presence of mass.

And work examining the nature of the atom in the first few decades of the twentieth century first threated to undermine our understanding of a deterministic universe (Einstein for example was quoted as saying “I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice” and “God is subtle but he is not malicious” and then came the realization that we do indeed live in a universe underpinned by uncertainty and probability viz-a-viz Quantum Mechanics.

Theories that describe the behavior of matter and its interactions with energy on the scale of atoms and subatomic particles and how these phenomena could be related to everyday life is the realm of Quantum Mechanics. The problem with this theory is that it is hideously difficult to describe and more so difficult to understand.

As an example, until a subatomic particle (say an electron) is observed by a conscious being, that particle exists in potentia everywhere and everywhen in the entire universe. Upon observation this smeared out particle collapses to a single point in space for the moment of conscious observation. String these moments together one after the other and you create the illusion of time and a physical reality. So reality is not mechanical. There is room for activity of conscious human beings.

One of my heroes, Richard Feynman who incidentally won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in relativistic quantum field theory, Quantum Electro-Dynamics and no ordinary genius had this to say:  I think it is safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics.”

And he goes on; “One does not, by knowing all the physical laws as we know them today, immediately obtain an understanding of anything much. The more you see how strangely Nature behaves, the harder it is to make a model that explains how even the simplest phenomena actually work. So theoretical physics has given up on that.”

And in the 1960’s the label “Chaos” was coined by Jim Yorke and Chaos Theory became a field of study in mathematics, with applications in many disciplines including physics, engineering, economics, biology, and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.

It is in essence a reversal of the classical view that the physical laws are what count, and local disturbances are relatively trivial. In chaos theory local disturbances can be ultimately overwhelming and, just as important, we cannot tell when they are about to overwhelm us.

A strange concealed order has been revealed by chaos theory. If we run large numbers of variations of simple equations on a computer, patterns emerge. The most famous of these patterns is the Mandelbrot set. Every magnification of the pattern reveals more elaborate layers made up of shapes like gingerbread men linked together in swirls, repeating in more and more complexity. These patterns seem to illustrate infinity, and the gingerbread men seem to represent the incredible creative and energetic complexity of reality.

Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Chaos, (as well as String theory, Super String theory, M-theory and other emerging theories) the world is indeed stranger than anything our rational mind can grasp and the universe infinitely more bizarre. The more we learn about the universe the more illusory our universe seems to be. Reality is quite simply an illusion.

What I am reminded by this is the Eastern concepts such as those of the Maya, Zen and philosophies such as Samkhya, Vedanta, and Tantra, relating mind, matter and consciousness. Here there is an emphasis on proper life and spiritual self-realization. Seeking to liberate individuals from false beliefs and attachments and the belief that we are conscious because we are connected to spirit. Interestingly, if consciousness and matter are truly intrinsic to reality then what does that say to our sense of psychology, and how do we make sense of our world-view.

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