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Roots of Modern Malaise

As I pointed out in the last lecture, we need to find the causes of our modern malaise in the metaphysics that produces the cognitive dissonance of 20th century physics. There is nothing either mysterious or modern about this analysis, for these are issues 15 centuries old or older. In this lecture, I want to discuss the developments from Plato, through Aristotle and Epicurus, ending with Augustine that have framed the debate of the last century. As we mentioned earlier in the course, Stanley Jaki argued that a Christian metaphysics provided an important balance between empiricism and rationalism leading to the renaissance of science in the 16th century. In this chapter, we argue that a Christian metaphysics turns out to be crucial in the renaissance of physics in the 20th century. My firmly held belief is that it will continue to be important in the physics of the 21st century.

Augustine, Epicurus and Genesis

My view on the Greek pantheon has changed radically when I read Iman Wilken's Where Troy Once Stood, which placed Homer's Iliad in Britain. As I read it as history, rather than myth, I began to appreciate the Greek pantheon as oral anecdotes, lightly embellished. That is, it no longer had the incense-drenched aura of "religious instruction" that (for me anyway) still is wrapped around the Baal-stories of Mesopatamia. Then it seemed more logical for Plato and Aristotle to have developed their philosophy as a natural evolution of Greek religion, rather than as iconoclast debunking skeptics of the Greco-Roman pantheon, as they are often portrayed today. Thus Plato distilled from Homer the real religion of the Greeks, sans the interesting plot line. And Aristotle distilled Plato even further, rooting much of the Plato's "gods" (the Forms) within the human mind, leaving only one task for God, that of the consummate billiards professional, the First Mover. Despite Socrates untimely death, neither Plato nor Aristotle were intent on overturning Greek religion, and indeed, were later seen as staunch supporters of the status quo and devout faith.

But neither had gone far enough, in the mind of Epicurus, a 5th century BC philosopher/slave to relieve the world of superstition and blind obedience to capricious gods. Epicurus proclaimed a belief in atoms--the smallest, and most elemental particles, and from which everything was made--and in nothing else. No gods, no spirits, no supernatural powers, and no miracles. In answer to Aristotle and Plato's search for the Creator, Epicurus removed creation event entirely, supposing that the universe was eternally existent both in the past and future. To prevent creation from sneaking in through the back door, it was necessary to suppose that these material atoms could neither be created nor destroyed. And finally, to nail the lid on the coffin of the gods (so as to make a clean break with Plato's Demiurge, who created the universe from pre-existent matter) one must believe that atoms were not themselves controlled or ordered by any other forces than natural chance collisions. That is no beginning to time, no creation/destruction of matter, and no spooky action-at-a-distance for atoms. Here in a nutshell is the materialist agenda--to make the world safe for atheism by absolute denial of a creator or his creation.

One can see then how Epicurean philosophy was seen as radically different from Platonic (and Stoic) philosophies in Roman Empire period. Augustine was a rising star in the world of Greek philosophy when he converted to Christianity and became bishop of Hippo. He is responsible for integrating much of Platonic or neo-Platonic thought into Christian philosophy. It was his interpretation of Genesis, the Biblical creation account, that became the standard view of Christian theology, and which strongly contradicted Epicurean materialism. That is, Augustine argued that
  1. Not only space, but time itself was created by God in the Creation. It was an absolute beginning, not even a relative one like Plato's Demiurge, but a clean break.
  2. Matter was definately created by God (and presumeably, could be destroyed by God at will.) Matter was not eternal.
  3. God was not constrained in his creative abilities, he was not forced to create by either natural law nor chance. The creation event was totally under God's control, designed by God, contingent upon God. Whether one believes in "other forces" or "initial conditions", Augustine felt that God shaped his creation the way a potter shapes clay.

These three points of Augustine are clearly antithetical to materialism, and allow no compromise. Atheism was safe no longer, and indeed, fell out of favor in the next millenia. Materialism, however, did not disappear forever, but began to resurface in the 17th and 18th centuries, as a response to magic and superstition. That is, Christian apologists and scientists embraced aspects of materialism as a way to control nature without the "spiritism" of magic and alchemy. Indeed, chemists who abandonned alchemy were some of the first to emphasize the atomic nature of matter. Boltzmann, for all his mathematics and physics, was a relatively late convert to the faith of materialism. Brooke records the development through Descartes and the Deists which we do not attempt to summarize here, but the net result was a resurgence of "scientific materialism" in the 19th and 20th centuries. So much so that today, it is the view of 93% of the National Academy of Science in the US, and virtually unapposed in textbooks and academia. Ardent Christians, such as Francis Bacon, have been reinterpreted as materialists, and the "scientific method" has become synonymous with materialism. Again, all this is documented by books such as Philip Johnson's "Wedge of Truth", so I won't go into details about the prevalence of scientific materialism, other than to say that the 20th century began with the apparent utter victory for atheism.

So it came as a great shock to the scientific establishment that both relativity and quantum mechanics both theories based on perfectly sound scientific materialism, had managed to undercut the foundations of materialism. Not only did the new cosmology show that the universe had a beginning, but Einstein's equations for gravity showed that it was a beginning in both space and time. Until this moment, Augustine's comment about time having a beginning had been routinely ignored as typical philosophic speculation. Now it became evident that he was right on target. In addition, relativity showed that matter was not indestructible, but matter and energy were interchangeable. Again, victory for Augustine. Finally, the discussion of whether the Universe is contingent has become very relevant, with all the evidence in Augustine's favor, and scientists straining at more and more far-out speculation to save the world from purpose. The debates are still raging, but salvation for atheism appears more and more a distant dream. Darwin is on the ropes, Paul Davies pleading for a Whiteheadian God, Stephen Hawking rounding off the point of Augustine's rapier and declaring victory. The jury is still out (to lunch), but the evidence is mounting for a complete vindication of Augustine and serious modification of materialist precepts. As we review the evidence, I hope to develop a modified materialism that is more consistent with the data, and will provide a roadmap for 21st century physics.

Revival of Materialism & Thermodynamics

One could trace the revival of atomism to the academic priest, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who attempted to modify Epicurean atomism to make it compatible with Christianity. He did this by having God create the atoms, which then removes most of Augustine's objections about atheism. It is interesting to note that 300 years later, God was removed from atomism once again, showing that this sanctified materialism was somehow an unstable philosophical position, in much the same way that British Deism was an unstable position.

James Clerk-Maxwell (1831-1879)

Although atomism had made much progress in the following 200 years with chemists, who had been showing that molecules were made from other elements in integer proportions (2 liters of Hydrogen + 1 liter of Oxygen = 2 liters of Water vapor), it took a while for physicists to get accustomed to the idea. After all, an atom was too small to be seen so that even hard-core materialists like Ernst Mach weren't so keen on reintroducing ancient Greek metaphysics with atomism. So in 1872 when James Clerk Maxwell lectured at the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the subject of atomism in physics, it was considered a relatively novel physics idea, which Maxwell was at pains to showcase its advantages, having derived some important properties of gases that depended upon treating gases as atoms. Maxwell was a Scottish presbyterian, who was not unaware of the bad press that attended atomism and materialism, and he ended his lecture with a jab at evolution, But it was his interesting integration of atomism into deism (along the lines of Gassendi) that shows that the appeal of atomism, even for ardent Christians. How then did Maxwell solve the problem of Augustine's rejection of atomism and materialism? Here's how he did it, Like most Deists (or confused theists), Maxwell places the action of God at the "utmost limit" of science, possibly unaware that this limit is moving forward, and hence God's involvement is ostensibly shrinking. It was this deliberate agnosticism, hiding God in the things that science cannot know, that insured the downfall of Deism. Ironically, Maxwell for all his brilliance, still had enough humility to know the limits of his knowledge, it was lesser men with less humility who advanced the claims of science against theology. An example was not slow in coming, for the very next year the incoming president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science delivered a highly controversial lecture.

John Tyndall

John Tyndall was an accomplished experimentalist who gave rivetting lectures for the general public. He also was a devoted materialist of Scotts-Irish stock who drank deeply from the anti-Catholicism seen in Draper's or White's writings. Some have thought he accepted too uncritically their superficial outline of "Catholic church versus science through the ages". Nonetheless, in 1874, he gave a talk in Belfast that raised the ire of preachers all across Ireland. The theme of the lecture was similar to Maxwell's, a short history of materialism and atomism, but the conclusion was far different. Perhaps his most famous quote that day was: In other words, Tyndall was taking on Augustine. The Bible would no longer dictate genesis, but science would explain where life came from and where it was going. Despite the raging debates and pamphleteering, Tyndall's claims, and not Maxwell's, came to be the rallying call of the scientific establishment. It is not surprising to find that Tyndall was very interested in science education, and spent much effort in reforming the British schools. Therefore whether explicitly or implicitly, science education in the English speaking world found in the triumph of Epicurus over Augustine the idealized victory of Science over Religion. Notice too, that it was not the religious establishment who promoted this confrontation or interpretation, but those clearly in the scientific-materialist camp.

One has to wonder a bit if Tyndall's insomnia in his later years was related to this shift of his religious allegiances. He spoke, as if in envy, of Michael Faraday's fervent faith, Ultimately is was an overdose of sleep medicine that killed him, though again, whether it was intentional or not was never discussed. Perhaps like another famous scientist, Ludwig Boltzmann, the price of materialism was greater than Epicurus promised, costing him his hope as well as his faith.

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906)

No one doubts that it was Boltzmann who put the atomic theory of matter on concrete physical and mathematical foundations, founding the discipline of "statistical mechanics". If you take the trouble to read Maxwell's lecture to the BAS in 1872, you will read a who's-who of 19th century scientists, with some grudging admiration of the man who in the first 5 years after his doctorate "greatly developed and improved" upon Maxwell's own work on atoms. By calculating the dynamics of single atoms, Boltzmann was able to show very precisely the heat capacity, pressure and similar relations which derived from these quantities. In short, Boltzmann was able to take an empirical theory of heat, and place it on firm physical foundations, assuming that atoms exist.

Boltzmann also was a firm believer in scientific materialism, in the metaphysics of Epicurus that came with the math. Much is made of the conflict Boltzmann endured from Mach and Ostwald, who didn't believe in atoms, and are prime suspects in assigning blame for Boltzmann's suicidal depressions, who greatly disliked having his theories doubted. Despite this opposition, neither German was a theist, both subscribed to some form of materialism, the debate was over the form of that materialism. In fact, when Ernst Mach retired from the University of Vienna from a stroke in 1901, Boltzmann took over the teaching of Mach's philosophy course "Methods and General Theory of the Natural Sciences", which became packed with students and propelled him to fame and interviews with the Emperor Franz Josef himself. Despite this rising fame, biographers attribute the criticism he received as partially to blame for the mounting depression Boltzmann was feeling, and in 1906. on vacation at the beach and while his wife and daughter were out swimming, Boltzmann hanged himself.

Unlike Tyndall, whose death was perhaps unfairly blamed on his wife, Boltzmann's death was clearly suicide. Many commentators have discussed the roots of his depression, some seeing it as the result of mental illness, some the result of criticism. No one attributes it to metaphysics, but for these avant garde, pioneering men, the metaphysical consequences of scientific materialism were clearer then than now. I cannot help but think that the search for Truth that so clearly motivated Boltzmann, evaporated into despair as he saw the regard society places on truth, and having rejected the solace of religion, he sank into deeper and deeper depression, finally committing suicide 6 months before Einstein published a complete vindication of Boltzmann's work.

Statistical Mechanics

What was Einstein's vindication and the work that Boltzmann dedicated his life to? Today we call it statistical mechanics, the microscopic examination of the more phenomenological thermodynamics. By way of analogy, Boltzmann applied statistics to large numbers of his invisible atoms to derive the visible mechanisms which were described by the older, well-respected field of thermodynamics. Quoting from the Maxwell lecture, millions of atoms of air, air that you and I are breathing right now, are travelling at the speed of a high-speed bullet, yet we feel nothing, not even a breeze. This is because, Maxwell explains, they are going in all directions and we are so evenly pummelled on all sides we don't even notice a waft. That's the statistical part of the study. However, as Einstein calculated in one of the four amazing papers he published in 1905, that micron-sized pollen grains, observed by the microscope pioneer Robert Brown in 1827 to jiggle incessantly, did so because they were small enough that the atom barrage did not even out. In fact, by measuring the jiggling, Einstein was able to calculate exactly how many there were.

There had been many derivations that showed the existence of atoms, but perhaps it was Einstein's stature that made this last calculation convincing. Thus it was that atoms became real, and scientific materialism with its depressing metaphysics triumphed over Augustine.
Last modified, Feb 18, 2003, RbS