I just finished a book that I started and did not finish years ago. It was not that I was uninterested in finding out what happens at the end, but that I was too distracted by life in general to finish it . That is, early in this millennium I was busy making money, trying to manage teaching, and doing a PhD in Philosophy at the same time. Now, in the Covid-19 era, I have both the time and energy to dig deeper into my long-term interests and finish pursuing those interests.
I want to recommend to you the book titled The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn by Louisa Gilder. This particular problem, that Quantum Physics is incapable of offering us a Classical reality to latch on to, must be a serious worry to those concrete thinkers who are unable to lurch into the future. The story is a bio of the people, institutions, papers, and discoveries of physics in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Let me define, shortly, why there was a problem. Classical physics, say, the physics of the 19th century, can be characterized as an attempt to understand the world in terms of concrete objects, from planets to people, to atoms in the void, chemistry, and electromagnetism. All of these objects operate under rules that can be metaphorically described as billiard balls on the table of space. The properties of these objects follow rules that are defined by first, Newtonian physics, and then Einstein’s relativity. To us, the objects are medium-sized dry goods that behave in predictable ways by themselves and in relation to each other. So we have Newtonian Gravity, and Einsteinian Space-Time. These two formulations of our relationship to the rest of reality are all-encompassing descriptions of the events in the cosmos, that is, we understand how we relate to things in the physical world through these formulations. Neither is absolute, but they are so nearly so, that it is difficult to avert our gaze from them even for a moment to imagine a reality that might conflict with it. Of course, though Einstein does not entirely replace Newton, it offers a much finer and predictive matrix to work with. So, we fly around the solar system with probes and people using Newton with a few adjustments using Einstein.
The gravity of these systems is so all encompassing that we are all but unable to see anything else, even when the experiments that tell us something else is going on are displayed in capital letters for all to see. For example, the double-slit experiment, first performed by Thomas Young in 1801 showed a puzzling effect when light was passed through a barrier with two parallel slits cut in it. The light shining through the slits, which was expected to show two lines corresponding to the two slits on the back wall of the experimental apparatus, instead showed an interference pattern, a wavy pattern. It is an effect that is explained, with some resistance, by saying that light has characteristics of both particles, going straight back to the wall, and waves, producing an interference pattern on the wall. The 20th century physicists spent a good deal of time pondering the results of this experiment. It was discovered that elementary particles made up atoms, also behaved like the photons in the original experiment. The result of the many many double-slit experiments done is that Classical physics, the physics of space-time couldn’t explain this behavior. Quantum physics, the realm of the very small, was born out of experiments like this.
And so, after I finished Guilder’s book, I started browsing the Glossary (Guilder 337) which I have done only three or four times in the last 20 years. I found in it, in the definition of Bell’s theorem/Bell’s inequality a sentence that summed up the whole book. It must be disappointing for some people. In this statement a whole range of possibilities crop up that make it possible to go forward. It is particularly important for me because I have insisted since the late 1970s that truth is in relation, not in the objects themselves.
There is a murmur of a suggestion that the central reality, at the quantum level, is entanglement: that relationships between quantum “things” are more fundamental and objective than the things themselves. (Guilder 337)
This confirms my assertion but does not prove it. That is the fanciful part of the whole problem that both attracts and repels classical observers. My intuition had do do with ordinary objects of our perception, not the quantum reality. And though I was up on some of the scientific literature in the late ’70s, it was not until the ’00s that I made any closer association between ordinary objects and quantum reality.
Here, for me, is how this association works with ordinary reality. It is not a trivial issue, and defines everything in the human knowledge project. Plato’s “Letter Seven” relates to us that the more one knows the thing in itself, the less one can say about it truthfully. That is because the mystery of objects are baked into their surface appearance. The more we know about something, the more the relationship between us and the object is primary, not a datapoint in a chart. That is, we cannot lay out all we know in a textbook. The essential points are in the relation not the data. And our knowledge transforms us, does not permit objectification in some classical sense. For Plato, the science of the object, which is preliminary to knowing the thing itself, can be put in a textbook. It is definable by our standard categories, and has a location in our compendium. But knowing the object itself is a step or two beyond that, and making that knowledge inaccessible to the casual observer is irritating to those who would wish to put all knowledge into text. It is irritating to the point of denial by those who want classical categories of science to be fully explained. This is the puzzle of the expert who knows what they cannot say. They cannot say it, because saying it would concretize the relationship and break it. In fact, those who attempt to say what is not sayable betray that they do not know the thing itself at all, that they are in fact, breaking what is sayable in the science of the thing. That is because, to remain consistent, what is not sayable is not sayable because there is a tension between the science and the knowledge of the thing itself that can’t be resolved within the literary logic available to humans without the mathematical training to recognize the limits of cognition. The knower who does not in fact have that mathematical training, but realizes that there is a limit to what can be said has affirmed that knowledge of the thing itself is more closely associated with intuition than to science. The limits of science, advanced to the point of being able to anunciate previously intuited knowledge, can now say what was before unsayable. But in the end, the knowledge that is sayable now is knowledge of our relation to the thing itself. Yet the mystery is larger than what we can say.
I hope you can see how the definition of quantum reality also applies to the knowledge project in its children. That is, “that relationships between … ‘things’ are more fundamental and objective than the things themselves. (Guilder 337)”
This is why I had to write today, because at the root of things, truth is about relationships, not the objects themselves. This applies across the board for our being in the world.
For Christianity, Christ as an object is only the surface, the preliminary and incomplete version of our practice. At the core Christianity is about the relationship we have with God in Christ. Anything less is not Christianity at all, but religion. It is not that Christ can not be objectified in words, deeds, and the rest of history about the matter, but that these are only the preliminary features of reality, not reality itself, and not sufficient for one to acquire salvation. The textbook, the Bible, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for our knowledge of God.
For those for whom money is the core reality, the object of their worldview, only in relationship with money do we realize its insignificance as a feature of reality. To inflate its significance is to err in ways that degrade humanity. That is, loving it is truly the source of all evil. Making it the primary occupation of one’s life hides everything else: people, society, prosperity, etc. Having money is as much of a hindrance as it is a help. As the Scriptures say, the only weakness of the poor is lack of money, the only strength of the rich is money. Money can’t possibly be the central feature of humanity if the poor, who don’t have much of it, are more wealthy in the important features of humanity than the rich. Also, when the Bible condemns the love of money as the root of all evil, those who love money are repudiating the Bible. It is easy to see why Jesus said that it is easier for camel to thread the needle than to enter the Kingdom of God, (yes, I know there are ways to reinterpret this metaphor that is more genial to the rich. But making it more genial to the rich is not Jesus’ point here.)
For philosophy, the essential relation is with knowledge itself. The problems of philosophy do not simply boil down to knowledge, but to the relations between the objects in the world. The best and brightest thinkers have made it possible to comprehend those relationships we have with the world and with each other, without also sacrificing the relationships themselves. The poor philosopher is only capable of collecting objects as a science of relations, not a relationship with reality itself. And yes, I know about anti-realists, but am convinced that a philosophy of that sort is a linguistic backwater. Reality itself is more subtle. One can deny all day that there is a persistent reality, but depend on it nonetheless. This is just a convenient subterfuge to retain the consistency of a program that denies and relies on reality at the same time. What they really need to say is that our knowledge is incomplete and will remain so as far into the future as we can extrapolate our interaction with that reality. There is no real foundation in the halting and incomplete annunciations of science. Neither can we deny reality to avoid that problem. Our relationship with reality is not definable simply as science, but something more subtle that we do not understand the parameters of quite as succinctly as would be required to provide an absolute.
This issue, the one about foundations is not about reality itself, but about our ability to encapsulate reality in some formulaic program. I would refer you to the Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead and how they came to an unresolvable paradox when confronted with Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Simply, any system that tries to emulate reality will be able to produce theorems we can recognize as true, but cannot prove within the system that generated them. Principia Mathematica (PM) as a system that attempted to unify all mathematics produced for Gödel true theorems that were not provable in PM. Either one can remain blind to the conflict here or acknowledge that human knowledge is not absolute. There are higher orders of system as yet not comprehended. The second is preferable, that is, there’s more to learn. It does not help either the knowledge project or people in general when one chooses to hide the incompleteness of one’s system. But because of Gödel’s theorem, we know that understanding of our reality is partly hidden. Human knowledge can’t make the claim of being complete. Rather we can know things that we can not prove within the system of logic we have. There is more that we don’t know beyond what we do.
*Notice: This is not about politics which both makes me happy and tells how little the criminal in the White House really meant for all of us. For context in the distant future, where our memory of him will be nothing more than the moldy photo albums of the ’10s, the presidency of Donald J. Trump between 2016 and 2020 has been the closest thing to a complete disruption of our Democratic institutions we have ever experienced since the inception of our Republic. I hope we do not repeat this mistake.