Physics and awe in the face of nature

Javier Sánchez-Cañizares
roundtableThe astonishment for the world through quantum physics and ecology".
In V congress Razón Abierta: "The human being in contemporary science".
Francisco de Vitoria University, May 23-24, 2022.

This intervention has been prepared on the occasion of the V congress Razón Abierta, held on May 23 and 24, 2022 at the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria. The congress had as general degree scroll : "The human being in contemporary science". The intervention was destined to the roundtable "The amazement for the world through quantum physics and ecology", initially shared with Professors William Simpson and Michael Turner. Through these lines I enter into a dialogue with these researchers. With Professor Simpson, I share his renewed Aristotelian vision of the Philosophy of nature; with Professor Taylor, his commitment to a holistic vision of nature, as the encyclical Laudato si' has reminded us. In my case, however, I sense that I am expected to make a contribution more focused on what physics can contribute to the awe of nature, so as to contribute to the common topic of the roundtable and the congress.

Why is physics important for this? A few years ago I attended another roundtable in which one of the speakers took up an old quotation by Etienne Gilson: "all metaphysics ages because of its physics". With its simplicity, the quotation reminded me that physics is nothing else but the study of nature and that metaphysics comes after physics. Is it possible to do metaphysics without knowing physics? Certainly not in Aristotle and certainly not in modern and contemporary Philosophy . So who is right? I consider that in the history of thought there has been an accident from which we have not yet recovered and it is in great part manager of this somewhat schizophrenic status .

The accident, to put it as bluntly as possible, is that Aristotle was wrong in physics and right in metaphysics. When it was discovered that Aristotle's physics was wrong, but his metaphysical causality could still be used, the separation between science and Philosophy became a fact that continues to this day. It is not necessary to resort to the transcript of the modern specialization , or even to the contemporary instrumentalization of science as technoscience, to justify this separation. It is enough to use the excuse of diverse methodologies to bless it. Science and Philosophy would deal with different "things". But, even if a harmonization could then be found (like that of the one who listens to music while cooking), in the internship, physicists are not interested in the language of philosophers because they consider it outdated, and philosophers are not interested in the philosophical witticisms of physicists because the latter, sinning of adanism, would be concerned with questions already raised (and resolved?) in greater depth by the perennial Philosophy .

This being the case, it seems that the question of astonishment should belong to the synthetic perception of beauty provided by the philosophical gaze on the meaning of the world, while the scientist's gaze is centered on the analysis of the purest objectivity of "how things are". The rapturous contemplation of beauty would be something that corresponds to the artist, the art critic, the aesthete philosopher, the man in the street or even the professional theologian, but not to the scientist as a scientist who, at most, will be able to speak in a sense derived from a specialized beauty accessible only to him and to those initiated in the mathematical formulas that make up the language of physics. On the one hand, there would be the beauty of the real world, captured in its deepest sense, and on the other hand a beauty, optional and derived, only for initiates and, in a certain way, irrelevant.

It is obvious that I am simplifying with thick strokes, because there is also an awe that is shared only by those initiated in art or in excursions to exotic places. However, the problem I am raising comes from further away with the so-called disenchantment of the world produced by modern science. It seems that this disenchantment has meant that wonder must be left as a subjective choice, outside of science, for whoever wants to be carried away by it. Thus, for example, Einstein's amazement at the intelligibility of the world would be nothing more than a fickleness that would in no way affect the technical details of his theory of relativity. But is this really so? Can one really be amazed at nature without knowing anything about physics, or does physics have something to say about our amazement, as rational beings, at nature?

To answer these questions, I believe that the program of scientific reduction must be taken seriously. It is a gain and not a loss that we know that the rainbow is an optical illusion or that many pretended miracles are not. Physics financial aid us to better understand nature and its processes. Quantum physics, for example, points out the impossibility of the God's-eye view (doing science as if man were not situated as part of nature) and the need to count on human biases (from the limited range of perception of our senses) to patiently go on conquering less biased knowledge. That a complete and transparent vision of the world is not possible is reminded by the problem of the measurement of quantum mechanics and its need for interpretation, since there is no clear correspondence between the symbols of the theory (in particular the wave function) and the determination that we observe in natural processes. Today, the transition between the quantum and classical worlds involves an inextricable mixture of ontology and epistemology that remains a mystery. The many interpretations fail to resolve it without appealing to larger mysteries (such as the existence of many worlds or a non-local causality mediated by empty branches of the universal wave function).

Scientific activity is based on the rationality of the universe in which we find ourselves. A universe in which everything has to do with everything, as Laudato si' reminds us, but not in the same way, so that we can focus only on some causes to understand some effects. This is at the basis of rationality. But why is the universe rational? Science itself cannot give a reason for this last 'why', which points, as Joseph Ratzinger would say, to the existence of a creative Intelligence. What is creation but the unfolding of a whole reality with different levels of existence and rationality? What better foundation for the autonomy of nature than its creation by a God staff? What better motivation then to do science than to know that one is entering into the very mystery of creative Love, expressed in the created universe? One enters into the mystery of "the rationality of the universe, as created by the infinite wisdom and goodness of God, who organizes it as a cosmos, not as chaos", and into the related mystery of "the possibility of human beings to know the world, because they have been created by God in his image and likeness, with the aptitude to delve rationally into reality". This is certainly how the fathers of the scientific revolution understood their work, when it was still unthinkable to reduce science to a mere technical instrument for the production and mastery of the world.

Unless we encounter solipsists, physicists usually recognize that these questions have their raison d'être and make a philosophical reflection on them plausible to a certain extent. Philosophers may like it more or less, but it is increasingly common to hear professional physicists, with quite a few years of maturity in the field, make considerations that we should call "philosophical". In my opinion, the Philosophy and philosophers should transform these supposed "threats" into opportunities. The Philosophy has always been fond of reflecting on reality and its knowledge. Well, the reality we know today is described to a large extent by the language of the sciences, so Philosophy should accept the language of the sciences and make its reflections from there. That the intelligibility of natural processes is a sort of "scientific transcendental" should be a point of convergence to recover the astonishment in physics with financial aid of the Philosophy. If the scientismist is not willing to recognize this, it is his problem, not that of science.

In a talk I attended at the end of the 20th century, given by a scientist with philosophical concerns, I remember something that impressed me very much. According to speaker, the great philosophical questions of 20th century science had been motivated by physics: what is the universe (think of the Big Bang theory) and what is the subject (remember the whole development of the standard theory until the finding of the Higgs boson in 2012). However, the big questions of the 21st century would be others: what is life and what is consciousness (or if we want, more generally, the human mind). These new questions would be reflecting the change of power in the dynasty of scientific disciplines: physics would have been the reigning science in the 20th century, but it would be up to biology and, more specifically, neuroscience, to occupy the highest position in this ranking of disciplines during the 21st century.

To some extent I believe that these predictions have been fulfilled. Certainly, it seems that the attraction of the universe as a whole and the subject is much less for informed public opinion than that of life and consciousness. Perhaps because we identify much more with the latter than with the former. But it is not only a question of folklore or knowledge dissemination. Also the specialized literature seems to concentrate more and more on questions of Philosophy of biology: Philosophy of evolution and Philosophy of the mind are perhaps the great fields of discussion academia at present. It seems that the universe and subject itself have lost interest or, perhaps, physical theories about the latter have become too abstruse and detached from reality to allow a fertile dialogue with Philosophy, which increasingly rejects them as subject raw material for reflection. Even physics itself also seems to be leaning towards the new interests, as shown by the emerging fields of biophysics, quantum biology and quantum theories on the mind-brain problem. Life and consciousness seem to be best described within the terminology of complex systems, where laws cease to be normative and become above all descriptive of what is happening in nature.

My impression, however, is that we have lost something along the way. I believe that some questions can and should be presented that one of these perspectives, physics, is offering with increasing clarity and that, in my opinion, represent essential material to awaken amazement, but a more enlightened amazement, in the face of nature. The how and why of natural processes are increasingly intertwined and, in my opinion, it is more necessary than ever to be clear about what contemporary physics is telling us about the universe as a whole and about the subject in order to recover the common starting point of wonder, from which we can philosophize. This is what I tried to do with my book "Singular Universe".

The term nature seems to have been reserved lately to designate what is happening on our planet, in relation to the biosphere, the effects of climate change and ecology. However, despite the optimism aroused by the increasingly frequent discoveries of exoplanets with conditions for life, it should not be forgotten that life is, at present, an anecdote in the universe and also on planet Earth. Life has existed for less than half the estimated age of the universe and, above all, it is confined to a very thin band around the surface of our planet: a few tens of kilometers compared to the thousands of kilometers of depth theoretically available to the center of the Earth. But physics reminds us that life is as much "nature" as non-life.

Certainly, it would be captious to give relevance to life in the universe only because of its spatio-temporal presence. Life has to do with the increasing complexity of the phenomena we observe. Does this directionality in complexity indicate the existence of an intrinsic teleology of the universe? We live in a universe where the separation between systems is possible and real: science, and in particular physics, is used to working with "determined" systems or phenomena: with robust characteristics and properties, which maintain a certain regularity over time: why is this so? Why, moreover, do we perceive individual systems with certain determined properties and not others?

Both physics and Philosophy are interested in all reality. It is not true that physics is interested only in measurable material reality. It is also interested in establishing logical relationships and hierarchies between the formal descriptions of reality it arrives at, in the form of principles or laws. The resource to measurement is simply a way of defining the method of the knowledge. The human knowledge advances by analogies, and comparison with a unit of measurement offers a very powerful analogy for establishing principles, laws, theories and models. Can physics use other analogies to travel the path from the known to the unknown? Aristotelian physics did. Perhaps now we are not so far away from building new bridges to a renewed Aristotelianism, allowing new analogies of being as presuppositions of a renewed physics.

What I mean by these reflections is that the reductionist program of naturalization of the universe should not be rejected so lightly. This is not the enemy of wonder. My thesis is that even within such a paradigm there are reasons that point to the need for methodological renewal if progress is to be made in its physical and philosophical understanding. A uniquely beautiful universe is the one to which contemporary physics has been pointing for some time. In this regard, I would like to highlight the recent comments of physicist Frank Wilczek, recipient of the award Templeton 2022. It is only necessary that the Philosophy of nature and the Humanities pick up the gauntlet, do not reject the field where this game is played and show their best critical capacity to recover the astonishment as a starting point that physics also provides.

The dialogue between science and Humanities based on beauty can help to create the subject of intellectual friendship that our society needs. We are reminded of the urgency of this partnership by the present "conviction that, in addition to specialized scientific developments, communication between disciplines is necessary, since reality is one, even if it can be approached from different perspectives and with different methodologies"(Fratelli tutti, n. 204). It is then a matter of promote intellectual friendship between those disciplines that believe in truth and that man can find it and be amazed by it. Perhaps our "post-truth" era, lacking in firm references, will allow a renewed meeting between these fields of the human knowledge that should never have clashed, that should profess mutual admiration, and continue to be called to serve each other.