Continuing on The Island of Knowledge book, yesterday I got to the quantum mechanics bit so I’ll start from there today.
For the past hundred years scientists have been busy discovering and categorizing elementary particles but the term is misleading – we call the elementary because we don’t know if they are made of anything smaller. Two hundred years ago molecules were elementary, a hundred years ago atoms were elementary, when I went to school protons, neutrons and electrons were elementary.
Now they’ve confirmed existence of the Higgs Boson but when I heard that it’s hundred times heavier than a proton I can’t associate it in my mind with “elementary” anymore. It won’t be long, maybe another few decades and another massive particle accelerator, and what is called elementary today won’t be so anymore.
But the most interesting point about particle physics the book makes is comparing them to studying oranges. We peel the oranges, tear apart the slices, cut them, find seeds inside and so on. That’s not what we do with particles, however. If particle physics experiments were applied to oranges we would be shooting fruit from cannons and then examining the debris, the faster the speed with which they are smashed the better. Somehow the author claimed that it would be a legitimate and useful method but I’m still laughing at this tasty metaphor to take his conclusion seriously.
In any case, does Higgs Boson’s case undermine arguments against particle physics or is it a one off thing? Higgs predicted it long time ago and it took fifty years to finally set up a rig powerful enough to detect it. So it happened, but does it undermine the argument that our theories are driven by our tools, not only by our brains. Maybe we can’t use absolute terms to describe this dependency, as is usually done in hive minds of the digital age, but it doesn’t make the argument invalid. We can still say that Higgs wouldn’t have suggested existence of his particle if not for unexplained experimental results, or that he wouldn’t have even thought of if not for invention of particle accelerators a few decades earlier.
The book makes a similar argument but spreads it over several pages. Invention of the telescope, for example, determined direction of astronomy for the next several hundred years. There’s also a fundamental question of what the reality is. One can examine an object with his eyes, touch it with his hands, and form a reasonable opinion about it. Another might employ tools like microscopes and spectroscopes to determine its composition on molecular lever and form his own opinion of the “reality”. Both will be correct and we can compare their knowledge but we should also note that in both cases this “reality” is relative, not absolute, and we must ask if “ultimate reality” even exists, and if it does, would it be possible to ever grasp it?
That’s just another way or repeating Śrīla Prabhupāda’s old argument about science always claiming to know things only to deny them a short while later. While the argument itself is very simple, seeing it at work in multiple instances and applying it to various disciplines should help us understand it on a far deeper level.
Of course we can always say “I don’t trust science, it always changes its mind” but if we look at their actual “pramāṇa” it always sounds convincing, so, at least for me, we have to go on faith that it will be changed later. There are plenty of times when it doesn’t, btw, because science deploys “compatibility” criterion – any new theory must explain currently held knowledge. In some cases it would explain it differently but in other cases it would simply put our current knowledge in different perspective, meaning it would still be true but we would simply know it better and deeper. Newton mechanics, for example, are still correct for our everyday life even though we long replaced Newton’s with Einstein’s relativity. Point is, knowing why and how science MUST change its views gives me better peace of mind than simply parroting that it eventually will.
I can cite an example of lack of faith in Prabhupāda’s explanation of Moon landing. Some devotees firmly believe his words, some doubt them, some try to explain them through conspiracy theories, many prefer not to think about it, and some openly reject it. Knowing how science generally works puts my own mind at ease here, I just don’t consider Moon landing a legitimate disagreement anymore. It’s just a pile of turds for monkeys to throw at each other, a non-question. It should be put in a completely different frame where we can see WHY they think they went and why Prabhupāda was sure they didn’t, and why Prabhupāda was right regardless of what they think, but I’m digressing.
Another major theme going through the book is the enormous amount of stuff that remains unseen at any given moment, ie the size of the ocean around or island of knowledge. Scientists look at what they know and it understandably pleases them but we, as devotees, should remind them to look at what they don’t know and learn to deal with that. Their answer is to get enthusiastic about it, get excited by the stuff they can discover next, but we, as devotees, should offer them to look at the big picture.
They can’t know it all, they are just scratching the itch without addressing the underlying disease. Their pleasure is understandable but it is also temporary and unsatisfying in the end. Chewing the chewed, as Prabhupāda would say, referring to Prahlāda Mahārāja. It’s no different from having sex or eating three times a day – they think that science makes them human but it’s just as animalistic activity as mating or sleeping and, despite science claims, it does not address humanity’s real problems.
We say that real problems are birth, death, old age, and disease, scientists do not see it that way, but they also don’t see that their science doesn’t achieve their own stated goals either – it cannot give them “ultimate knowledge”. Stephen Hawking has been pushing for the ultimate theory of everything, uniting quantum mechanics with astrophysics, for nearly half a century now, but it cannot exist as a matter of principle. They might unite the formulas for a while but it won’t be a theory of EVERYTHING, it would rather reveal lots of stuff that it doesn’t even begin to cover.
Thing is, science has made a major leap from observable Newtonian mechanics to quantum theory that makes absolutely no sense in terms of our everyday experiences, but it hasn’t made a similar leap in understanding that we should approach science as a study of infinity. In this sense science still operates in medieval terms, hoping to discover the “ultimate reality” any day now.
Yes, some have made progress from chasing the ultimate to enjoying the process but it’s only the first step towards realization of futility of their attempts. Despite having such big brains they still think that because it feels good it makes it okay. They still haven’t accepted that their incremental “results” do not satisfy humans’ innate desire for the Absolute Truth. They still haven’t accepted that science can’t satisfy it even though scientific progress started out that way. That’s what the atheists claim, that science can fully replace religion. How can it if it reduced itself to temporary highs from temporary reliefs?
As usual – their apparently logical and rational arguments ultimately contradict themselves, which never happens in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, we should add.