Registered: Dec 2003
Physics and the Perennial Philosophy, part 1
There are two kinds of truth. The common kind of truth is temporary, changing, imperfect, uncertain, and relative.
Then there is an uncommon kind of truth, which is the subject of The Perennial Philosophy:
"The Traditionalist School was founded in its current form by the French metaphysician René Guénon, although its precepts are considered to be timeless and to be found in all authentic traditions. It is also known as Perennialism, the Perennial Philosophy, or Sophia Perennis, and as a philosophy it is known by Aristasians as Essentialism. The term Philosophia Perennis goes back to the Renaissance, while the Hindu expression Sanatana Dharma - Eternal Doctrine - has precisely the same signification."
The book The Perennial Philosophy: An Anthology of Eastern and Western Mysticism by Aldous Huxley is one of many works that chronicles in great detail the various cultural expressions of the Eternal Truth underlying Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and most other religions and philosophies throughout human history.
But I am not Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Nor are many of my peers. We live in a modern, secular, scientific, technological world, and we are modern, secular, scientific, technological people. We don't entertain the notion of "Divine Truths" with any more sincerity than the reality of fairies and hobbits.
This raises the question:
Will the Eternal Truths of the Perennial Philosophy, which have occurred over and over again throughout history, skip a culture with strong scientific values?
The Perennial Philosophy has occurred to me, as the result of contemplations on physics. So I know, from first hand experience, that science is entirely capable of producing the Perennial Philosophy.
I also know, from first hand experience, that these strange accounts of my experience aren't going to convince my contemporaries with strong scientific values. And I know, again from first hand experience, that going through a radical change in worldview doesn't happen because you were convinced by someone's words, but instead as the result of a difficult and personal journey.
So while it is my intention to introduce you to the scientific mask of the Perennial Philosophy, a full view of the face behind cannot be provided here.
With that said, Huxley provides one of the most clear and concise descriptions of Perennial Philosophy:
"In other words, there is a hierarchy of the real. The manifold world of our everyday experience is real with a relative reality that is, on its own level, unquestionable; but this relative reality has its being within and because of the absolute Reality, which, on account of the incommensurable otherness of its eternal nature, we can never hope to describe, even though it is possible for us to directly apprehend it."
Here he distinguishes relative reality, physical nature commonly understood and experienced, from a more fundamental, absolute Reality, much the same way this essay begins by distinguishing relative truth from absolute truth.
In providing the foundation for all of physics, Sir Isaac Newton wrote about the same distinction of the relative and absolute realities:
... it will be convenient to distinguish [time and space] into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common.
I. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration:
relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.
II. Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable.
Relative space is some movable dimension or measure of the absolute spaces; which our senses determine by its position to bodies; and which is commonly taken for immovable space; such is the dimension of a subterraneous, an aerial, or celestial space, determined by its position in respect of the earth."
While it is well known that Einstein's contribution to physics modifies the mathematics put forward by Newton and others that preceeded him, his general view of space and time are in agreement with Newton's and thus the Perennial Philosophy.
For example, his definition of time, from Relativity chapter 8:
"Under these conditions we understand by the 'time' of an event the reading (position of the hands) of that one of these clocks which is in the immediate vicinity (in space) of the event"
Here time is defined in the terms of the moving hands of a clock, which is nearly exactly Newton's definition of relative time:
"Relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion"
On the question of absolute time, Einstein acknowledged that it isn't observed, but made the point that his theories aren't founded solely on what we observe.
"But you don't seriously believe," Einstein protested, "that none but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?"
"Isn't that precisely what you have done with relativity?" I asked in some surprise. "After all, you did stress the fact that it is impermissible to speak of absolute time, simply because absolute time cannot be observed; that only clock readings, be it in the moving reference system or the system at rest, are relevant to the determination of time."
"Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning," Einstein admitted, "but it is nonsense all the same. Perhaps I could put it more diplomatically by saying that it may be heuristically useful to keep in mind what one has actually observed. But on principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality, the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe."
It seems the greatest physicists in history, Newton and Einstein, were Perennialists of some kind. But the vast majority of contemporary scientists are not, because of their strong scientific values, particularly the position that the metaphysics and philosophy behind a mathematical theory is largely irrelevant compared to the mathematical hypothesis itself and the observations that support or deny it.
In that case, the specific relation of Newton's and Einstein's respective mathematics to the Perennial Philosophy should be examined. Newton, from his definitions of space and time, clearly suggested that the absolute is the mathematics, and with a little imagination, we can see how the rest falls into place. Einstein took a different route by explicitly noting that his mathematics are not representative of absolute space and time, but instead relative space and time. With a little imagination, it is possible to see how his mathematics fits into the Perennial Philosophy like a puzzle piece. In both the case of Newton and Einstein, the mathematics represents just a piece of the Perennial Philosophy, a single reality rather than "a hierarchy of the real".
In light of that, it is easy to understand why contemporary physicists are focused on a single reality, and find it difficult to conceptualize a hierarchy like the Perennial Philosophy, resisting such strange ideas with their strong scientific values. It is also easy, from my perspective, to understand what must be done before their focus can adjust from a single nature of space and time to something a little more sophisticated.
What is needed is a new mathematical hypothesis that explicitly represents the hierarchy of the real in the Perennial Philosophy.
In addition to Newton and Einstein's mathematics, there is a third possible framework for creating a mathematical hypothesis which is, un-coincidentally, exactly what is needed, an explicit representation of a hierarchy of the real. This is no coincidence because the third framework was put forward by Newton's contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, the man often credited for coining the term "Philosophia Perennis".
Leibniz's framework, called Monadology, has never been successfully converted into a mathematical hypothesis primarily because it is far too complex, in the sense that complexity on the order desired requires far too much information than poor 18th Century mathematicians could manage without something like a computer. Un-coincidentally, Leibniz is also credited with laying the foundations for computing.
Now that computing is upon us, so is the time to re-examine Leibniz's work.
Fortunately, while not widely known nor acknowledged, Leibniz's work has not been completely ignored since his time. (As Chaitin points out, nobody actually learns about Leibniz's work and understands it. Instead, over and over again, someone comes up with a fantastic revolutionary idea on their own, only to discover Leibniz had anticipated them long before.) The primary Leibnizian figure after Leibniz is most likely Whitehead, whose "Organic Realism", now known as "Process Philosophy" has many themes in common with Monadology.
Though difficult to crack, in a nutshell Monadology says that the Universe is made of "monads", which are not ordinary physical atoms of matter, but instead metaphysical absolutes. These monads are simple substances that arrange into compounds, compounds that eventually reach the order of complexity as being capable of making observations of themselves. Physical reality (relative space and time and matter) emerges from that system in the form of the measurements made by the observer, for example the information encoded in a neural network connected to sense organs.
This was stated by Leibniz almost 300 hundred years ago, but using the language and lexicon of his day, which make its less accessible to us. Fortunately, this same notion is blossoming in our modern epoch, at the leading edge of various fields from physics to biology:
"Just as Einstein banished the ether as a medium for electromagnetism we must now complete his work by banishing space-time as a medium for string theory. The result will be a model in which space-time is recovered as a result of the relationship between interacting strings. It will be the first step towards a reconciliation of physics and philosophy. Perhaps it will be quickly followed by a change of view, to a point from where all of our universe can be seen as a consequence of our possible experiences just as the old philosophers wanted us to see it. What other ways will we have to modify our understanding to accommodate such a theory? Not all can be foreseen. "
"Physical reality begins and ends with the animal observer."
Lanza, R. (2007) "A New Theory of the Universe", Spring 2007 The American Scholar
While I feel I've established that there is a tradition of the Perennial Philosophy throughout the history of physics, including in the present day, thus far I've only discussed metaphysics and history by appealing to the great authorities on the subject, rather than documenting my original scientific research.
My original scientific research will be the focus of Part 2.
Information Science, Neuroscience, Quantum Mechanics, and Leibniz
Report this post to a moderator | IP: Logged