Some Laws of Natural Philosophy and Sir Isaac Newton (1687) Part1
November 28, 2015
‘Do not Allow what is Good and True to be Spoken of ill’ – St Paul – Romans
I want to write about the laws of nature. I’m not a fruitcake nor am I somewhere on cloud nine. I do not abuse substances.
I say these things up front because I fear some of you will dump me early on in this piece. I fear you will dump me because what I am trying to argue looks to you like I am arguing from a pre-enlightenment, almost superstitious position. I ask you to persevere and come along with me, because the whole power of the argument only kicks-in, at a point when one has been able to clear away from one’s mind certain post-modern shibboleths. These predominate nowadays in ways which I think are unjustly deflecting us from seeing further. They are unnecessarily acting to narrow our outlooks.
So before I get to Newton I am going to try to lay the ground for my statements above to be a little substantiated.
One of the great and perennial philosophical questions has always been (will always be? – on earth) ‘Why is there not nothing; but instead, something?’ It is a question going directly to the heart of the conundrum and mystery of being – in all its senses of the word’s use in the English language.
It is at once profound and absurd; as is trying to unravel it maybe? Profound, because it cuts away the accretions of dross and cotton-comfort which act to shield us in our daily sublunary lives - but these have a cost of debarring us from considering such speculations seriously and with a level of attention they will reward. Absurd because – if there were indeed nothing then the question could not be put, and so therefore it must have a validity because it is a question which can be put. It is in this obvious sense a self-answering question.
I want now to talk a while about magnitude, and about how this has bearing on the conundrum of being and existence. In the first place, taking daily life as the paradigm, we live as humans at a magnitude comfortably between the realms of massive cosmic extension (light years etc) and sub atomic minutiae. Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts a related dichotomy: ‘What should such creatures as I do crawling between earth and heaven?’
The magnitude of cosmic extension is ungraspable to the human imagination. To the layman the figures, equations and calibrations of physicists and astronomers mean even less. To the physicists and astronomers the science, as science, might talk and have meaning. But it is a mathematical, exegetical, meaning and it does not provide them with any more accurate pictorial or other imaginative realisation of the true enormity of the vastness of this extension. No more than that which a layman is able to muster.
At this level of magnitude we are told space is receding and expanding at the speed of light; space is bending as gravitational bodies exert forces upon it; stars are being born, shining in their prime, and dying in a space which otherwise seems to be sparsely populated with a few electrons per cubic mile etc - -it’s all pretty foreign and alien to the local streets and the green grass.
One of the closest analogies to this sense of the human not really understanding what it is like ‘out there’ ‘in a galaxy far far away’, is the human groping for an imaginative realisation or understanding of what a God might be like?
Our lack of ability to grasp the cosmic magnitude of space leaves the field wholly open to the waywardness of human imagination – and we have in our Sci-Fi waking dreams populated the cosmos with everything that is weird and wonderful – monsters, zodiacs, empires, forces, transportation, weapons, temperaments, faces, goals, - for our wonder and amusement.
For those among us with a studious bent, the pursuit is to seek out and thrill at those amusements and wonders proposed by science as its latest takes on the wide wide cosmos. These can be fun and be relished as being every bit as delectable and exotic as the SF movies and the novels, but with an added ring of the possibility of truth.
Magnitude at sub-atomic levels is possibly an even more closed-book to everyday humankind and perhaps even to scientists at present? Most of us had just got used to the idea of protons and electrons and so on, and few of us when asked might be able to explain what is meant by a ‘quark’ or by ‘charm’ and so on, or to be able to see in any sense at all, how matter as a concept might better be discarded as a useful tool, in preference for describing ‘information’ as the accepted terminology for discussing the behaviour and characteristics of ‘particles’.
Clearly scientists imagine their conceptions; and it helps them in their advances to do so. The scientific imagination though does not have to be, and I would lay odds that is not, that it is nothing like, having a pictorial, aural, tactile etc verisimilitude of experience to the physical situation down there at sub-atomic levels. Such a proposition to a scientist would sound, and probably is, absurd.
At our own comfort zone of magnitude of feet and inches kilos and grams etc all is not what it may seem either. We do not see a table we are typing at as a mayhem of atoms attracted to one another, dashing here and there unaccountably, but somehow maintaining a sensory shape and texture of hardness for us to carry on typing upon it? But one would be hard pressed to deny that it is, from one take on the way it presents itself to us, exactly this, as well as it being, in another take, what it shows itself to us to be to our eyes and touch at our comfort-zone magnitude.
And are this same table’s manifestations as a phenomenon at several widely differing magnitudes all equally as true as one another, or is one of them more truly representative of reality than are the others? Indeed what might reality be here? Obviously something which is hard to grasp and possibly impossible to know?
To be continued: here follows a taster of next week's instalment
Another approach to opening the mind to the utter incomprehensibility of existence and being – for this is what I am trying to convey to you who read this - is to have a discussion about colour. Philosophers accept in general that seeing a colour is our vision picking up a primary sense datum. By this they mean that human perception of a colour, like, say, red, or blue, is irreducible to smaller and component parts – that we just see blue, or red, and our eyes on their own cannot get beyond seeing redness or blueness to see further, which the study of optics has done, into what constitutes redness or blueness.
Optics has gradated colours as being various wavelengths of light etc, but the actual visual experience of seeing blueness or seeing redness is not comprehensible other than to say as a fact: I see something blue, or I see something red.
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