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(Philosophical Aspects of Modern Physics)

Philip Stott
Kwasizabantu Mission
Private Bag 252
Kwasizabantu 3561
South Africa

Physics is in a state of crisis according to some of our most respected scientists. Hoyle noted that many of the world's famous physics departments are failing to attract students, and are dying through lack of interest. I propose that a major reason for this is failure to heed warnings made by Professor Herbert Dingle more than twenty years ago. He pointed out that:

All unconsciously, scientists have allowed themselves to relapse into the mental state which science is usually regarded as having displaced—that is of imagining how nature ought to behave and then assuming that she does so, instead of examining nature with an open mind and then expressing her observed behaviour in rational terms.
One of the main reasons for this is the return to the Pythagorean stand of taking mathematical models as reality and the world around us as a shadow of that reality. As Dingle again pointed out: “The habit has developed of assuming that a physical theory is necessarily sound if its mathematics in impeccable.”

Examining the history of science reveals that the reason for this gradual infiltration and takeover is largely religious. It is not fashionable to recognise the influence of religion in science these days, but in fact it plays a vital part in practically every field of human endeavour. The importance of Darwin's Origin of Species can hardly be overemphasized in this. Marx, writing to Engels said: “This is the book which contains the basis in natural science for our view.” Trotsky, in Culture and Revolution, noted that: “Marxism is the application of Darwinism to human society.” The Big Bang theory is a similar application of Darwinism to the material universe. Engels said: “In our evolutionary conception of the universe, there is absolutely no room for a creator or a ruler.” Almost every branch of Science, including Physics has, since the publication of The Origin of Species, also built a system in which any place for a creator or a ruler has been meticulously excluded. Man's intellect has gained acceptance as the supreme authority in the universe.

Francis Bacon, widely recognised as the “Father of Modern Science” saw the danger of this when he pointed out that Nature carries: “The stamp of the Creator Himself,” whereas our reason carries: “The stamp of our own image,” and that: “We will have it that all things are as in our folly we think they should be.” He therefore stressed the importance of experiment and observation over unaided human reason. It was this acceptance of experimental observation, rather than pure reasoning, which led to the growth and triumph of Science throughout the last three centuries. But Bacon's recommendation of accepting experimental facts, however unexpected or inconvenient for a theory, has gradually been neglected.

In Physics this rejection of experimental evidence, and the acceptance of ad hoc explanations which suit cherished theories instead, became noticeable when observations began to contradict Copernicus's theory of the universe. By the time Arago's and Airy's experiments had indicated heliocentricity to be untenable, the theory had become so entrenched in the minds of physicists, so many observations had been fitted into it, and so much religious capital had been made out of it, that the possibility that it could be wrong was hardly ever considered. The experiments of Michelson and Morley, Trouton and Noble, Kennedy and Thorndyke, etc., confirmed that the Copernican view could not be true. The obvious conclusion, that Tycho Brahe's model of the universe—the only model proposed up to that time which agreed with all known observations—was tenable, whereas Copernicus's was not, was rejected on philosophical and religious grounds. As Professor J. F. Henry pointed out: “The possibility that we have a special place in the universe is depressing to the humanist and is to be absolutely avoided.” So Physics, dominated by the secular humanist world view, preferred to accept a far-reaching new ad hoc, in order to maintain the Copernican world view.

This ad hoc is so important to modern Physics that we need to briefly examine its history. James Clerk Maxwell derived his famous equations of electromagnetism by considering the behaviour of electrical and magnetic oscillations in the luminiferous aether. An essential consequence of his equations is that the speed of light through this aether must be con stant if the properties of the aether itself remain constant. Maxwell's equations were extremely successful in explaining and predicting physical phenomena, and led to major advances in engineering and technology. They soon became central to physical theory. Antoon Lorentz extended Maxwell's equations to cover dynamical situations, but experiments such as those of Michelson and Morley demonstrated that either the Maxwell- Lorentz theory was not true or the Copernican view of the universe was untenable. The Copernican view was a religious necessity and could not be challenged. An ad hoc was required to reconcile the two conflicting theories. Lorentz introduced his well-known transformations to do precisely that. His theoretical justification rested entirely on properties of the aether, and constituted a plausible physical theory. High-speed motion through the aether led to length contraction, and to increased resistance to acceleration (equivalent to an increase in mass). Time dilation was a natural consequence.

Albert Einstein proposed a variant of Lorentz's idea which was a pure mathematical formulation, devoid of any physical justification. It did not need, and in fact rejected, the aether. This was highly inconsistent, since its purpose was to preserve Maxwell's equations which were entirely dependent on the aether for their physical explanation. The Kennedy and Thorndyke experiment showed that if the Copernican system were to be maintained, then there could be no aether. Since Copernicus was sacrosanct, Einstein's version of relativity was obviously preferred. The mathematical formalism of the two approaches is identical, the core being the Lorentz transformations. This led almost all physicists into the trap of mixing and muddling the two theories together.

The resulting chaos has had drastic consequences for physics. Even Einstein seems to have been somewhat muddled by the confusion of ideas. He believed that length contraction and asymmetrical aging were implicit in his version of the theory. As Mendel Sachs and others have pointed out, if Einstein's version is tenable at all, then it requires them to be only apparent effects. Lorentz's version, however, requires them to be real. To add to this confusion the mathematician Minkowsky discovered an ingenious transformation under which the equation c2t2-x2-y2-z2=1 was invariant. He used this transformation to invent a “world,” as he called it, in which space and time were inextricably mixed and essentially interchangeable. Einstein borrowed Minkowsky's mathematics to generate a completely new theory which he called “The General Theory of Relativity.” It should be noted that the General Theory is not a generalization of his Special Theory of Relativity. The whole point of the Special Theory was electrodynamic—to preserve Maxwell's equations. The General Theory has nothing to say about Maxwell or electrodynamics, it is a theory of gravity. The General Theory even abandons as untenable the constancy of the speed of light, which is essential to the Special Theory. The name Relativity became shrouded with a strange mystique, regarded with awe by those who could not imagine a space of four dimensions—dimensions which could be warped and bent in any way a mathematician saw fit to twist them. Because of the similarity of its name, the Special Theory acquired a totally unwarranted share of this mystique.

In this unhappy mix-up, the majority of physicists accepted a theory which they did not really understand, and could not justify by reference to physical reality. The mathematics was apparently faultless, and, even more hazardously, there seemed to be experimental support. The fact that the relevant experiments were all interpreted in terms of the Maxwell-Lorentz theory which Relativity was designed to “correct” (and therefore entailed invalid circular reasoning) went largely unnoticed. In a very short time physics had given up its soul to mathematicians who proposed, in effect, that any mathematical formulation with some similarity to physical reality is a valid theory no matter how opposed to common sense or reason. Experiment became secondary to the theoretical necessities of mathematical speculations. Experimental evidence for the unsoundness of the assumptions of Special Relativity (experiments by Sagnac and Michelson and Gale early in this century, and those by Silvertooth, Hayden and Claybourne within the last decade, for example) have been dodged by ad hocs or quietly ignored.

It is not only in the field of Relativity that we see this attitude taking hold of Physics. Experimental evidence for a changing velocity of light, noted by Gheury DeBray in the early 1930s, was dismissed solely because of the perceived theoretical necessity of a constant velocity. Relativity had been to some extent responsible for instilling this perception, but in addition Raymond T. Burge pointed out that if the speed of light is varying, then of necessity every atomic frequency must be varying. This was seen as such an inconvenience for a great deal of physical theory, that the constancy of the velocity of light had to be enshrined as an unchallengable law of physics. In 1967 the atomic clock was introduced as the standard by which time is measured. Not surprisingly, since its rate is dependent on the speed of light, all subsequent light-speed measurements have given an unchanging value, and this is used as justification for the established view. Even more alarming is the fact that in 1987 the speed of light was declared an absolute constant. Since speed is the derived unit “metres per second,” this means that the metre can now be considered a unit defined in terms of itself, yet of necessity subject to variation!

Reluctance to allow observations greater weight than theoretical considerations is not the only problem. Another is unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes and inconsistencies. Physics continues to deny the existence of the aether in order to maintain the Copernican system in the face of Kennedy and Thorndyke. Yet it is forced to admit that free space is, as K. W. Ford expressed it, a turbulent sea of randomly fluctuating electromagnetic fields and short-lived, virtual pairs of particles that form and annihilate. It is generally agreed that key vacuum properties include intrinsic energy, permittivity, permeability, and intrinsic impedance — properties associated with the aether of Maxwell's and Lorentz's theories. It seems that its existence is denied in chosen circumstances simply by repudiating its former name. Not surprisingly, many physicists realise that something, somewhere, is not as it should be. W. R. Corliss noted:

As the structures of the Cosmos and the subatomic world become more and more foreign to everyday experience, we have to ask whether such bizarre constructions may not be the consequence of incorrect physical theories, such as Relativity, the Big Bang hypothesis, and so on.

I believe he is correct, but I suspect that the physical theories which need unbiased reappraisal go further than Corliss suspected: all the way back to Copernicus.

How has this situation come about? Kuhn, Popper and Polanyi have repeatedly demonstrated that it is philosophical and religious convictions which now guide scientists more than experiment and observation. For Physics to return to a healthy foundation, and regain the position where it can attract the best of our talented youth, it is essential that a re- examination be made of our fundamental assumptions and the philosophical and religious basis on which they stand. The humanist world-view in Physics had not proved itself superior to that held by Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Euler, Kelvin and their peers. The acceptance of mathematics as the master of physics instead of its most valuable servant (to a large extent a result of this same change in world-view) had not proved a success either.

Students need to be made aware of this situation from a early stage of their career, and they should be left in no doubt about the influence and importance of their basic assumptions. Physics needs to return to being the discipline which, above all others, relies on experiment and observation; the discipline which requires its practitioners to accept nature's answers humbly and with courage, rather than twisting them to suit cherished hypotheses. It needs to return to the position of teaching to its students theories understandable in terms of physical reality rather than mathematical abstractions. It needs to take heed once again of Bacon's warning that nature carries the stamp of the Creator Himself, whereas man's unaided reason carries the stamp of his own folly.

Translated from WS2000 on 4 September 2005 by ws2html.