Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Mysterious Universe - Did Sir James Jeans Really "Go Off The Deep End" In His End Chapter's Philosophical Digressions?


The great astronomer Sir James Jeans - best known for his contribution to the Rayleigh-Jeans law of radiation- was also the author of a popular science monograph: 'The Mysterious Universe'.   Most intriguing is how this curious survey of astronomy at the time (ca. 1930) veers from the near terrifying and hopeless, e.g.  

"We find he universe terrifying because of its vast, meaningless distances terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space..."

To a stirring note of optimism and philosophical insight that many believe borders on the religious (e.g. p. 133-34):

"If the universe is a universe of thought, then its creation must have been an act of thought.  Indeed, the finiteness of time and spce, compel us of themselves, to picture creation as an act of thought; the determination of the constants such as the radius of the universe and the number of electrons it contains imply thought."

Leading  to (p. 137):

 "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine."

It was by this point that such speculations began to be interpreted as "Jeans going off the deep end." (Physics Today, November, 'James Jeans And The Mysterious Universe', p. 36)  As author Daniel Helsing further observes (ibid.): 

"Scientists and highbrow critics started to distance themselves from the Mysterious Universe because the book's success provoked them to air their concerns publicly."

Most of the objections  (e.g. from physicist Herbert Dingle)  arrived because it was believed Jeans was conflating physics (and astronomy ) with  the supernatural and mixing religious beliefs and supernatural (or metaphysical) speculations with hard science. Others (e.g. L. Susan Stebbing,  in her 1937 book, 'Philosophy and the Physicists')) argued that Jeans'  understanding of idealism and materialism were "outdated" .  Worse, he committed the cardinal sin of "invoking emotions when explaining science."

Helsing himself (ibid.) notes that "Idealism had dominated academic philosophy starting in the 1860s.  But shortly after the turn of the 20th century the philosophers G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell started to attack idealism"

This elicits the question: what is idealism (which Jeans is purported to embrace) and hos does it differ from modern Materialism? 

As noted by Euan Squires (Conscious Mind and the Physical World, Adam Hilger, New York, 1990, p. 74): idealism is predicated on "the simple observation that all knowledge comes from sensations in the conscious mind. Thus, since everything I know, I know through my mind, it follows that in some way my mind is the only certain reality”. Moreover, a “soul” must operate the mind or enable its function, much like the Wizard of Oz operated the Great “OZ” from behind a curtain. To the idealist, it is inconceivable a brain could reason and function perfectly well in the absence of a soul, or by extension…God.

Perhaps the most damning critique of idealism has been offered by Squires (op. cit., 1990), p. 74) who notes that "the most useful argument against all such philosophies is that they discourage any endeavor to understand the sensations of the conscious mind." This is certainly true in so far as understanding is contingent on a reductionist approach - and idealism rejects reductionism in favor of holism (or the new euphemism "nonlocality") as the Greek Stoics once did. Certainly a "holistic" theory of consciousness would reject the notion of "conscious sensations" as separative, disjunctive and reductionist - and to that extent, be opposed to any endeavor to understand them! Squires also notes (ibid., p. 74) that while idealism may be "logically unassailable" it is nevertheless "foolish and sterile in practice".

From the above overview, one can safely say that idealist philosophies - which invest a paramountcy or primacy in the "mind" and a putative “soul” governor, have only disdain for scientific techniques applied to uncovering "dynamics of consciousness". Clearly then, any workable or testable theory of consciousness cannot come from idealism - but rather its alter ego: realism.

It is now generally accepted that Scientific Materialism as applied to the domain of natural science is in the physicalist form.  Hence Materialism as it is understood today embraces all physical fields and interactions, of both matter and energy. The laws that govern these interactions  (e.g,. the 2nd law of thermodynamics) apply without exception to humans as well as inanimate particles/objects. The prediction of the future behavior of all physical interactions is not dependent on the existence of any supernatural agency. Thus, physical laws are complete in the sense of being able to account for all physical phenomena.

Physical scientists then have at hand a modus operandi for understanding the universe which does not entail inclusion of supernatural agents, now regarded as redundant.  In a somewhat similar vein, we have what is called monistic physicalism which is a more sophisticated version of ordinary scientific Materialism.  The difference is that there is much more scope to apply quantum mechanics, for example as Henry Stapp did in his monograph:  'Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics'.    

Then there is David Bohm in his Wholeness  and the Implicate Order    A link to the pdf version is provided below:

 Wholeness and the Implicate Order

In this cutting  edge work, Bohn showed that our 4 dimensional universe can be enfolded holographically into a five dimensional implicate order.  By the use of "hidden variables" Bohm also provided a putative basis for a holistic quantum consciousness which he referred to as the Holomovement. This was done by positing a hyper-dimensional reality (e.g. 5- dimensional) in which mind was enfolded as part of an implicate order. To enable a unified mental field within this higher dimensionality, Bohm appealed to hidden variables obeying Heisenberg  uncertainty relations such that:

(d p)( d q)> h/ 2π

where p, q denote two hidden variables  underlying a sub-quantal scale indeterminacy relation. From this (leaving out lots of details) he developed an agent to assist in the nonlocal action of distal variables, and called it the "quantum potential", defined:

VQ  =   {-ħ2/ 2m} [Ñ R]2 / R

for a wave function, U = R exp(iS/ħ)

where R,S are real.

If one then fully applies Bohm's Holomovement model to physical reality it is possible to show the relation of explicated individual forms to the universal aggregate  (or Holomovement) - which might be depicted:



The relation is holographic in the sense that each of the individual forms contains the information of the whole holographic field. The Dirac Ether is equivalent to Bohm's Implicate Order, or what he calls the holomovement, and is a pure frequency domain. If one imparts to it a universal consciousness (as Bohm does) it would also be the "Universal Mind".

But this is the exact same term Jeans uses in his last chapter ('Into The Deep Waters') wherein he's accused of veering off into religious and supernatural speculation.  E.g.  p. 129:  

"Creations of an individual mind may reasonably be called less substantial than creations of a universal mind".   


"It is the same with time, which flows at the same even rate for us all, being the time of the universal mind."

But if his use of the term "Universal mind" is in any way analogous to Bohm's there is no supernatural aspect.  Bohm's holomovement is indeed entirely a physical construct, obtained using the mathematics shown above.   Jeans  (pp. 128-29) makes a similar case that mathematics led him to conceive of a "universe of thought", which is the basis of his Universal Mind.

In the implicate order proposed by Bohm, the separateness of the universe is ultimately submerged within its higher dimensional implicate aspect. All seemingly separate entities are ultimately unified into one, much like the apparently separate ‘waves’ seen on the ocean ultimately dissolve and submerge into the vastly greater background sea that spawned them.  This illustration helps to understand the relation:

Explicate Order:



The waves are the explicated manifestation of the unfolded implicate 'sea'. This is where the often used term oceanic reality originates.

In human terms, this implies that at a higher dimensional level all matter, especially as embodied in human forms, along with human minds, becomes interfused into one reality, one whole without division. As Bohm describes it[1]:

In the implicate order we have to say the mind enfolds matter in general and therefore the body in particular. Similarly, the body enfolds not only the mind but also in some sense, the entire material universe.

It seems clear there was somewhat of a rush to judgment in declaring Sir James Jeans a hidden religionist or supernaturalist. (Or at least trying to use religion as a kind of 'Trojan horse' in his book, The Mysterious Universe.) I could be wrong but it appears to me he was merely arguing for a broader interpretation of physicalism and Materialism along the lines of David Bohm (and Henry Stapp), but obviously less advanced given our quantum physics wasn't as advanced at the time of the publication. Never mind.  As Helsing observes (ibid.):

 "It was Jeans' book that brought the criticism of metaphysical idealism to the fore and spelled the end of idealism in popular science."   

Well, not quite.  Decades later 'The Tao Of  Physics'  and 'The Dancing Wu Li Masters'  became relatively successful popular expositions of the quantum theory and its role in human reality.

See Also:

[1] Bohm, D.: op. cit., 209

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