I’ve been thinking about the co-existence of multiple descriptions of reality lately.  In particular, as someone who has taught high-school physics, I run up against a philosophical quandary when I’m presenting, say Newton’s laws of motion.  Am I presenting a lie to the students, because quantum mechanics and general relativity replaced the Newtonian physics?

Particle TrackOn the one hand, we can argue that classical physics is flat-out wrong in its basic foundations, and thus that all of the subsequent predictions of it’s theories are equally (and absolutely) wrong as well.  For example, take the prediction of a cannonball’s trajectory.  Classically this follows a simple parabolic curve… but there are a number of non-Newtonian complexifications to this story that are required for a ‘truer’ description of the event.  First you have the non-linear, chaotic effects of friction, then you have general relativistic corrections (changes in space-time curvature vary with distance to the mass of the Earth, thus changes in momentum, and even the mass of the cannonball, plus time dilation and other flying pink elephants), and then quantum corrections (virtual particle interactions, uncertainty limits, kryptonite fragments).

But, as evidenced by the crumbling city walls, the cannonball hits them anyway, whether or not we take these things into account (well, friction is really pretty important, but that’s why things in physics-world are always frictionless to begin with).  In other words, even though, in an abstract and theoretical sense, classical physics is complexly wrong, it is also simply correct.  It will get you to the moon just fine, thank you, no relativistic corrections needed.

The issue may require some consideration of the shifting between an epistemological stance and an ontological stance (that confounded relationship again!).

Ontologically we must say that Newton’s physics provides only an approximation of more fundamental principles.  We can thus think of the classical principles as “wrong” because if we are to look at the phenomenon in its more complete ontological situation, other principles are required.  However, when we don’t look in this way, the classical principles are arguably just as “right” as the more fundamental principles that need to be introduced when you look at the situation more completely.  In other words, questions about ontology can be taken in-situ, and not, as most philosophers would have it, absolutely. This is a big faux-pas, as it undermines the common meaning of ‘ontology’, which refers to the essence or real being of a phenomena.

But if we our queues from Whitehead, we realize that the idea of being may no longer require some kind of Parmenidean, unalterable and unchangeable essence that is just itself for all eternity.  Essence-being-may rather have existence only as a process, as an ongoing creation, subject always to the bursting through of novelty.

Somewhat ironically, if we took this, rather than the Newtonian assumptions as a starting point, then it would not be problematic to see that Newton’s physics can indeed have an equivalent ontological status in certain circumstances as the relativistic and quantum laws do in other circumstances.  There may be no ontological need to posit relativistic effects unless such effects create differences that impinge upon classically-based predictions.

Of course, the fact that just this does occur in some situations is exactly why people had to come up with relativity and quantum mechanics!  But the establishment of new ‘laws’ may not obviate the ontological status of earlier laws when we don’t arbitrarily discount the importance of the evolving context within which any ontological consideration arises in the first place.

life_12weeks1The situation becomes more apparent when we are no longer considering simple physical systems, but try to account for more complex phenomena: life, emotion, healing, consciousness, social effects, etc.  In these cases, the ‘laws’ of physics are simply completely and utterly inadequate to the phenomena; they explain only a tiny fraction of each phenomenon.  New ‘laws’, and other principles are required to make sense of these different realms.  These laws may or may not be ultimately reducible to known physical laws, but that may not even matter!

What ‘exists’ for a given way of approaching a complex, embedded, extended, and recursive system may change on the basis of how that system is approached, i.e. by the ‘question’ that is asked of it.  Which of course leads us to the insight, offered by Bohr, that just this is how the universe works: it answers questions (is something for us) by virtue of the questions asked of it, which is another way to say “How you pay attention changes what comes to your attention.”

Classical physics will never ‘go away’, unless human experience changes so radically as to no longer require its principles for explanation (this is highly unlikely).  We should be careful of the classical assumptions about ontology, and of projecting an absoluteness onto ‘being’ that is not sensitive to the human act of in-situ knowing.  To declare, because the fundamental principles of chemistry can be reduced to physical principles, that “chemistry is not needed” would be a folly; chemical principles, when unreduced, still operate in an ontologically satisfying way – for the chemist.  The fact that those behaviors can be thought of in ‘more fundamental’ terms does not automatically privilege the more fundamental understanding in an ontological sense.

This does not lead to ‘state-specific sciences’ (ala Charles Tart), which are radically separate, in which every question may have its own unique ontology and epistemology.  It appears that the universe doesn’t quite work this way, because principles from one realm don’t stay put; they leak out into other, seemingly unrelated disciplines, where they may find fruitful soil, even taking over the previous assumptions at times.  The universe doesn’t seem to split itself up quite the way we do.  In other words, we cannot hold onto an ontology that abstracts itself indefinitely, but we cannot also completely de-reify ontological considerations (the mistake of much of post-modernism) in favor of purely ‘constructed’ ontologies.

OuroborosWe are thus lead to consider an epistemology – an embedded, flexible, transformable epistemology – may be go hand-in-hand with a companion ontology – a process-oriented, non-reductive, complex ontology.  The ontology is thus capable of shifting on the basis of epistemological concerns, but is not reducible to them.  The epistemology is likewise capable of transforming on the basis of ontological considerations, but cannot be completely enslaved to them.  Rather, the epistemology and the ontology co-exist in a creative dance of becoming, mutually reinforcing each other and destroying each other in a complex cybernetic loop.


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  2. Patrick Maher May 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm · ·

    You’re not lying to people when you teach them Newton’s laws. In fact one of the ways that Einstein showed that his general and special theories were valid was that they reduced to Newton’s laws in an approximation. Even Newton did the same thing, show that his laws reduced to Kepler’s.

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