presented at the
1994 International Forum on New Science
Fort Collins, Colorado
September 17, 1994


Mike Mickley, Ph.D.*

Science and metaphysics have had a changing relationship with time. In the days of the Greek civilization, distinctions were not apparent and were not made between such subject areas. During the Industrial Revolution and carrying into the 20th century, differences and distinctions between the two were at their greatest level. The present time is depicted as one where these differences are diminishing, leading to a time in the future where the interrelationships between the two areas are both acknowledged, valued, and both make up part of a grander 'unified theory' that affects not just physics but our everyday lives.

This presentation aims at characterizing science and metaphysics and their relationship as it has changed in the past and as it continues to change. A general and more unifying description of the interface between them is given to provide a background or framework from which to consider new science topics and issues. This presentation is not an exhaustive explanation or study of the relationship between science and metaphysics; it reflects more of a personal quest for understanding. As such it borrows heavily from several texts which are referenced at the end of the paper.

Science and metaphysics have had a relationship that is roughly depicted in Figure 1.


Old Physics
The philosophy of ancient Greece made little distinction between topics that we would now assign the label of science and those that we would assign the label metaphysics. The term 'metaphysics' actually is due to Aristotle and refers to the book he wrote after the book on physics, entitled metaphysics or 'after physics.' It dealt with topics other than physical science topics. Before the time of Aristotle, there was debate about the nature of physical things and change. Some philosophers maintained that everything is in a state of flux. On the other hand,
*President, Mickley & Associates, 752 Gapter Road, Boulder, Colorado 80303
some argued against this in saying that everything is what it is and cannot change into what it is not. In the 5th century BC, Democritus proposed a way out of this dilemma. He maintained that all matter is made up of small indestructible units, which he called atoms. The atoms themselves remained unchanged, having fixed properties. However, they could move and combine in various ways so that macroscopic bodies that they made up might seem to change. This explanation provided for both permanence and flux. Thus began the doctrine of materialism (1).

Euclidean geometry formed the foundation of modern mathematics. This dealt with such abstract notions as 'points', 'lines', 'planes', etc. all in the absence of mass. Other milestones included Decartes' fundamental work on algebra in the 17th century, followed by the invention of calculus independently by both Leibniz and Newton. These events gave tremendous impetus to the power of methodology. The application of this conceptual approach in Newton's mechanics then set physics upon the path that we know today.

Newton's views became deeply ingrained in Western culture and were embraced wholeheartedly during the Industrial Revolution - a time of fantastic confidence - and the triumph of materialism. Newton's mechanics established a clear connection between cause and effect, and the mechanistic account required that matter move in accordance with strict mathematical laws and according to local causality. Local causality is the idea that what you do has consequences only nearby and that any consequence at a distance will be weaker and will arrive there only after the time permitted by the speed of light. Newton treated matter as passive and inert. The world was viewed as an intricate mechanism operating in an orderly, predictable way (1).

Newton's laws dealt primarily with the force of gravity as it acted upon moving bodies in the Earth's gravitational field. His models were unable to explain the behavior of electricity and magnetism in later years (2). Electricity and magnetism were brought into the field of mathematical theorization by Maxwell. His work, showing the interrelationship of electricity and magnetism, introduced the concept of force fields.

Science up to this point reflected the philosophy of materialism (and indeed, mainstream science and society still do today). Others have called the underlying philosophy 'reductionism', where it is considered that the whole can be understood by an analysis of the parts.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that the Newtonian physical images have had in shaping our world view (1). Acceptance of the Newtonian view represented a further movement away from religious explanations of the mystical forces that moved humans through life and, just as mysteriously, through sickness and death (2). It took human function out of the realm of the divine and into the mechanistic world that scientists could understand and manipulate. Table 1 lists several characteristics of Newtonian science. It will be seen that each of these entries changed in some fashion due to the theory and findings of quantum mechanics.

Table 1. Characteristics of Newtonian physics and Quantum Mechanics

Newtonian Physics
Quantum Mechanics
makes common sense does not make common sense
can picture it cannot picture it
matter is inert matter is energy
describes things - individual objects in space and their changes with time describes statistical behavior of systems
predicts events predicts probabilities
assumes an objective reality 'out there' does not assume an objective reality apart from our experience
we can observe something without changing it we cannot observe something without
changing it
claims to be the way that nature really is claims to only correlate experience correctly
things are as they appear to be things are different than they appear to be
paradigm of 'reductionism' or 'materialism' new paradigm of 'holism'
have local causality non-local correlations and connectiveness, oneness of separate objects
no need or prediction of higher dimensions defies explanations restricted to three dimensional universe
separation of mind and object allows for interactions of mind with other minds and objects
no distinction between size of objects applies to subatomic systems
low level of abstraction high level of abstraction

Beginning of New Physics - Planck and Einstein
At the end of the 19th century, physicists held a picture of the atom as a nucleus that looked something like a ball to which were attached tiny protruding springs. At the end of each spring was an electron (discovered in 1897). They assumed that energy was absorbed and emitted smoothly and continuously, such that after the electrons of an excited atom began to jiggle, they radiated their energy until they 'ran down' and their energy was dissipated. This atom model, however, predicted erroneous results concerning energy radiation; how things behaved when they get hot, such as how objects glow brighter as they get hotter and change color when the temperature is changed. In 1900 Max Planck discovered that electrons emit and absorb radiant energy in discrete 'packets' rather than in a continuous fashion. He coined the term 'quanta' for the packets of energy thus introducing the term 'quantum' to the literature of physics. Planck also discovered that the size of the quanta of energy depends on color or frequency of the light. This was a bold theory stating that the basic structure of nature was discontinuous.

In 1905 Albert Einstein, at the age of 26, wrote five significant papers, three of which were pivotal in the development of physics. The first, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1921, described the quantum nature of light. Einstein's theory was that light is composed of tiny particles, called photons. Whereas Planck described the processes of energy absorption and emission, Einstein went further and theorized that energy itself was quantized - coming in discrete packets or quanta. In the photoelectric effect, light hits an electron as if billiard balls were hitting each other. Wave theory predicts that there is a time delay before the flow of electrons occurs, contrary to the experimental results. The immediate emission of electrons and other observations were explained by Einstein's photon theory of light. His theory substantiated Planck's revolutionary discovery and demonstrated that light is made of particles, or photons, and that the photons of high-frequency light have more energy than the photons of low-frequency light.

Thus Planck and Einstein laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics, but it was not until 1927 that it took full form. In what follows, some selected events are described in more detail to provide an understanding of the nature of quantum mechanics.

Indications of Wave and Particle Nature of Light

To access the entire paper, click here.