It occurs to me that a few thoughts involving the wonder of God’s creation would be a welcome diversion from the baneful reign of the petty dictator from Argentina who somehow acquired the Chair of Peter. At least that was the intent of the lecture I gave at the Roman Forum’s 2019 symposium at Lake Garda—an event I cannot recommend highly enough to any Catholic interested in seeing what John Rao means by a “holistic Catholic experience.” Attend once and Lake Garda will become your second home.
In my lecture I showed why the faith has nothing to fear from the genuine discoveries of modern science. Thus, the faith has nothing to fear from what atomic physicists have been discovering since the turn of the 20th century. Quite the contrary, what they have found has vindicated the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of matter and form in a way that honest physicists have come to acknowledge, as I discuss below. Yet ideologues in the discipline have resorted to various fantasies in order to avoid the obvious conclusion that there is no material explanation for the transition from the mysterious microworld to the macroworld of everyday objects in which, by the power of God, “we live, and move and have our being,” as Saint Paul told the worshippers of the Unknown God at the Aeropagus. (Cf. Acts 17:18).
Some Amazing Discoveries
In order to understand the motive behind these fantasies some background is in order. First of all, consider the atom, the fundamental constituent of what is popularly called matter but is now better understood to be a duality of mass-energy.
A stack of hydrogen atoms one million tall, each of which is only 0.10 nanometers (a billionth of a meter) in diameter, would be no taller than the thickness of a sheet of paper. Yet each atom is a world unto itself: a nucleus (protons and neutrons made up of quarks bound together by gluons) containing some 95% of the atomic mass and one or more electrons so distant from the nucleus that if an atom were the size of a football stadium the nucleus would be the size of a marble on the fifty-yard line. The nucleus is so dense—averaging 2.5 x 1016 pounds per cubic foot—that duplicating an average nuclear density inside a one-cubic-foot box would require packing in the mass of 6.2 billion cars, each weighing two tons. The nucleus is wound very tightly indeed—by a force (the “strong force”) that is “a hundred million million million million million million (1039) times stronger than gravity.”
Yet atoms are mostly space pervaded by electromagnetic fields. The distant electrons occupy successive energy levels called shells comprising electron orbitals, which are not the circular paths depicted in high school text books but rather fuzzy “probability clouds” where electrons at a certain energy level can be found most of the time. The orbitals’ shapes become increasingly complex with each level of remove from the nucleus.
At the atomic level we encounter the so-called Planck scale, named after Max Planck, whose discovery of Planck’s constant earned him the Nobel Prize. Planck was trying to solve the problem of why a heated black body glows different colors as its temperature rises: first red, then yellow, then white, then blue-white, rather than immediately blue-white as classical physics predicted. Little did he know that a fudge factor he inserted to make the math work actually expressed a universal constant in a nature according to which radiant energy is emitted as discrete packets—quanta—rather than a smooth continuum. The degree of energy quantization expressed by Planck’s constant, the smallest possible quantum of energy, is in an incredibly tiny number: 6.626176 x 10-34 joule seconds. That’s 6 trillionths of a trillionth of a billionth of the energy it takes, for example, to lift a stick of butter one meter.
The famous formula E = hf means, in plain language, that the energy of one emitted photon equals Planck’s constant times the frequency with which that photon is emitted. Where there are multiple photons, the formula is expressed as E = nhv, where n is simply some integer (1, 2, 3) indicating a multiple of Planck’s constant based on the number of photons.
Because the energy jumps are integers—whole numbers, not fractions—there is a stepwise increase in energy rather than an infinitely divisible fractional scale. If it were not so, then energy emission would occur at infinitely divisible frequencies in the ultraviolent range (the “ultraviolent catastrophe”), matter would emit all of its radiant energy at once and go to absolute zero, the radiation spectrum of our universe would not exist, and neither would we.
Further, as Einstein later surmised, the total amount of energy of the photons in a light wave is determined not by the wave’s amplitude (height) but by its frequency (how many wave crests pass a given point in a given amount of time). It is as if a series of closely spaced ripples in the ocean had more energy than a series of widely separated 20-foot-high breakers. That is why, just as Einstein predicted with his Nobel-prize winning idea, light at certain frequencies would knock electrons out of metal (the photoelectric effect) without regard to the intensity (amount) of light directed at the metal.
Quantization applies to all forms of electromagnetic energy, which, as Einstein intuited, are all carried by photons, which are massless particles. All material objects variously absorb and emit photons. You are emitting photons right now in the infrared range. The electromagnetic spectrum runs from radio waves, to microwaves, to infrared light, to visible light, to ultraviolent light to x-rays to gamma rays. The entire spectrum can be called light, as the Catholic physicist Rudolf Hilfer noted during his fascinating lecture at Lake Garda on transubstantiation from a physicist’s perspective. When God declared: “Let there be light” and willed it into being, He created more than just the light that we can see.
Both photons and electrons exhibit wave-like characteristics, as shown by the famous double slit experiments. Single photons or electrons fired at the double slits appear to go through both slits at once, in the manner of a wave, so that when enough of them are registered on a detector at the other side of the slits, an interference pattern builds up like that of conflicting waves created by stones thrown into a pond. (This does not trouble the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysician, as wave-particle duality merely reflects two aspects of the same thing without any violation of the principle of non-contradiction.)
Thus, quantum theory includes wave-mechanics, in which calculations involve a wave-function that predicts the probable state of a quantum-mechanical system rather than fixed positions and trajectories as with the Newtonian mechanics that work quite well with the macro objects of our everyday experience (e.g., the inelastic collision of two objects of equal mass).
Finally, by way of background, at the subatomic level matter becomes somewhat indistinct. When one measures the position of a particle there is uncertainty as to its momentum, whereas measurements of its momentum preclude certainty as to position. From which it follows that the more one knows about a particle’s momentum the less one knows about its position and vice versa. This is the so-called Heisenberg uncertainty principle expressed by the famous formula . That is a vanishingly small degree of uncertainty, to be sure, and it operates only the atomic scale, not in the world of everyday objects.
With this background in view, let us consider how quantum physics has been twisted into bad philosophy by ideologues of the “scientific community.”
Physics Too Far: Matter Without Form
Quantum effects are manifested in innumerable technologies, including photoelectric cells, transistors, lasers, MRIs and atomic clocks. In fact, quantum mechanics is the most spectacularly successful branch of physics in general, whose Promethean accomplishments involve the exploitation of the properties of entities—electrons and photons—which are undeniably real yet can never be directly observed. The discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics are amazing, and the discoverers deserve their due. Again, the faith has nothing to fear from real science.
But it is precisely the practical success of quantum mechanics that has induced in certain physicists a scientific superbia that leads them to blunder about in the realm of philosophy, and in particular metaphysics. They maintain that what science has learned about the quantum realm explains the existence of everything. The materialist ideologues of physics have been arguing since the early 20th century that quantum effects must govern the macro world and that, consequently, “classical objects” such as trees and men are merely matter-waves that collapse into seemingly solid objects only when we observe them (one version of the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory).
For more than century, however, proof that the macroworld is an illusion has eluded them and they remain unable to explain in purely quantitative terms how something like a tree, a dog, a cat or, above all, a man could be a just an aggregate of particles governed by quantum rules. After all, if you’ve seen one atom of a particular element, especially carbon, you’ve seen them all. How, then, can there so many different things with so many different qualities based on nothing but quantities that are indistinguishable at the atomic level? In short, how can there be a macro world at all?
The physicist Chad Orzel expresses the frustration of physicists determined to reduce the world to atoms and molecules: “determining why quantum rules don’t seem to apply in the macroscopic world of everyday dogs and cats is a surprisingly difficult problem. Exactly what happens in the transition from the microscopic to the macroscopic has troubled many of the best physicists of the last hundred years, and there’s still no clear answer.” Indeed! Orzel further frets that “While quantum mechanics does an outstanding job of describing the behavior of microscopic objects and collections of objects, the world we see remains stubbornly, infuriatingly classical. Something mysterious happens in the transition from the weird world of simple quantum objects to the much larger world of everyday objects.” (Orzel, 2009, p. 79)
Note the word “infuriatingly.” Why would anyone find infuriating the existence of everyday objects not subject to quantum rules? Herewith the motive: an a priori commitment to the proposition that there is nothing in the universe beyond material quantities. Everything that exists is nothing more than a bundle of atoms forming molecules forming objects that are just matter-waves, so that all of reality can be modelled mathematically as a wave-function “without residue.” There is no room in that worldview for a “residue” of “something mysterious.”
But if everything that exists is merely a quantitative matter-wave that collapses when observed, as the Copenhagen interpretation holds, why does the matter-wave of a given object always collapse into the perception of just that object and no other? As Orzel puts it: “The unexplained process of wave-function collapse is like the famous Sidney Harris cartoon of a scientist who has written ‘Then a miracle occurs’ as the second step of a problem.” In the same cartoon (shown above) his associate suggests: “you need to be more explicit about the second step.”
All Orzel can say in the face of “something mysterious” in the transition from the micro to the macro world is that here “physics is forced to become philosophy.” But why are physicists forced to become philosophers? The answer is that they know full well that the universe is a vast ensemble of formed matter and that they have no material explanation for the forms that things have.
Now, even these ideologically motivated philosophers must concede that it would be absurd to declare that the existence of a wooden chair is explained entirely by pointing to a certain quantity of wood molecules and their atomic substructure. The chair exists qua chair only because a human formator in-formed raw wood with his idea of a chair, thus producing what Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophers call an “accidental form.” The carpenter’s idea of a chair is a non-material principle by which the potential of wood to become a chair is made actual. A-T philosophy calls this the formal cause, which determines the structure of the material cause, the raw wood, made into a chair by the efficient cause, which is the carpenter working with tools to achieve the chair’s final cause, that being the purpose for which the carpenter designed it: to sit on.
The Quantum Delusion
Confronted with a universe of natural objects infinitely more complex than a mere wooden chair—including the very atoms and molecules in the wood itself!—the partisans of what Wolfgang Smith has dubbed “the Reign of Quantity” do everything in their power to hide the truth that the universe in all its splendor must be the work of a formator who seems to fit the description of what we call God.
Some are so desperate to deny the existence of a “classical world” of formed matter that they even deny the collapse of the wave-function posited by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Instead, they fantasize that the matter-waves never collapse into fixed states but rather branch off into an infinite number of universes, so that what we think are “classical objects” are just one branch of an infinitely branching matter-wave. Thus, a gray cat in our universe might be an orange cat in another or perhaps some other kind of animal, and so on ad infinitum. This idea of a “multiverse” embracing an infinite number of different versions of our world, for which there is no evidence whatsoever and no possibility of ever being tested, can rightly be called a quantum delusion.
But any fantasy will do in place of the evident reality of our world, which everywhere reveals the creative hand of that Being who, infinitely exceeding mere human artifice, wedded a vast array of substantial (not merely accidental) forms to what Saint Thomas called “prime matter” (matter without form), giving them acts of existence as subsisting beings with their own inherent qualities, powers and operations—above all man, the only rational animal, whose substantial form is his immortal soul. As Saint Paul admonished the Romans: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse…. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…” (Rom 1:20, 22)
Indeed, most ironically, the physicist partisans of a quantity-only universe cannot even explain the existence of atoms, which are clearly formed matter (or mass-energy, if you prefer). To explain how atoms came to be, the ideological opponents of First Causation—meaning God—must resort to scientism’s stock-in-trade: the just-so story. For example, this one published by the CERN laboratory:
In the first moments after the Big Bang, the universe was extremely hot and dense. As the universe cooled, conditions became just right to give rise to the building blocks of matter – the quarks and electrons of which we are all made. A few millionths of a second later, quarks aggregated to produce protons and neutrons. Within minutes, these protons and neutrons combined into nuclei.
As the universe continued to expand and cool, things began to happen more slowly. It took 380,000 years for electrons to be trapped in orbits around nuclei, forming the first atoms. These were mainly helium and hydrogen, which are still by far the most abundant elements in the universe. 1.6 million years later, gravity began to form stars and galaxies from clouds of gas.
So, atoms formed themselves, somehow achieving the perfect balance of mass and binding forces that has sustained their continuous stable existence for eons without change and made possible the stable existence of the universe. When conditions were “just right,” that is!
Not even the crudest wooden chair can form itself, but these tellers of magical tales worthy of a witchdoctor seriously propose that the entire universe and everything in it did just that. A vacuum gave rise to atoms, atoms gave rise to molecules, and then it was just a matter of time and a lot of fortuitous shuffling of fungible particles before molecules gave rise to stars, planets and ultimately Mozart. Any questions?
Even the relatively modest tall tale of the self-formation of atoms has more holes than a sieve. For one thing, where did all the carbon atoms that are the basis of life come from, given that, according to this fable, the early universe was composed mainly of helium and hydrogen atoms? Addressing the “carbon coincidence,” the physicist Jim Baggot admits there is a big problem:
What about carbon? A carbon nucleus has six protons and six neutrons. This would seem to require fusing together three helium nuclei. This is energetically possible, but the chances of getting three helium nuclei to come together in a simultaneous ‘three-body’ collision are extremely remote. It’s much more feasible to suppose that two helium nuclei first fuse to form an unstable beryllium nucleus, which then in turn fuses with another helium nucleus before it can fall apart. This sounds plausible on energy grounds, but the odds don’t look good. The beryllium nucleus tends to fall apart rather too quickly.
Yet here we are, intelligent beings evolved from a rich carbon-based biochemistry. Given that we exist, carbon must somehow be formed in higher abundance, despite the seemingly poor odds. Hoyle [Fred Hoyle, the Nobel prize-winning physicist] reasoned that the odds must somehow get tipped in favour of carbon formation. [Baggot 2013, pp. 263-264] (emphasis in original)
Hoyle theorized that a special property of “carbon resonance” might have facilitated reactions between “unstable beryllium nucleus and another helium nucleus” so that carbon atoms would form inside stars—which, so the story goes, likewise formed themselves. But Hoyle observed another remarkable “coincidence” noted by Baggot: that if carbon’s resonance “were slightly higher or lower in energy, then carbon would not be formed in sufficient abundance in the interiors of stars” and there would be “insufficient carbon to allow intelligent, carbon-based life forms to evolve.” Hoyle was thus forced to concede that carbon must have been formed precisely by a creative intellect:
Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.”
Of course you would … A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. [Baggot 2013, pp. 264-265]
This is not even to mention all the physical constants of our universe whose fine-tuning makes life possible. As Baggot admits: “The carbon coincidence is just the beginning…. In Just Six Numbers, British astrophysicist Martin Rees identified a series of six dimensionless physical constants and combinations of constants that determine the nature and structure of the universe we inhabit. Change any one of these numbers by just 1 per cent and, Rees argued, the universe that resulted would be inhospitable to life.” [Baggot, p. 265]
As we can see, the foundational pseudo-scientific account of a purely quantitative universe consisting of nothing but variously aggregated yet basically identical particles is impossible to believe even when it comes to inanimate objects. But when it comes to living things, the account is exposed as pure myth. To quote the A-T philosopher Michael Hanby:
Darwinian reductionism of every stripe comes to grief at the living organism, and, in particular, at the human person…. Two centuries of evolutionary biology have failed to yield an adequate account of the organism, adequate to the phenomenon of life as lived. This failure is not as a matter of incomplete research but of a faulty ontology. (Hanby 2013, p. 219).
That faulty ontology involves, as Hanby rightly argues, a denial of the “ontological primacy of form” over matter. Form is denied because form cannot be found in the matter of which things are composed but rather in the constitutive organizing principles—in this case, divine principles—instantiated in the matter that individuates each material being in the universe and gives each qualities not reducible to quantities. As a result of this denial, notes Wolfgang Smith, physicists ignore the corporeal nature of natural objects and their qualities and confine their view of reality to merely physical systems—atoms and molecules—which actually occupy “a sub-existential domain” lying between corporeal objects, with their forms and qualities, and formless prime matter. They study, as if it were the whole of reality, purely physical entities that do not really exist! (Smith 2019, pp. 18-19).
Particularly absurd are attempts to reduce human consciousness to atoms and molecules. To quote the physicist Nick Herbert, one of the more candid science popularizers: “Science’s biggest mystery is the nature of consciousness. It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the foot.”
Will Honesty Prevail?
More than sixty years ago, in his work Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg, the very author of the uncertainty principle, recognized that is precisely an account of the relation between matter and form that is lacking in the physicist’s view of reality:
… in the philosophy of Aristotle, matter was thought of in the relation between form and matter. All that we perceive in the world of phenomena around us is formed matter. Matter is in itself not a reality, but only a possibility, a ‘potentia’; it exists only by means of a form. In the natural process, the ‘essence,’ as Aristotle calls it, passes over from mere possibility through form into actuality….
One may hope that the combined effort of experiments in the high energy region and of mathematical analysis will someday lead to a complete understanding of the unity of matter. The term complete understanding would mean that the forms of matter in the sense of Aristotelian philosophy would appear as results, as solutions of a closed mathematical scheme representing the natural laws for matter.” (Heisenberg, 121-122, 140).
Still a purely quantitative approach, but at least Heisenberg had the honesty to say that modern physics lacks a credible explanation for the existence of “objects or processes on a comparatively large scale, where Planck’s constant can be regarded as infinitely small.”
Much more recently, representing a small vanguard of honesty in physics, the chastened mathematical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder observed with admirable candor:
[T]he information from the smaller things, it turns out, isn’t relevant to understanding the larger things. We say that the short-distance physics “decouples” from the physics at larger distances or that “the scales separate.” This separation of scales is the reason why you can go through life without knowing a thing about quarks or the Higgs boson, or—to the dismay of physics professors all over the world—without having any clue what quantum field theory is. (Hossenfelder, 2018, p. 44)
There is even a movement afoot among some physicists to embrace a kind of metaphysics of matter and form. For example, the physicist Ruth Kastner, adverting to Heisenberg’s own notion of potentia in the quantum realm, argues that “the distinction between a quantum possibility and a fact” in the so-called matter-wave that supposedly collapses upon observation represents “a quantitative version of the old concept of ‘potentia’ in Aristotelian philosophy.” A “quantitative version of potentia” is almost a contradiction in terms as potentia in the Aristotelian sense is metaphysical property involving some power or quality of a thing that is not yet actualized: e.g. the power of hydrogen and oxygen to become water when combined in the right way.
Yet Kastner inches closer to the metaphysical truth when she describes a “new metaphysical picture, which we will argue is supported by quantum theory and its empirical success” which involves “a substance… in the more general, Aristotelian sense, where substance does not necessarily entail conflation with the concept of physical matter, but is rather merely ‘the essence of a thing… what it is said to be in respect of itself.”
Here Kastner cites no less than Aristotle’s Metaphysics, although her application of the concept of form or essence invokes a still-quantitative “transaction” between the quantum state and the macro state of an object. (Kastner 2018, p. 160). Form is still not conceived as a non-material principle, and thus there is no real explanation why a quantum state should “transact” with a macro state in just the way it must in order to give rise to a particular macro object and only that object.
Will honesty and common sense prevail in the physics community? Will there someday be a consensus that matter alone can never explain form, and that the question of form belongs not to physical science but to metaphysics? Don’t count on it. The ideologues of the scientific community are still firmly in control of public discourse and the state schools. Witness this stunning admission by the evolutionary geneticist, Richard Lewontin, who provides a handy summary of that ultimately theological position in his review of a book by the late Carl Sagan in 1997:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural.
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.
Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (Lewontin, 1997)
For more than three centuries now, philosophy and science have conspired to deny the nature of the world in which we live and move and have our being—to deny what was obvious even to the intuitions of Greek wisdom some 400 years before the coming of Christ. Today it falls to us to excavate the obvious, now buried deep down in a mother lode of simple truths hidden by so many sedimentary layers of bad philosophy masquerading as the scientific method.
Like Socrates in his last hours, we marvel at the elaborate ignorance of those who, as he observed more than 2,400 years ago, ignore the manifestations of that power “which keeps things disposed at any given moment in the best possible way” and “neither look for it, nor believe that it has any supernatural force.” (Phaedo, 99c). And so, we labor still against the greatest superstition of all time in the darkest of all dark ages: the tyrannical Reign of Quantity and its denial of the created order of matter and form in which God is everywhere conserving the world.