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A Selected Excerpt

The Quantum of Action

The layman may feel that quantum physics is beyond his competence. He is not alone in this; many scientists are intimidated by this subject, especially by its complex formulae. When I suggested to the biologist Bonner that quantum physics could make important contributions to biology, he said, “I would rather ride a black horse off a cliff at night than venture into quantum physics.”

But it is not possible to discover the great contribution of quantum physics if, as Bacon said, ‘you stand on the level of the same science,’ and therefore the layman is ultimately at an advantage. The essential contribution of quantum physics is that light comes in whole units (quanta) which cannot be further divided. Light, moreover, is immaterial; it is without charge, rest mass or other properties. It is outside of space and time-clocks stop at the speed of light and the photon can traverse an unlimited distance without loss.

Such lack of materiality vexes the scientist. It is impossible for him to establish the photon on an objective basis; he cannot give it a position nor predict it. If he does detect the photon, as, say on a photographic plate, it is annihilated and has no future to predict. The layman, on the other hand, is bathed in a world of light (as well as other radiation, including heat and radio waves); it is of no concern to him that the light he sees by no longer exists after he sees it. Not having taken the monk’s vow of science–that the universe is objective–he participates in the universe, and this participation, as well as all chemical and other interactions in the universe, is due to photon exchange.

Heisenberg, in 1925, first called attention to the fact that to observe an electron, we must disturb it. Since, in theory, it is impossible to know the exact position and velocity of a particle, we can only predict probabilities. What Heisenberg failed to note is that when this principle is applied to photons, we cannot predict at all. Physicists cope with this problem by considering all photons to be “virtual,” which means that they are unobservable. Science thus comes back to where it started, before it decided to exclude what was unobservable.

But why is the layman better off? Because, as the Zen expression goes, “Ordinary life is very Tao.” Spiritual teaching has always emphasized the ineffability of the highest principle: “What is the sound of one hand clapping? ” Such enigmatic expressions warn that the ultimate essence is not a thing, it is no thing.

The Measure Formulae

Before taking up my main topic, support for the thesis, let me go back for a moment. In my engineering experience, I came to appreciate the measure formulae of physics. These mathematical expressions describe the quantities which the physicist measures–velocity, acceleration, force, momentum, energy, and so on. All these measure formulae are expressed in terms of three parameters: mass, length, and time. They include position and its three derivatives, already discussed under Bateson. Four more are obtained by multiplication by mass, and four more by multiplication by mass and length (see The Geometry of Meaning). Thus velocity is distance divided by time; momentum is the product of mass times velocity. But how was it possible for science to reduce everything to just three parameters, when my analysis had given me to believe that there are four, not three, aspects required to account for things? Where was the fourth?

Quantum physics provided the answer. The quantum of action (photon) has the measure formula ML2/T. If action comes in wholes which cannot be further reduced, then action is the whole of which the three parameters, mass, length, and time, are parts! Thus the fourth element is really the first-the whole from which the other three are derived!

Of course, it could be said that ML2/T is compounded of mass, length and time; but mass, length and time do not come in wholes, whereas action does, and therefore it is proper to think of action as the whole, and mass, length, and time as its fragmentation.

There are other measure formulae which are compounded of M, L, and T; for example, energy is ML2/T2. (E = MC2, Einstein’s formula, is a special case; it gives the amount of energy available from a given mass. In this case, L/T = C, the velocity of light). But energy does not come in whole quanta whereas action does; so the whole which by division produces M, L, and T must be action (the quantum of action).

We are touching here on profundities; and it is a good point to pause and take stock. Recall that science excludes purpose from its formulations, and that for science the three parameters, mass, length, and time, suffice. I believe the rejection of purpose and the omission of the fourth parameter, action, are one and the same. If we were presented with only the parts of a machine, we could not deduce its purpose; one must see the machine in operation to discover the purpose. Purpose is not physical and action (in the sense of the quantum of action) is not observable; we can observe a change of state due to action but not action itself; so, too, we can observe the result of purpose but not the purpose. These clues point to the dependence of purpose on wholeness. They also expose the fallacy of reductionism in that reduction of the universe to mass, length, and time no more proves the nonexistence of purpose than the reduction of a machine to its elements proves that a machine has no purpose and is “nothing but” its parts.

One further point. The philosopher Peter Caws observed that science reduced everything to mass, length, and time and praised it for not attempting to go further. No doubt he was thinking of the absurdities of the early prescientific philosophers who tried to reduce everything to air or some other element. But other philosophers might still ask, to what can mass, length, and time be reduced? I suggest that this is a valid question and the answer is at hand. Perhaps previous attempts were premature and we needed science to provide us with a correct description of the parts before making the synthesis. It is not even necessary to put the pieces back together, for in recognizing that action is the fundamental dynamic, we provide what early philosophers would have called a proof of God.

(c)1984 Revision – Anodos Foundation

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