From a western perspective, it all started in ancient Greece, around 600 BC. This is during the Axial Age, a somewhat controversial term coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to designate the remarkable intellectual and spiritual awakening that occurred in different parts of the world in approximately the span of a century. Aside from the explosion of Greek thought, this is the time of Siddhartha Gautama (aka Buddha) in India, of Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, of Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Persia – religious leaders and thinkers who would rethink the meaning. of faith and morality. In Greece, Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras of Samos were pioneers in pre-Socratic philosophy, (more or less) moving the focus of investigation and explanation from the divine to the natural.
To be sure, the divine never abandoned primitive Greek thought, but with the beginning of philosophy, trying to understand the workings of nature through logical reasoning, as opposed to supernatural reasoning, would become an option that did not exist before. . The history of science, from its inception to the present, could be told as an increasingly successful division between belief in a supernatural component of reality and a strictly materialistic cosmos. The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Age of Reason, literally means ‘to see the light’, the light here is clearly the superiority of human logic over any kind of supernatural or unscientific methodology to arrive at the ‘truth’ of things.
Einstein, for example, was a believer who preached the fundamental reasonableness of nature; nothing strange and inexplicable, like a god playing dice, his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a deficiency of our current knowledge.
To what extent we can understand the workings of nature only through logic is not something that science can answer. This is where the complication begins. Can the human mind, through the diligent application of scientific methodology and the use of increasingly powerful instruments, achieve a complete understanding of the natural world? Is there an “end of science”? This is the sensitive issue. If the rift that began in pre-Socratic Greece were completed, nature as a whole would be susceptible to logical description, the entire collection of behaviors that scientific studies identified, classified, and described by perpetual natural laws. All that would be left for scientists and engineers would be practical applications of this knowledge, inventions, and technologies that would serve our needs in different ways.
This kind of vision, or hope, actually holds all the way back at least to Plato who, in turn, owes much of this expectation to Pythagoras and Parmenides, the philosopher of Being. The dispute between the primacy of what is timeless or immutable (Being) and what is changing and fluid (Becoming) is at least that old. Plato proposed that truth was in the rational and immutable world of Perfect Forms that preceded the deceptive and deceptive reality of the senses. For example, the abstract form Chair embodies all chairs, objects that can take many forms in our sensory reality while serving their functionality (an object to sit on) and basic design (with a surface to sit on and some legs below that). According to Plato, the Forms hold the key to the essence of all things.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0
When scientists and mathematicians use the term Platonic worldview, that is what they generally mean: the unlimited capacity of reason to unravel the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for example, was a believer who preached the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird and inexplicable stuff, like a god playing dice, his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a deficiency of our current understanding. Despite his firm belief in that underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: “What I see of nature is a magnificent structure that we can understand only very imperfectly, and that should fill a thinking person with a feeling. of humility “. (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives (1979), 39.) Einstein embodies the tension between these two conflicting worldviews, a tension that still accompanies us today: on the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental matter of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the recognition that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and, therefore, that to arrive at some kind Final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing more than an impossible semi-religious dream.
This kind of tension is palpable today when we see groups of scientists passionately arguing for or against the existence of the multiverse, an idea that states that our universe is one in a large number of other universes; or for or against the final unification of the laws of physics.
Nature, of course, is always the final arbiter of any scientific dispute. The data decides, one way or another. That is the beauty and power at the center of science. The challenge, however, is knowing when to let go of an idea. How long should you wait until an idea, however seductive, is considered unrealistic? This is where the debate gets interesting. Data to support more “out there” ideas, such as the multiverse or the additional symmetries of nature required for unification models, have refused to appear for decades, despite extensive searches with different instruments and techniques. On the other hand, we only find if we look. So should we continue to defend these ideas? Who decides? Is it a community decision or should each person follow their own way of thinking?
In 2019, I participated in an interesting live debate at the World Science Festival with physicists Michael Dine and Andrew Strominger and presented by physicist Brian Greene. The topic was string theory, our best candidate for a final theory of how particles of matter interact. When I completed my PhD in 1986, string theory was the path. The only way. But, by 2019, things had changed, and quite dramatically, due to a lack of backup data. To my surprise, both Mike and Andy were quite open to the fact that that certainty of the past no longer existed. String theory has taught physicists many things and perhaps that was its usefulness. The Platonic perspective was in jeopardy.
The dispute lives on, although with each experiment that fails to show supporting evidence for string theory, the dream becomes harder to justify. Is it something generational, as famous physicist Max Planck once joked: “Ideas don’t die, physicists do”? (I paraphrase.) I hope not. But it is a conversation that should be more open, as was the case with the World Science Festival. Dreams die hard. But they can die a little easier when we accept the fact that our understanding of reality is limited and does not always conform to our expectations of what should or should not be real.