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Ancient Views of Reality

Throughout most of history, people’s views of reality were primitive and changed slowly. Ancient records indicate that for thousands of years people believed the world consisted not only of material objects and living creatures but also all sorts of spirits, gods or powers.

In primitive hunting societies, much emphasis was focused on the animals being hunted and the hunting rituals, techniques and bravery, and on the gods or spirits who were believed to control the success of the hunt. In primitive agricultural societies, the sun and other natural forces were studied with some expertise, but also with the belief that worshiping or appeasing the gods could help ensure successful crops. Some of the world's oldest writings, fragments from ancient Egypt more than 4500 years old, contain expressions of practical experience and knowledge along with worship of deities. The Egyptians and many other early peoples believed that their rulers were either part gods or empowered to rule by divine right.

The Bible tells us that the ancient Hebrews came to believe that their God ("Yahweh") was the only true God, the creator and ruler of everything, who made a covenant with them – "I will be your God and you will be my people." Yet the primitive worldview of the earliest Hebrews projected certain human qualities on this God, often perceiving him as a vengeful tyrant who slew his enemies and who demanded animal sacrifices and rites of circumcision.

We can only imagine what life was like thousands of years ago, to have thought processes limited by a complete lack of knowledge of the findings of modern science and the insights of modern faith. Throughout the ancient world, even the best early thinkers were inevitably bound and limited by views of reality learned from their cultures and myths, from family and tribe, from formal and informal education.

At the height of ancient Greek civilization, Plato, Aristotle and their fellow philosophers developed concepts of reality that have endured as monumental achievements of the human mind. Plato believed that the key to ultimate reality and truth was the eternal Forms or Ideas which we mortals can only see as shadows cast by the light of truth.

Aristotle believed in the doctrine of the causes as the keys to understanding motion, motivation, and why things are as they are. Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers explored rigorously many of life's ultimate questions, and some of their insights are still valid today. However, the ancient Greeks lacked scientific methodology, and many were superstitious about the powers of the gods of Mount Olympus.

The early Christians had a profound impact on the civilized world that continues today. As Christianity spread, even the once-pagan "Holy Roman Empire" became officially Christian. Nevertheless many Romans continued to practice their pleasure-seeking ways until their corrupt society collapsed before the barbarian invasions.

After the fall of Greece and Rome, known today as the Dark Ages, the teachings of Plato and Aristotle were known only to a learned few. Mathematics, including algebra, was substantially advanced not in Europe but in the Mideast, and Arabian scholars helped to shelter the works of the Greek philosophers from oblivion, later reintroducing their writings to the West during the time of the Crusades. Meanwhile the life of the common person was one of daily toil and struggle, with reality an all-too-difficult effort to survive amidst ignorance, disease and poverty.

The Dawn Of Science

During and after the Dark Ages, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church held substantial power over Western society and thought. Under the influence of the writings and teachings of Thomas Aquinas during the Middle Ages, Aristotelian thought became intertwined and confused with Christian doctrine in the beliefs of the Catholic clergy. One of these Aristotelian tenets was that the earth is the center of the solar system and the universe. This belief, strongly upheld by the Catholic Church, was to cause great difficulty for two men who are generally credited as being the fathers of modern science: Copernicus and Galileo.

In the 16th Century the Polish astronomer Copernicus discovered through his observations and calculations that the earth is not the center of the universe, but instead the earth revolves around the sun. The views of Copernicus and his defender Galileo were attacked by the Roman Church because their claims conflicted with the clergy’s Aristotelian view of reality, although Galileo continued to profess that his views did not conflict with biblical scripture. He was accused and tried by the Roman Inquisition, which found him guilty and forced him to publicly recant his claims. Nevertheless his previous writings, widely published, continued to influence the rise of early science. About the time of Galileo, Francis Bacon refined the scientific method of objective (material) observation, which also was to have a profound effect on views of reality in Western civilization.

Faith In An Orderly World

Alfred North Whitehead, in a widely quoted passage, noted that early scientists held

"... the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind?

"When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words."

In other words, this belief in an orderly, rational world which was created by God (and interpreted by Greek philosophy) was deeply embedded in the view of reality held by early scientists and other educated people. This idea reached an important milestone in the 17th Century with the publication of one of the most remarkable achievements of the human mind, Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton.

Newton's Lawful Mechanical Universe

The esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries, and the impact he had on their view of reality, is suggested by an epitaph proposed by Alexander Pope while Newton was still alive:

            "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
            God said, let Newton be! and all was light."

One of Newton's great achievements was to explain through his laws and principles the dynamics of matter in motion within a system (known therefore as a dynamic system, about which more will be said in later chapters). The state of each body of matter in a system (any system from a machine to the solar system) could be described in terms of its position, its velocity and its acceleration. By knowing these factors, Newton claimed, one could predict the future positions and velocities of every body in the system.

Newton's first law described what had actually been discovered by Galileo concerning inertia: "Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it." This and other laws explained the gravitational attraction of the earth for the moon, the moon for the earth, the planets around the sun, and the motions of all other observable heavenly bodies with remarkable clarity.

While these laws (which Newton and others considered God’s laws) seem obvious now, especially to anyone who has studied introductory physics, they were truly revolutionary when first announced. In their elegant simplicity, they compelled scientists and scholars at last to abandon Aristotle's more complex concept of multiple causes of motion. They propelled the English-speaking world into a new view of reality that endured for centuries. Newton's theories of gravity and motion were loosely adapted by others to affect other aspects not only of science but also of English society in that era. For example, the British monarchy was thought of and justified as a being patterned after the solar system, with the King as its center and loyal subjects rotating around him.

What was so remarkable about Newton's theory of universal gravity was that it claimed that every body of matter, from the sun and planets to atomic particles, is affected, and attracted to other bodies, by the force of gravity.

Newtonian physics perpetrated a view of reality in which everything in the universe could be understood as resulting from orderly laws. Once the positions and forces at work on any bodies were known, it was thought possible not only to predict their future positions and motion but also to know their past with equal certainty.

The Mechanical View of The Universe Begins To Weaken

Even in Newton's era, some scientists refused to accept his theories. They considered the notion of this impersonal machine of a universe, like an immense clock, to be repugnant – it seemed to have no place for man's soul or a loving God. But Newton's theories gained in acceptance and ruled the scientific community for more than 200 years. In fact, they are still highly useful in explaining precisely many of the phenomena of motion and gravity commonly observed.

The first major challenge to the mechanical system of Newton came from an area most of us now take for granted -- the discovery of electricity. The effects we now know as static electricity had been known for a long time, without anyone clearly understanding the causes. Early experimenters learned that if one rubbed an amber rod with cloth, the rod would attract small pieces of paper. Further studies found that some electric charges attract and other charges repel – an apparent contradiction to the force of gravity, by which bodies are only attracted to one another. It was first thought that electricity was a fluid somehow flowing within and between solid bodies – that is, experimenters were still looking for mechanical (Newtonian) explanations.

When Volta invented his Voltaic battery, the motion of a magnetized needle in an electric field further undermined the Newtonian theory of force acting in the direction of motion. Maxwell was later able to develop theories and mathematical formulas to describe what he decided are electromagnetic fields created both by magnetized objects and by the flow of electric current. The discovery of these fields, which do not operate according to the laws of gravity, was another major milestone in the evolution of science and required another shift in the perception of reality among learned people.3

Einstein And Relativity

The mechanical view of reality was further undermined by the work of Albert Einstein and other German physicists in the early 20th Century. Einstein demonstrated, primarily by mathematics, that matter and energy are virtually interchangeable, with his famous formula, E=mc2. This equation, which unlocked the power of nuclear energy and atomic bombs, may also be written m=E/c2. In other words, mass is really energy "slowed down" by the speed of light (186,000 miles or 300,000 kilometers per second) squared. Thus all matter in the universe is convertible into (and from) energy.

Einstein also showed that time and distance in space are relative to one another in a space-time continuum. He claimed that time is a fourth dimension, in addition to the three dimensions of space we normally think of. (Some physicists have shown through advanced mathematics that there could be as many as a dozen dimensions.)

The Uncertainty Principle

The crowning blow to the certainty of the mechanical view of reality came from quantum mechanics and Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The physicist Max Planck had developed quantum theory on the basis that motion and forces throughout the universe change, not smoothly as one might expect, but in very small steps which vary by a fixed amount, which came to be called "Planck's Constant."

Planck was mainly concerned with explaining that radiant energy, in forms such as light and X-rays, is emitted not in just any amount but in specific bundles of energy known as quanta. The higher the frequency of the energy waves, the greater the amount of energy radiated – but always varying in multiples of Planck's Constant.

Werner Heisenberg reasoned that, if a quantum is indeed the smallest amount of energy possible, then it is impossible to accurately measure at the same moment both the motion and location of moving subatomic particles such as electrons. This is because the only way to detect their motion or location is with light or some other sort of energy, which even as one quantum would have enough impact to deflect the tiny particle from its path. In other words, at the smallest points of matter, certain prediction of future motion or location is impossible.

No More Perfect Prediction

The Uncertainty Principle, as this concept became known, ended forever the theory that the universe is so orderly one could predict all future events or know all past events by knowing the location and velocity of all present objects, as Newtonian dynamics had claimed.

Quantum mechanics claims that there is no single predictable outcome of any situation. Instead, many outcomes are possible, some more likely than others, based on the mathematics of probability. This injection of randomness into science was intolerable even to Albert Einstein, who is reported to have said, "I do not believe God plays dice with the universe." Indeed, in its proper place, the Uncertainty Principle is actually only a statement of the limits of measurement and prediction at the subatomic level. It in no way undermines Newton’s laws at larger levels of matter, such as cannon balls, moving vehicles or the planets. But many people have taken this very limited principle and applied it to their understanding of ultimate reality and the nature of the universe. Just because something is true at a very low level of structure or order does not make it equally applicable at higher levels of structure or order, as we will see below.

Infinite Or Finite Universe?

As quantum mechanics disturbed old notions of certain predictability, other discoveries of the early 20th Century brought an end to the Newtonian concept of an infinite universe. When Newton and his contemporary scientists looked through their telescopes, they saw stars and galaxies to the limit of their vision. Philosopher Immanuel Kant developed a complex theory of the cosmos ("cosmology") that provided further support to Newton's claims and increased their widespread acceptance in the view of reality held by educated people.

Astrophysicist Hugh Ross writes that in the late 1800s Johann Friedrich Zollner and others calculated that if the universe were indeed infinite, then "at any point within the universe the gravitational potential would be infinite – a conclusion at odds with all observations."

After Einstein's theory of relativity was introduced in the early 1900s, and proved to be accurate in several widely heralded experiments, it was further calculated that the universe was finite, expanding over time, and decreasing in its rate of expansion. In other words, Ross notes, "the universe is exploding outward from a point. In fact, through the equations of general relativity, we can trace the 'explosion' backward to its origin, an instant when the entire physical universe burst forth from a single point of infinite density" . Physicists call that instant of infinite density the singularity. Others call it the beginning of creation.

Ironically, Einstein at first refused to believe that his own formulas pointed to a moment of creation. Instead he invented a "cosmological constant" (a fudge factor) to offset the expansion calculations and support a concept of a static universe. But he later called the cosmological constant "the biggest mistake of my life."

Many other scientists have resisted the idea of the singularity, popularly called the "Big Bang." Some have postulated that the universe expands, then contracts, then expands again over infinite time. More recently an "inflation" theory has suggested that the universe is more like the surface of a balloon, constantly expanding, not from an exploding core, but without boundaries. (Similarly, you could travel forever on the surface of a sphere the size of our planet earth and never reach a beginning or an end of the surface.)

The Anthropic Principle

Contemporary writings indicate that most physicists believe that these alternative theories have serious flaws, and that the "Big Bang" theory is most consistent with astrophysical evidence. The universe, according to several calculations, is approximately 16 billion years old. There was indeed a single point at which matter-energy and space-time began. And the more that is known about the universe as a whole, the more it appears that just the slightest change in its parameters would have made life, especially human life, impossible, as we will detail later. The result is what some physicists call the "anthropic principle." This principle acknowledges the enormous evidence that the universe was created or "evolved" in order to support human life. But it also claims that this is actually "20-20 hindsight." In other words, if the universe had not evolved exactly as it did, we wouldn’t be here to marvel about it!

The highly abstract and mathematical nature of advanced physics makes it difficult for most people to grasp, compared with the simpler mechanical views of Newton. It is probably safe to say that even the "Big Bang" theory and the anthropic principle of contemporary physics have not had significant impact on most people’s views of reality. Even books like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time , which was for some months a best-seller, has probably not changed anyone's view of reality. Thi is in part because Hawking generally espouses a learned version of scientific materialism, that is, nothing new as a paradigm of reality.

In our next chapter we will look more deeply at some of the underlying assumptions of physics and scientific materialism as we further develop our case for a new view of reality. In case you have become confused, please understand that I have in this chapter simply been reporting what is commonly considered to be aspects of the history of science. It would have been laborious and distracting to say over and over, "This scientist claims this, but it may not be accurate." The great majority of information in this chapter was extracted from other sources and simply assembled here to provide a context for the more original thoughts which follow.

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