Here is a question, a philosophical one this time. What do modern physicists mean when they talk about ‘realism’?

      Founded on the atomistic philosophy of the 4th century BC Greek philosopher, Democritus, what we now call ‘physics’ was introduced to the West in the seventeenth century AD by the French philosopher, René Descartes. Since then, right up to the present time,  the question physicists have set themselves to answer is: How do our ideas of things in the world relate to those things as they ‘really’ are in themselves?

     A radical change in this long-established, atomistic way of thinking took place, very quietly, in the early years of the twentieth century. This was when it dawned on modern philosophers that so far as human knowledge is concerned, what a thing really is, in itself, and our ideas of what that thing is, can never be separated in that dichotomous, or dualistic  way. Our ideas of what nature is and what we imagine  there is in itself  ‘behind those ideas’, they realised, are never two things but one, namely, two different sets of  ideas, all  ‘in the same head’, as it were.  So, what had been classically conceived as ‘The Problem’  of fitting our ideas of physical reality to that ‘physical reality itself’ turned out, in their analysis, to be no more than the ‘problem ‘of fitting one set of ideas to another, which is a different problem entirely from what had been imagined since Descartes.

     Foremost among those who were party to this new realisation was the physicist-philosopher, Ernst Mach (1838-1916), whose thoughts in this new direction were pursued to their logical conclusion in the first half of the 20th century by the likes of G.E. Moore, J. L. Austin, G. Ryle, A. J. Ayer and L. Wittgenstein. The most recent development along these lines is that of a new approach to modern physics – virtually a New Physics – now called POAMS, which appears in the joint publications of N. V. Pope and A. D. Osborne under the aegis of Keele University, England. In this radically different – indeed, revolutionary – way of thinking, the real problem for fundamental physics can never be to match our human perceptions and conceptions of things to those things as ‘God’ might be presumed to perceive them. Since there is no ‘God’s-eye-view’ of things that could possibly be known to or comprehended by man, this view, which many physicists fancied  was  ‘Realism’, turns out to be no more than self-delusion. It fools us into thinking that the fundamental problem to which physics is addressed is that of matching our conceptions and theories to things that, in some indescribable way, we already know – or, rather, think we know.

     Persistence of this insidious ‘God’s-eye-view’ fundamentalism puts theoretical physics in a stranglehold akin to that of so many religions based on presumptions, by certain dogmatists, of possessing a unique and special knowledge of how ‘God’ sees things beyond what ordinary mortals see. A belief in God is one thing, and POAMS is by no means hostile to religion in that sense! However, for finite beings like us, what else are these ‘God-given insights’ but, at best, conventions and, at worst, grounds for priestly tyranny? Conventions are inevitably different for different thinkers, peoples and societies, with all their jealously defended and dictatorial names, such as ‘Jehovah’, ‘Jaweh’, ‘Allah’ , ‘Duw’, Brahma’ – and, of course, our  Western name ‘God’.  What prospect can these disparate ‘deities’ possibly offer but the sort of conflict that reason can never resolve and for which the only settlement all too often lies in the sheer stupidity of all-out war?

     Similar ‘God-given’ insights tacitly assumed by the so-called ‘realists’ of physics maintain, in that same way, a conflict which is every bit as impervious to logical reason as anything that may be found among the dogmatic religions. This conflict centres on what so many traditionalists see as the rejection of Newton’s sacrosanct  ‘God’s-eye-view’ of absolute space and time in favour of a ‘relativistic’ interpretation in which space and time are no more than projected dimensions of perception, with no reality in them beyond our own finite and purely subjective imaginations.

     Be that as it may, in the 1970’s there emerged, in opposition to this dogmatic ‘God’s-Eye-View’ Realism, a new commonsense realism, called Normal Realism. In this, the essential problem to which physical science is addressed is seen, not as speculating and theorising about ‘realities’ underlying or transcending all our finite knowledge of them, but simply as solving problems arising from logically conflicting perceptions of ordinary and instrumental phenomena. Perceptions and conceptions that contradict one another naturally excite our curiosity. This prompts us, as normal, freethinking individuals, to revise our ideas in the various sectors of observation and experience, towards satisfying the need for that logical overview which is commonly known as understanding.

     The essential departure, then, between Normal Realism and the the fundamentalist  ‘God’s-Eye-View’ Realism of our scientific tradition consists of banishing from physics the artificial dichotomy which separates our ideas into the two classical categories. In the one, the category of hypotheses and theories, ideas are considered fair game for creative overhaul and revision, while in the other, the absolutist category, they are regarded as forever settled, God-given and sacrosanct. Since they are all, without exception, ideas, what possible justification can there be for separating them in that purely arbitrary way? For instance, ideas about ‘atoms’ are not ideas about self-sufficient, non-ideational entities. They are ideas about ideas. In Mach’s approach to physics, there are no atoms as ‘things in themselves’ underlying our ideas and descriptions of them. Nor is there any self-sufficient space and time. So far as neo-Machian Normal Realism is concerned, anything we may identify in thought and language, be it ‘atoms’ , ‘electrons’, ‘charges’, ‘fields’, ‘photons’ or whatever, is revisable in the light of rational reflection on ongoing experience. This has led to the massively misunderstood Wittgensteinian edict that ‘the World is language’ which seems, from the traditional ‘God’s Eye-View’ standpoint to be sheer nonsense. From that old-established, absolutist viewpoint, how can things like material particles, gravitational fields, electric fields and so on, ‘as God sees them’, be just ‘bits of language’?

     Allied to this is the fear, on the part of these reactionaries that without what they see as the underpinning provided by their traditionally conceived ‘absolute reality’, physics would lose its time-honoured ‘objectivity’ and collapse into an anarchy of purely ‘psychological’ ideas and impressions. That this fear is unfounded becomes plain when we consider that these ‘ideas and impressions’ that we gain in practical experience come supplied with their own in-built criterion of objectivity. This criterion is, of course, that of their logical coherence and consistency in the context of evolving communal perception and language. Far from being ‘merely subjective’, this criterion of logical objectivity is common to all who are of sound mind, and fits, perfectly, the description of what is ordinarily known as ‘commonsense’.

     So long, then, as we remain careful in attending to its continued construction, reconstruction and maintenance, this language of commonsense (philosophers call it Ordinary Language) is objective in a way which needs no reference to anything beyond itself. This is precisely the point that was made by Wittgenstein about the World being Language – or logos, as the Greeks called it (witness the fact that most of our departments of scientific knowledge still retain the suffix ‘-ology’ appended to their titles). On the other hand, any perceptions or conceptions assuming the status of absolute truths may serve as no more than stumbling-blocks in the path of true rational progress, since it is only in the context of experience as a matured whole that our ideas of what there is and how it is, can be properly verified and understood.

     Such, at any rate, was the holistic approach to knowledge that used to be called ‘Natural Philosophy’ until it disintegrated into the dissociated ‘specialisms’ that have since become known as ‘Science’. The material advantages for industry and commerce of this atomising of knowledge have, of course, been huge. Relieved of having to square ideas in each particular sector of expanding science with those in each and every other, the purely practical advantages this eclectic science offers to society – to our Western society, at any rate – can scarcely be doubted. Unfortunately, at the same time it fails,  as many non-Westerners judge, to produce anything like the sort of understanding a true science ought to provide of what man’s existence signifies in the larger scheme of things. In the past, societies that have been materially replete and relatively peaceful – as, for instance, that of Athens in the 5th Century B.C. and Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. – were able to afford pursuits of that more contemplative and far-reaching kind, with no compulsion for these studies to be what we now call ‘cost-effective’. Contrasted with this is the way in which, in the university curricula of modern Western Education, studies of that expansive sort, such as Philosophy, Theology – and even Theoretical Physics – have become more and more sidelined in favour of ‘focussed’ subjects such as Management, Business Studies and Information-Technology. Much of this is due, undoubtedly, to the already mentioned confusion that has become endemic in the more traditional subjects, following the disintegration of the Philosophy that was once regarded as ‘the Clearing House of the sciences’. Indeed, it is droll to consider that with Philosophy’s replacement by today’s more or less autonomous specialisms, doctorates in ‘Philosophy’ (Ph.Ds) may now be awarded in subjects like Sport, Tourism, Media Studies Business studies, Public Relations and so many more which have no connection whatsoever with the all-encompassing  subject, Philosophy, as originally implied by its title ‘Doctor of Philosophy‘.

     So, we might ask, what makes our modern society so different from those earlier societies that we can no longer afford to spread our intellects in the way they did? What else can we answer but that in the manner already described, we have muddied the waters that were so much clearer in those earlier days? We gain our ideas, nowadays, not so much from nature as from a clutter of age-old mechanistic traditions telling us how, behind and beyond all our perceptions of it, mindless matter, in and of itself, moves and interacts in self-sufficient space and time to create the world we see around us. The confusion this causes cannot, of course, be removed simply by fiat. Political, religious and military solutions therefore signally fail to achieve any commonsense consensus as to the significance of human life and society in this system of things. All they achieve is to muddy the waters still further, not only with the sludge of Western scientific tradition but also with the blood of those who find themselves at the rough edges of its technological advances.

     But how else should we seek to solve this catastrophic loss of commonsense other than by unpicking the conceptual fabric of current physics right back to where it all went wrong, mending the Cartesian split between ‘atoms’ and our ‘ideas of them’ and logically re-stitching it all from there? Our typically Western notion that Physics and Mathematics have to do with ‘the world as God sees it’, and Philosophy with no more than ‘our airy-fairy human ideas’ should then be disposed of in favour of a regenerated, more holistic and commonsense, natural philosophy, in which studies like Mechanics and those of Psychology, Sociology, Ethics  – and even objective Theology – become, once again, all part of the same Ph.D. curriculum.

     So far, however, the ‘Eureka!’ of logical realisation that led cloistered modern philosophy away from traditional ‘God’s Eye View’ Atomic Realism has not percolated through into contemporary Physics. This is undoubtedly due to the Education Apartheid that, in our materialistic Western culture, has separated Arts and Science, in which Science students are as ignorant about ‘Wittgenstein’ as many Arts students are about ‘Einstein’. To make good that omission is the task undertaken by a group of researchers on the basis of a rare extramural, extracurricular collaboration between graduates in Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy and Psychology. Normal Realism originated, in the nineteen-fifties, as a theory of the Philosophy of Science, but it has since led to the promise of new lines of enquiry in Physics, particularly in the areas of relativity, quantum theory and ‘gravitation’. Properly applied, Normal Realism offers a natural means of synthesising these hitherto disparate aspects of Natural Philosophy, providing a logical solution of the notorious EPR paradox and the allied problem of delayed versus instantaneous distant interaction. It will, of course, seem to those who are seeking to solve these problems under the conventional paradigm that these are very ambitious claims to make. Nevertheless, more and more papers and books are being published in which this synthesis is presented.

     The recent publication of a book on ‘instantaneous action-at-a-distance’ [1] has led to the convening of ‘spin-off’ meetings, or Workshops, at the University of Wales, Swansea and also at the University of the West of England, Bristol, where these radical ideas are being explored in depth – though not without controversy, it must be said. Nevertheless, a measure of consensus has been achieved and the proposed new system has been given the acronym POAMS (Pope-Osborne Angular Momentum Synthesis).

     But of course, revolutions take lifetimes to be consummated, and their beginnings may be unspectacular. So whether or not POAMS will succeed in becoming the ‘New Paradigm’, or ‘New Physics’, that so many agree is overdue, remains to be seen. What can truly be said about this newly explored philosophical departure, at the present time, is that after a very slow and inauspicious start, more than forty years ago, there are now definite signs that it is gathering ground.


[1]  Instantaneous Action-at-a-Distance in Modern Physics: Pro and Contra. Editors: A.E. Chubykalo, Viv Pope, R. Smirnov-Rueda, Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York (1999).