The border landscape between the knowable present and the eternal unthinkable
By: Jean Guitton and the Bogdanov brothers.
Book Review (1)
This book discusses the results of scientific work that blurs the lines between what is experimentally verifiable and the realm of the world of faith. This blurring seems to announce the end of classical materialism and confronts us with a new school of thought that attempts, so to speak, to make a synthesis between the old materialist and spiritualist currents. The author has given it the name “meta realism” because it is a metaphysics that addresses the essence of reality in a way that far exceeds previous realism. This “realism to the bone” ultimately falls in favor of spiritualism, while materialism is stripped of its foundation: the very existence of matter and the primordial role of blind chance.
Two contemporary physicists, Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, asked Jean Guitton (2) to exchange ideas on this burgeoning worldview. From subsequent conversations this work was born, as an exposition in the form of questions and answers, intertwined with wonder and unsatisfied curiosity, according to the best of philosophical traditions. The layman, who is not scientifically or philosophically trained, is taken step by step on the path of the limits of current human knowledge. As he is introduced to the mysteries of staggering research results that seem to juggle elementary logic, he must find that much of this knowledge has been around for some time, and that some of its elements have provided a fruitful platform for discussion for limited circles of great physicists and other great scholars since the nineteen hundred. The slowness with which new global visions emerge from this and penetrate a wider audience stands in stark contrast to the speed with which the latest discoveries are being transformed into new technological developments.
For those who care about the spiritual evolution that will determine the face of the twenty-first century, this is a valuable and informative book. However, I believe it is better to maintain a critical distancing from some of the aspects that are discussed, both from a Christian religious and scientific point of view. Topics range from the unimaginably small to the immeasurably large. We will comment on some of its main points, drawing inspiration from what might be called “Christian realism”.
In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck described the so-called “quantum of action”. It is a constant that represents the smallest amount of energy that exists in our universe. This constant determines the extreme limit of the divisibility of radiation and therefore of any divisibility: it determines, among other things, the smallest possible distance between two apparently separate objects and the smallest possible unit of time. The author rightly asks the staggering questions: why do these limits exist and who decided them? What’s beyond them? The known universe is thus sealed as if by a wall.
Studying galaxies has given us the speed at which they have moved away from each other. By calculating in the opposite direction, the moment when the entire universe was concentrated in a sphere that was billions x billions x billions times smaller than an atomic nucleus can be determined. The universe was then 10 -43 seconds old: called the “Planck wall”. Physics can go no further. The few physicists who thought they had glimpsed what lies beyond this time limit cannot say a meaningful word about it. One of them, approached by Jean Guitton, gave the impression of having experienced a metaphysical hallucination that had marked him for life. He saw something as a kind of inverted temporal explosion, where the future became the past and the moments eternities.
But why are we so baffled by the existence of these impassable boundaries, as defined by Planck’s constant ? Isn’t our world of life and thought made of borders? Everything we know, perceive and differentiate is characterized by its typical limitations. Moreover, Immanuel Kant, the great master of philosophical logic, already clearly indicated to us in the 18th century where the limits of human understanding lie.
And yet, there remains something magical, something irrevocable, at these extreme limits. Somewhere inside us, we continue to crave liberating answers to the questions of the why of our inner reality and the how of a timeless reality. And if we dare to think further, the question of “Who?” also arises. Like any border demarcation, Planck’s wall presents us with a sign. It tells us: Someone said stop: until there the universe of the knowable, like an island of time in a timeless ocean.
Quantum theory is based on the study of the smallest observable particles. It leads to conclusions that force researchers specializing in this field to express themselves more and more in terms of metaphysical or even religious nature. Physicist John Wheeler says of the “something” that preceded the beginning of creation: “Everything we know has its origin in an infinite ocean of energy that emerges out of nowhere.” According to quantum physicist David Bohm, time, space, matter and the universe are “just an extremely small ripple on an underlying whole, which itself comes from an eternally creative external source.”
If we turn our attention to the starry sky, we discover countless celestial bodies. But the totality of its staggering mass is eclipsed by the incomprehensible vastness of the void in which this mass is scattered like tiny grains. If we then replace telescopes with microscopes, we tend to think that the objects of study are matter filled with smaller and smaller parts. But also in this case, we find ourselves face to face with a vacuum, in which we find a gigantic amount of atoms that, however, occupy almost no space. Every atom is almost completely empty, except for some electrons and nuclear particles, which also turn out not to be material objects. Quantum physics describes them as “tendencies to exist” or “correlations between things observable under a microscope.” Today’s physicists have devised a theory that is the fusion of the earlier theory of relativity and quantum mechanics: the “relativistic quantum field theory.” In this, a particle does not exist by itself, but only by its effect. All the effects give rise to “fields” (electromagnetic field, gravitational field, proton, electron field).
The more powerful the particle accelerators available to quantum specialists, the more particles are discovered. They are given scientific-sounding names (photons, neutrons, hadrons, quanta, leptons, …) or sometimes romantic, such as “charm”. The smallest are called quarks. Their existence is assumed, but they have not yet been directly observed and are considered elusive by many physicists. The lifetime of some particles is sometimes so short that only the most sensitive instruments can register their presence. But what is the end result of all this recording and research work?
The study of the comings and goings of fundamental particles, their functioning and their interactions has forced a fundamental revision of the scientific concepts of observable reality. Matter has given way to a void of quanta, charged with energy. Elementary particles are there or appear and disappear spontaneously due to so-called “state fluctuations”. Some more stable particles form atoms through their fields and thus objects with their apparent filling. A vacuum charged with a certain amount of energy can therefore spontaneously create matter, which is still partly done in the form of volatile particles. Quantum physics suggests that the cause of the Big Bang was the transfer of an immeasurable flow of energy to the original vacuum.
The actual nature of the particles does not yet seem clear. A waveform, an energy packet, a reaction phenomenon, a mixture of all of these, or, as already mentioned, a “tendency to exist”? After all, the fields themselves would be fields of information. All of this, of course, has a speculative character, since physicists are doing a theoretical study of something over which they have little or no control. But the nature of what cannot be studied directly can be seen from its consequences. If the supposed fields did not contain very precise and focused information, they could never give rise to the world we have: a world of relatively stable objects whose interactions are mathematically predictable and with an extremely complicated composition of balancing forces and vibrations.
Again, it is only a matter of humility and honesty to take the step forward and ask with awe the question of the Being who assigned these incredibly large flows of energy loaded with information to our time island.
Finally, there is something that I miss in the intervention of Jean Guitton and his interlocutors: namely the question of the nature of the vacuum itself. A complete vacuum does not exist in practice, because there is always a minimum of radiation everywhere. We are therefore talking about a quantum vacuum, a concept that seems to have proved its worth. But is a “theoretical vacuum” possible? Can a bounded or unbounded space full of “nothing” exist ? Personally, I don’t think so. The fact that reality IS there excludes, in my opinion, the possibility of any “absolutely nothing”. The void will be further discussed later, when we dig even deeper into the basis of reality following an intriguing scientific test.
The essence of reality
In the above, an attempt has been made to give a brief overview of some of the discoveries that physicists have arrived at after a century of reflection and research. More and more of them see the universe as a giant scene of information processing. (3)
The author believes that this scientific revolution will lead to a third era of physics: after the inventory of motions by Galileo, Kepler and Newton and quantum physics that made an inventory of the laws that govern changes, the next step would be to decipher the why of the laws of nature themselves. However, his enthusiasm is tempered by Grichka Bogdanov’s remark that fundamental processes lie at the level of the “information network” beyond the world of elementary particles. The technique should solve this problem. How this can be done is absolutely unclear, given that, as explained above, we are irrevocably colliding with Planck’s border wall .
Moreover, quantum theory did not stop at an inventory, but analyzed reality even more thoroughly. She came to the conclusion that if an object is observed at the atomic level, its very existence or reality is related to how we perceive it.
To illustrate this mysterious link, a famous trial is cited, first performed by Thomas Young in 1801. Its layout is quite simple: a surface with two narrow vertical slits, with a light source in front of it and a screen behind it. The figure projected on the screen curiously shows a pattern of alternating dark and light stripes. This is a typical interference model, and so Young’s logical conclusion was that light is a fluid that propagates with wave motion. But Einstein argued that light is composed of elementary particles, photons. The question then is how these swirling particles can form such a precise pattern. It also appears that if one “pulls” photon by photon from the strongly weakened light source, the impact site of a photon (and therefore its behavior) is modified by closing one of the two slits. Thus, the particle seems to “know” whether the slit is closed or not. In fact, if we want to determine experimentally through which slit each photon passes, then each particle behaves exactly as one would expect from a particle passing through a slit and the totality of the impacts does not form an interference figure on the screen. If one does not care to follow one’s path during the test, then this figure is created.
This test gives rise to very profound conclusions and controversial reflections, in which we find ourselves in a quantum world extremely confusing for laymen, in which great scientists adopt the most far-fetched positions. Atomic scientist Niels Bohr responded as follows when someone presented him with a new explanation of the puzzles of quantum theory: “Your theory is crazy, but not crazy enough to be correct.” Some of the main possible hypotheses are: – particles have some kind of consciousness, – there are parallel worlds that are either all equally real but of which we observe only one, or are only virtual and only one becomes real through observation, – everything is connected to everything.
Jean Guitton assumed that the test proves that perception and therefore our consciousness has a direct influence on the behavior of the particle. His conclusion is that the mind is close to the invisible extremes of this world. There, in the enigmatic depths of quantum theory, our human minds and the spirit of God can meet. He sees the unpredictable behavior of particles as proof that we live in an indeterminate world. He calls the particles “God’s dice.” It is then up to us to roll these dice in the right direction. The Bogdanov brothers seem to agree, but their comments are limited to a drier scientific explanation. According to them, we must distance ourselves from the idea that the photon is a particular object. It is a wave function or “probability wave” until it has been observed and becomes what we call a particle only by observation. Similar reasoning applies to other particles.
The discussions that follow develop the existence or non-existence of parallel worlds that divide again and again with each new option and of which we know only one. This idea is rejected by Jean Guitton, and rightly so, in my opinion. In addition, we find ourselves in a world of thought in which current concepts about matter, consciousness and spirit are abandoned and the question arises, among other things, whether our field of consciousness does not belong to the same continuous as the quantum field.
Certainly not a literature suitable for readers who prefer to keep their feet in the earth of everyday human reality or who like clear and concrete data. To reassure them, the author of this article also expresses some reservations about the wonderful but sometimes too enthusiastic digressions of the great French philosopher.
Between all this violence of dizzying discoveries and scientific mega-theories, there is something that is not sufficiently addressed: scientific humility that leads to greater self-criticism. One wonders if scientists are not losing the pedals.
This may be the case with the conclusions of the experiment described above. It is assumed that a scientific observation comes to the conclusion that it is the observation that determines the result. Isn’t this a typical circular reasoning? We must bear in mind that at the quantum level, we are at and beyond the human perceptual capacity. In these circumstances, scientific prudence should take into account the serious possibility of errors in observation and evaluation. For example, if we look into too strong light, we see blind spots, which obviously do not really exist. Science always ultimately depends on the facts observed by humans. But our margin of observation is limited. After all, we only have five senses that send a limited range of external stimuli to our brain. Some animal species hear, smell, see and feel things we have no idea about. In addition, it is known that any observation or measure inevitably carries the danger of a modification of the study.
In Young’s experiment, I think the level of difficulty is pushed to the limit. We will perceive the medium itself that puts us able to perceive (light). It wasn’t clear to me before what light actually is, and after reading and re-reading the statements of quantum researchers, it certainly didn’t become clearer. The only certainties remain that it travels at a speed of ±,300,000 km/s and that it is composed of radiation with certain frequencies. But to the crucial questions “How does it move?” and “What exactly vibrates with these frequencies?”, quantum theory does not seem to me to give a satisfactory answer either. In the past, we talked about vibrations of “ether”, but according to my dictionary, this concept is outdated. And yet, could it not be that what we call “emptiness” consists of a vibrant environment that cannot be perceived by us? If we take a step back and systematically take into account the limited nature of our potential for perception, then we must dare to face the possibility that there is a vacuum that science cannot control. With the hypothetical acceptance of such a medium, interference and other phenomena can perhaps be explained better or more clearly than with the confusing vocabulary with which quantum theory now attempts to force the limits of our knowledge.
If we assume that “nothingness” cannot exist, then the icy void of interstellar space must be filled with something other than faint remnants of energy. So there is something that can be a medium that connects everything to everything. In this case, the speed at which a light signal from one place can be recorded in another is easy to explain. A hypothetical but logical answer can also be found for other quantum questions that we have not mentioned here and where, among other things, one particle seems to know what is happening to the other. And this alternative approach from the old box (the ether) also leads to one of the main decisions of quantum theory: everything is in continuous connection with everything.
The mathematical order of the universe
Among the wealth of fascinating information that is given to the reader in this inspiring book, we find mathematical data that makes a believing heart eager for joy. They clearly show us how precisely and brilliantly the laws that led to the creation of the universe and its maintenance were designed.
In creation, there are organizing forces that are still inexplicable, but that can be demonstrated mathematically. If we observe phenomena on a small scale, we often have the impression of chaos and chance, of particles, atoms or objects without law in their structure or behavior. If we look at the same phenomena in groups or on a larger scale, it becomes clear that there is an order everywhere unnoticed. Chaos specialists call the self-organizing model “the strange attractor.” An example is the uniform distribution of matter in the universe. The observable size of the universe is on the order of 1028 centimeters. On this scale, the total matter has a uniform density, measured with an accuracy of 10-25. On a smaller scale, however, there is heterogeneity, with galaxies seemingly scattered at random.
The entire universe relies on only a few constants, which can be calculated with extreme precision. Planck’s constant has already been discussed. In addition, there is the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the temperature of absolute zero, etc. The smallest change would have prevented the universe as we know it from arise. If the density of the universe 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang had shown only a slight difference with the critical density, its subsequent formation would not have been possible. The difference calculated with the critical density at that time is improbably small: about 10-40. The same perfect fit can be found with all other parameters. If the electromagnetic force were slightly stronger, chemical reactions would become impossible and consequently the formation of DNA. And so on. Computers preprogrammed to produce chance would take billions of billions of billions of years to find combinations of numbers similar to those that made life possible.
A symphony of precisely tuned numbers and powers was deployed at the birth of time and space in the perfect symmetry of an incredibly small pinhead. Since then, this symphony accompanies the raging forces of disorder and its infernal appearance. She brought the furious violence of the exploding universe to a dynamic harmony, in which life finally unfolded, foreseen, and calculated by the Cause of all that became.
Modern man who doubts need not fear that science will supplant God. Science belongs to Him and He uses it to His glory. The numbers celebrate his greatness and genius. Generations of materialistic scholars, who, with their blind belief in chaos and chance, created regimes that tyrannized entire peoples with their godless ideology, are covered in shame. If they had studied this symphony with simplicity, they would have recognized the greatness of the Composer, the materialistic scales would have fallen from their eyes, and they would have finally seen what is spontaneously obvious to many simple and illiterate people.
Science has shown us that order emerges from apparent disorder. But what exactly is “order”? Something that complies with fixed laws? But why exactly these laws? Isn’t it time to describe order as what corresponds to the will of the Great Ultimate Attractor?
Wanderings of science
It seems that the scientific world, bewildered by the particular behavior of the smallest particles, is swinging its pendulum, moving from an extremely skeptical attitude with a predominantly materialistic stance to views that seem rather spiritual (or virtual?) of nature. One goes so far as to make the very existence depend on what we call the concrete reality of its perception.
In such a context, we abandon the sure path of logic, that is, the laws that (should) govern our thinking. After all, if reality depended on its perception, not only would this particular observed reality only appear when we became aware of it, but also its history with its own chain of causes and effects, which in turn must have had consequences on other perceived realities. All this should then be perfectly right, so that the set of facts observed forms a coherent whole for all possible observers. In addition, there is a need to define what is meant by “perception”. Seeing? The awareness that we “see” something? Do observations of beings other than ourselves, or other forms of perception, also apply here?
This is where the roles are reversed. Observation is only a medium between us and reality. The effect of this medium on recorded objects is generally small, while the impact on the observer can be significant. It stimulates the spheres of consciousness in the observer and sometimes creates new ones. If he takes the new addition to his consciousness as the causes of recorded reality, then he gets lost in a delusional world. The scientist who begins to think in this direction again assumes a divine function: this time not only lord and master of a neutral matter that generates secondary spiritual phenomena, but much more than that: his (scientific?) consciousness creates or directs the very existence of matter. After all, he becomes a candidate illusionist rather than a spiritualist or a meta realist.
Other scientists are trying to explain the quantum phenomena observed with the aforementioned theory of the ever-dividing parallel worlds parallel worlds of which we would know only one. This metaphysical attitude seems strangely closely related to the increasingly propagated mentality that assumes that all proclaimed truths are equal: the “each his truth,” or in Pilate’s variant: “What is the truth?” We thus opt for an easy solution, which trades the search for truth that characterizes the human being for fatalism. Meanwhile, many ex-believers have fallen into the trap of multiple truths who, for various reasons, continue to call themselves catholic.
Philosophical thought belongs to the human quest. The central question is “What is being?” If we try to formulate a satisfactory answer to this, we will notice that our intellectual instruments are inadequate. Meta realism won’t change that either. The more firmly we try to grasp the essence of being, the more it slips through our fingers. There is only one way to solve this problem: to complete our instruments with religious data, unprovable fundamental truths that we humbly accept have been made available to us by the Supreme Being himself, responding to the certainties that exist somewhere deep within us.
Jean Guitton does not put it this way, but speaks of his “intuition”. Thinkers like him are not infallible, but are part of the chain we need to decipher the language God gave to his creation. If we begin to understand it better, the chaotic gibberish of a self-righteous humanity will give way to a loud and ever-louder hymn in his honor.
(1) Original French edition: Dieu et la science, Ed. Grasset and Fasquelle, 1991.
(2) Jean Guitton (18 August 1901 – 21 March 1999) was a French Catholic philosopher and theologian.
Igor Yuryevich Bogdanoff (29 August 1949 – 3 January 2022) and Grichka Yuryevich Bogdanoff (29 August 1949 – 28 December 2021), also known as Bogdanov, were French twin brothers who gained fame as television presenters, and as popular scientists. (source: Wikipedia).
(3) (Later addition). The apostle and evangelist John had already understood this from his religious intuition: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… Everything was created by Him… ». Translated into scientific terms, it could be expressed in this way: “God gave creation the information that made it possible”.