(5) The Familiar and the Commonplace

Our relationship to miracles and the miraculous is ambivalent. On the one hand, we crave the extraordinary and devour all reports and rumors of the occurrence of an event believed impossible; on the other hand, we fear such events because we perceive the unplanned, unwanted, unforeseen as a threat to our security. By contrast, the attitude of science is unambiguous. It scorns the miracle and mocks all who believe in it. If the validity of the laws of nature does by definition not allow any exception, there can be no miracles.

Science also rejects the miraculous, unless it elevates the formulas by which it describes physical processes, e.g., Einstein’s famous equation quantifying the ratio of mass to energy, to the status of objects of awe and admiration because of their miraculous simplicity. However, most scientists hasten to emphasize that even this formula only expresses that everything in the world happens in a completely natural way, so there too we find nothing miraculous. We can at most marvel at the extraordinary intelligence of those people who were the first to explain the machinery of nature and to represent it in such elegant and simple formulas.

Discussions about the miraculous in nature

take place in science at best among the real experts, e.g., when they try to understand quantum theory. After all, one of the most prominent authorities in the field, physicist Richard Feynman, was moved to remark, “If you think you understand quantum theory . . . you don’t understand quantum theory.”

No doubt, this statement provides a direct confrontation with the miraculous. A theory which in practice allows useful statisti­cal predictions of physical processes is said to be inaccessible to reason. This is also illustrated by the so-called Copenhagen inter­pretation with the popular metaphor of a black box. If we do not open it, the cat inside is both dead and alive. As soon as we open it, it is only one of both: either dead or alive.

If you want to understand the paradox of the cat

that is dead and alive at the same time, you must go beyond the metaphor. You must complete years of study in quantum physics. This could be interpreted as if the encounter with the miraculous had to remain the preserve of the experts. Doesn’t this remind us of earlier, dark times when religion reigned supreme? For a millennium and a half, reading the Bible was the privilege of experts, i.e., priests. To prevent people from relying on their own judgment and criticizing its often grotesque and contradictory content, the priests not only insisted that the Bible remain inaccessible to lay people, but also that sermons be delivered in a language they could not understand, namely Latin. If unautho­rized persons nevertheless dared to enter the enclosure of the priestly monopolists of truth, they risked persecution as heretics, possibly even death at the stake.

Meanwhile, the natural sciences have become no less remote from the understanding of ordinary people. With the cordon sanitaire of their respective technical language, they effectively close themselves off from the laity. Thus, the impression must arise that only those have the right to talk about God and nature who successfully completed specialized seminars and acquired the corresponding diploma.

In contrast, the democratic task of critical

thinking is to prove that even the highest towers of religion and science are built on the pedestal of a few basic truths that every human being is capable of understanding. We do not have to look for the miraculous in quantum theory – it reveals itself much more obviously and with far greater clarity in quite familiar and everyday facts. To open our eyes to this truth was the aim of Kant’s “pure reason” (when he discussed antinomies).

Let’s take a process of seemingly utmost banality, like the movement of my arm because I want to move it. Or think of the departure of an army of tankers to the Ukrainian border because Vladimir Putin just gave the order to do so. Mere thoughts – the modifications of neurons within a human brain – can trigger the greatest physical events, although according to the textbooks of physics even the smallest change or movement is fundamentally dependent on and caused by natural laws. However, the thoughts in the head of a Vladimir Putin or of all those billions of actors who constantly change the events in our world are not due to any natural law known to us.

This obvious contradiction,

this confrontation with the miraculous, which so far defies any explanation, is hardly ever discussed. Experts are agreed that this problem is none of their business – at least for the time being. Problems that – at least for the moment – seem unsolvable are tacitly suppressed. The representatives of religion were anxious to hide the contradictions and riddles of the Bible from people so that they would not doubt their supposedly higher knowledge, the experts of science suppress the most elementary riddles of reality for quite the same reason. In other words, the experts keep silent about the miraculous. This saves them from admitting their ignorance.

The familiar is anything but ordinary

This insight imposes itself the moment we realize that the ordinary is by no means identical with what we understand. Let us take another example. As long as people believed that the earth was a disk, there existed an upside as well as a downside. The sky above your head indicated the direction upwards. So, once you reached the edge of the disk you would, of course, fall downwards. Meanwhile we know that the earth is a sphere and therefore there can be neither top nor bottom. Or more correctly said, the sky above the heads of the Australians designates the direction upwards for them as well as for us on the opposite side of the sphere. But this means that the idea of above and below, so familiar to each of us, cannot apply to cosmological space. It is, in fact, just as incomprehensible as the force of gravity that keeps every German just as firmly glued to the planet as Australians on the other side of the globe.

Gravity is such an ordinary fact of everyday life that no one gives it any thought at all. Nevertheless, we could apply Richard Feynman’s above-mentioned statement to gravitation too: “If you think that you have understood gravitation … then /that is proof/ that you do not understand it.” It is true that physics has no difficulty in quantifying its effects with the greatest accuracy for any distance from the center of the earth. Nevertheless, this invisible force is beyond our understanding. We know that it exists and has exactly measurable effects, but why it is there and why this invisible force succeeds to glue us reliably to the globe and to steer the course of far-away celestial bodies, we simply do not know. Some (like for instance Karl Popper) concluded that questions about the essence of physical phenomena are inadmissible and should therefore be kept out of science. The essence of any force, i.e., what it actually is, need not interest us, it is sufficient that we can describe its effects in detail and use them for our purposes. 

Others have grasped the obvious paradox

To these others belongs no less a person than Immanuel Kant, who dealt with a similar problem, namely the extension of space. Its experience is one of the habitual facts of life about which we seldom or never think. But once this happens, we immediately encounter the miraculous – Kant called it “antinomy” (an impasse for perception and conception as well). We cannot accept that the world is finite, because after every limit we expect further spaces. But we cannot imagine its infinity either, because infinity is for us inconceivable. At this point Kant encountered the wonder of a world that is beyond human comprehension. This is how he presented the paradoxical in the chapter On the Antinomies of Pure Reason. This will be discussed later (cf. chapter Pioneers of Antignosis: Hume, Kant, Popper).

The fact is that our ability to comprehend reality

is limited. This explains why we are so much shaken by the antinomy of space, which we can neither imagine to be finite nor infinite. Our senses and our mind are made for the intermediate world between the infinite smallness of the atoms and the infinite grandeur of the universe. More than a century ago, quantum physics had already shown that we do not understand the realm of the very small. In our time modern astrophysics has demon­strated the same truth for the realm of the exceedingly large. It points to black holes, so-called “singularities”, where the laws of nature that govern the Intermediate World lose their validity and possibly universes with completely different regularities arise.There will be an eternal dispute among experts about the paradoxes of time and space. But this need not interest us. We may forget quantum physics, and the singularities of astrophysics. That is not the place where we need to look for the miraculous – it surrounds us on all sides. But we don’t notice it because we confuse the ordinary with what we understand. Chapter taken from my book The Miraculous and its Enemies).

The Miraculous and its Enemies (1)

This is an excerpt from my new book „Das Wunderbare und seine Feinde“.  The english translation „The Miraculous and its Enemies” will be completed within a few weeks.

Preface

This book is certainly not an esoteric attempt to counter the prevailing scientific worldview with a neo-obscurantist theory of miracles. It would be a miracle in the classical sense if, in a cemetery, coffin lids were suddenly lifted, and the dead were to rise again. It would be a miracle as well if an eagle suddenly hatched from a hen’s egg, if water turned into wine, if God stepped out of a burning bush, or if a magician succeeded in overriding a natural law of physics by the mere power of his mind.

Such and even more extraordinary miracles have been ascribed by religions all over the world to their respective deities – and their followers have believed them fervently Today, this is no longer the case. At least since the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, science has relentlessly ridiculed such claims and rejected them as superstition. This view is unswervingly maintained in the present book – even if, as already shown by Karl Popper, the sciences themselves are by no means immune to the temptation to flirt with superstition ….

The miraculous is an altogether different matter

It is all around us, even though the routine of everyday life has made most people almost blind to its presence. They are continuously told that only fools are amazed by the phenomena of this world. In contrast, every scientifically enlightened and educated person knows that everything happens in nature in the most natural way. A great poet like Saint-Exupéry had to transfer the Little Prince to an asteroid in order to make these educated and enlightened beings aware of their truly unbelievable situation in the vastness of the universe. And Immanuel Kant had to invoke the starry sky and the moral law in his chest to get in touch with the mystery of life and to make his readers shiver. But even this great man did not keep up the mode of inner shock for long; right after Kant was busy to press the mystery into abstract formulas. The trembling before a reality more powerful than human reason, that seeks to tame it, is the privilege of spiritual openness. It opens the eyes to mysteries that man has been trying to unravel since the beginning of history. In other words, such spiritual experience opens the eyes to the miraculous that lies at the bottom and beyond everyday life.

Who faces such mystery without blinders,

knows that THE TRUTH remains inaccessible, even if an infinite number of partial truths are constantly revealed. After two centuries of industrial revolution, the scientifically proven knowledge of facts and laws has swelled to a torrent that is getting wider day by day. Superficially, it might seem that modern man is about to solve even the last riddles of his existence. But it should give pause for reflection that he was already imbued with this conviction more than a hundred years earlier, when his knowledge was incomparably less than it is today. In 1899 Ernst Haeckel published a book with the title Die Welträthsel (The Riddle of the Universe). There, the author triumphantly claimed that all mysteries had by now been successfully solved by science. True, there still remained a last mystery, the Kantian “thing-in-itself”; but that was probably because this strange thing could be a mere invention.

From Haeckel’s book – by far the greatest popular success in the history of the German book – it can be seen that the proclaimed unraveling of mysteries has little or nothing to do with the actual state of knowledge of a particular time and author. This amazing realization is brought home to us even more forcefully when we take a much larger leap into the past. Two and a half thousand years ago, the two Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus were deeply convinced that they could fully explain and trace back all events to the different relations of smallest material particles, which they called “atoms”.  In this way, they created an all-encompassing mechanistic worldview that made the gods as superfluous as sentient and willing humans. But note that the knowledge then was close to zero compared to its present state. Obviously, it is not its extent and depth that makes certain people accept or reject the miraculous. Indeed, it was simple wishful thinking that led the two Greek philosophers to anticipate Laplace’s notorious formula (see chapter Science-Religion: Disenchanting Man and Nature).

Modern science

is neither the only nor the first attempt to make the desire for divine knowledge the father of thought. No matter how great or limited actual knowledge was, there existed always some foolhardy theorists who thought themselves able to occupy that lofty armchair somewhere in space, on which man had previously enthroned the divine creator of the world. If these theorists had rightly claimed to solve all mysteries, then man would have succeeded not only in banishing forever all miracles but the miraculous as well. What mystery will remain once we have completely decoded all events, put everything into formulas, and used these to explain all futures so that we can predict human actions as reliably as the orbits of planets?

In truth, we are dealing

with mere wishful thinking, which I will call “science-religion”. It is precisely the greatest scientists who are quite aware that one solved problem immediately conjures up a dozen others. The brighter the ray of light that the discerning spirit casts into the surrounding darkness, the more the spaces touched by that light expand. Science is the attempt to advance into the infinite with the finite means of discerning reason. The miraculous is never exhausted in the process.

Nor is science

the only way in which we approach reality. This is impossible, since science addresses only the intellectually cognizing faculty. Feelings and sensations are suppressed because they are only “subjective” – dependent on the wishes and desires of the person. In contrast, scientific truth is said to be fundamentally independent of desire and will, so that it can grasp reality “objectively” without involving personal inclinations. A piece of glucose on my tongue can trigger joy, but the chemical formula C6H12O6 leaves my feelings untouched. This is because the emerging scientific formula owes its origin exclusively to the requirements of the analytical mind. The value of science to man is thus only instrumental (although the act of discovering a scientific law can, of course, move its author strongly in an emotional way). Science gives us security in dealing with the things of the world; it achieves its greatest success when it allows us to plan or predict the future. In this way, it indirectly serves human emotions as well, for security satisfies an elementary need – it frees us from fear of the unplannable, the unpredictable.

But man would be deprived of the fullness

of his humanity if he encountered reality only in a scientific way, i.e., by applying his analytical abilities to describe reality objectively – without regard to his feelings. In addition to the scientific approach, there is a second way of dealing with reality that radically differs from the scientific one. Here, too, we are dealing with a form of cognition, but it is of a completely different kind. Instead of deciphering existing reality, this cognition consists in creating realities. In other words, it creates truth and its physical manifestations instead of merely recognizing them.

Of course, I am talking about art

It is not miracles that manifests itself in art – miracles were rightly disposed of by science – but the miraculous. Though art is by no means identical with the beautiful (this point will be discussed later), it often consists in its conscious creation. Beauty is not a description of what exists on the basis of intellectual analysis, and it is certainly not an emotionally uninvolved testimony. Beauty is the projection of our intellectual together with our emotional forces to bring forth something that does not yet exist. Art makes man a creator, because beauty is a new truth and reality that cannot be deduced from the existing one, but originates in the human being – his brain and his heart. Science, on the other hand, does not establish a new truth and a new reality because both can be derived – in an analytical and generalizing form – from what is already objectively present in an infinite number of individual events. A law of nature is not an invention of man – it is a finding of something already existing.

Let us arbitrarily pick out

one of an infinite number of examples illustrating beauty: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. From a scientific perspective we can easily understand why the supply of calories keeps us alive. But how can we understand that mere vibrations of the air can put us into ecstasy – vibrations produced by blowing through pipes and by the scratching of horsehair on metallic strings, for that’s indeed what symphonies consists of. This is and remains an insoluble mystery: the epitome of the beautiful and the miraculous. In order to be shaken by this mystery, we do not need a suspension of the laws of nature, and we do not need miracles. We only need to look at the smiling face of a human being, when the latter, conquered by rhythm and melody, experiences something invisible, intangible, which touches him more strongly than the everyday acts of his physical existence.

From a physical point of view, the mere vibrations of air molecules are almost unreal. And yet their effect can be so overwhelming that some of us can only endure everyday life because music temporarily catapults us into another, higher form of existence – into the miraculous.  Of course, this too is a form of cognition, for it shapes us just as it shapes our experience of external things. The world transforms itself and ourselves through the experience of the beautiful

Contact with the miraculous

makes everyday life tolerable, it bewitches reality. On the other hand, the de-enchantment of reality is responsible for the fact that many people find their own lives and the world around them difficult to bear. Must science take the blame for alienation from nature and man?

No, it is certainly not that simple. It is only partially correct to blame science for this disillusionment. But there is no doubt that they have deprived the world of much charm and poetry. Before William Harvey (1578 – 1657) the heart was a mysterious organ – for many peoples and times the seat of supernatural powers. After Harvey, the heart was just a simple pump. On the one hand, this was an enormous leap of knowledge – expansion of verifiable truth, on the other hand, it was an emotional loss: a pump no longer lends itself to extravagant poetic parables. For poetry, the heart was lost – disenchanted. The same trivialization of reality due to successive advances in truth achieved by the analytical mind soon affected larger and larger areas of nature as for instance the celestial bodies. Until the advent of modern astronomy and spectroscopy, planets and stars were considered the seats of the gods or even their very embodiments. Today they are only flying clusters of different chemical structure. For our feelings they have become icy cold and lost all attraction. We would not wish our worst enemies to stay on one of these desolate structures, let alone the gods (if we still believe in them).

What a radical disenchantment! When we look around us, we see that scientific explanation has laid a gray mildew on things robbing them of their poetry. The heart became a pump, the whole reality surrounding us became a mere machine of varying complexity.

However, since the beginning of the last century

something strange, rather unexpected has happened. Quantum theory made physics so extraordinarily complex that its theories and products once again exude a kind of magic. Newton’s general celestial mechanics, which describes the motion of stars as well as that of a falling apple on our planet, was comprehensible (almost) to everyone. By virtue of the reliability of its formulas it worked as a revelation for the inquiring intellect, and as a cold disillusionment for human feeling. While the cosmos had been pulsating with life before Newton, after him man only faced a gigantic clockwork, which he could understand but not love. Who loves such a dead thing as a mechanism working according to stubborn rules?

But in 1900 Max Planck developed the basic idea of quantum mechanics and one and a half decades later Albert Einstein achieved world-wide fame with his general theory of relativity. As its greatest authorities unanimously proclaim, quantum theory can no longer be visualized. The reality of the atom no longer corresponds to the reality of the Middle World where we live (cf. Chap. “The Failed Revolution of Quantum Physics”).

The failure of the human mind to grasp the strange reality of the infinitely small could not remain without consequences. Suddenly, the image of nature as a clockwork and dead mechanics had become obsolete. Mystery had returned, because for natural science there is no greater mystery than when it must admit that it can no longer explain parts of the external world (even if these can still be manipulated – otherwise the new theory would be superfluous in the first place). In view of this development, we may claim that the supreme discipline of science, physics, while having radically disenchanted nature in the past, has now given it back some of its lost mystery. What we do not understand is mystery to our mind.

This re-enchantment applies not only to theory,

but extends to many modern products that we owe to it. Just think of computers or cell phones to get an idea. People would not be so addicted to them, they would not work and play with these things so obsessively, if these devices did not seem to them to be mysterious and downright inexhaustible. How a classic telephone worked was still easy to understand, even for the layman. It had a specific task to fulfill, the transmission of speech; its use was confined to that purpose. A smartphone, however, offers an almost unmanageable wealth of these and other functions; not only does it pose an intellectual challenge, but it also captivates the emotions when its users lose themselves in exciting games. For many people, the latest products of science suddenly turn into gadgets of magic and sorcery, because at best one in a thousand persons knows how such devices actually work.

Ours are paradoxical times

I just claimed that art creates new, unprecedented realities, while science describes existing realities. This statement seems logically incontestable, but is it not contradicted by facts? Until the 18th century, the shaping of reality all over the world was mainly achieved through art. Temples and cathedrals, gardens and castles are the most visible examples of this transformation of reality by man. Add to this the realm of the invisible, namely music and poetry, and the evidence for the reality-shaping power of art is overwhelming.

But this power of art over reality has been broken since the end of the 18th century. Since then, it is the products of science that transform the nature around us to such an extent that the people of earlier times would hardly recognize their former world in the present one. There are thousands of new scientific devices – railroads, automobiles, airplanes – and thousands of factories for their production that now determine the appearance of our cities and landscapes as well as our daily life. The real achievement of science, visible to everyone, is obviously not that it correctly describes the order of nature with its laws, but that it radically reshapes nature in the briefest of moments in an unprecedented way – and far more comprehensively than art has ever been able to do.

How does this fit together?

On the one hand, science as the totality of all objectively verifiable statements about the world around us and, on the other hand, science as the most effective instrument for the creation of new, unprecedented realities, i.e. as an instrument for the unleashing of human freedom?

As we will see, this does not at all fit together. It is precisely at this point that we encounter the miraculous, which science itself is not able to explain. The unleashing of human freedom by a science that denies freedom altogether or equates it with meaningless chance is surely one of the greatest paradoxes of our time (see chapter: “Democratic Antignosis in Our Time”).

Seen in this light, it is a rather modest paradox,

that for at least a century the most talented and ambitious minds have been crowding into the sciences, and specifically into the sciences of nature, because their utility in increasing the wealth, power, and prestige of states is so evident. On the other hand, the arts and the sciences of the mind have been withering away for decades. They are being kept on an ever-shorter leash because the material benefits that can be derived from them are comparatively small.

What a contrast to the past? While five hundred years ago men of talent devoted themselves to the arts and made Italy the wonder it remains today because of its many testimonies of beauty, the outstanding minds of today devote all their energy to the natural sciences and everything related to them. However, although they produce intellectual wealth, increase analytical abilities, and turn us into rational people with growing intelligence quotients, the sciences leave a spiritual and emotional vacuum because they do not satisfy the human need for emotional warmth and spiritual security. In their theoretical foundation they have no place for ethical ideals and aesthetic beauty. What concerns the human being, if he wants to give a meaning to his existence, is beyond their grasp and their interest. We easily understand why miracles have no place in the scientific world view. If the laws of nature are by definition eternal and unbreakable, then breaking them constitutes a logical absurdity. But why has the miraculous disappeared completely from man’s field of vision since the advent of science? This fact cannot be justified with logic – it belongs to the prejudices of science as a new type of secularized religion.Uncovering these prejudices is not a task for experts, who are rather anxious to administer their knowledge like a monopoly. It is a task of that basic human faculty which Kant had called “pure reason”. I will speak of “democratic antignosis”.


Charles Darwin, Chance and the good Lord – a Philosophical Excursion

In 1970 Jacques Monod’s seminal book “Le Hasard et la Nécessité” (Chance and Necessity) was published, on the cover of which the renowned biochemist summed up in a single and concise formula the world view that had dominated first Europe and then the entire world since the 17th century. For the objective scientist, so Monod’s message, the world is nothing but chance and necessity. For there is nothing in the world but these two principles alone: on the one hand, necessity representing that order, which the natural sciences explore in the shape of laws, and on the other hand, chance, which denotes the void within this order – in other words, a meaningless nothing with which science does not know what to do. Since Monod established this formula, neurology has made tremendous progress, his book is certainly no longer “up-to-date”, but the view that reality has nothing else to offer but these two dimensions has become even more entrenched. According to a now prevalent view, our world is made of calculable mechanisms of the physical and neuronal world, and the yawning emptiness of meaningless chance.

Continue reading Charles Darwin, Chance and the good Lord – a Philosophical Excursion

Jenner on Jenner: Outline of a mind-related biography

As human beings we are controlled by emotions and by our intellect – at any time both are invariably involved, even if it sometimes seems as if we are dealing with either purely emotional people or pure intellectuals. A mathematic formula, for example, which to an average person may seem as cold, lifeless and repellent as a prison wall, may produce enchantment and ecstasy in a mathematician who perceives it something extremely beautiful and elegant. In other words, he experiences much the same feelings as a musician who is playing Mozart or Bach. Feelings and the intellect don’t present themselves to us with an either-or, but we may definitely speak of prevailing tendencies.

Continue reading Jenner on Jenner: Outline of a mind-related biography

Socrates versus Minsky – can Artificial Intelligence replace the Human Brain?

Socrates

Let’s get away from the disturbing problems of the present, in order to turn back to those much more basic and lasting ones which concern the nature of man. Mr. Marvin Minsky, you were the leading authority on Artificial Intelligence, glad to meet you in paradise!

Continue reading Socrates versus Minsky – can Artificial Intelligence replace the Human Brain?

De gustibus EST disputandum!

An important, perhaps the most important, task of a good teacher is to dissuade students from making hasty judgments, for it is with this craving that we come into the world, while on the contrary reason only develops very slowly. Infants immediately start crying when they feel unwell and they smile when being treated kindly. But the vocabulary of pubescent young people still contains mainly expressions like super, cool, great or negative ones like poo, disgusting, evil etc. The aversion to independent thinking and the tendency to replace arguments with hasty values and judgments remains in later life – for many people throughout their lives.

Continue reading De gustibus EST disputandum!