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Mysticism In Modern Physics

MATERIALISM has triumphed over every attempt to discredit it on the ground of new discoveries in physics.
-JOSEPH McCABE, The Triumph of Materialism, p. 25.


MY able friend, Edwin Tenney Brewster, raises a pertinent question concerning the present status of materialism. Briefly, he puts the question: "Has materialism been discredited by the new physics?"


The answer, of course, very much depends on what one understands by the "new physics". Today almost anything goes, in a world of four dimensions and "curved" space. Ever since the Einsteinian vogue for verbal quackery arose we have been victimized by words. To the Waldemar Kaempfferts of modern "physics," lump of iron is no longer an aggregation of compact particles but "congealed energy"; to some of our rationalists and freethinkers abroad, calling themselves materialists, matter is "a cluster of behaviors".


How "behaviors" can ''cluster" or otherwise behave so as to become matter, or "energy" can be come "congealed" into an ax-head or a crowbar, is left to the imagination. The tyranny of words still plays havoc with clear thinking.


Actually the "new physics" is not essentially new, nor is it all physics. A good part of it is not even sane or intelligible. On the whole, it is a conglomeration of yoga mysticism and highly diluted science with a generous sprinkling of Berleian metaphysics. Our transcendental physicists do not deal with moving particles of substance in the manner of 19th century materialists, but with a "dematerialized", fast fading universe rapidly being absorbed by a spiritual world. To them, matter is obliterated or is suffering an eternal black-out. In a word, the material universe has been shot from under us.


But has it?


Materialism is defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica as "the theory which regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion, and in particular explains all psychical processes by physical and chemical changes in the nervous system."


The early materialists taught a material world, composed of tiny moving particles called "atoms". These were the indestructible bricks of the universe. "The conception that matter is made up of particles or atoms, and that these particles are in a state of ceaseless motion, is to be met with in Hindu and Phoenician philosophy," writes Sir Edward Thorpe. 1 "It was taught by Anaxagoras, Leukippos and Demokritos to the Greeks, and by Lucretius to the Romans."
1. History of Chemistry, p. 20.


The early concept of the atom was that of a hard, impenetrable, bullet-like particle. So far as we know, this may be a perfect description of the ultimate atom, far down. It is not our present idea of what we call the atom in laboratory work. Our present "atom" is a solar system itself, composed tiny material particles revolving around a central mass.


Of what, then, does the present atom consist? "The normal atom", says Jeans, 2 "consists of protons, electrons, and energy, each of which contributes something to its weight". Each part of the atom is material. The "energy" released from the atom in the form of radiation carries weight. All radiation is material. Even A- and B- rays are "material particles", says Jeans.3
2. The Universe Around Us, p. 118.
3. Ibid, p 119.


NO one has improved on Maxwell's concept of "energy". "Energy", says he, 4 "cannot exist except in connection with matter. . . . It has no individual existence, such as that which we attribute to particular portions of matter."
4. Matter and Motion, pp; 165-166.


"Energy" is merely a blanket term or convenient expression for matter at work. Yet it is loosely argued that since matter is reducible in terms of "energy", matter can thereby be destroyed or replaced by "energy". But every erg of "energy" is always identified by mass and weight. These are physical properties. We never find "energy" running around loose like a ghost nor apart from matter. "An erg of energy, in any form", says Eddington, 5 "has a mass of 1.1.10-21 grammes". Wherever we find "energy" we find matter.
5. Stars and Atoms, p. 97


A good deal of verbiage has wrapped itself around the "new physics". Words and phrases are used with little or no regard for their accepted meanings. Some of this is deliberately done to distort the facts. We still hear the "splitting" of the atom, referred to as if it meant the "annihilation" of matter. It means, of course, nothing of the kind.


What is "splitting" the atom? Briefly, separating the positive and negative charges of electricity called protons and electrons, of which the atom is composed. These were isolated by "bombarding" the atom with high power radioactive particles bearing a positive charge. Some of these "bullets", in hitting the nucleus, or positive charge of the atom, were repelled or deflected from their paths. The positive and negative particles of the atom were thereby exposed. The atom had been "split".


The sub-atomic world is material throughout. Our mystical physicists cannot name a single ingredient of the "split" atom that is not material. An electron, says Jeans, 6 is "a plain material particle". The electron has definite mass and weight so has the proton, which, is 1,855 times heavier than the electron. Nor can the mystic escape by saying that since everything is "electricity" We can dispense with matter. "Electricity is material", says Millikan. 7 Wherever we turn, we are confronted by matter.
6. The Universe Around Us, p. 130.
7. The Electron, p 186.


The "splitting" of the atom has in no way discredited the doctrine of materialism. On the contrary, it has strikingly confirmed what materialists have all along maintained, namely, that the ultimate unit of matter would probably be found very far down and that matter is subject to further division. That which passed for the "indivisible" atom in the laboratory would be broken down or found to consist of finer units.


The ancient Greek materialists held these views, which later were ardently championed by the great Roman materialist, Lucretius. Buchner, whose famous "Force and Matter" is a classic of materialism, taught that we must expect a finer division of matter before we reach the indestructible unit, or real atom. Years before Sir J. J. Thomson "split" the atom near the end of the last century, Buchner wrote: 8 "It has also become very probable through recent investigations that the substances heretofore regarded by us as elements or original bodies are nothing of the kind, but are themselves compounds, and that the so-called atoms therefore consist of units of a higher grade, as the molecule does of atoms". In a word, the "splitting" of the atom was here foreseen by a "gross" materialist of the 19th century.
8. Force and Matter, p. 38.


Clearly, then, the "splitting" of the atom has in no way ''exploded" the teaching of materialists. Matter is as indestructible as ever, and is so acknowledged in every text book on chemistry and physics. Not even the most mystical of modern physicists can deny this. Eddington, a leading exponent of transcendental physics, emphatically states: "We have no evidence that the annihilation of matter can occur in nature." 9
9. Stars and Atoms, p. 101


The whole plea for a metaphysical "physics" rests on the erroneous idea that since we cannot predict certain activities far down in the atom, materialism is ruled out. Our inability to register all movements in the sub-atomic world merely means that our implements of detection have not yet been brought to a proper state of precision. We are here dealing with rarefied forms of matter or infinitely small particles, whose complicated motions are beyond the range of our most sensitive instruments. We are facing a world of infinitesimal particles, moving about at terrific speeds and in variable orbits. How small these individual parts are may be visualized from the fact that the hydrogen atom alone weighs only 1.662x10-24 grammes, while the nucleus itself has a diameter of only a millionth of a millionth of an inch.


So far as the parts that make up the "split" atom are concerned, we know that they are material, the central portion, or nucleus bearing a positive charge of electricity, the electron (or electrons) bearing a negative charge. What their patterns or configurations are no one knows. "Neither you nor I", says Jeans, 10 "have any direct experience of either electrons or protons, and no one has so far any inkling of what they are really like." We can visualize their appearance and arrangement only by what occurs or by observing the behavior of the atom.
10. The Universe Around Us, p. 133.


Here lies an Elysian field far the metaphysician and the mystic and a crop of falsehoods. Matter, says the mystic, is becoming more "unpredictable", more "ghostly", more "uncertain", more "unreal", as we delve into its interior. Which is sheer rubbish.


The Heisenberg experiments are frequently cited as damaging to materialism since they are supposed to show there is no stability underlying the physical universe. We cannot depend on what the electrons will do next. This is ludicrous enough. If Heisenberg has knocked "predictability" out of the realm of microcosmic phenomena, he hasn't bothered our laboratory technicians. Real physicists today smile at our sub-atomic mystics and religious ghost chasers. In spite of highly complicated movements within the atom itself, steel girders still stick together, the Empire State Building is where it was before, and you can lease an office in the structure without fearing that it will disappear when your hack is turned. "Predictability" in physics and chemistry is a safe procedure for those who do not follow the rainbow chasers of "modern physics". Matter is still with us, regardless of the grasshopper antics and hopping around of tiny electrons. And it stays put. I myself own a chip of an Egyptian obelisk which is thirty-five centuries old. In spite of its "unpredictable" sub-atomic movements, I predict it will remain a piece of granite for ages to come.


At the World's Fair, General Electric generates 10,000,000 volts of electricity in its exhibit of artificial lightning. "Predictability" in every sense of the word! The charge is under complete control and is child's play in the hands of the operator. Here is physics for you, and no one is disturbed over Heisenberg's headaches as to what may happen next far down in the atom. All physics of a genuine character is based on "predictions" of what matter will do.


As Joseph McCabe wrote me not long ago, "there has been far too much nonsense written about a new physics and new astronomy favoring religion". I quite agree with him, and I lay the blame primarily on the muddlers of science who play up to the religious phantasies of popular credulity.


He who talks of art, and music, and other beautiful things of life as transcending the world of matter forgets that they are grounded in the very matter he affects to despise, and that even a rainbow is as physical as a bar of iron. A great drama, a wonderful painting, a superb statue cause reactions in the human organism as physical or materialistic as the drop of a hammer on our toes. "No one can doubt,"' says Bertrand Russell 11 "that the causes of our emotions when we read Shakespeare or hear Bach are purely physical. Thus we cannot escape the universality of physical causation."
11. The Analysis of Matter.


"Modern physics", writes Jacques Loeb,12 "is mechanistic." And he adds: "Since no discontinuity exists between the matter constituting living and nonliving bodies, biology must also be mechanistic." We must face the fact that all that is, is matter in motion.
12. Mechanistic Science and Metaphysical Romance (Yale Review.)


Real physics today has done something more than "split" the atom. It has blasted metaphysics sky-high and annihilated the pretensions of religion. It is crass mysticism and not "crude materialism" which is committed to the ash heap by modern Science. The doctrines of the mystics are as dry and dead as dinosaur dust.

Friends and Colleagues