A Living Universe (excerpt)


[The following text is drawn from a paper that is published online: westernfriend.org/media/living-universe]

Science began with the insight that the nature of physical reality might best be approached by observing and measuring without preconception the interaction of various physical materials and forces, by creating rational mathematical descriptions of those interactions, by using those mathematical descriptions to predict physical interactions, and finally by validating through experiment, observation and measurement the accuracy or inaccuracy of those theoretical predictions. With theories scientifically validated in this way, scientists were able to predict a growing number of interactions of materials and forces. Increasingly, humans seemed capable of ferreting out all the patterned regularities of the physical world, and the temptation arose to regard the entirety of the universe as consisting of patterned regularities susceptible at least in principle to detection by scientific sleuths.

One aspect of the original scientific insight was the goal of observing without human interference the interaction of various materials and forces. This “scientific objectivity” reflected a fruitful humility. Rather than telling nature what it was, scientists let nature do the talking. But scientific objectivity could never be absolute. The earliest experiments that measured the weight and speed of falling bodies still required the scientist to interact with the observed phenomena by creating the experimental apparatus, an apparatus needed both to isolate the event that was to be measured and to provide the means of measurement. Nevertheless, scientific objectivity remains a foundational method and philosophical framing which scientists continue to follow today.

While the standard of objectivity works well for investigations into the interaction of energy and inanimate matter, even there it encounters limits when investigators try to penetrate the extremes of physical reality, such as the interactions of subatomic “particles”. The uncertainty principle of physics states that you cannot simultaneously determine both the position and the momentum of a quantum {subatomic) particle. To measure either position or momentum, the scientist must use scientific instruments to interact with the subatomic particle but in thereby determining position they alter the particle’s momentum (making it impossible to measure momentum) or in determining momentum they alter the particle’s position (making it impossible to measure position).

The same difficulties are more immediately apparent in attempts to apply scientific methods to the study of human behavior. Sociologists and political scientists and economists who study human behavior may influence the behavior of the “subjects” studied. For example, in the stock and bond markets, the increasing popularity of successful investment themes eventually alter the behavior of so many investors that the success of the theme is undermined. Anthropologists who “study” the behavior of remote groups of people cannot help but interact with and at least subtly alter the behavior of the people they study.

The scientific method is powerful and successful in its proper domain which is often the inanimate but which extends, with indistinct and increasingly blurry boundaries, into the animate as well. It might prove fruitful for the advance of science for scientists and scientific philosophers to seek to ascertain the extent to which the interaction of the investigator with the phenomenon being studied alters the behavior of the phenomenon and to perceive the subtle boundaries between areas of reality little altered by scientific investigation and other areas increasingly changed by the very act of investigation. Such an inquiry would be a small step towards incorporating into scientific thought an awareness of the living aspect of the universe and of the limited utility of science, as presently constituted, in investigating those living aspects.

. . . Despite all our efforts, individual and collective, to master and control the circumstances of our lives, the world presents us with constant surprise and unpredictability. This is not a negative. We are not in charge of reality, we do not control reality, and as those realizations sink in, a false burden is laid down and something joyful arises. We must be alert, eyes open, ears cocked, because we never know for sure what is going to happen next. The universe has an unfolding life of its own, an aliveness, and we need to give it our full attention so that we can better dance to its rhythm.  ~~~

Jim Humphrey is a farmland property manager and real estate agent. He is a member of Great Falls Worship Group, Montana Gathering of Friends (NPYM).

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