500 years ago Nicolaus Copernicus set in motion the first great scientific revolution. He established that the Sun is the centre of the solar system, and thus the Earth was never the centre of the universe. The charming idea that we humans are of central importance was shown to be quite false.
300 years ago Isaac Newton brought about another radical shift in people’s understanding of the world. With just three fundamental equations he showed that the universe operates in a completely predictable and rational manner, like a giant clockwork. This is ‘classical physics’. Scientific infancy was over.
200 years ago Charles Darwin demonstrated the evolution of species. He showed us we are very ordinary creatures with extraordinary minds. Not privileged, just lucky, the random result of 4.3 billion years of evolution.
100 years ago the new physics, quantum theory and relativity, ushered in a further new challenge to our understanding. But to date, although the science is superb, no one knows exactly what quantum theory means. The compromise assumption is the ‘quasi-classical’ world. This means as if Newtonian. It operates as an ordinary world at everyday levels of scale. But it is actually made of something quite different, quantum stuff we have never really understood. Relativity also contains a deep anomaly that is unresolved. There is no such thing as the passage of time. In both these pillars of the new physics the latest scientific revolution is incomplete.
Thomas Kuhn’s research transformed the way science is understood. The publication of his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) became a landmark event in how science itself is understood to work. He coined the term scientific revolution because these major transitions are always hugely resisted. Copernicus faced tremendous opposition to his ideas, as did Darwin. Recent breakthroughs, such as Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum, and Hugh Everett’s explanation of the quantum dynamics, are vivid examples. Both were too confronting, and were automatically rejected. Each scientific revolution becomes not only a dramatic change but a heavily contested overthrow of the established worldview. Eventually a new worldview is achieved, and a new epoch begins.
The process can be very challenging for the pioneer. Planck was a theoretical physicist who received the Nobel prize in 1918 for this fundamental contribution to the brand new branch of physics. But he became increasingly infuriated by the endless non-acceptance of his results. His frustration boiled over in what is now known as Planck’s principle:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. (1949)
Everett’s famous Many-Worlds theory resolved the great paradox of the quantum theory, the ‘measurement problem’. But half a century later the full meaning is still not accepted. It is radical, but it solves the problems. As he clearly states, the physical reality of the conscious subject is defined by experience. The world of the conscious subject is a relative state. And as described here, this means personal parallel realities, the breakthrough concept of our time. But this has been simply too alien to the current worldview. Although the purely physical explanation of reality is acknowledged to be incomplete, the idea that experience is relevant has proven an impossible step.
Too Weird to Matter
All too many people think that the meaning of the new physics does not greatly matter. As the prominent physicist Hans von Baeyer states:
Flawlessly accounting for the behavior of matter on scales from the subatomic to the astronomical, quantum mechanics is the most successful theory in all the physical sciences. It is also the weirdest. … Physicists have grappled with the quantum world’s apparent paradoxes for nine decades, with little to show for their struggles. The deep confusion about the meaning of quantum theory will continue to add fuel to the perception that the deep things it is so urgently trying to tell us about our world are irrelevant to everyday life and too weird to matter. (2013, 47)
But it matters enormously. The things it is trying to tell us are vital information. In our parallel realities, the things we do are reflected back to us in the way things turn out. It means that the karma described in many traditional religions is a real phenomenon, with a scientific and rational explanation. But there is no dogma. It is a cultural revolution as well as a scientific revolution.
This is now an urgent matter. Understanding and accepting the new worldview is the great new hope for our culture, even our race. Selfishness and egoism are rampant. This is nothing new, but modern technology and vast numbers of people mean the effects are devastating. Understanding the new physics would transform our human societies, and hopefully lead to our being able to maintain a viable ecosphere. This revolution would induce the necessary result.
In the absence of religion, it seems selfishness is just the rational choice. But each unkind act poisons the personal world a little bit more. To be truly successful we need to be good to others, just as the major religions have always held. So the only rational position is enlightened self-interest, doing well be doing good. This is described in detail in the following sections. A new age of cooperation and productivity is there for the asking.
Kuhn defines a paradigm as the generally accepted worldview among the members of the scientific community. This includes the set of theories and standards common to scientists in the field. Change of the paradigm is always heavily resisted, which is why it becomes a revolution.
Of course, we are all naturally reluctant to change our entire worldview. But Kuhn realised that there was more than this at work. As he explains, once a worldview has become a paradigm, meaning a deeply-held and well-structured concept of the world, a new concept that is incompatible with it is automatically rejected. It seems clear it is just obviously wrong. Thus if new research indicates there is a fault in this worldview, this is not seen as refuting the current paradigm but just a mistake by the researcher, however prestigious. Planck’s experience with the discovery of the quantum is a perfect example. The nature of the quantum revealed by experiments was just too weird to be real. So it was endlessly assumed he had just misinterpreted the results.
The problem is this leads to a classic Catch-22. As Kuhn describes:
Once it has achieved the status of a paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place. (1962, 77)
But when the alternate candidate is too strange it is not seen as viable, so the original theory remains the accepted worldview by default. Which is what has happened with quantum theory.
This explains the familiar responses to each scientific revolution. Physicist Hermann Weyl noted this exact response to the new physics, saying that physicists and philosophers both continued to:
. . . stick stubbornly to the principles of a mechanistic interpretation of the world after physics had, in its actual structure, already outgrown the latter. They have the same excuse as the land person who for the first time travels on the open sea: he will desperately try to stay in sight of the vanishing coast line, as long as there is no other coast in sight, towards which he steers. (Scholz, 2004, 3)
There has been no new coast in sight. Nothing recognisable could be found in the paradoxes of the new physics. Results of experiments seem to be dependent on experience, which is an oxymoron in the physicalism of the current worldview.
As the requirement of a viable alternative has not been met, the current worldview has remained stuck while the new physics carries on without a proper explanation. So the meaning of the new physics has lain by the wayside, a pearl in an oyster unopened.
Kuhn came to realise that all modern day science, without exception, is conducted within the context of the existing theories. He termed this ‘normal science’, meaning working within the community in order to refine the structure of the existing paradigm. Therefore, he observed, major shifts in the current paradigm never happen as part of the progressive development of scientific research, the normal science. And as he describes, although anomalies are inevitably discovered, these are swept under the carpet as acceptable levels of error. Or, if they are too potentially intrusive, simply ignored.
No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomenon; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. (1962, 24)
Scientific revolutions are always breakdowns of the ordinary business of normal science. Kuhn describes these huge changes as scientific revolutions. Each one is a major ‘paradigm shift’, a sea change deep and wide in our comprehension of the world. The current paradigm shift may be the biggest of all time. Not only is the world very different to what we take for granted but so too are we ourselves. Which would explain why it has been so incomprehensible for a hundred years. There is a double whammy of paradigm shifts.
The next main section is The Science.