Ontology and physics

Machiavelli stands at the gate of the modern age, divorcing technique from social purpose. (The Mechanical Bride, 87)

The interrelation (or ratio) of ontology and physics may be imagined along a spectrum with the two as the extreme poles at its ends.  On one extreme, only ontology and no physics; at the other, only physics and no ontology. Along the spectrum between the two extremes towards its midpoint, the ratio of the two would represent decreasing exclusive emphasis until, at the midpoint, the two would be equally weighted. 

Between the extreme ontology end of the spectrum and its middle, the ratio between ontology and physics would always be weighted to ontology but, as the midpoint were approached, with decreasing relative importance accorded to ontology and increasing relative importance to physics . The physics side would exhibit the same configuration in reverse, with the ratio between the two always weighted to physics but tending to balance with ontology towards the middle of the spectrum.

Historically, it would seem that most societies have located themselves close to the ontology end of the range. Although it is probably impossible to have no inkling of physics (since a practical understanding of it is implicated in tasks like cooking), the overwhelming majority of societies have not attempted to develop a knowledge of physics independent of such practical activities and of their cultural tradition. In the history of mankind, the dominance of ontology over physics  has been by far the usual case.

Only in what is styled as ‘western civilization’ has the notion of a physics that would be independent of ontology taken root (from the seed of the ‘Greek miracle’) and then developed chiefly after Copernicus (1473–1543) and, not incidentally, his close contemporary, Luther (1483–1546). Copernicus himself (like many of his relatives) took orders in the church and may have been a priest (so the relative weight of ontology was preserved in his family and person).

With Galileo (1564-1642), a century later, and Newton (1642–1726)1, a century after that, the mutual implication of ontology and physics remained as something desirable, but not such that ontology was allowed to influence research in physics. Far rather, especially to be seen in Newton’s alchemy and religious writings, the hope was to develop or uncover a new formulation of ontology, using an analogous sort of scientific investigation to that of physics. Only gradually in the following two centuries did the notion arise that ontology was nothing but a hindrance to the proper discipline of science. What is called ‘the death of God’ is the sociological fact that all the tasks of life, and especially science, come to be practised with the explicit rejection of even the possibility of ontological input.

Now in the 21st century, this sociological and methodological fact appears to have led into a cul de sac. Problems at the individual and social level, exacerbated by discoveries in science, threaten to overwhelm civilization and even the biosphere itself.  And even in science, it may be that problems particularly in quantum physics cannot be solved absent a renewed consideration of ontology (dual genitive!).

Kurt Riezler (in Physics and Reality) and David Bohm with Basil Hiley (especially in The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory) have raised this possibility explicitly.  While their particular suggestions must of course be subject to rigorous testing, the idea that physics may be informed by ontology has a number of appeals.

In the first place, if humans were to have the possibility of ontological knowledge, physics (like any area of human life) could only gain by including input from it in its work. Werner Heisenberg has put the point as follows: “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles [= ontological principles] that allow a valuable insight into present problems”.2 

Secondly, and more importantly, if physics can genuinely (ie, demonstrably) be aided or even guided by ontology, this would constitute a new way to formulate ontology and, therefore, a new way to understand the relation of human beings to it. The bubble of nihilism would be popped. If Riezler (1882-1955), McLuhan (1911-1980) and Bohm (1917-1993) were correct, such a scientific formulation of ontology may represent the one way out of the potentially fatal problems in which the planet is currently ensnared.

  1. These are the old style dates of Newton’s birth and death. In the new style, 1643-1727.
  2. ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’, 1958, in On Modern Physics, 1962, p 9. For further discussion see Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’ and Heisenberg on possibility. The translation of Heisenberg’s remarks has been slightly altered from “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles (= ontological principles) that allow him a valuable insight into his own present problems.”