Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Limits of the "Cosmic Speed Limit"

No doubt you've seen the news of the reported observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Aside from throwing out a century-old law of physics, it sounds like a credible result. Of course, the result will have to be duplicated by other groups before we count it confirmed.

Luboš Motl explores some possible measuring errors. I myself am rather doubtful that there's a problem with GPS. After all it's the military that put it up and for these guys accuracy is a matter of life and death. On the other hand, the military could for security purposes be leaving in some consistent errors in the interpretation of GPS for us civilians (a natural analog of the "GPS blurring" they removed some years ago).

For my part, I don't have expertise to evaluate their experimental procedure or analysis, but I can communicate some pointers about what it might mean.

First, it would likely be good news, because it means new physics. The Standard Model of particle physics works, but there's widespread dissatisfaction with it. It produces all the right numbers, but it fails to provide a deeper understanding, or at least the unification that physicists have come to associate with it. (Observed by Lee Smolin in The Trouble with Physics, but it's hardly unique to him—we physicists are always seeking after the new.)

Second, to understand what this result could mean, it helps to step back and examine the terms that we use. Notice that what we mean by such concepts as "distance" and "speed" are purely electromagnetic (EM). Phenomenally, it's through our knowledge of the hard surfaces of solid bodies we establish distance and even the passage of time. And of course, another unquestioned assumption is that light is a "thing" or body, in the exact same sense as other bodies. People have lost sight of the fact (no pun intended) that light is that by which we see, not that which we see, except in a different sense of the word.

We have no direct experience of strong and weak nuclear forces; our experiences of these are mediated by electromagnetic interactions. We do experience gravity directly, but would have no notion of space to be aware of it, were it not for EM. There's no way to shield gravity or to create zones of gravitational neutrality, because there is no second gravitational "charge." In fact the entirety of what we mean by force (from Newton's Laws of Motion) as such is entirely EM.

Neutrinos, while not vector bosons, in some sense carry the weak force, that is, they only interact weakly. The weak force is supposed to have been unified with EM, but meanwhile previous results from CERN seem to be endangering the plausibility of that argument.

It could be that the "speed of light" only applies to electromagnetism. Regardless of the durability of the OPERA result, it's good to remember how small our universe of experience actually is, even augmented by scientific apparatus.

Geoff Brumfiel, "Particles break light-speed limit: Neutrino results challenge cornerstone of modern physics," Nature (22 September 2011).

The OPERA Collaboraton, "Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam" Arxive (22 Sep 2011) arXiv:1109.4897v1 [hep-ex].

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Inhumanity of Teilhard de Chardin

Once upon a time, among comments on Albert Camus's The Plague, Thomas Merton wrote a trenchant critique of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin1:

The current apologetic reply to Camus’ dismissal of Catholicism goes something like this: Camus was exposed to Augustine when he was not ready for him. He paid too much attention to Pascal and to “sick” Christianity like that of Kierkegaard. And of course he was not favorably impressed by the French Catholic collaborationists and their jeremiads over sin and punishment at the time of the Nazi occupation. But it would have been a different story if Camus had been able to read Teilhard de Chardin.

Is it that easy? To begin with, let us state the question more exactly. It would be impossible to say whether or not Camus, under this or that set of “favorable circumstances,” would ever have become “a believer.” Such surmises are usually nonsense. The problem with Camus was that he simply could not find Christians with whom he was able completely to identify himself on every level. The closest he got was with some of the French priests in the resistance, and evidently that was not close enough.

What would Camus have liked about Teilhard?

Obviously, first of all, he would have been happy with Teilhard’s com­plete acceptance of nature and of material creation, Teilhard came as close to developing a Christian mystique of matter as anyone has ever done; and Camus, in some of his essays, extols the material, the phe­nomenal, the sensible, the experience of the fleeting moment, in quasi-mystical language.

A study of Teilhard’s writings and especially of his own spiritual de­velopment shows us to what extent he rebelled against the mentality we have seen in Paneloux: the self-righteous, censorious repudiation of a beautiful world created by God’s love. Writing from the trenches in World War I. Teilhard confessed, in a letter to a friend, that even in the midst of war he was meditating and keeping notes on the “real prob­lem of my interior life”—“the problem of reconciling a passionate and legitimate love of all that is greatest on earth, and the unique quest of the Kingdom of Heaven.” He explicitly rejects any concept of the world as “only an opportunity to acquire merit.” Rather he sees it as a good creation, coming from the hand of God and given us “to be built up and embellished.”

[215] It is of course typical of the spirituality of Paneloux to regard the created world merely as something to be manipulated in order to amass an abstract capital of merit. Paneloux is a spiritual profiteer, and his kind of Christianity is a reflection of the social establishment, with which it exists in a symbiotic unity. Of such Christianity, Teilhard says it makes one less than a man and a traitor to the human race. Those who observe it from the outside are repelled and “blame my religion for it” That is precisely what Camus does in his portrait of Paneloux. Teilhard’s criti­cism of this false supernaturalism is that in trying to divert man’s capacity to love and turn it aside from concrete human reality to the purely abstract and spiritual, it deadens and distorts man. “The capacity to love cannot with impunity be dissociated from its object: if you try, mis­takenly, to cut off our affectivity from love of the universe, are you not in danger of destroying it?” This is what has happened to Paneloux: a good, sincere, strong-willed man, with a strong tendency to intellectualize, he has fallen a victim to an abstract and inhuman spirituality. His power of love has atrophied. His affectivity has been channeled into will-to-power and rigid authoritarianism. When he tries to recover the warmth of love, he ends in a self-immolation which is part heroism and part algebra, an irrefutable conclusion to an argument which no one is able to understand.

Teilhard, on the contrary, wants to transform and divinize the human passions themselves. “I shall put the intoxication of pagan pantheism to Christian use, by recognizing the creative and formative action of God in every caress and every blow … I would like to be able to love Christ passionately ... in the very act of loving the universe.” And he asks: “Is there communion with God through the Earth, the Earth becoming like a great Host in which God would be contained for us?”

Camus’ basic sympathy for the element of Greek theoria in Mediter­ranean culture would incline him to accept this “Christian gnosis” up to a point. He could identify with the “passionate love,” if not with the theological elaboration. Teilhard also completely and totally accepts man; and the God of Teilhard is not simply a remote judge and creator, but a God who seeks to complete his epiphany in the world of man by bring­ing all humanity to convergence and unity in himself, in the Incar­nation. The Incarnation for Teilhard is, then, not just an expedient to take care of sin and bring the kind of “grace” that Paneloux was happy about. The Incarnation is ultimately the full revelation of God, not just in man but in the “hominization” of the entire material world.

Camus would have heartily agreed with Teilhard’s love of man and [216] with his aspiration toward human unity. But it is rather doubtful whether he would have been able to accept the evolutionary and historical scheme of Teilhardian soteriology. To be precise, it is likely that Camus would have had a certain amount of trouble with the systematic progress of the world toward “hominization” and “christification” by virtue of laws im­manent in matter and in history.

The point cannot be adequately discussed here, but anyone who wants to investigate it further had better read Camus’ book on Revolt (L’Homme révolté), which he wrote after The Plague and which he thought out at the same time as The Plague. This study of revolt, which precipitated the break between Camus and the Marxists (especially with Sartre), is a severe critique of Hegelian and post-Hegelian doctrines which seek the salvation and progress of man in the “laws of history.”

Camus was suspicious of the way in which totalitarians of both the left and the right consistently appealed to evolution to justify their hope of inevitable progress toward a new era of the superman. In particular, he protested vigorously against their tendency to sacrifice man as he is now, in the present, for man as he is supposed to be, according to the doctrine of race or party, at some indefinite time in the future. In Camus’ eyes, this too easily justified the sadism and opportunism of people who are always prepared to align themselves on the side of the executioners against the victims.. In other words, a certain superficial type of eschato­logical hopefulness, based on evolution, made it easy to ignore the ex­termination camps, the pogroms, the genocide, the napalm, the H-bombs that so conveniently favored the survival of the fittest, got rid of those who no longer had a right to exist, and prepared the way for the epiphany of superman.

At this point, it must be admitted that one of the most serious criti­cisms of Teilhard bears precisely on this point: an optimism which tends to look at existential evil and suffering through the small end of the telescope. It is unfortunately true that Teilhard, like many other Chris­tians, regarded the dead and wounded of Hiroshima with a certain equanimity as inevitable by-products of scientific and evolutionary prog­ress. He was much more impressed with the magnificent scientific achievement of the atomic physicists than he was with the consequences of dropping the bomb. It must be added immediately that the physicists themselves did not all see things exactly as he did. The concern of a Niels Bohr and his dogged struggle to prevent the atomic arms race put Bohr with Rieux and Tarrou in the category of “Sisyphean” heroes that are entirely congenial to Camus. After the Bikini test, Teilhard exclaimed that the new bombs “show a humanity which is at peace both internally [217] and externally.” And he added beatifically, “they announce the coming of the spirit on earth.” (L’Avenir de l’homme)

No matter how much we may respect the integrity and the nobility of this dedicated Jesuit, we have to admit here that at least in one respect he resembles his confrere Paneloux. True, they are at opposite extremes of optimism and pessimism; but they do concur in attaching more im­portance to an abstract idea, a mystique, a system, than to man in his existential and fallible reality here and now. This is precisely what Camus considers to be the great temptation. Lured by an ideology or a mystique, one goes over to the side of the executioners, while arguing that in so doing one is promoting the cause of life.

There is no question whatever that Teilhard believes in the “new man,” the homo progressivus, the new evolutionary leap that is now being taken (he thinks) beyond homo sapiens. Science certainly gives us a basis for hope in this development, and perhaps Camus needed to have more hope in the future of man than he actually seems to have had. Perhaps Camus was too inclined to doubt and hesitate. Perhaps his “modesty” tended too much to desperation. Perhaps there was much he could have learned from Teilhard. But it is not likely that he would purely and simply have agreed with Teilhard’s statement in Peking, in 1945, that the vic­torious armies of Mao Tse-tung represented “the humanity of tomorrow” and “the generating forces and the elements of planetization,” while the bourgeois European world represented nothing but the garbage (le déchet) of history. No doubt there may be good reason to think that a “new humanity” will arise out of the emerging Third World. Let us hope that it will. But Camus would not be so naïve as to identify this “new humanity” with a particular brand of Marxism, or to pin his hopes on a party which announced its own glorious future as a dogma of faith.

Both Camus and Teilhard firmly took their stand on what they con­sidered to be the side of life. Both saw humanity confronted with a final choice, a “grand option,” between the “spirit of force” and the “spirit of love,” between “division” and “convergence.” Man’s destiny is in his own hands, and everything depends on whether he chooses life and creativity or death and destruction. Teilhard’s scientific mystique and long-range view, extending over millennia, naturally did not delay overlong to worry about the death of a few thousands here and there. Camus could still pause and have scruples over the murder of an innocent child. He refused to justify that death in the name of God. He also refused to justify it by an appeal to history, to evolution, to science, to politics, or to the glorious future of the new man.

In short, Teilhard de Chardin's devotion to the powerful generalities of modernity blinded him to the plight of particular men living in the world.


1. Thanks to Patrick Henry Reardon, whose mention of this analysis in the last issue of Touchstone alerted me to its existence.

Thomas Merton, "The Plague of Camus: A Commentary and Introduction," The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, ed. Patrick Hart (New Directions Publishing, 1985), 214-217.

Patrick Henry Reardon, "A Many-Storied Monastic: A Critical Memoir of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey," Touchstone (September/Octobober 2011), 50-57.

Note: These past couple months I've been completely occupied with an important project; it will take another few months to see it through to the end.