Monday, May 30, 2005

Smith's Alloyed Wisdom

A friend lent me an interesting book called The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology: Contemporary Science in Light of Tradition by Wolfgang Smith. The book is difficult to summarize: while it contains many startlingly significant insights, it also contains an embarrassing admixture of error. These errors may in fact be relatively minor (and they are compared to what "Enlightened" people spout these days), but they seem so sophomoric as to impair the objectivity of my review. But if you, dear reader, keep this caveat in mind, I will give my best shot at objectivity. (Some of these ideas are rather complicated and I'm not sure I've explained them adequately; please let me know if anything is unclear.)

The great aim of the book is return to the titled "wisdom of ancient cosmology." Smith sees the entire science-inspired contemporary worldview as radically hostile to ancient wisdom. He defends the perennial (Thomistic-Aristotelian) philosophy, and furthermore the traditional cosmology in which it grew.

Part of Smith's self-appointed task is to refute the error in modern thinking that he calls "bifurcationism"—what is generally called dualism (mind/body or subject/object)—that has plagued human thinking explicitly since Descartes. The quality of his thought on this subject is wildly uneven; containing much truth, the book is unable to fully exorcise the Cartesian-Kantian demons in the end.

Intelligent Design

The best part of the book is chapter X's explanation of intelligent design (ID). The subject of evolution is one on which the author has written before in Teilhardism and the New Religion. Here he likewise rejects Darwinism, and more generally, the theory of common descent.

I can't claim to have more than general notions of ID, but Smith's prose made a lot of sense to me. He distinguishes complex information (e.g., the positions of all the rocks that make up a mountain) from complex specified information or CSI (e.g., the arrangement of rocks in the form of the words "Welcome to Boulder"). CSI, as William Dembski has shown, cannot come about randomly, at least not fast enough to generate in the lifetime of the universe even the simplest creature's DNA.

Smith's idea of "vertical causality" is an interesting (and I think helpful) reconception of intelligent causation. The terminology highlights the fact that, unlike purely material causes that are unable to create CSI, intelligence acts "above time," i.e., outside the stream of deterministic, temporal causality. (I would add that intelligence acts with a telos or end in mind, and I wonder how this fits into the scheme. Does purpose transcend material time?)

Quantum Mechanics

Smith does not fare so well in his treatment of physics and modern scientific cosmology. I suspect his training in mathematics1 is the main hindrance.

The treatment of quantum mechanics is well intentioned, but naive. He fails to grasp the point of the famous Schoedinger's cat paradox. Recall that the cat paradox goes something like this: imagine a box containing a live cat along with a poison-releasing mechanism. The mechanism is connected to a radioactive particle whose half-life is one hour, which means it has a 50% chance of decaying in an hour. Should the particle decay, the mechanism will release the poison, killing the cat.

According to the standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, at the end of an hour, the cat will be both half-dead and half-alive until someone opens the box and observes the cat, at which time the "wavefunction" of the cat "collapses" from 50-50 dead-alive to 100% either dead or alive. (Physics terminology: the Schroedinger equation of quantum dynamics gives a "wavefunction," i.e., a range of possible values each with a probability of occuring. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, on measurement the range of possibilities coalesces or "collapses" to the actual measured value, which then has a probability of one. This coalescence is known as "wavefunction collapse.") Common sense tells us that a cat can only be dead or alive: there is no half-and-half.

Schroedinger devised the paradox to show the absurdity of the Copenhagen idea that a particle has no definite position, for example, until it is measured. (In a nutshell, the Copenhagen school mistakes epistemology for ontology.)

On top of this problem, Copenhagen also creates an arbitrary boundary between observer and observed (subject/object dualism). Think about the cat paradox: why should the wavefunction collapse when a scientist opens the box? What's so special about observation by a person? Would the scientist need to be observed by another scientist before his wavefunction collapses (and this process could be carried ad infinitum)? Or perhaps the cat's "observation" of itself causes the collapse?

The underlying problem is the arbitrary distinction of physical interactions that are part of a measurement from "ordinary" interactions. If one assumes such a dualist distinction, it is no surprise that one gets dualism in the result.

Smith follows Eddington's distinction of the "corporeal" realm in which we live from the "physical" world that is the subject of mathematical physics. "The credo of bifurcation thus entails a reduction of the corporeal to the physical," Smith observes rightly. Unfortunately the writing in this section is somewhat unclear about the actual relationship between the two, so that the reader can easily misunderstand Smith to solve the confusion of the two by imposing an absolute distinction between them. For example, Smith writes,

...the Schrodinger evolution operates within the physical domain, whereas the projection has to do with a transit out of the physical and into the corporeal.
Statements like this seem to imply that the physical and corporeal are exclusive of each other. Such a division merely substitutes one form of dualism for another. In actuality, the quantitative, physical world, must be an intrinsic subset of the real, corporeal world. (For more on the relationship between form and matter, see Schindler's "The Problem of Mechanism," about which I've written here.) Later in the book Smith's belief in this truth does come out (e.g., 222), but the initial lack of clarity is confusing, especially for beginners.

Modern Cosmology

Oskar Milosz's observed: "Unless a man's concept of the physical universe accords with reality, his spiritual life will be crippled at its roots" (170). Smith tries to remedy this spiritual void by justifying ancient cosmology, specifically by addressing two of its inadequacies: (1) the distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter, and (2) geocentrism.

In chapter VII, Smith attempts to revive the ancient idea that celestial matter, unlike matter on earth, is incorruptible. To do so, he has to ignore the expansion of human knowledge since the middle ages, such as the observed changeability of the heavens (e.g., supernovae, movement of stars, comets) and human space exploration. He does in fact allude to the moon-landings, but he explains the apparent mundaness of lunar matter by waiving away the ability of our senses to properly perceive them as anything but terrestrial (143)—an argument that undercuts his defence of the perennial philosophy's insistence on the primacy of sense knowledge. (Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki maintain the scientific "democratization" of matter that Smith abhors is the product of the Christian belief that Jesus Christ, instead of the universe, is the Only-begotten of God.)

In chapter VIII, Smith charges at the windmill of heliocentrism. This is Tychonian, not Ptolemaic geocentrism he defends. Tycho Brahe's model is simply the Copernican system, but with a stationary Earth: the planets orbit the Sun, and the Sun and Moon orbit the Earth. He tries to show that this view is compatible with Newtonian physics via Einstein: "Relativity implies that the hypothesis of a static Earth is not incompatible with the laws of physics and cannot be experimentally disproved" (159). There is some truth in this claim: Einstein's theory tells us that we can't distinguish free-fall (as the Earth does as it orbits the Sun) from uniform motion or even from rest. But to claim the Earth is motionless necessarily negates its daily rotation in favor of the Sun's movement, and this motion can be measured. In fact, if you've ever seen a Foucault pendulum in a science museum, you've seen the empirical evidence: a motionless Earth cannot explain the strange precession of the pendulum; if Newtonian physics is at all applicable to terrestrial matter (and it certainly is as a limit to Einstein's theory), the Earth rotates and the stars are fixed. It's not a big jump to "discover" that the Sun is (relatively) stationary in the center of the solar system.

Smith also rejects stellar parallax as evidence of the Earth's motion: "The logic here is once again of the ponendo ponens variety, which is to say that the hypotheses in question are judged or validated by their success in 'explaining' observable phenomenon" (159, cf. 118). Could anyone but a mathematician mistake reasoning by observation and induction for begging the question?

(Such mathematical apriorism is, I believe, also behind Smith's advocacy of "Fisher information" theory (50): that laws of physics can be deduced from the process of measurement—as if our intellects aren't primarily recipients and not creators of sensory information; this is a basic tenet of the perennial philosophy that Smith is ostensibly defending.)

Other notable ideas

A interesting insight in the quantum mechanics section. After observing that transcendence is the mark of objectivity, he writes,

How can somthing that is defined mathematically exhibit such a mark [of transcendence]? Here again Nature contrives to outwit our simple logic: the probabilities of physics manifest transcendence precisely when they "collapse" into objective fact; it is at that moment that they suddenly and unexpectedly, as it were, reveal their objective side by violating the Schrodinger wave equation, which up to that point they had strictly obeyed. (66)

I'm not sure of the value of this statement Smith quotes from Eddington (p. 53), but it is thought-provoking nonetheless:

The new conception is not merely that the whole is analysable into a complete set of parts, but that it is analysable into parts which resemble one another... I will go farther, and say that the aim of the analysis employed in physics is to resolve the universe into structural units which are precisely like one another.

From chapter IV on "Bell's Theorem and the Perennial Ontology":

The astrounding fact is that in the form of Bell's theorem physics has declared its own boundedness, its own incapacity to deal with the deeper strata of cosmic reality....

What physics can prove, and what it has indeed established beyond a reasonable doubt, is that external reality, and thus the cosmos as such, cannot be confined within the bounds of Einsteinian space-time: for if it could thus be confined, it would satisfy the Einsteinian condition of locality, which in fact it does not obey. (74, 77)

In discussing anthropic "coincidences":

If you break a clay pot, you will find that the resultant shards fit together perfectly so as to consitute the pot in question; and obviously this 'fine tuning'—which seems quote miraculous so long as one does not know the true provenance of the shards—is the result neither of chance nor of design. In short, the physical universe is fine tuned because the corporeal world demands as much. (222)
I would add that the wholeness of the universe is summed up in man (cf. St. Maximus the Confessor).
What both the Darwinians and most creationists have failed to grasp is that the corporeal universe in its entirety constitutes no more than the outer shell of the integral cosmos.... So long as one thinks tha the origin of a plant or an animal can be conceived as a spatio-temporal event, one has entirely missed the point. (80)


The friend who lent me the book called it "eclectic." This description is apt on multiple levels. No only does he mix Eastern philosophical terms into his Western traditional philosophy, but also Kantian and Cartesian dualism.

Smith's aims are noble, his methods unorthodox. I certainly sympathize with his abhorrence of modern errors, but a blanket rejection that excludes even genuine developments in human knowledge is not just scandalous, but foolish. The book contains unique insights, but unfortunately the mutiplicity of mistakes compromises its value. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that many of these mistakes could have been easily avoided by allowing a working physicist1 to review the book, or even by simply taking to heart the perennial philosophy's foundation in the reliability of the senses. Smith's attempt to forge a unified view of the world is so reactionary that it ironically ends up incorporating the modern ambiance that it set out to exclude.

1. Though Dr. Smith received one of his undergraduate degrees in physics and a masters in theoretical (a.k.a., mathematical) physics, his doctorate is in mathematics, as was another of his (three) bachelors degrees, it seems fair to say that he is more of a mathematician than a physicist.

Wolfgang Smith, The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology: Contemporary Science in Light of Tradition, (Oakton, VA: Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2002).

David L. Schindler, "The Problem of Mechanism," Beyond Mechanism: The Universe in Recent Physics and Catholic Thought (Lanham, New York: University Press of America, 1986).

Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation (Lanham, New York: University Press of America, 1990).

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