The Changing Scope of Physics

Where did the original scope of physics in our modern scientific age come from? Galileo, the founder of modern physics, laid down the rules which governed the scientific method to be used. These rules were based in the first place on Galileo’s conviction that he, as the observer of physical phenomena, had no connection whatever with the objects observed. These physical objects were quite independent of him. They had their own history, their own development, which he merely observed. Therefore anything that connected him, as a particular person, to the phenomena was not sufficiently objective for science and had to be rejected. This included anything that came to him through the sense organs of hearing, smell, taste and touch. These human sense organs ensured that all such information was hopelessly subjective and could not be part of the new science of physics. The removal of these sense organs in his opinion did leave some information about the world, which he classified as objective and labeled as the “primary qualities”. Only these were fit for science.

The principal primary qualities were matter and motion. Rene Descartes famously said that if he were given matter and motion he could construct the universe. All the majestic synthesis of physical laws, laid down by Newton, concerned only matter and motion. The scope of physical inquiry was thus constricted and focused by Galileo and the subsequent founders of our age, on the mathematical expression of laws dealing exclusively with these two “qualities”. This method was deemed sufficient to penetrate and expose all the secrets of nature.

Then came the upheavals of the early twentieth century. It seemed that Newton did not, after all, have all the answers. Some of his predictions turned out to be wrong and the need to explain these anomalies formed the bases for both relativity and quantum theory, the two branches of physics that dominated the later twentieth century. Physicists began to chafe at the limits imposed on their science. Arthur Eddington commented unfavorably on the exclusive treatment given in physics to Galileo’s primary qualities: “…. ideally, all our knowledge of the universe could have been reached by visual sensation alone – in fact by the simplest form of visual sensation, colorless and non-stereoscopic.” Bertrand Russell grumped that “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about nature but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” J.W.N. Sullivan wrote a whole book on this subject, The Limitations of Science, in which he concludes: “Science deals with but a partial aspect of reality and…. there is not the faintest reason for supposing that everything science ignores is less real than what it accepts.”

Physics was moving beyond the certainties of the Newtonian era. It had all seemed so simple: the physical objects of nature were there whether we perceived them or not. They had their own, independent existence and history. The basis of these objects was matter and motion, with atoms as the ultimate constituent of matter. Atoms were just like the ordinary matter in objects, but just very, very tiny. All these common sense notions were now being dismantled by the progress of physics. Among the first to go was the idea that the atom was the ultimate, smallest possible, indivisible constituent of matter. The atom could be broken into ever smaller particles in an “atom smasher” or particle accelerator and the final size of particle depended on the amount of energy available, so that nobody could say definitively that this particular particle could never be divided further.

Even more disturbing was the discovery that these subatomic particles were not just ordinary bits of matter on a very tiny scale. They were not matter at all. Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of physics in the early twentieth century, called them “potentialities” or “probabilities” and said that the “particles themselves are not real.” But ordinary material objects were just very large aggregations of these same subatomic particles, so if these objects were “real” and their particle constituents were not, where did reality begin? This brought the whole subject of reality into a discussion of physics, something not covered at all by matter and motion, nor by Lord Kelvin’s nineteenth century dictum that science should concern itself only with what was quantifiable and measurable and thus subject to experimental verification.

Physics came up with a solution to the problem of the ultimate matter particle by defining this to be not like a tiny dot but more like a piece of string: the string particle. This is also defined as having only one dimension, length, so it cannot exist in the natural world as something to be perceived through any of our five senses. As, however, the string particle is supposed to represent the ultimate, indivisible particle of matter, it must be “real” in some fashion. It is also truly independent of the observer, since it cannot be perceived by him. This complete separation from the observer brings to mind Galileo’s definition of his “primary qualities”, matter and motion. Modern physics, however, has come to see that Galileo’s reasoning here was fundamentally flawed because the investigation of matter and motion still had to involve the sense of sight and thus could not be independent of the observer. The Platonic term “objective reality” was used in the philosophy of the seventeenth century to designate something completely free and independent of human participation and Galileo had mistakenly used this Platonic designation to describe matter and motion.

Modern physics has come to realize that everything that can be perceived in the universe through our senses has to be of a subjective reality in which we, the observers, actively participate. As John Wheeler, a quantum cosmologist put it: “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is a strange sense in which this is a ‘participatory universe’.” The objects we perceive in nature are in fact subjective appearances with which we are intimately involved and not objective realities which exist quite apart from us. Quantum mechanics goes so far as to say that only the observed properties of microscopic objects exist. Before they were observed they did not exist. Whatever we may think of such a statement, it certainly expands the scope of physics beyond the traditional matter and motion!

It is however the implications of string theory that really focus the mind on new possibilities. As we have seen, modern physics has rejected Galileo’s contention that objective reality can be applied to anything in the physical world. Whatever can be perceived through the senses, involving our participation, must be considered subjective. However, the string particle cannot, by definition, be perceived by our senses but, as the origin of matter, it must be “real”. Its reality must therefore be, in the Platonic sense, objective. This means that such a particle can exist only in a real but immaterial world, one which is beyond the human senses and beyond human participation. In philosophical terms, such a world would be the world of origins, of limitless potential rather than actual existence limited by our three spatial and one time dimensions. The fact that physics has reached the stage where such a world is needed for a full explanation of the phenomena it investigates, underscores the need to provide an expanded focus for it beyond matter and motion.

If a world of objective reality underlies our world of subjective reality, there must be a border region between the two. Modern physics, in its pursuit of ever smaller particles, has actually reached that border when it got to the quark. It is known theoretically that, at very high energy levels, all particles, be they force or matter particles, will lose their individual identities and merge into a common stream of energy. This loss of individual identity is already apparent in the quark. A separate, individual quark has never been seen. It appears in stable form only as a combination of three quarks, when it is either a proton or a neutron. Anything smaller than a quark would probably belong already to the other “unseen” realm, beyond the border referred to, where the high energy stream originates, containing the potential for all particles.

Other examples may be quoted, where modern physicists mention the need for such an immaterial but real realm, such as Helen Quinn’s recent reference to “scientific metaphysics”, but the emergence of the concept goes back to the 1930’s, when Arthur Eddington said that “the stuff of the world is ‘mind’ stuff” (poor Lord Kelvin!) and James Jeans was even more specific: “Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality.”

If it becomes accepted by mainstream physics that the subjective reality of physical phenomena is the limited manifestation of the objective reality of a non-material world of limitless potential, the various enigmas and conundrums of particle and quantum physics become much more rational. For instance it need no longer be said that the observation of a microscopic object causes it to come into existence. In the world of quantum mechanics, the elementary particles would simply pass from a real but unseen region, where they are not yet defined, through an intermediate phase on the borderline between the two worlds, where they appear in their “waveform”. On observation, the waveform then “collapses” into the discrete particle, which is now firmly on our side of the border.

In the same way, the reality of the existence of elementary particles can now be accepted. If the particles are in the form of “potentialities” or “probabilities”, they are still in the process of passing from the objective to the subjective world of reality. They become ever firmer, ever more solid-appearing the larger the object. Up to the size of an atom (and even some molecules) it is still easy to turn an elementary particle into its waveform, where it can be made to appear in two places at once and do other befuddling tricks. But while everything, from particles to ordinary objects (which are very large accumulations of such particles) could be expressed theoretically as in either wave or particle form (the wave-particle duality of matter), this duality is undetectable in objects much larger than an atom. The de Broglie wavelength of a baseball traveling at 90 mph is more than 100 billion trillion times smaller than the diameter of a hydrogen atom, so it can safely be left out of any calculation involving normal objects in nature where only particles need be considered.

The real but immaterial region postulated here would also be, among other things, the source of the original, primal energy that exploded into (or formed) the universe at the moment of the Big Bang, so the creation of the world would not be out of nothing as proposed by some ex nihilo theories today. Something, especially something as complex as the universe, created out of nothing presents a considerable philosophical problem. What was the impulse for this creation and where did it come from when, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, science cannot point to any event before the Big Bang?

When it comes to expanding the focus of physics and providing a new framework for the future development of this science, there is one urgent question that also needs attention. How and why did things turn out the way they did? Standard evolutionary theories need prior conditions to build on and long periods of time for changes. At the beginning of the universe there were no prior conditions and everything had to absolutely right the first time or the whole bag of tricks would have collapsed long before reaching its present age.

The odds against the survival of the expanding universe are staggering, as are the odds against the initial formation of matter in just the one right way, the supposed correction of the initial Big Bang conditions in the “expansionary universe” and other mind-boggling events. Stephen Hawking mentions the odds of just one aspect of this entire process: “If the rate of expansion [of the universe] one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size.” All this points to the concept of purpose (if it is an inherent part of the fabric of the universe) as a possible and attractive alternative to blind and random chance.

If the physics of the future would recognize, in addition to our subjective sense perceptions, the need for an objective reality in the scheme of things, leading to the concept of a real but non-material world guided by an overall purpose (of which we can otherwise know nothing), the long-awaited experimental verifications from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might become much more interesting – after of course first finding the Higgs boson. By now, there are some very strange theories out there, including one that suggests some kind of time-traveling impulse from the future, affecting the discovery of the Higgs, rather like a person traveling back in time, to murder his grandfather and thus prevent his own birth. The bystander can only hope that real, verifiable science will be the guide to the future, even if this future development might seem as strange and new as relativity and quantum theory did to the classical Newtonian physicist.

Werner Thurau was born in December 1927, in Havana, Cuba. In 1929, his family returned to his father’s native Germany. He spent the entire 1930s in Berlin, but came to England in 1939 and was then further educated in that country, ending with an engineering degree from London University. His further career took him all over the world on technical projects, moving first to Mexico and then to the United States, where he lives now. At school in England, he was exposed early in life to the world of ideas. Some of his teachers were friends of C.S. Lewis and Lewis’s Oxford group, the Inklings, and his father was a philosophical bookworm. Werner combined this background with a lifelong interest in physics, especially modern physics after it breached the atomic barrier. This interest extended to Galileo, the founder of our age, and what made him so different from others of his time, as well as to the effect physics has had on other related sciences. He came to see that the latest developments in physics bring in subjects not normally associated with a book on that science, such as reality concepts, consciousness and even ethics.

He has subjected the historic development of physics to a philosophical criticism, which covers much more than the scope of physics, the subject of this article and may be read in “Galileo’s Shadow”, available on Please also visit: for further information.


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