It is reported that when one of Pythagoras’s followers revealed the Pythagorean brotherhood’s deepest secret, the discovery of irrational numbers, he was killed. The discovery of irrational numbers came about as a direct result of the Pythagorean theorem, for the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose legs are one inch equals the square root of two; but the square root of two cannot be represented either by a whole number or a fraction composed of whole numbers. Such irrationals, as they are called, seemed a contradiction to the Greek worldview, a hole at the heart in the Pythagorean effort to understand the universe from a mathematical point of view; for the discovery of irrationals was the result of one of the ultimate products of Greek rationality, plane geometry.

The discovery of quantum indeterminacy in the 1920’s and 30’s may be said to have had the same effect on modern. Enlightenment culture as the discovery of irrational numbers had on ancient Greek culture. Like irrational numbers, quantum indeterminacy was discovered as a direct result of the most representative activity of our culture, empirical science, the ultimate product of Enlightenment rationality. The indeterminate physical processes discovered by quantum mechanics exist at the subatomic level, the atoms of Democritus having been dissolved by modern empirical science into a quagmire of particles and forces whose motions and interactions defy the usual notions of scientific causality. Matter at this level more closely resembles the “prime matter” of Aristotle than it does the billiard balls of Democritus or Newton, providing science and the human intellect in general with a series of frustrations as it attempts to compass quantum phenomena with the mathematical laws of Newtonian or even Einsteinian physics. Quantum physics is thus one of the events that has transformed modern culture into postmodern culture.

The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key by Wolfgang Smith, a retired professor of mathematics, is an excellent book which reaffirms traditional and even ancient concepts of knowledge, self, and the world; combining, as did Smith’s first book {Cosmos and Transcendence, 1984), the author’s state-of-the-art knowledge of physics with a deep knowledge and understanding of Christian metaphysics. The book is short, well-written, and intellectually rigorous, yet it is approachable by anyone with an interest in metaphysics or the history of modern science. (An appendix provides an introduction to quantum physics for the general reader who has a high school knowledge of mathematics.) Unfortunately, there is not much writing of this sort done about science today, especially in popular writing of which the naturalism of Cad Sagan and Stephen J. Gould is about the best one can expect. Of the philosophy of science, one must either read pieces so highly technical that they cannot be understood outside a narrow slice of academic philosophy, which even the scientists cannot understand, or feminist and multicultural attacks that betray gross ideological prejudice and very little understanding of science itself.

Smith’s book avoids all that, even as he deals with the difficult subject of quantum mechanics—the most fundamental theory in contemporary physics—dealing as it does with the properties of matter at the bottom of the reductive pyramid. Smith is at ease amid difficulty and controversy, finding the “hidden key” to the “quantum enigma” in an updated version of Platonic metaphysics. He is an Idealist in the philosophical sense, and one of the surprises of quantum mechanics is that it offers a scientific basis for the revival of this classic metaphysical doctrine. At the level of subatomic physics, experiment and observation, not subsequent interpretation, hold that physicists cannot separate the observer from the phenomena, much to the dismay of classically trained physicists. This enigma of quantum mechanics surpasses the problems of statistical mechanics, in which the sheer practical impossibility of determining the path of every molecule in a gas, for example, means that sampling and statistics must be relied on by the physicist, just as a political scientist relies on polling techniques to predict the outcome of an election. Rather, the enigma of quantum mechanics is as if pre-election polling itself determines the outcome of an election (even granting that polling sometimes does affect the outcome of elections).

Unlike scientists such as Heisenberg, Smith thinks that the solution to The Quantum Enigma characterizes the epistemological and metaphysical issues of all of science, and he refuses to isolate subatomic phenomena from the rest of the known universe, i.e., the “micro” from the “macro” world. Smith argues that his characterization of quantum observation in terms of classical metaphysics, as the reduction of potency to actuality, applies to scientific observation of the macro world as well. To think that there is an intrinsic difference between the micro and macro worlds, as Heisenberg does, is to assume that “the passage from potency to actuality could be effected simply by joining together a sufficient number of atoms.” One could respond, however, that the subworld of quantum physics resides in a qualitatively different epistemological realm. We can observe the baseballs and bats, planes and parachutes of the macro world, but such laws as we derive from our observation and experience will not necessarily fit the micro world of quantum phenomena, because the subworld of atomic physics is beyond our immediate experience.

Smith’s general argument proceeds from the specific problem of quantum observation to the philosophy of nature. His principal criticism is of the Cartesian bifurcation of nature, as Whitehead famously called it, and he upbraids classical physicists for assuming that their general model of reality—mechanical, reductive, monochromatic, and denuded of all aspects typical of common experience—was reality itself. The bifurcation was first accomplished in modern science by Galileo, who sundered so-called “physical” reality from the lived reality of the common life-world by making the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, which he borrowed from the ancient Atomists. Smith’s solution to the bifurcation problem also has an ancient provenance, for his assumption that discrete components of our life-world—observer and phenomenon, time and space, primary and secondary qualities—are “distinguishable aspects of one and the same reality” harks back, through Hegel, to Parmenides. Smith’s application of Idealist philosophy to the foremost difficulties of atomic physics is striking and compelling, because Idealism is not a philosophy often associated with modern science; yet Smith’s approach clarifies many of its difficulties.

It has been assumed by many in America and England that science supports a materialistic, pragmatic, or naturalistic point of view, but this is because these tendencies are already strong in our culture. Smith notes that independently minded philosophers such as Husserl and Whitehead have seen that modern science is as much a construct of abstract ideas as an experimental method and have drawn the appropriate conclusions from the overlooked fact that scientific theories can be understood as ideas, even in the Platonic sense. Smith uses this understanding to support an Idealist view of nature—one that is far more friendly to the reality of ideals such as justice, equity, and natural law. For Smith, the scientist’s interaction with the indefinite phenomena of the subatomic world provides a key to man’s creativity and a profound reflection of God’s creativity as well.

Much has been written about quantum physics from the scientific, philosophical, and cultural points of view; in the last category, however, little has been done from a conservative standpoint, which is tragic. Although it does not touch politics in any direct manner, Smith’s book is profoundly conservative, upholding the traditional understanding of the human race as an essential feature of the physical universe, whose existence therefore is no mere accidental confluence of forces, elements, and so forth. Strangely, the doctrine that mankind is an irrelevant aspect of the universe is felt to be supremely liberating by such writers as Stephen J. Gould, Bertrand Russell, and Carl Sagan.

For anyone with an interest in the interactions between modern science and culture, modern or postmodern. Smith’s book is an excellent rejoinder. If conservatism is to reclaim Western culture, it will have to be at the deepest levels of contemporary thought, including those where science and culture meet.


[The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key, by Wolfgang Smith (Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden and Company) 139 pp., $14.95]