The view from somewhere

Laws among the bands of human beings walking to and fro across the earth at once both envision an ideal and impose a course of action to realize it. Yet cosmic laws, in the sense only of the laws of nature, not divine laws, do nothing of the kind. They only describe a reality as we perceive it, and aim only at, or at least are judged according to, the ability to predict the course of future natural events more or less. Yet despite their function in describing the complex, varied temporal reality, they still aim at the same universality as the timeless idealizations of the Law. Yet the 20th century, particularly in such areas as quantum physics, have brought a dark harvest: only an approximation of universality, with much greater uncertainty.

Paul Qunicey’s attempt to “normalize” quantum mechanics does a fairly poor job at explaining clearly, as opposed to merely alluding to, fundamental concepts like Planck’s constant, but from what I gather his point is something like the following: even in The Evolution of Physics Einstein wrote in a somewhat bizarrely wistful tone, given his own unavailing wrestlings with a Unified Field Theory, how sad it would be for everything in physics to become, to paraphrase Faulkner in Light in August, “as clear and barren as an empty corridor.” But the very concept of eternal physical laws that transcend space and time to some degree by their very nature presuppose a certain lack of mystery in the universe. Theoretically, the entire history of the universe should be able to be inferred if one knew the location and motion of everything in the universe at its birth. Until, of course, we get to 20th century physics. Quincey suggests that quantum physics, just like relativity, puts us back in our limited non-transcendent frame of reference, where place and time are relevant in a way they are not in classical physics. Strangely, it actually demonstrates structurally some intuitively obvious realities of everyday life: we cannot predict the future with certainty, certain places and events are not observable and hence not measurable. One could say that these limitations and uncertainties actually bring physics closer to the lineaments of human life, and are certainly more comprehensible than the arbitrary or gratuitious ambiguities often attributed to quantum theory.

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