Common Sense? II

Sometimes, ‘common sense’ is deceiving. Unless we’re willing to look behind appearances, we risk failing to discover deeper realities, and our store of knowledge and understanding is thereby impoverished. Modern science provides some startling examples of this. It’s over a century since the existence of atoms was confirmed, and exploration began into what they might actually be. Many of us still haven’t taken on board some of the incredible, yet fully verified, findings. Just as the arts use metaphor and symbolism to convey deeper meanings, so science creates ‘models’ to try, however imperfectly, to give accessible meaning to findings that stretch the bounds of ‘common sense’ and everyday language.

Keeping in mind, then, that we’re dealing with meaningful models but not literal descriptions, let’s begin with the finding that atoms are 99.99% ‘empty space’, with microscopically tiny nuclei surrounded by even tinier electrons. Think of the atom as like a child’s marble in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall, with a few midges flying through the surrounding vacancy. This is why the ‘common sense’ solidity of the stone kicked by Dr. Johnson (see the previous post) is an illusion, despite its being (painfully?) ‘real’ to him. You and I, despite what the bathroom scales tell us, are also 99.99% empty space, and so is the rest of the world, and the universe as a whole! It’s so important that we don’t just give this a passing nod, and at once move on. We need to stop, and give time for the incredible enormity of this to sink in. It knocks our ‘common sense’ view of material ‘things’ into so many pieces. 

I sometimes encounter those who say that science has taken away the awe and wonder that religious belief can provide, and that its rational and logical approach suppresses inspiration and imagination. That can sometimes be the case, but so can the very opposite. This picture of ghostly, ‘immaterial’ things and people that nevertheless seem absolutely solid and able to bump into each other, is quite imaginatively and inspiringly staggering. It invites us to explore beyond ‘common sense’ appearances into a deeper ‘reality’ that’s utterly astounding. It’s of considerable and surely undeniable importance that we take up this invitation. 

So let’s discover a bit more about atoms, with the help of the Brian Green quote at the top of this blog (he being one of today’s leading theoretical physicists). Common sense tells us that our backends can safely feel themselves solidly situated on a sturdy chair, but this is again an illusion. As in Brian Green’s quote, nothing actually touches anything. The nuclei of the outermost atoms in our backends and in the chair, are surrounded (and, in this context, we might say ‘shielded) by electrons, all of which have a negative electric charge. They can therefore no more touch each other, than the like poles of two powerful magnets, which will resolutely repel each other despite the strongest efforts to make them touch. It’s the phenomenal strength of sub-atomic electromagnetic force fields that creates the ‘solidity’ which prevents us from falling through the ‘ghostly’ chair. It’s the processing of this by our senses, and the interpretation by that our minds, that creates the mental ‘experience’ of our backend making contact with, and being supported by, a sturdy chair – but that, as we can now understand, is not at all what is actually happening.

Let’s take this a bit further next time but, in the meantime, let’s reflect on another quote, this time from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ – “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, or in our ‘common sense’ thinking. Science, religion, philosophy, psychology, biology, the arts and humanities are all concerned, in their different ways, to explore the nature of ‘reality’, of what is actual and true about ourselves, our world, our universe. How important it is to open our minds to as many of these disciplines as possible and, rather than competitively accentuating their differences, discovering and further exploring findings and insights that are promisingly complementary and mutually illuminating.  

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