Common Sense? III

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Let’s say a little more about atoms. The ‘common sense’ view is that they contain protons, neutrons and electrons, all like tiny billiard balls. The protons and neutrons are squeezed into the nucleus, which is like the sun in our solar system, and the electrons that surround the nucleus are like orbiting planets. This is a useful model in accessible language, but it’s not how things are. The ‘particles’ of which atoms are made, are not like billiard balls. They have no dimensions of either radius or circumference. They’re invisible and intangible, and so don’t look like anything. A slightly better ‘description’ would be packets of electrical charge, or flashes of energy. They only put in an appearance when experiments are set up to observe them, and depending on how the experiment is set up, they either appear to be localised ‘particles’, that create blips on a visual display unit, or spreading out ‘waves’ which create a chequered pattern on a screen.

This once again shreds ‘common sense’ into ribbons. How could anything be both a localised ‘particle’ and yet also a spread out ‘wave’? This is totally contradictory, and yet it’s been repeatedly verified. Not only is the ‘particle’ invisible and intangible, but the ‘wave’ is a probability wave telling us where the ‘particle’ is either more, or less, likely to be found if we look for it. Where atoms are when we’re not looking for them, and indeed whether they’re anywhere at all, is completely unknown, and yet they are the foundation on which we, our world, and the rest of the universe are built !

It gets worse! A sub-atomic ‘particle’ can travel, without dividing itself, through two adjacent slits in a screen at the same time (compare the skier in the image at the top of this post). It can be in two places at the same time, like you being at once in London and also in Tokyo. It can instantly shift between two locations without being anywhere in between, like you transferring to the opposite pavement without having crossed the street. It can pass through what ought to be impregnable barriers, like you suddenly finding yourself outside a locked jail cell. If it’s linked to another ‘particle’, and each travels to opposite ends of the universe, any change to one will instantly correspondingly change the other, even though they’re countless light years apart. Underneath the familiar world of everyday ‘appearance’, is a ‘reality’ which completely defies ‘common sense’ and rational logic. 

To quote John Gribbin (science writer and astrophysicist) – “In the world of the very small, where particle and wave aspects of reality are equally significant, things do not behave in any way that we can understand from our experience of the everyday world … all pictures are false, and there is no physical analogy we can make to understand what goes on inside atoms. Atoms behave like atoms, nothing else.” 

Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame” – it can stumble over implications involving values, ethics and meaning. But that was only the first part of his sentence. The second part, “religion without science is blind,” tells us that he did not respect religion which paid no attention to the findings of science, or which rejected findings that did not fit in with ancient texts or rigid dogmas. Those who believe in a God who created, and continues to sustain, this universe, must surely make themselves aware of the tried and tested findings of the sciences which explore its fundamental nature and mode of functioning.

To do this, in my view, is to begin to grasp the magnificently transcendental complexity of whatever it is that is ‘ultimately real’, but which defies our ability to fully understand it, or to find words that fully describe it. The extent of our ignorance, in the realms of religion and science, speaks of the need for humility, of the folly of dogmatism, and of the need for religion to take on board the cutting edge findings of science, and for science to cease claiming that it could ever produce a so-called “theory of everything”. A meeting of minds is forever preferable to a closing of minds.

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