The Nature of Physical Reality: A Philosophy of Modern Physics

By Henry Margenau | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16
The Breakdown of Physical Models

16.1. THE CRISIS OF CLASSICAL MECHANICS

THE REVOLUTION in the physicist's conception of his universe which occurred during the last three decades is comparable to the upheaval that took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both in scientific fertility and in philosophic significance. In the last analysis the older movement, which culminated in the works of Francis Bacon, Tartaglia, Galileo, and Newton, is to be viewed as an emancipation of physical doctrine from the presuppositions of scholastic ontology, a first frank avowal by natural science of epistemology as the highway to its goal.

The recent transformation, despite its radical character, is not so easy to describe. An aura of strangeness still surrounds the novel ideas it has generated, and an air of incredulity beclouds the the judgment of the astonished investigator who ponders over its final meaning. Proper terminology for an appraisal of the philosophic consequences of new theories is not yet at hand. In the writings of scientists, two noncommittal and to some extent misleading phrases are frequently relied upon to convey the flavor of quantum physics; one marks it as a transition from descriptive to symbolic understanding of the physical world; the other ( Bohr's interpretation) assigns to the new developments the character of a "complementary"1 transcription of physical processes. The precise meaning of these assertions will be analyzed in the present and the following chapters. Our conclusion will be that modern theory, far from abandoning epistemology as a guide to understanding, has reaffirmed its faith in that discipline and has decided

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1
The earlier German word korrespondenzmässig is perhaps more appropriate. Roughly, it adverts to a description of atomic processes in terms other than ordinary spatiotemporal, but in a certain sense equivalent to ordinary description.

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