Embracing the Nonsensical
Counter to your immediate impression this title is not intended to be pejorative in the slightest. In fact, it is only by the willingness of scientists led by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg to abandon a “sensible” (as in accessible to our human senses) but defective theory of the atom for a “nonsensical” (as in inaccessible to our human senses) but brilliantly successful theory of the atom. That “nonsensical” theory is named “quantum mechanics,” and has both been proved correct by a massive number of practical observations and led the way into understanding of our universe that would have been impossible without it.
I don’t have either the training or experience to comment on this theory. Nor is that my purpose here. What I will do is meditate on the radical departure in scientific thinking that this theory spearheaded.
That radical departure occurred after a monumental controversy in the 1920’s between scientific traditionalists led by Erwin Schrödinger and Albert Einstein and the radicals led by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Their debate over how to capture the properties of the atom pitted those who insisted that any valid theory had to enable scientists to visualize its behavior (the traditionalists) against those who claimed that the application of pure mathematics (the radicals) was the correct path forward.
Up to this point in time scientific theories, even the most complex and difficult, when understood allowed a visualization of the natural world even if the level of abstract thinking exceeded that to which most humans are capable. What Bohr and Heisenberg claimed was that the atom exists so outside the realm of human experience and intuition that its behavior could only be described by “quantum mathematics,” which give results that are not just utterly foreign to out intuitive understanding but that are also utterly “nonsensical” in every sense of the word. The following figure shows underlying mathematical equations that describe (examples, not complete descriptions) these two scientific theories of the atom.
These two equations, both claiming to describe an atom, are obviously very different from one another. It’s critical to note that both are mathematically correct. That is, neither one violates the rules of mathematical logic. However, it is Heisenberg’s equations (and the theories that they describe) that ultimately were accepted as the basis for scientific understanding of the atom and upon which the theory of quantum mechanics has been based since the late 1920’s.
As a consequence of this victory scientific inquiry into the fundamental nature of the universe ceased to be limited by human intuition and expectations. Rather the application of pure mathematics combined with practical physical measurements created the path forward. And this path yielded absolutely amazing advances in our ability to predict and describe the physical world’s behavior. In particular, the purely mathematical predictions of quantum mechanics were again and again proved correct by physical measurements. It was as if by some inconceivable miracle the physical world was constituted to behave exactly as predicted by an abstract system of mathematical logic.
Scientists have been following quantum mechanics further down the rabbit hole, yielding predictions and theories that violate all ideas of common sense and yet are proved correct by physical measurement. But as they descend deeper and deeper into the intricacies of quantum mechanics they scandalously find themselves approaching a “thin place,” where the barrier between God and creation becomes virtually nonexistent.