Interesting Story about Lord Kelvin (and the rest of us)

At the Royal Society Annual Dinner (June, 1900), it is reported that Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thompson) essentially stated that the Law of Thermodynamics pretty much explained all there was in the world of nature. However, there were still two little clouds of uncertainty remaining, namely: (1) the ultraviolet catastrophe and (2) luminiferous aether. As we know, these two unsolved mysteries at that time were quite important as one led to relativity and the other to quantum mechanics. At a time when science was at its most confident in worldview and method, these two little anomalies were simply waiting to upend all traditional models.

Today we also have two little problems that have not been solved. One is called “qualia” and one is called “quanta.” Qualia refers to inner experience, the sense of awareness and consciousness while quanta refers to the quantum measurement problem where the physical world seems to respond to measurement in some strange way. This coupled with demonstrations of entanglement and other anomalies could be putting us in the same state of false confidence that Lord Kelvin had at that dinner over 100 years ago.

I suspect it will become clear through experimentation and logic that traditional means of sensory, empirical, and materialist knowing will be seen as only a partial picture of how we come to understand our world. This will then dramatically influence metaphysics and our notion of the self. It seems that our current neat little Cartesian package of the “self” that “knows” the world in which it resides will be seen for what it was: a point in time theory when distinctly modernist humanity was just starting to grapple with issues that had been addressed (though not as systemically) by others before them and by others after them in our current post-Newtonian world.

Nietzsche had said that he was doing “philosophy with a hammer.” Often (and I even heard this in grad school) that was taken to mean that he was conducting a brutish and forceful assault on Western thought. However, I like to think of his method as using a small tuning hammer to tap on ideas that ring hollow or are well past their time. I think his hammer would find our predominant worldview of scientific materialism to be hollow, aging poorly, unsound, and crumbling.

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