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In Context #14 (Fall, 2005, pp. 7-9); copyright 2005 by The Nature Institute

Aristotle's Opinion of Modern Physics

You may be forgiven for not having heard of Kurt Riezler. In fact, I have not yet even found a decent biographical summary of his life. I do know, however, that at the outbreak of the First World War he was the political warfare advisor to the German Chancellor - and was quite well-known in that capacity. A 1980 academic book entitled In the Eye of the Storm: Kurt Riezler and the Crises of Modern Germany seems to have gotten some notice.

In the Thirties Riezler came to the United States and joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City. His own books ranged from GrundzŘge der Weltpolitik in der Gegenwart ("Outlines of Contemporary World Politics") to Parmenides (a commentary on the pre-Socratic philosopher) to Man: Mutable and Immutable (a philosophical attempt to frame a broad understanding of human social life) to Physics and Reality: Lectures of Aristotle on Modern Physics.

This latter, published in 1940 (Yale University Press), was written as if it were a commentary by Aristotle on twentieth-century physics. Phenomenologically oriented readers of this work will immediately recognize the truth of Leo Strauss' statement that "Riezler represented to me, more than anyone else among my acquaintances, the virtue of humanity. I believe he was formed by Goethe more than by any other master" (from the essay, "Kurt Riezler," in Strauss' What Is Political Philosophy?).

Riezler lived from 1882-1955. His book on physics remains virtually unknown - even in circles where it would be deeply appreciated. In an attempt to change this, we present here a few excerpts - intended merely to tantalize you - from the first two chapters of Physics and Reality.

Before we get to the comments of "Aristotle," however, here is a statement from the book's preface:

This little book is a humble experiment in thought dedicated to those who, conscious of a widening cleavage between Nature and Man, are willing to inquire into its causes. It neither will nor can do any harm to others who feel safe only in the shelter of inherited habits.


Certainly, from [the ancient Greek time of] my stammering to your [modern] calculating the progress has been extraordinary. You have the most ingenious instruments, you use the most efficient methods, you know the most astounding laws.... For this and still more you have my humble admiration....

The most intense of all your experiences is your desire for knowledge. In vain do I look for the place of this experience in your scheme of the universe. There is no place. This, not your successes, is what astonishes me most.... You have shut yourselves off from Nature. The further you penetrate into what you call nature the more elusive you become to yourselves.

The nature you talk about as scientists is not the nature you mean when you say "I am." Nature is one, immutable, eternally varying - the way of Being in all beings, revealed as eternal movement, formation, deformation, and transformation. You yourselves, your desire for knowledge, you are Nature. And yet you have opened between your comprehension of yourselves and your knowledge of Nature a chasm that engulfs in darkness your common being.

You realize it. In all the splendor of your inventions this is your secret grief and the scandal of your science....

Man is your closest, your most authentic experience, which yet you put aside.

Ah, I well know what tempted you! The exciting experience of Nature submitting to Number first created an ideal of Truth in your souls: the certitude of mathematical statements. This ideal determined your conception of science; and this conception of science prompted your scheme of nature as object of this science. Nature became the nature of exact science....

No doubt there were other things that seduced you: The technician in you wanted to build machines, did not care about the essence of things in so far as they "are." To build machines it is sufficient to measure quantities and to know their relations.

* * * * * *

There is something in us and beyond, call it what you will: Nature, Being, Reality - something we can hit or miss, veil or unveil with words. And we both defer to that something as judge. So I shall get to the core of our difference by posing a specific problem: what is Motion? This question lies in the thick of my battle with the secret of Nature. It unleashes your innermost difficulties, compelling you to reconsider your own methods....

What is Motion? By Motion I mean not only motion in space, but change of any sort - variation in quality, waxing and waning, growth and decay, birth and death.... The answer to the question "What is Motion?" must be a statement about Being. Being is intrinsically mobile, changing. What does that mean?...

You do not want to ask what Motion "is," or even hear that this "is" is doubtful. You pretend that no answer whatever to this question could touch you and your science in any way.... "We pretend nothing about the nature of things - let alone about 'Being.' We do not care about interpretations of our statements. We co÷rdinate. The agreement of calculation and perception is justification enough." Am I wrong in presuming that this modesty is only a way of defense? That you are all convinced or were convinced until a short time ago that your scheme of order is the basis of all knowledge about Nature since it is the scheme of Nature herself and the model of "Being"?...

* * * * * *

What is the subject of your perceptibility? Not the individual subject. You admit perceptions only if they can be confirmed by any possible perceiver. You eliminate the particular individuality of the perceiving subject. You assume one ever present anonymous observer, the possible observer.... You have then no right to pretend that you co÷rdinate a totality of all possible or real perceptions with your model of nature, that your design of this model is confirmed by the totality of your perceptions. You have made a selection, and a very narrow one at that. You have limited the perceptible to the measurable....

You have emasculated this anonymous subject; now he is an odd creature, a robot without blood and heart, whose only being consists in reading numbers from the pointers of your instruments.

Your "objective" reality is merely an intersubjective order relative to this robot observer. All that is not measurement is closed to him. Your most intimate and impressive experiences mean nothing to him. He has no part in the colorful fullness of Being. Since he is not a number he cannot perceive himself. He does not belong to his own world....

This your objective world, a pointer-reading world of numbers, is no more the world of your eyes, hands, and hearts. With the growing distance between these two worlds uneasiness grows in you. In this feeling you realize half consciously that perhaps you have excluded from your world several things of which you remain firmly convinced that they "are."

Thus most of your notions change color in a twilight. You use the word "force" and, when queried, you define it by law, field, and vector; but what you really have in mind is the force you feel in commanding your muscles. Do not imagine, however, that you are uniting these two: you mix up unconnected notions, surreptitiously exchanging one for the other. All your thinking goes on in such ambiguity. You are aware of it; hence your discomfort.

* * * * * *

From this introductory chapter, Riezler goes on to consider the problem of motion, along with time, cause, and various other categories of science. The substance of his argument is too weighty to summarize here, but we offer a few additional, rather isolated excerpts from the second chapter:

You are able to calculate from the conditions of the system at any one time its conditions at any other time. This kind of order you call the causal structure of world occurrences. Thus your design of nature is of grand integrity, a marvel to behold. So you think. I must confess a tinge of admiration in my horror.

This world, however, is merely the world of your anonymous observer.... Its laws link possible pointer readings. It is bleak and barren and lacks sun despite its lucidity. For centuries I have been wondering how you are able to live in this world without freezing. Even you might perhaps feel slightly chilly if you drew your own conclusions. This, however, you do not do. You relate the pointer readings of your anonymous observer to the perceptions of your own senses. Your na´ve view of the world steals into the world of the anonymous observer and his figures. Now the numbers seem to take on life....

[But] your na´ve world is no world. It is a muddle of rudiments of past ontologies, including my own. There is no ontology, no "logos" of Being as Being, no unity of design of an ordered totality.... In this world Law reigns supreme. Law has ever been, is, and will ever be. It is immutably the same. There is no creation, neither becoming nor decaying.... It seems to me that you gave your God too much work in the beginning of the world and too little during its course.

* * * * * *

Time, to you.... like space, is mere extension.... You call it rest when the points of space related to the points of time are the same; movement when they are continuously different. But this rest does not rest, this movement does not move.... The semblance of rest and movement is caused by your relating your inner knowledge of your own resting and moving to [mathematical extension]....

So it happens that field physics gives a strange answer to the question what Motion really is: Motion does not move. In your world there is no motion, therefore no rest, for the movable alone can rest. Time, which must determine motion, is not distinguished as time. The moving of motion is a mirage - even the unity of the moved, the subject of movement, is the observer's assumption.

I read indifference in your faces - all this cannot give you concern. It does not affect your discoveries. Your airplanes fly. Your wireless waves race through space, bringing the commonplaces of statement from the other side of the globe to the remotest hovel. You calculate the pressure of radiation on the surface of the sun, the temperature in its center, you destroy atoms of nitrogen. You follow the tracks of the ejaculated particles. You sort out the elements - you take hold of matter. And here somebody rises and says: "Your motion does not move." You do not trust your ears.

Permit me to justify myself.... I do not contest the knowledge of the physicist. I deny neither your laws nor your machines....

I do not dispute the numbers of the anonymous observer but only their claim to describe Nature....

* * * * * *

If your movement seems to move, your time to be Time, your substrate of movement to be Subject, it is only because you furtively slip your inner perception into the sense of your words....

Consider! The answer the world gives to your way of questioning is an order of pointer readings. Into that order you introduce vague thoughts interpreting those concepts by untested knowledge of the subject about itself. This answer is an answer neither of the world nor of your own Being. You can make it pass neither as one nor the other.

You have not examined the "Being" of the subject. Maybe from its knowledge of its own Being the subject would have given an entirely different answer. You have lost the ability to inquire in that way; you no longer even know that such a way of inquiry is possible and still less that you could obtain an objective answer to such questions....

Only when searching for this logos, embracing the testimony of your numbers and your own living Being in one question and in one answer - then only do you, striving with greater effort for a higher goal, face the secret of Nature. Never will that forlorn creature, Man, behold an image of Nature if he does not know what he is himself. Never will Man find himself if not in the image of Nature.

* * * * * *

Physics and Reality is out of print and difficult to obtain. We expect to put the text on our website by early in 2006.

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