Do We Know the Electron?

23 January 2019

Wolfgang Smith

In August of last year, Eahab Ibrahim — a friend of the Initiative — posted a fascinating question, to which I would like to respond. It asks what an electron might be in its own right, apart from its mathematical descriptions as conceived by the physicist: “Does the physicist know the electron without residue” he asks, as I recall, “or is there ‘more’ to the electron that he doesn’t grasp?” To which he adds: “And if there be more, what is  that ‘more’ — and where does it appear in Smith’s ontology?” A marvelous question!

By way of response, let me note in the first place that we err the instant we conceive of a cosmic entity as a Kantian Ding an sich in fine finali,  there is no  such thing!  A cosmic entity is something knowable by what may broadly be termed empirical  means, ranging from direct sense perception to the modus operandi  of the physicist.

Now, the question before us refers to the latter case; Eahab Ibrahim is asking: what is  the electron prior to — or apart from — this intervention? Moreover, he asks not what some — perhaps as yet undiscovered — kind of physics may have to tell concerning the electron: the question, thus, is not scientific, but indeed metaphysical. It reduces in fact to the  ontological question per se, applied to a particular cosmic entity (taking this term in its broadest sense). Look at any cosmic object — be it by way of direct perception or through the “lenses” of the physicist — and one can ask: “what is  this object apart from — or ‘prior’ to — this seeing?” And this question, basically, has been posed throughout history, and has indeed been answered, I surmise, time and again by the wise.

The response I would like to convey (as best I can) corresponds to the metaphysics of Plato in preference to that of Aristotle; or as one could likewise say: to the teaching of St. Augustine in place of St. Thomas Aquinas — so long, at least, as the Master is viewed through “Thomistic” lenses. I will take as my starting point a remarkable reflection from the Confessions;  addressing himself to God, St. Augustine says: “I beheld these others beneath thee: an existence they have, because they are from thee; yet no existence, because they are not what thou art.”  Now, it behooves us to ponder these words deeply: for it strikes me that herein the quintessence of the “esoteric” teaching is to be discovered.

Let us note, first of all, that “these others” refers at one stroke to all the things we are able to know by human means, which includes not only corporeal but likewise what I have termed “physical” objects: electrons for example. Now, the key to Eahab’s question resides in the words “yet no existence, because they are not what thou art”:  the electron exists — in the absolute sense — precisely insofar as it “is what thou art.”

One sees, thus, that we are incapable categorically  of knowing that “existence”: for what now stands in question is no longer how we  see the electron, but what it is in the sight of God. And it hardly needs pointing out that this is something beyond our ken! As Dionysius the Areopagite explains: “God knows creatures, not according to the creature’s knowledge, but according to his own.”

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Here then we have the answer to our question: not only does the physicist not know the electron “without residue,” but the same holds for all the objects of human knowing, from quantum particles to something we can hold in our hand: so long as we see it “with human eyes,” we know it not as in truth it is. Plato was not mistaken when he told us long ago: “The truth is, O men of Athens, that God alone is wise.”

There are those, of course, who will be quick to object that such is a pagan belief — an echo perhaps of the Vedantic “maya”  doctrine — which we Christians have transcended! But this all too quick response proves to be as fallacious as it is unfounded. If we are unwilling to listen with due respect to Plato — or the Vedanta — let us at least advance this courtesy to St. Paul when he declares: “And if any man think he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he should.”  The fact is not that the metaphysical tenet at issue is “pagan” or in any way opposed to Christianity, but rather that it exceeds what is and can be conveyed in “catechetical” form. As St. Paul himself apprises us: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat…”

The fact is that the cosmos, as we conceive of it, exists — not in the sight of God! — but for us erring mortals. Following St. Augustine one can say: “An existence it has, because it is from Thee — yet no existence, because it is not what Thou art.”  It is with the cosmos at large as with a quantum particle, which according to Werner Heisenberg is situated “midway between being and non-being”:  the difference is that Heisenberg situates “being” on the corporeal plane, whereas esoteric doctrine situates it ultimately beyond the confines of the cosmos at large. As we read in Exodus  3.14: “Ego sum qui sum.”

One might add, from a Christian point of vantage, that this cosmos “came to be” at the instant of the Fall: the pre-historic catastrophe by which Adam was reduced to the status of a psychikos anthropos, who as St. Paul informs us, “knoweth not the things of God.”  Now this entails, in particular, that man, so far from constituting a mere “part” of the cosmos — an accidental speck thereof, as one nowadays imagines — constitutes in fact a full microcosm  which complements the cosmos at large. I cannot abstain from pointing out how profoundly this Biblical teaching puts to shame the corresponding speculations of modernity and opens doors not so much as “dreamed of” in our contemporary philosophy!

Getting back to Eahab Ibrahim’s electron: conceived as a quantum particle, it has no being at all — a feature it shares in fact with all other cosmic entities as conceived by Adam’s fallen progeny. On this point all the sapiential traditions of mankind appear to concur: from the Platonist and Neoplatonist to the Vedantic, from Semitic Kabbalah and the Sufi mystics to the major spokesmen of Christianity. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, in his parting instruction to his disciple Reginald — in which he famously alludes to his own writings as “mere straw” — points unmistakably to that very conclusion. And no one, I presume, has made the point more poignantly than Meister Eckhart when he declared “all creatures”  to be “one pure nothing.”  To which moreover he adds: “I do not say they are a little something or anything, but that they are pure nothing!”  Yet notwithstanding the koanic  acuity of this dictum, the Meister is actually saying no more than St. Gregory of Nyssa, when the Cappadocian Father stipulates that “None of the things comprehended by the senses or contemplated by the mind really subsist — nothing save the transcendent essence and cause of all.”

We need say no more: this fully answers Eahab Ibrahim’s question. Although the electron is not in fact “comprehended by the senses,”  it is “contemplated by the mind” — specified by way of human conception — and as the masters of true gnosis inform us: this alone suffices to exclude the object in question from the realm of authentic being.

The same applies evidently to each and every entity pertaining to the post-Edenic world. King Solomon, it turns out, was not after all mistaken in declaring apodictically “There is no new thing under the Sun.”

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