Physics and Mysticism – the Nexus
by John Best
Part II of The State of Modern Physics series
For all of human history, there have been two ways of explaining nature or physical reality: the mystical or supernatural, and the logical or rational. These two viewpoints have not always been at odds; at times they have been intertwined. The first great man of science and engineering in recorded history, was the Egyptian, Imhotep, who was the architect of the first large Egyptian pyramids; notably the stepped pyramid at Saqqara. While nothing survives regarding his contributions to basic science, he must have possessed great mathematical skill and understanding of physical principles to accomplish what he did at such a primitive time. His work so pleased the priesthood and the pharaoh, who was considered a god on earth, that Imhotep was elevated to the status of a god after his death.1 A later Egyptian engineer/scientist of the Hellenistic era, Heron of Alexandria, is said to have utilized his engineering prowess to the benefit of the priests by creating supernatural-appearing “miracles” utilizing physical principles. These included devices to automatically open temple doors with air pressure, a gimmick to apparently turn water into wine, and even a coin-operated holy water dispenser!1
The Hellenistic era was somewhat of a golden age of science and mathematics, perhaps because of the absence of strong religions. It was before Christianity and Islam, and other western and Mideast religions were relatively weak and confined to small areas. This allowed a freedom of thought resulting in some of the greatest work in the history of science and math, including that of Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes, and numerous others. Pythagorus of this era has been portrayed by historians as a great mathematician, but he was perhaps more notable as a numerological mystic.
After the fall of the Roman empire, the West entered the “dark ages”. It was a time of religious repression in the Christian world, although thinkers in the Islamic world continued to make great contributions, which were largely unknown in the West, particularly in mathematics and optics. Religious tolerance of logic and rationality became considerably less in the Christian era because it conflicted with religious doctrine. Perhaps the most prominent of these conflicts was the conflict between heliocentricism, and the biblical idea that the earth was the center of the universe. When Aristarchus of Samos of the Hellenistic era proposed that it was the sun rather than the earth at the center of the cosmos, he encountered no religious persecution. When the same idea was proposed by Copernicus during the Renaissance period however, religious authorities were not so tolerant. According to Catholic Cardinal Robert Bellarmin, the idea of heliocentricism was in direct conflict with the bible. He wrote: “…not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth with great speed, and that the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world.”2 Copernicus suffered little real persecution, perhaps because he came from a well-connected family, and his theory was not widely accepted until after his death. His successor, Galileo was not so fortunate. He was placed under lifetime house arrest for publicly espousing heliocentricism.2 Theological opposition to heliocentricism eventually faded, perhaps because new evidence rendered the position of the theologians untenable.
Some have speculated that during the era when terror of the holy inquisition reigned, free thinkers found safe havens to discuss their ideas in the locales or lodges of secret societies such as the Freemasons. Freemasons of the time were called “operative” Freemasons because unlike modern Freemasons, they were still connected to the building arts and crafts. The name “freemason” derived from their freedom to travel to any country to participate in construction projects. Those inclined toward science and mathematics would have encountered kindred spirits in the Freemason lodges, because the builders were the first, and through most of human history, the only, engineers and mathematicians. Even early operative Freemasons had religion-like mystical beliefs and rituals. Mystical beliefs continue to play an important role in modern Freemasonry, which is called “speculative” Freemasonry. These beliefs assign special significance to geometrical symbols and numbers.11
One scientist said to have been associated with Freemasonry was Isaac Newton. According to “10,000 Famous Freemasons” by William R. Denslow (with foreword by former president Harry S. Truman): “There is no evidence that he was a Mason, but many of his close friends were, and he is often credited with membership.” Another mystical secret society closely related to the Freemasons, called the Rosicrucians, does claim him as a member however.4 The mystical beliefs of both Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism are closely related to Judaism, particularly the content of the Jewish mystical book known as the Kabbalah.11
Most of us harbor some illogical or irrational beliefs, such as superstitions or religious beliefs, but we are able to keep such irrationality compartmentalized in our minds so that it does not affect our logical thought processes. Newton was a noteworthy example of this. Few would argue that his science and mathematics was based on anything but logic, however he held many positively irrational, even bizarre, beliefs. He was always a religious man, and later in life, he dabbled extensively in alchemy and developed beliefs that could be considered mystical, if not occult.3 As evidenced by his writings on the subject, Newton was greatly interested in King Solomon’s temple, whose dimensions he believed, had supernatural properties.5 Solomon’s temple is central to the ritual and beliefs of Freemasonry, as well as to Judaism. Newton’s library at the time of his death, included 169 volumes on alchemy, which is of paramount importance to the Rosicrucian cult.6
Newton became a fellow, and later president of the Royal Society of England, one of the first, and most prestigious institutions in the world, dedicated to the advancement of science and human intellectual achievement. Over its history, many physicists have been named fellows of this society, including Newton’s close friend and experimental assistant, John Theophilus Desaguliers, who was a Freemason. Founding members of the Royal Society who were known Freemasons, included Elias Ashmole, most famous for his involvement in mysticism and the occult and for whom the Ashmolean Museum is named, and Sir Robert Moray, who was the first president of the society. One of the most interesting members of the Royal Society was William Crookes. His contributions to basic and applied physics were prolific: He was a pioneer in the study of cathode rays, spectroscopy, radioactivity, and plasma. He discovered the element helium. He was knighted for his work. More controversial however, was his work in spiritualism. After some investigation involving mediums, he concluded that the mediums could produce genuine paranormal phenomena and communicate with spirits.28,29 He was a president of the Society for Psychical research, a member of the Theosophical society which was prominently involved in spiritualism and the occult, and president of the Ghost Club.30 The Society for Psychical research also counted as members prominent physicists Oliver Lodge, and Johann Zöllner who collaborated with Crookes and sought a physical scientific explanation for spiritism, claiming to have proven that spirits are four-dimensional.32,26,27 No evidence has come to light that Crookes was a Freemason, but he was a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society whose founders were both Freemasons and Rosicrucians.31
According to the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, the listing of Fellows of the Royal Society who were Freemasons includes 8000 names recorded for the period 1660-2007. This suggests that the influence of Freemasonry continues to this day in the Royal Society, and by extension, in modern physics.7 Albert Einstein was a Freemason.8 Albert Michelson, who conducted the measurement of the speed of light (along with Morley) which was cited by Einstein as supporting his idea of the fixed velocity of light, was also a Freemason.9 The influence of Freemasonry extends beyond theoretical physics to applied physics and engineering: Freemasons have dominated the ranks of NASA astronauts. Freemason astronauts have included Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the first two men on the moon, as well as John Glenn, Wally Schirra, and Gus Grissom10.
The physicists mentioned above are far from alone among physicists harboring mystical beliefs. Consider these quotes from other prominent physicists:
According to Arthur Eddington, a close collaborator of Einstein and principal early proponent of his theories, “Physical science has made a place for itself by greatly limiting the sphere of demonic activity, so that there is an extensive realm of experience in which behavior can be counted on and scientific prediction is possible. Great as may be the practical effects of this change, it is a matter of detail (special fact) rather than of principle. Demonic activity (volition) remains, though it is limited to certain centres in men and the higher animals. Prayer and propitiation may still influence the course of physical events when directed to these centres. We now think it ludicrous to imagine that rocks, sea and sky are animated by volitions such as we are aware of in ourselves. It would be thought even more ludicrous to imagine that the volitionless behaviour of rocks, sea and sky extends also to ourselves, were it not that we have scarcely yet recovered from the repressions of 250 years of deterministic physics.”15
Wolfgang Pauli stated, “I do not believe in the possible future of mysticism in the old form. However, I do believe that the natural sciences will out of themselves bring forth a counter pole in their adherents, which connects to the old mystic elements.”16
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”17 Werner Heisenberg, In his speech Scientific and Religious Truth (1974)17
Max Planck said in 1944, “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the “particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”18
According to renowned physicist James Jeans, “The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter… we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”19
and “…the material universe is derivative from consciousness, not consciousness from the material universe…” – from an Interview published in The Observer20
According to John Archibald Wheeler, who while a professor at Princeton, and director of the Center for theoretical physics at the University of Texas at Austin, was instrumental in bringing about the “Golden Age” of relativity of the 60’s and 70’s, in which it became firmly established as the mainstream of physics:
“Otherwise put, every “it”- every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely – even if in some contexts indirectly – from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. “It from bit” symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom – a very deep bottom, in most instances – an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-or-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”22 The following is from a radio interview in which Wheeler was interviewed by Martin Redfern: “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what’s happening in the distant past why should we need more?”
The above quotes show that a number of the most celebrated physicists of the modern era have held some very mystical beliefs that they have incorporated into their physical theories. Where have such beliefs derived from? One would expect physics to be the most logical branch of science, and physicists to be the least prone to harbor mystical beliefs. Some comments from Gedaliah Shaffer who has a Masters degree in physics, and is also a student of the Kabbalah, the mystical/religious text of Judaic origin that is important in Judaism and Freemasonry, may shed some light on this matter:11 He points out parallels between the mysticism of modern physics, and the mystical beliefs contained in the Kabbalah:
“To classical mechanics, man — the subjective observer — can be idealized as being wholly apart form the object of his observation. His interactions with this object are incidental to the observing process. Man’s internal, subjective life is disparate from the external, objective reality of the universe around him. This is in direct opposition to the Quantum Mechanical view. In this view such a duality no longer obtains. The observer (subject) and observed (object) can only be described as parts of a total all-encompassing system. The process of observation itself alters the state of the system — the conditions of the very thing to be observed. Internal life and the external universe, man and his environment constitute one indissoluble entity. Any idealized separation, any duality so distorts the actual situation as to make the resulting system meaningless.
In Jewish Mystical Philosophy there is a similar profoundly holistic image of man as part of the plenum of reality.”…”Scientific perception of the universe…has, to a great extent, converged on that of the traditional mystical viewpoint that is central to religious thought.”…”the physical and spiritual, matter and energy, are both manifestations of the Divine Will underlying reality and hence can be freely interchanged and transformed. Here also, we have an almost exact parallel to the matter-energy duality of Special Relativity.”25
So how did the tenets of one particular religious text, the Kabbalah, become so deeply ingrained in physics? The connection between physics and Freemasonry, which contains Kabbalistic beliefs was noted earlier in the article. The socio-political history of physics may serve to answer this question as well:
In the early part of the twentieth century, after Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity was introduced in 1905, and before the second world war, physicists were divided into two camps: those who supported Einsteinian relativity and relativity-based quantum theory, and those who didn’t. At first, this debate was only about science, but with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the accompanying persecution of Jews, the debate acquired a very non-scientific aspect.
It is well-known that Albert Einstein was of Jewish ancestry. What is less well-known is that the majority of scientists who collaborated in the popularization of Einsteinian relativity, and the creation of relativity-based quantum mechanics, were also of Jewish ancestry. These included prominent physicists and mathematicians:
- Albert Michelson
- Hermann Minkowski
- Wolfgang Pauli
- Ernst Mach
- Max Born
- Niels Bohr
- Richard Feynman
- John von Neumann
- Eugene Wigner
- Otto Stern
This predominance of those of Jewish heritage in formulating and promulgating relativity and quantum mechanics, did not escape the notice of Germans, including several in physics circles, who harbored anti-Jewish sentiments or were simply anxious to conform to the political climate of the time. This led to Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics being labeled as “Jewish science” by Nazi sympathizers, and opinions contrary to these theories being regarded as “Aryan science”.12 This clouded, if not entirely eliminated, sober scientific debate about the validity of these theories. Anyone outside of Germany’s sphere of influence who dared argue against these theories ran the risk of being accused of “anti-semitism”. The narrative of Einstein and fellow Jewish physicists who escaped Nazi persecution resonated with the media.
Einstein was elevated to celebrity status. According to one survey, he was considered the greatest hero of all time. He was even offered the Presidency of Israel.14 The esteem of Einstein in the public eye has not diminished to the present day, and his theories have nearly attained the status of religious doctrine. The simple equation E = mc2 , has been hailed by the media as a great intellectual achievement of Einstein’s doing. In reality it is nothing more than the classical formula for kinetic energy, E = mv2, simply replacing the v, which could represent any velocity, with c, which is the velocity of light (or EM radiation). If the velocity of light is the fastest anything can travel, the equation with c as the velocity, represents the maximum kinetic energy that any given mass, m, can have. To attribute this equation to Einstein, as the media has done, is a blatant ripoff of the true creators of the equation, Gottfried Leibniz and Johann Bernoulli, who proposed it in the 17th century. Academic institutions may still be sensitive to possible accusations of anti-semitism that challenges to Einstein’s theories could provoke. For whatever reason, scientists of Jewish origin have received a disproportionate amount of professional acclaim over the last century, as evidenced by 26% of all Nobel prizes in physics, and 19% in chemistry, having been awarded to people of Jewish origin – this from a people who represent only an estimated 0.2% of the world population.13
One must wonder if the circumstance of being a Freemason, or having a Jewish background, or some other connection to religion or mysticism, has had anything to do with the physics espoused by the members of these groups. As noted earlier, in the case of Isaac Newton, it is not necessarily the case that personal mystical beliefs influence one’s work in the scientific arena. However, much of the work of the above-mentioned physicists and their contemporaries, clearly has a mystical tinge. Here is a summary of concepts of modern physics that closely resemble mystical or religious beliefs:
The “Big Bang” – This idea is the origin of a great deal of modern physics theory, including currently popular ideas like dark matter and dark energy. It could be regarded as religion in the trappings of science. This theory posits that the entire universe and everything in it originated from a single infinitely small point called a “singularity”, or as a “primordial atom” in the words of the originator of the theory, a Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître. This idea bears very strong resemblance to the Judeo-Christian idea that the universe was created by God from nothing. One may argue that something infinitely small is not “nothing” but it is at least infinitely close to being nothing. Never in human experience has something been created from nothing. One may argue: If the universe wasn’t created from nothing, how did it come into being? This ignores the far more logically tenable idea that the universe has always existed, and therefore was never created. This eliminates the logical difficulties inherent in the paradox of: How can something be created from “nothing” without “something” to create it? The Big Bang or divine creation idea makes other religious ideas such as walking on water, Noah’s ark, raising the dead, etc. seem positively rational by comparison. Surprisingly, the mainstream explanations for a number of basic phenomena in nature are actually based on this “theory”.
The idea that reality is a manifestation of human consciousness – This is a concept in several interpretations of quantum mechanics, including the “many minds” or “many worlds” interpretations. It is the idea also present in several religions, that humans have some special or privileged role in the scheme of things. If the human species succeeds in destroying itself, will the entire universe cease to exist? (too bad for any extraterrestrial life)
The role of the “observer” in Einsteinian relativity, quantum mechanics, and related theories – This idea that “what happens depends on who is watching” is closely related to the preceding concept. It is that humans are more than just animals with larger and more capable brains. Does what happens also depend on what dog is watching, or what cockroach? Once again, it is the religious idea that humans have some special role in the universe.
The existence of time as a real physical entity – This idea is present in most major theories of contemporary physics. According to Einsteinian relativity and other theories, time can be speeded up or slowed down (dilated). This implies that the past and the future have a current physical existence. According to Einsteinian relativity, the speed at which a clock runs is influenced by velocity, and gravity. This is a tall order given that many different things can constitute clocks, including an hour glass, a sundial, a water clock, a metronome, or even a smoothly idling lawnmower engine. Probably the first “clock” (albeit not a precise one) employed by humans for timekeeping, was the rotation (spin) of the earth. Does time dilation cause the rotational speed of the earth to vary depending on differences in gravitational pull from the sun and planets? Is someone on the moon in the future of someone on earth, due to the difference in gravity? For time to be dilated or compressed; to speed up or slow down in other words, and for this to influence the time that is measured by all possible time-keeping devices, then all change must be speeded up or slowed down. What we call “time” is really change. A change that is a cyclical event thought to be regular, is used as a standard of comparison for other changes. For example, velocity could be a change in distance divided by the number of rotations of the hand of a clock while the distance was changing; or flowrate could be the volume of liquid that has flowed past a particular point, divided by the rotations of a clock hand while it was flowing. Time is not a real physical thing of any sort. It is merely an ingenious human-invented artifice for quantifying and ordering change. The idea of Einsteinian relativity that all of time (past, present and future) is constantly in existence, along a path (called a “worldline” in relativity) extending from the past to the future, is also found in Judeo-Christian, and other religions. It can only be regarded as metaphysical rather than scientific.
The idea that nature must conform to mathematics – Some might think that this is a recent idea that was born with the advent of the current “mathematical physics”, but it has actually been around a very long time. The most famous early proponent of the idea that mathematical concepts or numbers govern nature, was Pythagorus, over two millenia ago. He created a cult based on the idea. This concept is sometimes referred to as “numerology”, and is a component of the mysticism of Freemasonry and Judaism.11 Some physicists of the modern era have held some positively arcane numerological beliefs: The number 137 is assigned particular significance in Kabbalism. Nobel Prize winners Wolfgang Pauli, and Richard Feynman, both of Judaic origin, were apparently fascinated by this number. Here is quote attributed to Pauli: “If the Lord allowed me to ask anything I wanted, my first question would be “Why 1/137?“ and another attributed to Feynman: “You might say the hand of God wrote that number” (referring to 137).34 In reality, mathematics is another creation of the human mind. Mathematics did not exist until the ancient Mesopotamians invented it. .
So how has physics, once the most logical of sciences, been allowed to veer so far onto the path of mysticism seemingly without dissent? Possibly because dissenters are powerless to change its course as long as the elite of physics are adherents of the mystical theories. This elitism is enforced in two major ways: One is the domination of physics by elite universities which receive the lion’s share of funding. The overwhelming majority of physics professors hold degrees from these elite (and expensive) universities and form somewhat of a clique, with many of them being associated with each other on a professional, and often social, basis. If your degree is from Podunk State U., then you have little chance of a career in academia beyond maybe an instructorship at a two-year college. If you are a non-believer in mystical physics you would find it very difficult to obtain a phD in physics from any university.
The second, and most effective mechanism that ensures that only the ideas of the elite of the physics establishment receive any broad exposure, is a policy that seems to be universal among scientific publications and journals. It is that the review of papers submitted for publication must be conducted by reviewers recruited by the author(s) of the paper and these reviewers must have sufficient prestige in the physics community to be deemed acceptable to the publication. Can Joe nobody who lacks both academic standing and resources, get anyone to review his paper who has sufficient prestige to satisfy the publisher? Not a chance. He would have difficulty even getting such a personage to read or listen to his ideas, no matter how brilliant they may be. From the standpoint of potential reviewers, it boils down to; what’s in it for them? They may be willing to review the paper of someone of equal or greater stature, because this could add to their own stature. They may be willing to review anyone’s paper if enough money is involved, because money can buy almost anything, even favorable reviews. Doing a proper review of a scientific paper is a lot of time-consuming work. Reviewers need a tangible reason to do it that benefits them. So why do scientific publishers have this policy? The obvious reason is money: Employing qualified reviewers who expect big paychecks for their time is expensive. A deeper reason may be to protect the status quo.
Because of these factors, alternatives to the current mystical physics are never allowed to prosper. There is an old saying that goes “A good idea and ten cents will buy you a cup of coffee”. This saying is obviously very dated, since nowadays a cup of coffee costs far more than ten cents, but its significance applies to no field of endeavor more so than to physics. One could have the greatest idea in the history of physics, but probably few will ever hear of it if the person with the idea lacks either high standing in the academic community, or a lot of money.
Part III of this series is entitled: The Way Forward for Physics
1. L.Sprague de Camp, Ancient Engineers
4. Lewis, H. Spencer, Rosicrucian Questions and Answers with Complete History of the Rosicrucian Order.
5. Richman, Rabbi Chaim; Temple Institute
6. White, Michael, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer
9. William R. Denslow (with foreword by Harry S. Truman),10,000 Famous Freemasons
11. http://www.masonicworld.com/education/files/oct06/KABBALAH AND FREEMASONRY.htm
15. Sir Arthur Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science
16. www.gmilburn.ca/ 2009/ 06/ 15/
17. W.Heisenberg, In his speech Scientific and Religious Truth (1974)
18. Max Planck Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944)
19. James Hopwood Jeans, The Mysterious Universe, page 137.
23. The anthropic universe. Science Show. 18 February 2006
24. von Neumann, John, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1932/1955)
25. Shaffer, Gedaliah, Mysticism and Modern Physics
26. Rucker, Rudolf, The Fourth Dimension: A Guided Tour of the Higher Universes.
27. William Hodson Brock, William Crookes and the commercialization of science28. Daniel Cohen, Masters of the Occult
29. Andrew Neher, Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination
30. Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England
31. Alex Owen , The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern
32. Renée Haynes, The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History
33. Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner,Transcendental Physics
34. Billy Phillips, The Magic of 137, Kabbalahstudent.com