Graphic illustration of Buddha's eyes. Green eyes. Orange background. Photo: iStock

China’s ancient natural philosophers would have been amazed by the achievements of modern quantum physics. But they would be puzzled by the disagreement between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr over the apparent contradiction between the theory of relativity and the so-called standard model of quantum physics. Both theories are proven and accepted, but they can ‘t be reconciled in a so-called “theory of everything.” The Chinese sages would have suggested the problem is conceptual and can be resolved by studying the Chinese notion of chi (or qi).

Einstein’s relativity theory ostensibly explained away the ether (aether), that mysterious “something” that fills the universe, which he replaced with space-time. His model postulates that light (streams of photons) is deflected by the gravitational force of large celestial bodies. Scientists confirmed Einstein’s prediction in 1919 by taking measurements during a solar eclipse. They confirmed that light reaching the earth from distant stars behind the Sun reaches Earth in a curved path.

The effect of curvature is typically illustrated with a ball hitting a trampoline, causing its surface to curve or warp. The notion of curved space assumed that light, which is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, is interchangeable with the notion of space. Prior to the 20th century, European natural philosophers and scientists had offered various theories about the ether. For the Greeks it was a substance that filled the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.

Descartes drew the ether into the domain of science. He argued that all forces are transmitted by direct contact. Ether was the medium that enables two forces, pressure and impact, to be transmitted between bodies. Ether is imperceptible to the senses, yet capable of transmitting forces on material bodies immersed in it. Descartes views are similar to those first expressed by Aristotle.

Newton addressed the issue of forces transmitted by direct contact with his Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

Newton addressed the issue of forces transmitted by direct contact with his Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The textbook example is the force colliding with billiard balls. But Newton, like Descartes, assumed that forces between bodies not touching each other, like two magnets or the Moon’s effect on the tides, must have direct contact through an intermediate contiguous matter like ether.

Newton assumed ether to be something with “ponderability” that participates in the movement and ordering of the planets and universe and a working force in optics, chemistry and gravitation. In a letter to natural philosopher and chemist Robert Boyle, he wrote: “And first, I suppose, that there diffused through all places an ethereal substance, capable of contraction and dilatation, strongly elastic, and, in a word, much like air in all respects, but far more subtile [sic].”

From force to field

Physicist Christiaan Huygens hypothesized that light itself was a wave propagating through an ether, but Newton rejected this idea. In his later years, Newton applied more abstract concepts to ether, including “prime mover” and deified “absolute space.” Further study of the ether had to await the harnessing of electricity in the 19th century.

In the mid-19th century, the English scientist Michael Faraday first demonstrated the relationship between magnetism and electricity. Faraday generated an electric current in a copper coil by using a magnet. The phenomenon could not be explained by Newtonian physics. James Clerk Maxwell next discovered that electricity, magnetism and light are different manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Studying the nature of electric and magnetic phenomena, Faraday and Maxwell replaced the Newtonian mechanical notion of “force” with the electromagnetic notion of “field.” Newtonian mechanics remained valid for colliding billiard balls but it needed a new theory to account for electromagnetic phenomena and the world of non-mechanical, subatomic particles like photons. This initially proved to be a conceptual hurdle.

Newtonian mechanics had shaped European thinking about nature. In his popular book The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra explains how Maxwell struggled to come to terms with the physics and did not adhere to Newtonian mechanics. “Maxwell himself tried to explain his results in mechanical terms, interpreting the [electromagnetic] fields as states of mechanical stress in a very light space-filling medium, called ether, and the electromagnetic waves as elastic waves of this ether.”

Capra continues by noting that Maxwell used several mechanical interpretations of his theory at the same time and apparently took none of them really seriously. Capra writes: “He must have realized intuitively, even if he did not say so explicitly, that the fundamental entities in his theory were the fields and not the mechanical models. It was Einstein who clearly recognized this fact 50 years later when he declared that no ether existed and that the electromagnetic fields were physical entities in their own right which could travel through empty space and could not be explained mechanically.”

In formulating his relativity theory, Einstein relied on Maxwell’s notion of free space. But “free space” was a conceptual notion, not proof the ether did not exist. Einstein realized the incongruity and in 1920 he gave a lecture entitled “Ether and the Theory of Relativity.” Einstein said:

“The space-time theory and the kinematics of the special theory of relativity were modelled on the Maxwell-Lorentz theory of the electromagnetic field.” Hence Einstein added a caveat: “The special theory of relativity forbids us to assume the ether to consist of particles observable through time, but the hypothesis of ether in itself is not in conflict with the special theory of relativity.”

We are presented with three possibilities: the ether does not exist; the ether exists but we can ignore it; relativity theory forces us to rethink the notion of the ether. The notion of space does not prove the absence of the ether. Moreover, scientists routinely refer to the notion of space assuming we agree on its meaning. Space means different things to physicists, astronauts and architects.

Chi and ether

The single most important notion in Chinese natural philosophy is arguably qi (or chi). The word has been interpreted and translated in many different ways, but Joseph Needham offered what must be the most appropriate interpretation. Taking his cue from quantum physics, he translated chi as “matter-energy.” Chi is uniquely Chinese and should perhaps be left un-translated. Chi pertains to the “tension” between nature’s binary opposites of yin and yang. In the words of the old sages: “Chi resides in tension.” The Japanese refer to ki and, as in China, is used in many compound words both old and new such as aikido and denki (electricity).

Chi, the “product” of Tao, straddles the border of what we call the material and the immaterial. Every single thing and non-thing is permeated and governed by chi. The universe itself is a web of chi that is undifferentiated. Chi is a prescientific notion of quantum mechanics. It does not distinguish the four fundamental forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak interaction, and the strong interaction), but accommodates them all. Freely translated we could call chi a super-ether.

Fritjof Capra makes a direct comparison between chi and ether. He writes that chi literally means “gas” or “ether” and the Neo-Confucians developed a notion of chi which bears the most striking resemblance to the concept of the quantum field in modern physics. “In Chinese philosophy, the field idea [of quantum physics] is not only implicit in the notion of the Tao as being empty and formless, and yet producing all forms, but is also expressed explicitly in the concept of chi.”

Capra adds: “As in quantum field theory, the field – or the chi – is not only the underlying essence of all material objects, but also carries their mutual interactions in the form of waves.”

Dealing with ambiguity

Relativity theory is fundamentally at odds with quantum mechanics. After developing his ground-breaking theory, Einstein spent the rest of his life trying to unify both theories. Stephen Hawking and many other have tried the same. Relativity deals with the very big –  it accounts for gravity and all it governs: orbiting planets, colliding galaxies, the dynamics of the expanding universe, etc. Quantum mechanics deals with the very small – the nature and behavior of subatomic particles like protons, electrons and neutrons. The difference between the theories is a clash of incompatible descriptions of nature.

Chi pertains to the “tension” between nature’s binary opposites of yin and yang. In the words of the old sages: “Chi resides in tension”

Underlying the debate is whether nature is continuous or discrete, smooth or chunky. We have two distinct specific forms of mathematics to deal with this dichotomy: discrete and continuous mathematics. When certain methods or postulates no longer work, we discard them. When scientists realized Euclidian geometry no longer worked to sufficiently understand “reality,” they adopted “non-Euclidian” geometry. The former still applies but is limited to flat surfaces.

The dichotomy between relativity and quantum mechanics has proven to be a harder nut to crack. Scientists appear to rely primarily on mathematical constructs to bridge the gap between the two. Given that relativity and quantum mechanics are both proven yet mathematically or conceptually irreconcilable, we are left with a limited number of options: the problem is conceptual, one or both theories are incomplete, or they address such different aspects of nature that they cannot be reconciled, at least not mathematically.

Humans made the distinction between discrete and continuous to understand nature and its ways, but nature itself must be both. If we have a better understanding, we either will solve the mathematical incongruity or we conclude that the incongruity is a problem only for mathematicians.

The Chinese, with their aesthetic rather than scientific view of nature, could not have developed quantum physics. But they anticipated several key aspects of modern physics. Einstein replaced the ether with space-time, showing that both must be taken into account to get a full picture of reality. The Chinese had come to the same conclusion some 2,000 years earlier. They spoke of Yu-Zhou. Yu refers to “space-universe” and Zhou to “time-universe.” In the words of the old Chinese natural philosophers, “What comprises the four points of the compass together with what is above and below: this is called Yu. What comprises past, present and future: this is called Zhou.”

If we were to ask the old Chinese sages for a shortcut to understanding the Chinese worldview, they may say: “Study chi and embrace ambiguity.”

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Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Quantum Physics and Artificial Intelligence in the 21st Century: Lessons learned from China.

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