Physics and Process Thought

Physics and Process Thought

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John A. Jungerman provides an extremely accessible yet remarkably comprehensive and accurate account of contemporary physics while examining how the issues and theories of physics relate to process philosophy and theology. Jungerman’s knowledge of physics derives from teaching the subject for forty years at the University of California, Davis. His introduction to process philosophy and theology came later in life as he discovered the congeniality of process thought with physics when attempting to convey physics theories in religiously amenable categories.

World in Process: Creativity and Interconnection in the New Physics was written, as the author puts it, “to emphasize the compatibility of process thought with what we know about the physical world and about the evolution of the universe. … On all levels in the physical world we find three fundamental characteristics: creativity, openness with an active selection among alternatives, and interconnection. Science shows us these qualities in the physical world. These same qualities are emphasized in process metaphysics, which attempts to describe all of our experiences, including religion—hence we are led to a comprehensive view of our place and role in the universe” (xiv-v).

The present essay amounts to a descriptive review of Jungerman’s book. We hope our review will provide both an accurate portrayal of Jungerman’s work and, in providing this portrayal, a glimpse at concepts and theories basic to both modern physics and process thought.

Jungerman appropriately begins World in Process with a brief discussion of the terms and basic principles of process thought. He lists the following as process philosophy’s principal ideas:

* Events, understood as actual occasions, are primary.
* Substances are secondary.
* Each event connects with earlier events.
* Each event intends to maximize creativity and intensity of experience, broadly speaking.
* Events actively select among alternatives.
* Body and mind interconnect.

Nature reveals these ideas in all her arenas: from the micro world of atoms and subatomic particles, to the motions of the cosmos, and all the forces in between.

The basis for examining parallels of physics with process philosophy, avers Jungerman, comes when supposing that the ultimate units of existence are events. Understanding the characteristics of these events is crucial to grasping these parallels. Events (1) connect with previous events through prehension, (2) have both a mental and physical pole, (3) possess a measure of self-determination, (4) events become data for subsequent events after prehending others and reaching individual satisfaction. Furthermore, suggests Jungerman, we find parallels with process thought and physics in that both consider the future unpredictable because genuinely open. This open future, along with creativity, provides the basis for novelty.

Jungerman notes that the special and general theories of relativity are especially congenial to process thought. “By showing that space and time are inseparable,” notes Jungerman, “the special theory of relativity supports the process view that everything is related to time” (17). The special theory of relativity states that the “laws” of physics and the velocity of light are the same in all frames of reference with constant velocities. Time depends on the interconnectedness of space and motion; hence, we might call these “time-space” or “space-time.” How we view space depends upon the web of relationships generated by temporal events. This also means that mass and energy are essentially connected; we can speak interchangeably of mass and energy, or of “mass-energy” or “energy-mass.”

While the special theory of relativity deals with systems moving at constant velocity, the general theory of relativity can deal with systems whose velocity is changing. In proposing the theory, Einstein gave up thinking of gravitation as warping time and space and alleged, instead, the curvature of space-time as the source of gravitation. (Although Jungerman does not deal extensively with this point, it should be noted that Whitehead offered an alternative theory to Einstein’s space-time curvature. Contemporary physicists influenced by Whitehead’s thought prefer this lesser known theory.) The general theory of relativity, notes Jungerman, predicts that mass-energy produces the curvature of space-time, that the space-time curvature produces the deflection of light, and that time slows in the presence of matter or mass-energy. The theory has been especially important for astrophysics, because it is the basis for the hypothesis that highly concentrated mass-energy produces black holes, the theory predicts that the major axis of orbits of rotating stellar object will “precess,” and it supports the hypothesis that the universe is expanding. “The general theory of relativity,” argues Jungerman, “is key to our understanding of the cosmos and is fundamental to the foundation of a new myth connecting science and religion” (46).

Jungerman points out that, as process philosophy supposes, science itself is in process. “Science is contingent and ever evolving. No ideas are fixed for all time” (47). For example, Einstein’s work dictated that the universe is either expanding or collapsing. He introduced a constant so that his theory would predict a static universe, because the belief that the universe is static was the orthodoxy of the day. Later observation suggests, however, that the universe is expanding. So Einstein reverted back to his original theory. Einstein’s vacillation illustrates how scientific observation processively affects scientific theory. The process has been witnessed to in the changes from Aristotelian theories to Newtonian ones, from Newtonian theories to Einsteinian ones, from Einsteinian theories to quantum theories, etc.

Chapters three through five address the “microworld” of existence. Jungerman begins with a discussion of waves and particles by noting that light behaves as both a particle and wave—a wavicle. As a wave, light shows interference patterns, diffraction patterns, and can be polarized. Yet, evidence for its particle nature is found in black body radiation, the photoelectric effect and the Compton effect, and pair production. If light performs as both, what about matter? Jungerman points to evidence that matter has wave aspects. The dual accounts of light and matter fits well with the basic process hypothesis that existence is fundamentally comprised of interconnected dipolar events, not static substances. “In accord with process thought,” contends Jungerman, we “find that events are the primary fact of the world. The universe is made almost entirely of electromagnetic radiation. In fact, there are about one billion bits of such radiation to every bit of matter. … Energy, not matter, is dominant in the universe, in agreement with Whitehead’s view that events are primary … ” (68).

Quantum mechanics, a necessary subject for a physics discussion of the microworld, offers a method to describe the behavior of energy-matter and wave-particles under the influence of forces. This method also coheres well with process thought, contends Jungerman, because process thought similarly accounts for causation at all levels of existence. Matter arises and disappears in a series of interconnected events, and these events are open and unpredictable by outside observers. Such observers produce fundamental changes to events being observed—further illustrating the interconnectedness supposed by process thinking.

Jungerman suggests that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which implies that the path taken by a particle is at least undetermined and perhaps random, provides an opportunity to suppose that individual electrons may choose among alternative paths. These paths are constrained by the overall probabilities imposed by quantum mechanics. “The idea of an electron making such a selection,” notes Jungerman, “is consistent with process philosophy that assumes the individuality and creativity of events even at the atomic level” (79). Furthermore, suggests Jungerman, “quantum mechanics may serve as an analogy to the idea of a … God … [who] provides overall primordial guidance for the development of the universe, but the actual development is contingent upon worldly decisions” (82).

What appear to us as solid matter, Jungerman states to begin his discussion of matter-energy’s constituent parts, “is really a dance of energy events and interconnections” (100). What holds atoms together, says modern field theory, are virtual particles that are born and die by a billion trillions each second. These forces (electromagnetic, nuclear, electroweak theory resulting in radioactive decay, and the gravitational force) are all elementary events that hold the actual world together. While electromagnetic forces, weak forces of decay, and strong nuclear forces are easily related, physics awaits the discovery of the relationship with gravity that will provide a unified field theory.

In the sixth and seventh chapters of the book, Jungerman turns the “macroworld.” The involvement of many trillions of atoms and their interactions comprise the complex systems of the macroworld. While systems tend toward more disorder (as the second law of thermodynamics states), physicists find individual particles working toward more complex systems. The self-organization within complex systems “is an example of the creation of order and increasing complexity that is an essential feature of process thought” (117). Complex systems, parallel to quarks and electrons, are “unpredictable in the sense that it is impossible to specify initial conditions so that the future of the systems can be [completely] determined” (136). “Reductionists claim that all of nature will be explained eventually by the fundamental laws and constituents of matter, understood as insentient bits of mass energy. In my opinion this prediction will not be borne out in complex systems. … It seems to me that at each level of organization new laws apply. Since the whole is nonlinear, interactive, and inherently creative and unpredictable, it is greater in complexity than the sum of its parts” (137).

If the physical interactions in the initial stages of the evolution of our universe had been only slightly different, conditions for biological evolution would not have been secured. The cosmic evolution from Big Bang toward greater complexity and capacity for enjoyment also accord with central notions in process thought. Jungerman points to various pieces of evidence that support the Big Bang hypothesis: (1) the expansion of the universe first noted by Edwin Hubble’s astronomical measurements, (2) microwave background radiation as discovered by Penzias and Wilson, (3) the abundance of the light elements, and (4) the limited number of neutrino families. “Again at a cosmic scale,” notes Jungerman, “we see illustrations of process thought. The universe is … in a creative process of evolution with ever-increasing complexity under a lawful order, starting from a very small intense region of only radiation and evolving to the impressive universe of today. Throughout this evolution there has been a selection among alternatives, an emergence of novelty in the processes involved. We are interconnected with all life, since the very atoms of our bodies have a common origin in the Big Bang and in the supernova from which our solar system formed. We are stardust together” (165).

Jungerman closes the discussion of the macroworld by noting that some physicists consider the Big Bang to be the beginning of both time and space. Other physicists claim that there are no grounds to suggest that the Big Bang initiated time and space, and there may have been no commencement of time-space. Concurring with the second alternative, process thought, in the tradition of Whitehead, speculates that space-time has always existed. This pantemporalist hypothesis enjoys the luxury of evading various paradoxes and self-contradictions inherent in the idea that time and space had a beginning.

In the final segments of the book, Jungerman specifically addresses process concepts of God. “Process theology … gives us an image of divinity that is consistent with the processes of the universe that we have considered previously. [Process thought] provides a means for religion to become more relevant to our scientific-technological society” (167). Jungerman concludes that the idea that the universe evolved by chance “is at its heart unconvincing and unsatisfactory.” Instead, we find “impressive evidence for divine guidance in the formation of our universe” (171).

Several features of the God process theists envision are valuable to the science and religion dialogue. Jungerman notes that the God of process thought is actual and active in the world. This God possesses a consequent aspect that is interactive and a primordial vision of possibilities for novelty in the created order. The deity envisioned here is not a God of the gaps, “whereby gaps in the world’s causal processes are occasionally filled by divine acts” (176). Instead, divinity relentlessly and ubiquitously acts as a necessary cause in the world, and God’s experience changes from these causal relations. The God that process theists envision is personal and lures the world toward maximum enjoyment, creativity, and intensity of experience. This loving deity requires cooperation with the world to actualize the possibilities that bring about the greatest overall good. “Process thought invites us to consider the world as an interrelated unity: nature participates in us and we in it,” concludes Jungerman. “It asks us to share with reverence in the divine adventure of the universe” (202).

We heartily recommend that both novices and experts in physics alike explore Jungerman’s work. While specialists will find little new in the chapters dealing with aspects of physics, they will likely find fresh springs from which to drink when considering how process theology might relate to their discipline in general and their own spirituality in particular. Novices to physics who come to World in Process from their general interest in the science and religion dialogue will find a user-friendly guide to modern physics and an introduction to process theology upon which to deliberate as they imbibe from this rich wellspring alongside specialists.