Pope St. John Paul II in his famous work, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, traced the breakdown between public Christianity and Western Civilization back to one man, the ivory tower intellectual René Descartes (1596-1650):
[T]he father of modern rationalism…created the climate in which in the modern era such an estrangement became possible…about 150 years after Descartes all that was fundamentally Christian in the tradition of European thought had already been pushed aside. This was the time of the Enlightenment…
Or as the late pontiff put it elsewhere in the same book: “Descartes marks the beginning of the development of the exact and natural sciences as well as of the humanistic sciences in their new expression. He turns his back on metaphysics and concentrates on the philosophy of knowledge” (emphasis added).
According to the new movie The End of Quantum Reality, John Paul the Great was not alone in this analysis. Apparently “great” minds do think alike. For indeed, the film (premiering at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh on January 11, with subsequent openings including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland later in January), is a sort of panegyric to another Catholic claimant to the title of greatness: Dr. Wolfgang Smith. Accepted to Cornell University at the age of 15, Smith earned his doctoral degree in mathematics from Columbia University. Having held faculty positions at M.I.T., U.C.L.A., and Oregon State University, Smith is well known in traditional Catholic circles through his books, including Cosmos and Transcendence, Teilhardism and the New Religion and his latest work, Physics and Vertical Causation: The End of Quantum Reality (Angelico Press, 2019).
At an early moment in the movie, speaking of Descartes, the soon-to-be-nonagenarian philosopher of science makes the critical observation that although many modern scientists
have not perhaps even heard of Descartes…unconsciously they have and…to a man, [have] absorbed that philosophy [of Descartes]. What is characteristic of [his]…“external domain”…it is populated with objects which can be described completely…in mathematical terms…the realm of qualities had to be eliminated from the external world…he relegated these qualitative parameters to a subjective world…of thinking entities…to produce a world which would be ideal for the mathematical physicists.
In other words, over the last 400 years since Descartes, scientists have reduced the “real” world to matter and measurement, what René Guénon once called the “Reign of Quantity”. It might, however, be equally appropriate to refer to it as the “Reign of Darkness”: Grace does not abide in such a world. Neither, for that matter, does the human soul. And under the thick materialist constraints of such a worldview, God and the Tooth Fairy are of identical irrelevance. Further still, under this “Dictatorship of Relativism,” even the green grass, the songs of birds, and the pangs of love are all ultimately reduced to “random, stochastic and deterministic processes.”
The film gives the viewer a crash course in the history of physics from Newton to Einstein to today. Along the way the non-specialist is surprised to learn that, in the words of narrator/producer Rick DeLano, “The classic notion that the universe is made of atomic particles…has proved to be untenable…physicists really have lost their grip on reality.” DeLano is, of course, referring to the 20th-century discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics—that mysterious realm of reality at the sub-atomic level where “no actual particles exist but come into existence abruptly in the act of measurement.”
Here quantum enigmas abound—and scores of theories to account for them. One of which, for example, goes so far as to postulate that every quantum measurement “splits the universe into as many copies of itself as there are possible outcomes.” This, of course is the theory of the “Multiverse,” which has as many adherents among quantum physicists as it does at the other end of the spectrum, the cosmologists. Nevertheless, it amounts in the end to a rather absurd appeal, as DeLano intones in Orson Wells fashion: “to an infinity of worlds we cannot observe, in order to explain the one we can.”
For DeLano and director Ktee Thomas, it is Wolfgang Smith—and his unique insight of “Vertical Causation”—who has come at the eleventh hour to save us from both Cartesian “schizophrenia” and from a Multiverse which threatens to render not only individual human existence meaningless, but empirical science itself. Indeed, Smith’s solution involves nothing less than a return to Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. What is Vertical Causation and how does it resolve the quantum enigma? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out, but here is a hint: “Vertical”.
While the film is definitely for those with an intellectual bent, it is not one long school lesson in the history of science. While it lacks the bells and whistles of a fully animated science movie, it makes up for it in part as a “biopic” of Smith, one that takes us from his mountain-climbing in Tibet (his search for meaning among Eastern gurus) to his finding true love in the person of his late wife Thea. Smith recounts that it is she we must thank for his literary output—and reconversion to Catholicism.
The film also contains interview footage of friends and fellow philosophers Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (a devout Muslim) and Olavo de Carvalho (“The Brazilian Rush Limbuagh”). No intellectual slouches themselves—having hundreds of books and articles between them—they rank Smith among the greatest intellects of the last decades, a man who demands a hearing if we want to recapture the “real world;” a challenge and an opportunity which C.S. Lewis characterized most beautifully in his poem “What the Bird Said Early in the Year”:
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.
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