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Dr Wolfgang Smith of ‘Physics: A Science in Quest of an Ontology’ On How We Can Understand The Difference Between Classical Physics And Quantum Theory

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

I had the recent pleasure to interview mathematician, physicist, and philosopher of science, Dr. Wolfgang Smith.

Born in Vienna in 1930, Dr. Wolfgang Smith graduated from Cornell University at age 18 with degrees in physics, mathematics, and philosophy. Two years later, he took an M.S. in theoretical physics at Purdue University, following which he climbed the Matterhorn and published extensively on mathematical topics relating to algebraic and differential topology, including the first theoretical solution to the re-entry problem for space flight.

In a crowning achievement of his life’s work, Wolfgang Smith resolves modern physics’ schizophrenic perception of reality in his latest discourse, “Physics: A Science in Quest of an Ontology.” Building on his earlier works, Cosmos and Transcendence, The Quantum Enigma, and The Vertical Ascent, wherein he theorized the existence of two ontologically distinct “levels of being,” the physical and the corporeal domains, and the accompanying principle of vertical causality, Smith now introduces the concept of a third ontological factor, irreducible wholeness, to complete his eloquent proof of a revelatory ontological unity and order that presents physics in a brand new key and restores meaning to science.

Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Wolfgang Smith! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory? Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

My story begins early: at the age of fourteen, to be exact. And it begins, if you will, with a book: A.N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. It is a serious work on the philosophy of science — of physics in particular — and I am not sure how much of it I could understand at the time: enough, in any case, to be enchanted. I recall my mother calling me to come down for dinner, and answering: “I can’t come now, I am thinking.”

I could hardly wait to attend college, which I looked upon somewhat as a temple of higher learning, missioned to initiate its members into the ultimate mysteries. So I entered Cornell University at the age of fifteen filled with lofty expectations, majoring in physics, mathematics and philosophy. It did not however take me long to realize that — whatever else a contemporary university may be — it most assuredly is not an institution dedicated to the pursuit of “sacred” truth! I graduated at the age of eighteen, disillusioned with contemporary universities, but still a believer in “higher” truth.

My Cornell days were followed by a three-year sojourn at Bell Aircraft Corporation in the capacity of an aerodynamicist, a science I learned “on the job” so to speak. These were the days when we prepared for the first venture into space, the great stumbling block being the re-entry problem: how to prevent the spacecraft, plunging back into the atmosphere at ten times the speed of sound, from burning up due to aerodynamic heating. I found it exciting to fixate upon this problem, and ended up presenting a rather simple solution. To overcome frictional heating one evidently needs to lubricate; and in the case of a gas rubbing against a solid surface, one needs evidently to lubricate with another gas, for which I chose helium. And so I did the math, and in December of 1953 published my first scientific paper: “The Effect of Diffusion Fields on the Laminar Boundary Layer,” which proved to be well received..

Yet soon enough that “higher” truth beckoned once again, and the thought struck me that a university career might yet be the best way to pursue that calling: it would however be best to do so incognito. Choosing mathematics as the “neutral” subject par excellence, I took a Ph.D. in that discipline from Columbia University, and embarked upon an academic career. The great advantage of such a course is that it leaves you ample time to pursue your intellectual interests — it matters not if they transcend the confines of the contemporary worldview.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let us shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the central theme of your new book, “Physics: A Science in Quest of an Ontology.” What do you believe are the main characteristics from the book one should embody?

It should be noted, first of all, that this book presents a new ontology of physics, which emerged gradually, one step at a time, over a very long period: seventy eight years, to be exact, beginning with my first reading of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. It was from this source that I first learned that physics does not simply tell us how the universe operates, but that its knowledge comes at a price: a limitation, to be exact. Its accuracy is mainly purchased at the cost of cutting down its field of vision so as to exclude everything transcending the quantitative order.

Our very conception of physics is founded upon a philosophic premise for which there is not — nor can be — any scientific evidence at all: what Whitehead terms “bifurcation,” that is. The idea goes back to Democritus (around 400 BC), was refuted by Plato, and reintroduced in the seventeenth century by René Descartes, who proposed that the world breaks into two mutually exclusive domains: what he termed res extensa or “extended” things on the one hand, and res cogitans or “things of the mind” on the other. This leaves the so-called “external world” emptied of all that transcends the categories of physics: no wonder physical scientists were pleased! Yet Whitehead was not: referring to this questionable premise as “bifurcation,” he lectured the physics community insistently on the dire implications of that ontological assumption. It is productive, he declared, of “a complete muddle in scientific thought”; and yet “any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this point of view is assailed as unintelligible.” It is however questionable whether even a single physicist took these strictures to heart. In any case, for my part I was intrigued, and ultimately spurred to discover the true ontology of physics, firm in the conviction that it could not be bifurcations.

What on the other hand differentiates me from Whitehead is that, somewhere along the way, I became a Platonist aspiring to understand physics itself in Platonist terms. Now according to the Platonist ontology, the integral cosmos breaks into three domains, which may be conceived in terms of a simple icon: a circle, namely, in which the center represents the so-called intelligible sphere, subject neither to space nor to time; the circumference represents the corporeal, subject evidently to both; and the intermediate (or psychic) subject to time alone. And let me note that — formidable as this may strike us at first glance — it is after all just the macrocosmic analogue of the traditional corpus-anima-spiritus trichotomy, which, once upon a time, every child would learn somehow to grasp.

But to proceed: once one has learned to see the integral cosmos as a trichotomy, the way to a Platonist comprehension of physics is not far to seek. That Platonist ontology furnishes us namely with a vertical axis: an ontological “above” and “below” one might say, along with a distinction between “being” and “non-being”: between that which derives from above — from that cosmic Center — and that which does not.

The crucial point I wish to make is that this Platonist ontology, applied to contemporary physics, permits us — for the very first time! — to resolve its central enigma: i.e., to understand the difference between classical physics and quantum theory. So readily, in fact, can this be done, that I propose to display the resolution of this almost century-old enigma in one more paragraph.

It turns out, in light of the Platonist ontology, that classical physics is what I term subcorporeal. This means that it deals with physical objects SX derived from a corporeal object X, where SX is essentially “X as conceived by the physicist.” It happens however that every corporeal object X (which is not a mixture, to be precise) embodies being — that is to say, an irreducible wholeness derived from the ontological Center. And it is this fact, precisely, that distinguishes classical from quantum physics. What mainly differentiates the objects of quantum theory from those of classical physics is that they are not subcorporeal: do not, in other words, constitute the SX of a corporeal entity X. And in light of what we have just said, this means that the objects of quantum theory lack being — that irreducible wholeness — which the objects of classical physics derive directly from the cosmic Center. And this deficiency turns out to be the reason why “no one understands quantum theory,” as Richard Feynman observed. What finally, then, enables us to “understand” quantum theory is the recognition that its objects receive such being as they have through interaction with corporeal instruments in the act of measurement.

Such, in brief, is the Platonist ontology of which contemporary physics proves to be “in quest”: the ontology, namely, that enables us to “understand” contemporary physics in both its classical and quantum-theoretic forms.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have already explained that I owe a debt of gratitude, first to Alfred North Whitehead, who alerted me to the “the complete muddle” which has befallen contemporary scientific thought brought by its unconscious addiction to the ontological fallacy of bifurcation; and above all to that great master known to history as Plato, the disciple of Socrates and ultimately of Pythagoras.

You are a person of great influence. How have you used your life’s work to bring goodness to the world?

I am not sure it is given to any of us “to bring goodness into the world”; nor is there perhaps any need to do so. The goodness may be there already, descending from that Center from which all being within the cosmos is derived. And let me add that, according to the Platonist tradition, that goodness was put there by what they termed the “artificer” of the world, and reverenced beyond all measure. The goodness, then, is already there; what is needed is to see it, and help others to see it too.

There was talk, long ago, of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” — as if these three superlative qualities go together, each implying the other two. Admittedly I cannot prove this; but I surmise that it holds true.

But of course, to those who have adopted “atoms and the void” as their credo — all of this is foolishness and pre-scientific superstition, which a good ivy league education should cure once and for all. This outlook, moreover, is what our historians refer to generally as the Enlightenment, and what parents pay good money to have instilled in their sons and daughters by way of a “higher” education.

This then is the great lie I have sought to expose in a whole battery of books. And yes: in this sense we can indeed “bring goodness into the world”!

How can our readers follow your work online?

You can visit the Philos-Sophia Initiative Foundation

This was very inspiring, Wolfang. Thank you so much for joining us!

About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 best-selling author, syndicated columnist, podcaster, stage 3 cancer survivor, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC. He has interviewed notable celebrities and TV personalities and has been featured on Fox News, The Wrap, and has worked with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, BuzzFeed, Food Network, WW and Bloomberg. Savio has been invited to cover numerous industry events throughout the U.S. and abroad. His mission is to provide clients, listeners, and viewers alike with tangible takeaways on how to lead a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. Savio pens a weekly newsletter in which he delves into secrets to living smarter by feeding your “three brains” — head, heart, and gut — in the hope of connecting the dots to those sticky parts of our nature that matter to living our best life.

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Savio P. Clemente

Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 Best-selling Author, Syndicated Columnist, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor