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Publisher Description

As the title suggests, this book addresses its subjects with wit and with weight, as the author brings the latest insights of contemporary physics into the perspective of an everyday life that is shown to be full of paradox. We can only come to terms with life if we accept that there are no final answers, and that unconscious processes are just as relevant as conscious ones. Reality cannot be anything but paradoxical, and our attitude to this fact has much to do with our state of being.

«One of the most important books that has come my way for many years … He is that rare phenomenon among men, one able to detect the movement of the spirit that could rid us of a crippling sense of meaninglessness and loss of purpose.» -- Laurens van der Post


Science today is in the embarrassing position of a young woman who has inadvertently become pregnant and wonders how long she can continue in her job. She realizes that so far nothing has been noticed, everybody being far too occupied with their own affairs. But she also knows that something has happened which is bound very soon to transform the world she lives in.

What has happened is this: Western science since the time of Francis Bacon has been built up on the basis of logic and the causal principle. Generations of scientists have followed this principle with unswerving honesty and dazzling success. Now, while still staunchly true to the logical-causal principle, they find themselves, as a result of the increasing precision of their observations, compelled to make authoritative statements that are logically ridiculous. More disturbing still, current research is forcing upon them the general conclusion that at the most refined and rigorous level of subatomic investigation, paradox is the only form of scientific statement that will fit the facts.

To their credit scientists have not evaded this awkward situation. But they are visibly embarrassed by it. When leading physicists publicly use terms like 'strangeness quantum numbers,' describe fluids that are so volatile that they can 'pass through a hole that does not exist,' and can speak of 'forbidden radiation,' 'charmed particles' and 'absolute elsewhere' - they simply cannot conceal their well-bred dismay at finding themselves suddenly involved in these provoking paradoxes.

It is a situation peculiarly painful to orthodox scientists, for whom the word paradox is anathema. For them its meaning is perfectly defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a proposition which is actually self-contradictory, and so essentially absurd or false.' What they have failed to notice is that this is the third meaning of the word given in the O.E.D. The two primary meanings are as follows: 'a proposition contrary to received opinion or expectation,' and 'a statement seemingly self-contradictory or absurd, though possibly well-founded or essentially true.' It is in these two primary meanings that the word paradox is used in this book.

This sort of thing, of course, has happened before. In the 6th century B.C. Pythagoras, first and perhaps greatest polymath in history, who discovered, among many other things, that numbers have a visual form (1 is a point, 2 is a line, 3 a triangle, 4 a square, etc.), found to his dismay that certain numbers, such as the square root of 2, could not be represented in any visual form. He called these numbers arrhetos, 'the unspeakable numbers,' and put his followers on oath never to mention their existence.

Contemporary science has behaved better than that (though perhaps 'leaks' were not such a problem in classical Greece). But why should there be any dismay? After all, science is not alone in this predicament. When inquiry in any field whatever of human existence reaches a certain depth we are likely to find ourselves in the region of paradox where every path is strewn with booby-traps for purely logical minds. By common consent this region has always been declared out of bounds to serious thinkers, and anyone who ventured into it has been dismissed as a mere entertainer. An Aristophanes or a Bernard Shaw could be licensed to amuse us for an hour of an evening; but we all knew, of course, that it was only their fun. The trouble with the recent discoveries by Nobel Prize physicists is that it is impossible to regard them as entertainers.

Yet there they stand, the ultimate Authorities of our time, telling us with an embarrassed air which makes it all the more convincing that scientific inquiry has suddenly broken through into an Alice-in-Wonderland where only the improbable seems probable, and every fact is Janus-faced.

When any line of inquiry reaches this disconcerting conclusion it is surely time to reexamine the philosophic premises which have led us into this impasse. I would suggest that the current discomfiture of scientific thought clearly indicates that science has no philosophy to offer which can contain its own discoveries. Or rather, more precisely, that the Newtonian paradigm on which science has been firmly based for the last three hundred years is proving totally incapable of providing such a philosophy. The dazzling successes, particularly in the field of applied science, which spring up almost daily before our eyes have led us all to accept unquestioningly, following the enthusiastic lead of the majority of scientists, that Descartes and Newton, between them, had 'got it right.' Yet in Newton's own day, and long after, powerful voices were raised in opposition - Goethe, Blake, Lamarck, Ruskin, Coleridge, Bergson, and many others. But even they could not stem the tide of general acceptance, based as it is on the incontestable triumphs of applied science.

It is unpleasant to feel fundamental doubts arising about the achievements - magnificent in so many directions - of a national hero whose ashes as a final accolade rest in Westminster Abbey, but an embarrassing question must be asked: Could it be that Newton has misled us? - that he has lured us like a heavy-weight Will o' the Wisp into a treacherous intellectual swamp? And that what is demanded of us now is a breaking of the Newtonian mould of thought by an expansion of human consciousness capable of welcoming and containing these new facts?

Do not jump to the conclusion that this book is an attempt to devalue the often selfless and devoted work of orthodox scientists. It would be the blackest ingratitude to overlook the fact that applied science, in addition to creating the nuclear bomb and pollution on a millennial scale, has provided innumerable benefits and easements to the human condition. What I am presenting is only a last-minute appeal to orthodox scientists to re-examine the foundations of their thinking, and to recognize the limitations of the logical-causal approach. They must become more clearly aware that a psychological crisis in human thought is beginning to confront us.

Which side each of us is on in this crisis is by no means a matter of chronological age. The division lies between those who welcome, consciously or purely intuitively, the paradoxical nature of reality, and those who do not. If a man has never asked himself this question he might be in some doubt how to answer. Fortunately there is a simple test. Those of us who welcome the fact find that all attitudes - religious, philosophical or scientific - that are devoid of paradox, however enlightened they may otherwise be, make us feel uncomfortable. For us such attitudes point to a universe that does not exist, and which would be boring if it did exist. The longing for a shining future when all doubts and ambiguities will be swept away, the nostalgia for a golden past when no doubts or ambiguities had yet arisen, are equally pathetic fallacies. Our androgynous ancestor Adam-Eve tried that second kind of life, and became insufferably bored with the endless delights of Eden - exasperated in fact to the point of making the primal adolescent rebellion against all-wise father figures. Life without choice is intolerable except in early childhood, and is not very agreeable even then.

This book presents paradox not as an entertainer's parlor trick, but as a central fact of existence to be trusted and enjoyed. It attempts to transform an uneasy, discomfited reaction to revelations of the paradoxical world we live in, into a joyous sense that reality could not be other than paradoxical, and that only fools would wish it otherwise. It suggests that from the moment of the awakening of logic in the human mind man has spent some of his finest energies trying to discover a final truth on the logical level, which would diminish him if he found it.

The scientific facts collected in this book are nothing new. All it brings forward in this field is already well-known to the experts. What is new is the assertion that if ordinary human beings everywhere begin to open their minds and imaginations to the practical implications of what has already been revealed in the esoteric field of micro-physics (and, incidentally, in the equally vertiginous realm of intergalactic astronomy), they may find they have suddenly brought back some glimpses of laughter and sanity to a sick world. For there is this to be said for the paradoxical attitude that contemporary physics has now made philosophically tenable: it puts good-natured humility at the top of its program. Not the false kind that meekly admits, 'We know so little now,' but pompously adds, 'Just give us time, however, and Science will provide us with all the Final Answers . . . .'

Pomposity cannot breathe the air of paradox.

June 21
Anne Imhoff