Physics—the study of the material world—was transformed in the late 1600s by the all-pervasive power of (Isaac) Newton's mechanics and then again in the late 1800s by (James Clerk) Maxwell's electromagnetic theories. These two British men established the Classical Theory in physics. Isaac Newton’s work was the culmination of centuries of philosophical debate about the nature of the world and the composition of material objects. The vindication of these philosophical thoughts came by Newton’s Classic Mechanics which pictured the universe as a perfect machine. Classical Mechanics uses common-sense notions of how matter and forces exist and interact. It assumes that matter and energy have definite measureable attributes such as where an object is in space and its speed. It also assumes that objects may be directly influenced only by their immediate surroundings, known as the principle of locality. The universe was seen as a tangible, orderly system that followed very exact and specific mechanical rules:
1. A body remains at rest or moves with constant velocity when an external force acts on it.
2. The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the force on the body
3. When two bodies interact they exert on each other equal, but opposite forces.
Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, expanded this view of the world, and by consolidating a lot of independent research, established a classic view of electrodynamics. Primarily this theory explained how the related fields of electricity and magnetisms behave through waves. Although Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory was a stepping-stone for Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (the first sentence starts by referencing Maxwell), at the time this theory was the ultimate expression of Classical Theory.
The beauty of Classical Theory was that it worked. Classical Mechanics had specific and definitive applications. We could predict the motion of objects in the world and the motion of celestial bodies in the Universe. All that we could observe was explainable. Best of all, Classic Mechanics is intuitive and all encompassing. For more than half a century Classical Theory reigned supreme to such a degree that physicist in the 1900s believed—as Philipp von Jolly counseled the 16-year-old Max Planck when he was admitted to the University of Munich—that the objectives of physics in explaining the material universe was more or less accomplished. The belief was that the main theories were in place and that all the great discoveries had been made, and only a few minor details needed filling in. Classical Theory was that good.
But Classical Theory was short on explaining constructs that we intuitively “knew.” What is “force” “body” and “interact” what is “attraction”, “gravity” and “energy”? These concepts have no explanation in physics. Our current knowledge is limited to defining how they behave, but we are unable to understand what these concepts are. The only place where these concepts have meaning is in our thinking because these concepts are intuitive. We know instinctively what a “body” is, or gravity or energy. These are constructs that we seem to accept readily as though we see the world through such constructs. Our perception—of seeing reality in chunks and simplified action—is so strong that we seem to preconceive the world, without questioning.
It was the work of Gestalt psychologists that brought such preconceptions to light. In 1912, Max Wertheimer published his paper on phi motion—which examined the impression of movement through flickering of lights—widely recognized as the start of Gestalt psychology. Together with Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka they helped establish theories of Gestalt psychology. The central theorem was that the whole is other than the sum of the parts and they argue that the whole exists independently from its parts. That is why we “see” a body, we see “interactions” and movement and “force” (push and pull). The fundamental principle of Gestalt perception is the law of prägnanz (German for pregnant but meaning pregnant with meaning as in brevity)—a shorthand and simplified version of reality. Gestalt psychology argue that we simplify the world in order to perceive it. We tend to organize our experience of the world in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetrical, and simple. Gestalt psychologists have identified eight methods we use to simplify the world, primarily by grouping objects together. In an every changing world, having the ability to summarize and simplify the world means that we can perceive situations quicker, predict outcomes faster and thereby gaining time in order to be able to react earlier. We group things together and make them coherent. These are the tricks of magicians. Gestalt psychologists have defined such methods as laws and include the Laws of Proximity, Similarity, Closure, Symmetry, Common Fate, Continuity, Good Gestalt and, Past Experience.
1. Law of Proximity—When objects are close to each, sharing similar motion or sequence we see them as related. We see the behavior of one influencing the other so they share an affinity a similar fate.
2. Law of Similarity—Similar objects on the basis of function, behavior, shape, color, threat and other characteristics that we are sensitive to are seen as related.
3.Law of Closure—Our intent on making things whole extends to when objects have missing parts. This eliminates a lot of the variance so that despite the uniqueness of faces, for example, we see the face despite irregularities. If the law of closure did not exist we will have to interpret each face as a jumble of features.
4.Law of Symmetry—We balance objects in space. A symmetrical field of vision is easier to see because it simplifies the multiple objects into aa pattern, a perceptual algorithm. All we need to see is the symmetry, the uniform pattern rather than individual elements.
5. Law of Common Fate—We see the path that objects travel from and heading towards. We see objects that share similar paths of motion, or direction of motion as grouped together.
6. Law of Continuity—when an object is hidden from view we tend to still see it despite that the object might be behind another object, or when an object is partly hidden we assume that it is whole the the object in front is obscuring the backround object. We are less likely to see objects that change direction quickly or change shape quickly.
7. Law of Good Gestalt—We aim to eliminate variance, complexity and unfamiliarity which implies a global order to the world.
8. Law of Past Experience—history and temporal association implies that under some circumstances visual stimuli are categorized according to past experience. The experience of grouping two objects together in the past determines that we are likely to see them as grouped in the future.
These individual laws of grouping are not separate processes. They define a perceptual bias to group objects into a pattern. Each of these laws defines how we conceive of the world as a model with individual units sharing common attributes. We can say that the capacity to group things together exposes our perception as an algorithm, a formula. We do not perceive a visual reel of reality, a cinematographic version of reality in our heads—although we might conceive of our perception as such. In fact what these Gestalt laws tell us is that we see patterns in our experience of the world—we are not forming patterns, we are seeing patterns.
Algorithms, patterns, formulas or heuristics simplify the world into generalizable configurations. This view of perception is supported by studies from preliterate societies and how they manage to count and subtract. Like a map that represents the geography of a place, preliterate societies have mathematical maps that help them to work out numerical outcomes. We simplify our experience with the physical world through formulas and algorithms. This is how our brain works. In 2008, Michael Frank with the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues reported how the Pirahã Amazonian tribe despite having no language to express numbers, not even one, are able to perform exact matches with large numbers of objects perfectly. Although they were inaccurate on matching tasks involving memory, because they did not have the benefit of language to retrieve information, their capacity to conceive of numbers was equal to other literate groups. They had a schematic way of conceptualizing numbers. We do this algorithmically, using perceptual formulas and patterns to conceive our material world.
Having such a translation of reality embedded within us, the question is whether we also preconceived classical physics. Whtether Classical Theory was indeed physics or a study of our own preconceived perceptual biases. We can see the similarity between the laws of Gestalt psychology and those of Classical Mechanics: 1. A body remains at rest or moves with constant velocity when an external force acts on it, 2. The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the force on the body, 3. When two bodies interact they exert on each other equal, but opposite forces. All of these laws conform to the laws of Gestalt perception. Our perceptual biases are in tune with Newtonian physics. So is Classical Mechanics similarly a biased view of the world?
The fact that we have a mathematical formula—through Classic Mechanics—that predicts the speed, direction and change of objects is an indication of how we perceive objects in motion rather than an indication of the reality. Although our perception is necessarily based on a physical reality that we—like physicists—are trying to predict, our perception is not a reflection of reality but a translation. A translation based on prediction. Predicting reality is very different from “seeing” reality. Just because I can predict an outcome does not mean that, because of my accurate prediction, I understand the reality. Betting shops do this all the time. The problem is Quantum Mechanics. Here comes a theory that challenges what reality is, not as we perceive it to be (Classic Mechanics) but as it seems to be (Quantum Mechanics).
In physics, a quantum is the minimum amount of any physical entity involved in an interaction. Although many scientists have used the term before, it was Max Planck in 1900 that used "quanta" to mean "quanta of matter and electricity, gas, and heat.” Leading Albert Einstein to suggest in 1905 that radiation existed in spatially localized packets that he called "quanta of light". Einstein renamed Planck’s quanta packages as photons and used Planck’s quantum theory to describe the photoelectric effect, for which he would receive his Nobel Prize in 1921. The penultimate expression of quantum physics is Schrodinger’s cat paradox where quantum superposition—entanglement theory—dictates that a cat (in Schrodinger's example) has to be both simultaneously alive and dead at the same time. Although this IS weird—leading Einstein to talk about “spooky action at a distance” and Schrodinger himself to give up quantum physics to focus on philosophy and biology—this is a reality that must be necessarily uncomfortable because it disrupts our own perceptual framework of how the world behaves. Our psychology is insulted.
For the first time we are exploring the world as it truly is rather than how we think it should be. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote around 500 BCE that we can never step in the same river twice. With this observation we have some semblance of what true reality looks like. A universe eternally in a state of flux, having multiple realities, depending on where I—the observer—am.
Did Classical Mechanics simply reflect a detailed exposition of Gestalt psychology? Quantum physics is saying yes. We do not know what reality is except what we are now learning through Quantum Mechanics. Classical Mechanics exposed the psychology of perception. Quantum physics will start to help us understand the weird and the wonderful—what we will come to know—reality.
Franka, M. C., Everettb, D. L., Fedorenkoa, E., & Gibsona, E. (2008). Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108, 819-824.
For an intriguing perceptive of how psychology was enfluence by physics--which was brought to my attention after this blog was published--please refer to this very readable paper, I have Dave Edwards to thank for this edification:
Wilcox, S., & Edwards, D. A. (1982). Some Gibsonian perspectives on the ways that psychologists use physics. Acta Psychologica, 52(1), 147-163.
© USA Copyrighted 2015 Mario D. Garrett