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“The World View of Physics” by Carl Friedrich Weizsäcker Essay

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Updated: Oct 26th, 2020

Objective and Subjective Approaches of Weizsäcker

Weizsäcker’s philosophical view of physics and other sciences is rooted in the fact that the world in which all physical phenomena fit into one system and connect to each other without contradiction no longer exists (11). Indeed, although various scientific discoveries provided people with more knowledge about the world and its elements, they also disrupted the established unity of all familiar statements.

Thus, Weizsäcker attempts to create a vision that would unite the sciences without the need to ignore their differences and limitations. He describes the world in which information helps to connect sciences and not separate them from each other. For this purpose, he chooses to focus on physical properties and the concepts of wholeness and perception to unite biology, physics, and chemistry. The philosopher finds that atoms, while not directly visible, can become the foundation of physical properties of objects, and can be employed to unite chemistry and physics (Weizsäcker 12). However, other disciplines may find the concept of using atoms not suitable for their processes.

Interestingly, the philosopher notes that other sciences often disregard theoretical physics on the basis of its necessity to base all statements on calculations and reliable evidence. Nevertheless, the use of atoms is argued to be one of the most sensible ways to describe the physical world. Weizsäcker states that a new picture of living should be created as one’s mind always “seeks unity” in the world’s elements (12). Here, the idea of wholeness for all objects and processes of life finds a way to approach all sciences from its old and new descriptions of reality. Weizsäcker’s central belief lies in his desire to use wholeness to unite the sciences together and bring a standard descriptor for a better understanding of all that is real but not always perceivable.

First of all, the philosopher presents the concept of wholeness and argues that an abstract definition for this idea would not fit into the “physical picture of reality” (Weizsäcker 13). It is possible that his opinion on abstract ideas stems from his primary area of research. As a physicist, Weizsäcker starts his first argument basing it on the concept of reality. Therefore, he urges us to look at physical objects of nature as opposed to examining objects made by humans.

Physics’ primary purpose here is to describe these objects and provide information that can be observed and not assumed. The author uses a calcite crystal as an example of an object that can be found in nature. The properties of the crystal that one can perceive without many calculations and experiments can include its weight, size, state, or color. However, Weizsäcker interprets these descriptions through the sphere of atoms, making it clear that these elements can be found in every object or creature imaginable.

This point of view is interesting because it proposes unity on the basis of real facts and elements, instead of describing a non-figurative concept that may be hard to comprehend. This way of thinking can be used by different sciences because an atom is a researched object with real properties. Indeed, atoms can be used to describe a crystal in the same way they can recite all features of a human as the “atom contained in the calcite crystal is itself, in any case, neither calcite nor crystal” but an atom of a single element (Weizsäcker 14). Thus, the weight of a crystal is comprised of the weight of its every atom.

Furthermore, its transparency, shape, and size are determined by the formation that atoms take naturally to create a crystal. The chemical formula of such a crystal is the sum of all atoms that form it. It follows the “law of constant proportions” used in chemistry and brings physics and chemistry together (Weizsäcker 15).

The idea to use atoms for describing the physical world has its grounds as it does help to view different objects and creatures’ similarities. Humans and crystals can have some similar atoms in them. They also possess the properties of these atoms because they fill space in the world, cannot be destroyed completely, can be chemically analyzed, and form a shape and a solid form. The mere physical description of these characteristics appears as a viable way to unite different sciences and offer a unique system of expression of nature’s unity. However, this presentation of facts lacks representation of the biological side of the world. Moreover, it does not include other properties of objects that physics may exclude.

Weizsäcker also discusses the drawbacks of this strategy, providing an example from biology. He states that physics can omit the personal interpretation of an object, concentrating on its objective features. While these details may not have a place in the physical perception of the world, they should not be omitted from the full picture. Weizsäcker returns to the crystal and points out that his first thought was not related to the crystal’s weight or form but its importance as a personal memory (16).

Moreover, he notes that this memory might have been the only interesting characteristic of this crystal to a non-physicist. Thus, the importance of physical properties visible to physicists should not be the only basis for a unified picture of the world. In this case, Weizsäcker agrees, stating that subjective realities should not be omitted from a true vision of reality (17). Therefore, his first argument for using atoms as a unifying element is not as strong as it may seem.

Weizsäcker’s focus on the physical world can explain his way of thinking. It is logical that his first idea comes from the accepted concepts of theoretical physics that are so firmly rooted in measurements and calculations. However, he agrees to the fact that physics omits a significant part of the world’s view. He presents two aspects of the world – objective and subjective and states that they both have the right to exist. Moreover, while subjective descriptions of nature are deeply personal and cannot be understood by others as easily as objective ones, they cannot be ignored because they represent a large part of one’s existence. This idea relates to the fact that the physical world cannot exist as a separate entity from one’s mind. Thus, people’s unique memories and perceptions also become a part of this reality.

Weizsäcker notes that he cannot establish whether his personal memory has a place in the picture of the world. The physical view of nature cannot judge all principles existent in one’s mind. Furthermore, various sciences may present a diverse set of characteristics that can apply to one object. These different descriptions are equal in their importance to the object and the person looking at it. The properties of an object do not disappear because one person does not realize their existence. Similarly, the established characteristics do not have a higher value over those that may be found in the future. Thus, the use of the physical view is limited because it only offers information from one source.

Moreover, the use of atoms is also flawed as it implies that each object or creature should be viewed as a sum of its parts. Weizsäcker argues that “one cannot understand a living thing if one is unable to understand it as a whole” (19). In this case, both sciences try to approach wholeness through their descriptions. While physicists focus on the physical world, biologists tend to describe the biological form of wholeness rooted in such processes as metabolism, reproduction, and growth (Weizsäcker 22).

Therefore, atoms and their physical qualities do not present a full picture of the world. It is impossible to understand all processes of the human body by focusing on the atoms. Indeed, atoms are a part of everything in the perceivable world. However, the recognition of their sum does not amount to the understanding of the whole object. A crystal and a person are both more than their atoms. While this theory gives sciences a uniting concept, it also ignores wholeness as a perception of an object as one whole thing.

Nevertheless, all sciences try to approach the notion of wholeness as something more than a set of properties. Through this idea, Weizsäcker introduces a way to connect biology and physics. The physical view of the world may ignore some properties of objects to show an objective depiction of nature. However, people’s ability to put context into situations allows them to add and remove some of the characteristics.

For example, the description of a butterfly’s egg does not offer any connection to a butterfly, as it can only establish its form and material. On the other hand, one’s personal interpretation links the egg to the butterfly and reveals an understanding of an interconnection between the two different parts of a whole. The egg represents a butterfly even though they do not have any similar visible properties. The perception of an egg being a part of something else is what can become an example of the idea of wholeness.

The process of connecting an egg to a butterfly reveals the ability of an object to possess its unique type or picture before its form is created (Weizsäcker 20). Water can become a snowflake, but the idea of a snowflake exists outside of its act of formation. Butterflies lay eggs, which are not seen as separate entities but also as butterflies. Thus, a simple description of properties cannot create a full picture of the world that unites different sciences. The difference between physics and biology also lies in the way these sciences treat non-living and living objects (Weizsäcker 23). The distinction between them is usually highlighted in biology with the help of metabolism and reproduction which may be absent from the properties of non-living objects.

However, it is not always accurate, and nature can give examples that could contradict this idea. A flame can be reproduced, and it also can grow and change. While these processes are different from those of a plant or an animal, the author believes in their similarity. Such a statement is debatable as the candle’s flame is different from a living creature. While it can grow, this growth does not follow the same patterns and laws of nature. Moreover, a flame being able to spread out is not the same as an animal reproducing. The other example of the tobacco virus is less problematic as it does include the properties of both living and non-living objects (Weizsäcker 22). Here, the line between these two concepts may be blurred. Again, humans’ ability to introduce context into the picture further complicates this distinction.

Contexts change people’s perception of other objects as they provide meanings which cannot exist in the ideal physical world of physicists. They elevate some objects and undermine others, creating ties that do not always represent the object’s properties. The biological understanding of wholeness includes the ideas described above and sees an object as a physical representation of a soul (Weizsäcker 24). Here, the main difference between physics and biology lies.

Their different interpretations of living objects do not allow for the creation of a unified picture of the world if the sciences fail to find a unifying concept. Biology’s definition of wholeness can become closer to physics, if it starts treating living and non-living objects the same way, disregarding the existence of a soul in organic life and focusing on the object’s properties. Physics may not accept the reverse changes as their systems are built on what exists in the physical world.

Weizsäcker compares the methodology of physics to the way people treat information. He argues that people do not believe in concepts and statements that are not based on proven facts. Thus, religious beliefs and myths are not accepted as viable because they cannot be explained scientifically (Weizsäcker 26). However, such an approach also limits the scope of people’s perception because it places too much focus on material objects and objective ideas.

Experiences and knowledge of people cannot always be explained with this methodology, but it does not render them useless to humans. The problem of physics lies in the fact that it does not know how to treat cases that cannot be fully explained. Weizsäcker gives an example of a person throwing a stone. While a man may have no knowledge of physics, he can throw a rock with a trajectory that is not explained as a conscious thought in his head.

Science may encounter problems in its attempt to define everything in the world. Such a desire to investigate and describe every occurrence and object limits the possibility to include properties that do not fit with the physical perception of the world. The physical view discussed by Weizsäcker omits characteristics that it deems unimportant to the big picture. It is the primary drawback of this way of thinking because it does not allow for finding unity between sciences. Nevertheless, Weizsäcker argues that the physics’ focus on objectivity is not baseless because nature strives towards objectivity as well (28).

Weizsäcker concludes that the new view of the physical world cannot unite the sciences and give them a common ground. All sciences can adjust their ideas to create a system that would promote a common view of most situations. Physics can shift away from ignoring personal perceptions of the world and include both objective and subjective aspects of nature into its way of thinking. Biology can attempt to blur the lines distinguishing organic and inorganic objects created by nature as their structure may be more similar than one assumes. It is reasonable for Weizsäcker to think that objective statements should not restrict the sciences. However, his idea of uniting all sciences is hard to imagine as they all possess such different beliefs developed as the result of many discoveries.

Work Cited

Weizsäcker, Carl Friedrich. The World View of Physics. Translated by Marjorie Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1952.

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