The Impact of Physics on Character Formation

The following is a reflection on a 2003 lecture On Aristotelian, Classical and Quantum Physics by Dr. Richard F. Hassing, an Associate Professor and my former teacher at the School of Philosophy of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

  1. Character, according to Aristotle, is shaped by choices, or at least entails choices[i].
  2. Choice differs from desire in that the objects of choice are achievable and possible but the objects of desire also include the untenable and impossible[ii].
  3. In other words, the limits of our powers — i.e., what is possible for us as a society and, hence, as individuals — determine the gap between desire and choice. The smaller our powers, the greater the gap between what we desire and what we choose; and when our powers are perceived as limitless, the gap between what we desire and what we choose evaporates — the very operation of choice is cancelled.
  4. Different theories of physical science entail different subjective understandings of what is possible for society as a whole and for the individuals in it.
  5. Different physical theories therefore shape different worldviews that are communicated beyond the science community to society as a whole. These generally shared worldviews, in turn, entail different schemes for individuals’ choices and thus different procedures of individual persons’ character formation.
  6. If a physical theory (i.e., superstring theory) professes that the existence of nearly infinite (10500) universes (multiverses) is a necessary corollary of its mathematics, and if this theory becomes hegemonic in the scientific community, then the conception of infinite possibilities (“everything is possible”) will eventually spread to the broader society, thereby eliminating the distinction between choice and desire.
  7. Whereas the technological advances of the present period construct and propose near-infinite choices, events in the domain of theoretical physics that endeavor to underpin and perpetuate these technological advances ironically undermine the very function of choice. The theoretical worldview that purports to be the foundation of our practical technology cancels the function of choice which our technology is intended to serve and replaces this function of choice with chaotic, incontinent desire.
  8. Without the habitual, repetitive exercise of choices, the formation of any type of habit or virtue and of any type of character is unattainable. Without character there is no individual human subject.
  9. This raises the question: is a collective human subject — a human society of any type — possible without the existence of individual human subject?

[i] “The virtues are choices or involve choices”, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics II 11106a4

[ii] “Those who say that desire or passion or wish or opinion are the same do not think right; for choice is not found in irrational creatures …choice is not about impossible things … but desire is about impossible things”, Op. cit. III 1111b3-8

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