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Letters to the editors

Vol. 4, NO. 3 / March 2019

To the editors:

It has been a while since I read an article about quantum physics that gave more than a passing nod to the human element. It seemed to me that physics was drifting purposefully off into a humanless realm, sterile within its unobservable circularity.  

It was with particular delight, then, that I came across Sheldon Lee Glashow’s article “Not So Real,” a review of Adam Becker’s book What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

Reality, a notion that used to be associated with human perception, has been appropriated by physics and made irrelevant within a world where mathematical formulas rule supreme. “Shut up and calculate” may be an offensive phrase, as Glashow says, but it does too often sum up the current zeitgeist of scientific endeavor. 

Glashow is obviously not of that ilk. His point about Schrödinger’s cat—that it is simply wrong to conclude that the cat is both alive and dead before the box is opened—caused me to leap higher than that poor feline would. I have had many a discussion with physicists about this point. I simply didn’t get it. But Glashow, in his erudite and concise way, does. He shows, scientifically—not philosophically!— that the act of opening the box does not collapse the wave function. As he emphasizes, “The atom decays, or not; the cat is alive, or dead.”

My joy at seeing a physicist, there have been others, as Glashow points out, putting to rest the old canard of a simultaneously alive and dead cat, was because I have tried to do the same. But my views were met with skepticism. I am, after all, a philosopher, not a physicist. I have explained that the cat’s so-called paradox is explained simply as a matter of time.1 An observer does not cause anything to happen; an observer sees whether the cat is alive or dead when the box is opened. Glashow asks, “Why does Becker continue to beat that old dead cat?” Why does anyone?

I cannot leave the cat there, though. I need to disturb it further by pointing to Glashow’s comment that “it suffices that the moment at which the atom in the box decays could in principle be communicated to the observer outside.” The problem here is that the contents of the box have been detached from the observer and thus objectified. The key words are “in principle.” We could say the same about any quantum event, that it could in principle be observed before it is actually observed, which would make questionable the collapse of the wave function. If the event could be observed in principle at any time, there can be no wave function at all, because the observation could in principle happen at the earliest possible point.

Is this an example of where science and philosophy part, or does philosophy help in understanding more clearly what might be happening? Now while there are scientists who feel that they do not need help from philosophy and that, as far as they are concerned, philosophy is no longer relevant, they are patently wrong.2 So when it is suggested that philosophers feel threatened by science, we need to ask whether science that is reduced to mathematical proofs reflects reality in any meaningful way.

The subtitle of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away is spot on. Philosophy will not go away, even when it is an inconvenience. Consider the claim made by Lawrence Krauss that the universe was created from nothing.3 Dismissing concerns about what nothing is, Krauss writes, “I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff, then I’ll go with that.”4 The point, though, is that nothing is not something, and a universe from something is nothing to shout about.

In the calculation-is-all-there-is world, science provides answers. But it does so by satisfying scientists within a circular and closed domain that is necessarily removed from reality. We are certainly entitled to question what scientists mean by reality when their models of quantum mechanics refer to unobservable entities. At that level, of course, scientists study effects. Effects on whom? On observers. Like it or not, that is where philosophy comes in.

Scientists ostensibly deal with reality. What though is approximate reality? Is that not akin to approximate truth? Glashow is right to point out the hesitation in Becker’s opinions that “quantum physics is at least approximately correct” and that “there is something real, out in the world, that somehow resembles the quantum.” And there is a parallel, deeper problem. Becker, like many scientists, believes that there is an objective truth or reality out there and that the ultimate aim is to reach it. Quite Kantian, that is, but from the depths of Plato’s Cave.

Is it nitpicking, I wonder, to look at findings that are taken for granted by scientists, or does further questioning bring out other sides from the prism and form a more complete picture? Here I disagree with Glashow, who says that he has “never felt the need for a deeper sense of quantum mechanical reality” than Paul Dirac’s. On the principle of needing a deeper understanding, take, for example, Glashow’s point about fixed radioactive half-lives, which he compares to changing human half-lives as part of life expectancy. “Atoms, whether stable or radioactive, do not age,” he says. But relativity is not one-sided, so from a human perspective, atoms do change relative to human change and aging.

A similar line of thought accompanies the thought of identicality when Glashow states,

Unlike American men, all atoms of a given isotope are identical. Neither practice nor principle can determine which of an ensemble of identical radioactive atoms will decay now, and which will survive a hundred half-lives.

But are those atoms identical if the potential for change is different? Can sameness include different potentialities? Does x = x make sense if they are known to have different potentialities for change? Subatomic particles are, then, analogous to a notion of the future, which is unknown other than as a range of possibilities, poised as we are on a critical edge between what is observed and what is about to happen.

Scientists have no more idea about the underlying nature of reality than philosophers do, even though our materialistic world believes that only science can tell us what is really important. This is being reinforced by scientists who really believe—and say—that philosophy has nothing further to add and that calculations and measurements say it all. Theirs, though, is a world that has nothing to say about science as an inquiry by seeker: in short, a world bereft of humans. It is surely time to look again at Werner Heisenberg’s statement, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”5

At the end of the day, science and philosophy fulfill complementary roles, even if scientists are convinced only of the truth of their own progress. I go further than Goldstein’s view that “science is our best answer, but it takes philosophy to prove that.”6 Science and philosophy give answers, neither of which is better, and they give answers within overlapping contexts.

In the end, all of science and all of philosophy is a search into ourselves—to find what we are, where we are, and how we are. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, scientists such as Glashow open the crack that allows the light to get in.

  1. Ronald Green, Time to Tell: A Look at How We Tick (Winchester: Iff Books, 2018). 
  2. Ross Anderson, “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” interview with Lawrence Krauss, The Atlantic, April 23, 2012. 
  3. Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Atria Books, 2013). 
  4. Ross Anderson, “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” interview with Lawrence Krauss, The Atlantic, April 23, 2012. 
  5. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1959), 57. 
  6. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (London: Atlantic Books, 2014). 

Ronald Green is a former linguistics lecturer at Tel Aviv University, with post-graduate studies in linguistics and philosophy at Oxford University.


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