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Atomic Reality and the Crisis of Realism
It is commonplace for people to assert that quantum theory indicates a lack of objectivity or reality, when all it indicates is the failure of the classical conception of reality. In the classical conception, when you cut an apple, you get smaller pieces of apple. In this post, I will argue that the quantum conception of cutting an apple involves separating its taste from smell, from sight, from touch, etc. I will then discuss how this new type of cutting resolves quantum problems. Finally, I will discuss how this conception of atoms arrived at by cutting an object relates to the notion of atoms in Sāñkhya philosophy which are described as the atomic units of sensations. Table of ContentsThe Debate About ConceptsThe Trouble in FunctionalismTwo Notions About ConceptsThe Crisis of Realism in Atomic TheoryThe Role of the MindThe Problem of ComplementarityThe Evolution of ProbabilitiesThe Problem of EntanglementThe Relation to Sāñkhya Philosophy The Debate About Concepts We are all accustomed to using conceptual objects. These include concepts such as ‘table’ and ‘chair’. Now, there has been a huge debate about what we mean by such concepts, beginning with the ideal forms in Platonic philosophy since Greek times. The earliest idea about such concepts was that there is an ideal shape by which we call things tables and chairs. The problem was that lots of things that don’t have such ideal shapes are also called tables and chairs. So, it was hard to give a definition to concepts that was both linguistically meaningful and practically useful in an everyday sense. This problem came to a head in the early part of 20th century, when philosophers started arguing that all problems of philosophy originated in the idea of universals, and that this was a bogus idea. There is no such thing as perfect beauty or even a perfect red, let alone a perfect chair or table. If we get rid of these universals, and replace them with something else, we could solve the problems of philosophy. There emerged a broad consensus that we had to replace these concepts with something practical and empirical and, beginning with Ludwig Wittgenstein, it came to be believed that concepts are simply functions. That is, a chair or a table is not a universal concept, but how things are used. If you sit on a block of wood, you are using it as a chair, and therefore instead of talking about the shape of an ideal chair we should talk about how things are being used. Now, this use is empirical and practical, and doesn’t rely on an ideal shape and therefore we don’t need an ideal world of concepts. There arose several schools of philosophy called pragmatism, operationalism, and functionalism, which expressed this basic insight in different ways. 20th century philosophy broke away from classical and medieval philosophy in rejecting the existence of meaning as something that existed beyond the observable world. This then led to the decline of the idea of mind as a different kind of substance than matter, giving way to materialism and pragmatism in all areas of thinking. For example, it is fashionable nowadays to say that the ‘mind’ is a special function of the brain; this function arises due to a special relation between parts, by which a part becomes the mind. This approach allows us to treat the mind materially as chemicals, and yet explain the unique functionality called the mind. The Trouble in Functionalism Functionalism brings a new problem, namely that if something is not being used in a certain way then it cannot be designated by that concept. For example, if nobody is sitting on the chair right now, the object cannot be called a chair. Therefore, if you see a chair in a furniture shop, and nobody is sitting on it, you could not say that it is a chair. A fallout of this issue is that I cannot make claims about the world as it exists prior to my observation and use. A thing is known only by how I use that thing. This is a grave problem because it entails a complete collapse of objective reality. I cannot say that the world exists if I’m sleeping because I cannot observe the world while I’m sleeping, therefore the world is not a chair, not a table, not red, not black, not anything. The world simply doesn’t exist. Only when I’m interacting with the world, can I claim that the world exists as those types of functions. Furthermore, since I can use the world in different ways, what I call the world depends on my use. For example, a block of wood could be used as a table and a chair, and if my definition of objectivity is how I use, then that objectivity is observer dependent. I cannot say that there is a reality independent of my observation. However, if there is no reality independent of my observation, then everyone’s version of reality—based on their observation—must be equally real. How could we give a privileged position to one version of reality—e.g. given by science—over another that is formulated by a non-scientist? This constitutes the crisis of realism in philosophy, and it is important to understand this crisis before we get into the crisis of realism in atomic theory, because these two are intimately connected. Two Notions About Concepts A potential solution to this crisis is that we need two notions of objects—one that they are ideas and the other that they are functions. As an idea, I should be able to say that there is something that exists without my observation. And as a function, I should be able to say that I’m using that thing in a certain way. Furthermore, to accommodate these two apparently contradictory notions about objects, I must say that the reality that exists prior to my observation only exists as a possibility. For example, a block of wood can be used as a table or as a chair, which are possibilities about how it can be used. One person might use it as a chair and another one can use it as a table, so both possibilities are real in the sense that they exist and yet unless we use them in a certain way, they are not truly realized. It follows that the world as it exists prior to being observed and used is the collection of all the possibilities of observation and use. This leads to another problem, because this collection of different possibilities is not one thing. It is a collection. To truly speak about reality as that one thing, I must be able to call something a block of wood, that can be used as a table or a chair. But even that block of wood is an observation, and hence one of the many possibilities of observation. The Crisis of Realism in Atomic Theory This is the problem of modern atomic theory. We can say that something is a collection of possible observations and uses—based on different types of interactions with observers—but we cannot say that it is one thing that exists prior to that observation. Since it is not one thing but a collection of possibilities, a choice must select from this collection to produce one observable reality. However, if this choice is not acting—i.e. I’m not observing the world—then the world simply doesn’t exist. In classical physics, an object was an idea that existed even when I did not observe the world. Thus, there were indeed tables and chairs even when we did not observe them. In quantum physics, an object is a function which is created only when I observe the world. We are not able to reconcile these two notions about objects, which is called the problem of measurement in atomic theory. To truly solve the problem, we must say that there is indeed one thing, but it can be used in many ways. The idea notion of the object must refer to that one thing, and diverse functional uses to the collection. In classical physics, each thing behaved in only one way, so observation and reality were identical. In quantum physics, each thing can behave in many ways, so observation is different from reality. We can never truly understand reality by any observation, because each observation reveals a complementary aspect of reality. We must now understand reality in a new way—thus far unknown. The Role of the Mind This problem is not new; we encounter it every day. For example, something that looks like an apple isn’t necessarily an apple. It must also smell like an apple, taste like an apple, digest like an apple, and produce the benefits of an apple. There are many things that can separately smell like an apple, taste like an apple, or look like an apple, but they are not necessarily apples. Then, what is an apple? It is a specific combination of something with a certain type of taste, smell, touch, color, shape, etc. Each of the senses—e.g. eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue—only produces a specific kind of sensation. The senses don’t produce the knowledge of something being an apple, because the apple is the combination of the observations produced by all the five senses. To obtain the apple, therefore, we must combine each of these sensations into a single object and then cognize it as an apple. If our senses were analogues of the different measuring instruments that produce one type of sensation, then the problem of atomic theory would be that we have the diverse sensations of an apple, but we don’t have the counterpart of the mind that combines these individual sensations into an apple. We can now say that the reality which exists prior to observation is the apple, but that apple is only a concept. It is none of the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight, which are produced only when we observe the apple by our senses. Therefore, the reality is conceptual whereas the observations are perceptual. That reality can only be known by the mind, not by the senses because it is the apple as opposed to the taste, touch, smell, sound, form, and color of the apple. Individually, the apple can be tasted, smelt, touched, or seen, by different senses, which are different measurements we can perform on the apple. But the apple itself is different from each of these measurements. The Problem of Complementarity The new problem—entailed by quantum theory—is that we cannot measure all the properties simultaneously. Niels Bohr called this the new paradigm of complementarity in which only one type of measurement can be performed at one time. Remember that, in classical physics, all the properties of an object—e.g. the position and momentum—could be measured simultaneously, even though they were being measured by different instruments. This is no longer possible with quantum objects. The problem of complementarity could be demystified if we said that the mind only pays attention to one sense (e.g. the eye or the nose) at any given moment in time. So, the mind might attend to the smell of the apple, followed by the size, followed by the color, followed by the taste, etc. Each of these are complementary properties of the object, but they are measured one by one. If you carefully analyze your observation, when you look at something, you notice one part of that thing before others. You might even say that you hadn’t noticed something at first sight. That’s not because that thing you did not notice was absent; it is primarily because your mind did not pay attention to it earlier. Therefore, the mind becomes necessary to do science because only by the mind can we explain why all the sense measurements cannot be performed simultaneously but must arrive in an order. A certain type of mind might attend more to the taste than to the smell, while another mind attends to smell more than the color. We attribute the relative preponderance...