Quantum Enigma or Quantum Ignorance?


I’ve been reading a book titled “Quantum Enigma” by a couple of physicists attempting to enlighten mere mortals as to the ‘skeleton in the closet’ of physics, the alleged denial of reality inherent in quantum mechanics. I don’t want to go into excruciating detail about the problems the book raises, nor those it fails to raise, but it’s an interesting exhibit of the mindset of many scientists and the assumptions underlying it.

The first few chapters, after a rather insipid allegory supposed to demonstrate the ‘enigma’ of quantum mechanics, sketch a brief history of science. This begins with Aristotle, of course. Not the Aristotle who defined the sciences as we still know them in broad outline, but the straw man Aristotle who didn’t make careful observations, didn’t understand the value of evidence, and evidently just sat around day dreaming. Aristotle, it’s true, didn’t perform experiments in the sense of post-Cartesian science, but not because he didn’t value empirical evidence. Had someone suggested to Aristotle that reality was mathematically based, he would have thought they’d lost their minds in some strange superstition. Telling him that manipulating things in isolation was the best means of discovering the truth about them would have confirmed to him that not only were you imbued through and through with ridiculous superstitions, but indeed that you were completely out of your mind. The authors’ rather naïve criticism of “philosophy of nature” as opposed to “progressive science”, when philosophy is precisely what they are engaged in, albeit on a fairly trivial level, misses the reality that between Aristotle and ‘naturphilosophie’ lay hundreds of years of theology of nature, and that the assumptions that made exact, technical, mathematical experiment seem reasonable arose precisely out of theological assumptions and premises.

Going further there is the usual (and largely mythical) account of Galileo, Kepler, Newton etc., and the claim that one third of the world’s economy is based on quantum mechanics. Technology is certainly a huge part of the world’s economy, but the authors fail to question whether the ‘technical’ aspect of modern science, evident even in the mythos of Galileo (both the telescope and the printing press were necessary for his undoubted insights) hints at a more truthful causal relation between technology and science: that technology is what ‘discovers’, what reveals, while science always comes after the fact and accounts for what technology has revealed.

Of course, their story is precisely the usual account. Going back to the real Aristotle, however, in a crucial passage he discusses and contrasts two modes of knowing, techne and episteme. Techne of course has another contrasting correlate, phusys, as two modes of bringing-forth, of revealing, but as a mode of knowing techne is seen as oriented to what might turn out one way or another, to what is not yet, while episteme is oriented to what is insofar as it has been, and as such must have already appeared, already been revealed.

A closer study of the history of modern science and modern technology demonstrates quite easily that virtually every ‘discovery’ of modern science in fact was discovered via a new technology, and science was dragged, kicking and screaming in protest, into changing its views to account for something appearing in that bringing-forth that contradicted its doctrines. No technologist works by scientific method, Techne as such cannot have an actual object, because it is precisely concerned with actualizing what is not yet, while science, as episteme, must have an object to study.

Techne, of course, refers not only modern industrialized technology, but also handicraft and the fine arts. What brings all of these together is that they are epitomes of the actualization of the imaginary. But actualizing the imaginary (or conversely avoiding its actualization) is precisely the nature of all human concern. When I imagine getting up to go to the kitchen, nothing is actualized, what is in my mind is only posited relatively, since it may after all have changed since I last went in there. The minimal difference experientially that causes me to actually get up and go into the kitchen is when I posit it and things within it absolutely. This is the sense in Kant’s statement that “Being is not a real predicate, it is absolute position.” If something is fully imagined in a valid way, it becomes an ‘imaginary real’ that can then be actualized, although its actualization may in fact modify what is imagined to a greater or lesser degree, because we rarely imagine things in their full completeness. The old notion of a contradiction between the imaginary and the real is a contradiction within the imagination, not external to it, between a valid imaginary and an invalid one. It is in the imagination and our ability to transform things both from the actual to the imaginary and vice versa that the ontological nature of man, precisely that he is ontological, is found. The actual contains the bare “that it is”, only from the conscious imagination can it appear as what it is. The apparent contradiction between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’, and thus between reality and consciousness, fails to recognize that consciousness as much as physicality is part of reality, is embedded in it.

As to the main thrust of the book, the authors’ lack of philosophical understanding leads them to not take the questions far enough to reach the real enigma. The ‘enigma’ they describe looks an awful lot like the reality discerned partly by Kant and partly by Hegel: that things posit their presuppositions; that there is nothing behind appearance; that our understanding of the ‘real’ as opposed to the apparent arises from the gaps and inconsistencies in reality when it is viewed from different points and at different times; that matter is properly taken as a verb, etc. It may be different from our common sense view, but it’s hardly ‘shocking’ to someone versed in philosophy.

The proper enigma of observation and appearance lies in the tacitly understood situation that although we see distinct things, distinct boundaries, and ‘space’ between in which relations can form, we simultaneously know that filling that space doesn’t lessen it, ‘space between’ may contain air, water, anything at all, yet remain space, while what science calls ‘space’ is properly always full of something, even if it’s only radiation. The ‘quantum weirdness’ is exhibited only when things are technologically isolated from reality, thus only as technology improves can larger ‘things’ be shown to behave in that manner. That ‘big things are always being observed’ is simply that the technology required to isolate them from the reality in which they are always otherwise embedded has not yet been created. The enigma is what “betweens” such that the relations that determine what a thing is can form in the first place. Tweening is a cineplastic technique used in animation, but reality has that cineplastic quality, the difficulty is in understanding what “tweens” reality, and what a relation itself is.

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