Category Archives: Quantum Theory and Relativity

A Pragmatic View of Truth

[William] James argued at length for a certain conception of what it means for an idea to be true. This conception was, in brief, that an idea is true if it works. (Stapp 2009, 60)

James’s proposal was at first scorned and ridiculed by most philosophers, as might be expected. For most people can plainly see a big difference between whether an idea is true and whether it works. Yet James stoutly defended his idea, claiming that he was misunderstood by his critics.

It is worthwhile to try and see things from James’s point of view.

James accepts, as a matter of course, that the truth of an idea means its agreement with reality. The questions are: What is the “reality” with which a true idea agrees? And what is the relationship “agreement with reality” by virtue of which that idea becomes true?

All human ideas lie, by definition, in the realm of experience. Reality, on the other hand, is usually considered to have parts lying outside this realm. The question thus arises: How can an idea lying inside the realm of experience agree with something that lies outside? How does one conceive of a relationship between an idea, on the one hand, and something of such a fundamentally different sort? What is the structural form of that connection between an idea and a transexperiential reality that goes by the name of “agreement”? How can such a relationship be comprehended by thoughts forever confined to the realm of experience?

So if we want to know what it means for an idea to agree with a reality we must first accept that this reality lies in the realm of experience.

This viewpoint is not in accord with the usual idea of truth. Certain of our ideas are ideas about what lies outside the realm of experience. For example, I may have the idea that the world is made up of tiny objects called particles. According to the usual notion of truth this idea is true or false according to whether or not the world really is made up of such particles. The truth of the idea depends on whether it agrees with something that lies outside the realm of experience. (Stapp 2009, 61)

Now the notion of “agreement” seems to suggest some sort of similarity or congruence of the things that agree. But things that are similar or congruent are generally things of the same kind. Two triangles can be similar or congruent because they are of the same kind. Two triangles can be similar or congruent because they are the same kind of thing: the relationships that inhere in one can be mapped in a direct and simple way into the relationships that inhere in the other.

But ideas and external realities are presumably very different kinds of things. Our ideas are intimately associated with certain complex, macroscopic, biological entitiesour brainsand the structural forms that can inhere in our ideas would naturally be expected to depend on the structural forms of our brains. External realities, on the other hand, could be structurally very different from human ideas. Hence there is no a priori reason to expect that the relationships that constitute or characterize the essence of external reality can be mapped in any simple or direct fashion into the world of human ideas. Yet if no such mapping exists then the whole idea of “agreement” between ideas and external realities becomes obscure.

The only evidence we have on the question of whether human ideas can be brought into exact correspondence with the essences of the external realites is the success of our ideas in bringing order to our physical experience. Yet success of ideas in this sphere does not ensure the exact correspondence of our ideas to external reality.

On the other hand, the question of whether ideas “agree” with external essences is of no practical importance. What is important is precisely the success of the ideasif the ideas are successful in bringing order to our experience, then they are useful even if they do not “agree”, in some absolute sense, with the external essences. Moreover, if they are successful in bringing order into our experience, then they do “agree” at least with the aspects of our experience that they successfully order. Furthermore, it is only this agreement with aspects of our experience that can ever really be comprehended by man. That which is not an idea is intrinsically incomprehensible, and so are its relationships to other things. This leads to the pragmatic [critical realist?] viewpoint that ideas must be judged by their success and utility in the world of ideas and experience, rather than on the basis of some intrinsically incomprehensible “agreement” with nonideas.

The significance of this viewpoint for science is its negation of the idea that the aim of science is to construct a mental or mathematical image of the world itself. According to the pragmatic view, the proper goal of science is to augment and order our experience. A scientific theory should be judged on how well it serves to extend the range of our experience and reduce it to order. It need not provide a mental or mathematical image of the world itself, for the structural form of the world itself may be such that it cannot be placed in simple correspondence with the types of structures that our mental processes can form. (Stapp 2009, 62)

James was accused of subjectivismof denying the existence of objective reality. In defending himself against this charge, which he termed slanderous, he introduced an interesting ontology consisting of three things: (1) private concepts, (2) sense objects, (3) hypersensible realities. The private concepts are subjective experiences. The sense objects are public sense realities, i.e., sense realities that are independent of the individual. The hypersensible realities are realities that exist independently of all human thinkers.

Of hypersensible realities James can talk only obliquely, since he recognizes both that our knowledge of such things is forever uncertain and that we can moreover never even think of such things without replacing them by mental substitutes that lack the defining characteristics of that which they replace, namely the property of existing independetly of all human thinkers.

James’s sense objects are courious things. They are sense realities and hence belong to the realm of experience. Yet they are public: they are indepedent of the individual. They are, in short, objective experiences. The usual idea about experiences is that they are personal or subjective, not public or objective.

This idea of experienced sense objects as public or objective realities runs through James’s writings. The experience “tiger” can appear in the mental histories of many different individuals. “That desk” is something that I can grasp and shake, and you also can grasp and shake. About this desk James says:

But you and I are commutable here; we can exchange places; and as you go bail for my desk, so I can bail yours. This notion of a reality independent of either of us, taken from ordinary experiences, lies at the base of the pragmatic definition of truth.

These words should, I think, be linked with Bohr’s words about classical concepts as the basis of communication between scientists. In both cases the focus is on the concretely experienced sense realitiessuch as the shaking of the deskas the foundation of social reality. From this point of view the objective world is not built basically out of such airy abstractions as electrons and protons and “space”. It is founded on the concrete sense realities of social experience, such as a block of concrete held in the hand, a sword forged by a blacksmith, a Geiger counter prepared according to specifications by laboratory technicians and placed in a specified position by experimental physicists. (Stapp 2009, 62-63)

Quantum Mechanics and Human Values

We do have minds, we are conscious, and we can reflect upon our private experiences because we have them. Unlike phlogiston … these phenomena exist and are the most common in human experience.

Daniel Robinson, cited in Edward Fullbrook’s (2016, 33) Narrative Fixation in Economics

Valuations are always with us. Disinterested research there has never been and can never be. Prior to answers there must be questions. There can be no view except from a viewpoint. In the questions raised and the viewpoint chosen, valuations are implied. Our valuations determine our approaches to a problem, the definition of our concepts, the choice of models, the selection of observations, the presentations of our conclusions in fact the whole pursuit of a study from beginning to end.

— Gunnar Myrdal (1978, 778-779), cited in Söderbaum (2018, 8)

Philosophers have tried doggedly for three centuries to understand the role of mind in the workings of a brain conceived to function according to principles of classical physics. We now know no such brain exists: no brain, body, or anything else in the real world is composed of those tiny bits of matter that Newton imagined the universe to be made of. Hence it is hardly surprising that those philosophical endeavors were beset by enormous difficulties, which led to such positions as that of the ‘eliminative materialists’, who hold that our conscious thoughts must be eliminated from our scientific understanding of nature; or of the ‘epiphenomenalists’, who admit that human experiences do exist, but claim that they play no role in how we behave; or of the ‘identity theorists’, who claim that each conscious feeling is exactly the same thing as a motion of particles that nineteenth century science thought our brains, and everything else in the universe, were made of, but that twentieth century science has found not to exist, at least as they were formerly conceived. The tremendous difficulty in reconciling consciousness, as we know it, with the older physics is dramatized by the fact that for many years the mere mention of ‘consciousness’ was considered evidence of backwardness and bad taste in most of academia, including, incredibly, even psychology and the philosophy of mind. (Stapp 2007, 139)

What you are, and will become, depends largely upon your values. Values arise from self-image: from what you believe yourself to be. Generally one is led by training, teaching, propaganda, or other forms of indoctrination, to expand one’s conception of the self: one is encouraged to perceive oneself as an integral part of some social unit such as family, ethnic or religious group, or nation, and to enlarge one’s self-interest to include the interests of this unit. If this training is successful your enlarged conception of yourself as good parent, or good son or daughter, or good Christian, Muslim, Jew, or whatever, will cause you to give weight to the welfare of the unit as you would your own. In fact, if well conditioned you may give more weight to the interests of the group than to the well-being of your bodily self. (Stapp 2007, 139)

In the present context it is not relevant whether this human tendency to enlarge one’s self-image is a consequence of natural malleability, instinctual tendency, spiritual insight, or something else. What is important is that we human beings do in fact have the capacity to expand our image of ‘self’, and that this enlarged concept can become the basis of a drive so powerful that it becomes the dominant determinant of human conduct, overwhelming every other factor, including even the instinct for bodily survival. (Stapp 2007, 140)

But where reason is honored, belief must be reconciled with empirical evidence. If you seek evidence for your beliefs about what you are, and how you fit into Nature, then science claims jurisdiction, or at least relevance. Physics presents itself as the basic science, and it is to physics that you are told to turn. Thus a radical shift in the physics-based conception of man from that of an isolated mechanical automaton to that of an integral participant in a non-local holistic process that gives form and meaning to the evolving universe is a seismic event of potentially momentous proportions. (Stapp 2007, 140)

The quantum concept of man, being based on objective science equally available to all, rather than arising from special personal circumstances, has the potential to undergird a universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins. With the diffusion of this quantum understanding of human beings, science may fulfill itself by adding to the material benefits it has already provided a philosophical insight of perhaps even greater ultimate value. (Stapp 2007, 140)

This issue of the connection of science to values can be put into perspective by seeing it in the context of a thumb-nail sketch of history that stresses the role of science. For this purpose let human intellectual history be divided into five periods: traditional, modern, transitional, post-modern, and contemporary. (Stapp 2007, 140)

During the ‘traditional’ era our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to Nature was based on ‘ancient traditions’ handed down from generation to generation: ‘Traditions’ were the chief source of wisdom about our connection to Nature. The ‘modern’ era began in the seventeenth century with the rise of what is still called ‘modern science’. That approach was based on the ideas of Bacon, Descartes, Galileo and Newton, and it provided a new source of knowledge that came to be regarded by many thinkers as more reliable than tradition. (Stapp 2007, 140)

The basic idea of ‘modern’ science was ‘materialism’: the idea that the physical world is composed basically of tiny bits of matter whose contact interactions with adjacent bits completely control everything that is now happening, and that ever will happen. According to these laws, as they existed in the late nineteenth century, a person’s conscious thoughts and efforts can make no difference at all to what his body/brain does: whatever you do was deemed to be completely fixed by local interactions between tiny mechanical elements, with your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and efforts, being simply locally determined high-level consequences or re-expressions of the low-level mechanical process, and hence basically just elements of a reorganized way of describing the effects of the absolutely and totally controlling microscopic material causes. (Stapp 2007, 140-141)

This materialist conception of reality began to crumble at the beginning of the twentieth century with Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum of action. Planck announced to his son that he had, on that day, made a discovery as important as Newton’s. That assessment was certainly correct: the ramifications of Planck’s discovery were eventually to cause Newton’s materialist conception of physical reality to come crashing down. Planck’s discovery marks the beginning of the `transitional’ period. (Stapp 2007, 141)

A second important transitional development soon followed. In 1905 Einstein announced his special theory of relativity. This theory denied the validity of our intuitive idea of the instant of time ‘now’, and promulgated the thesis that even the most basic quantities of physics, such as the length of a steel rod, and the temporal order of two events, had no objective ‘true values’, but were well defined only ‘relative’ to some observer’s point of view. (Stapp 2007, 141)

Planck’s discovery led by the mid-1920s to a complete breakdown, at the fundamental level, of the classical material conception of nature. A new basic physical theory, developed principally by Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Born, brought ‘the observer’ explicitly into physics. The earlier idea that the physical world is composed of tiny particles (and electromagnetic and gravitational fields) was abandoned in favor of a theory of natural phenomena in which the consciousness of the human observer is ascribed an essential role. This successor to classical physical theory is called Copenhagen quantum theory. (Stapp 2007, 141)

This turning away by science itself from the tenets of the objective materialist philosophy gave impetus to, and lent support to, post-modernism. That view, which emerged during the second half of the twentieth century, promulgated, in essence, the idea that all ‘truths’ were relative to one’s point of view, and were mere artifacts of some particular social group’s struggle for power over competing groups. Thus each social movement was entitled to its own ‘truth’, which was viewed simply as a socially created pawn in the power game. (Stapp 2007, 141-142)

The connection of post-modern thought to science is that both Copenhagen quantum theory and relativity theory had retreated from the idea of observer-independent objective truth. Science in the first quarter of the twentieth century had not only eliminated materialism as a possible foundation for objective truth, but seemed to have discredited the very idea of objective truth in science. But if the community of scientists has renounced the idea of objective truth in favor of the pragmatic idea that ‘what is true for us is what works for us’, then every group becomes licensed to do the same, and the hope evaporates that science might provide objective criteria for resolving contentious social issues. (Stapp 2007, 142)

This philosophical shift has had profound social and intellectual ramifications. But the physicists who initiated this mischief were generally too interested in practical developments in their own field to get involved in these philosophical issues. Thus they failed to broadcast an important fact: already by mid-century, a further development in physics had occurred that provides an effective antidote to both the ‘materialism’ of the modern era, and the ‘relativism’ and ‘social constructionism’ of the post-modern period. In particular, John von Neumann developed, during the early thirties, a form of quantum theory that brought the physical and mental aspects of nature back together as two aspects of a rationally coherent whole. This theory was elevated, during the forties — by the work of Tomonaga and Schwinger — to a form compatible with the physical requirements of the theory of relativity. (Stapp 2007, 142)

Von Neumann’s theory, unlike the transitional ones, provides a framework for integrating into one coherent idea of reality the empirical data residing in subjective experience with the basic mathematical structure of theoretical physics. Von Neumann’s formulation of quantum theory is the starting point of all efforts by physicists to go beyond the pragmatically satisfactory but ontologically incomplete Copenhagen form of quantum theory. (Stapp 2007, 142)

Von Neumann capitalized upon the key Copenhagen move of bringing human choices into the theory of physical reality. But, whereas the Copenhagen approach excluded the bodies and brains of the human observers from the physical world that they sought to describe, von Neumann demanded logical cohesion and mathematical precision, and was willing to follow where this rational approach led. Being a mathematician, fortified by the rigor and precision of his thought, he seemed less intimidated than his physicist brethren by the sharp contrast between the nature of the world called for by the new mathematics and the nature of the world that the genius of Isaac Newton had concocted. (Stapp 2007, 142-143)

A common core feature of the orthodox (Copenhagen and von Neumann) quantum theory is the incorporation of efficacious conscious human choices into the structure of basic physical theory. How this is done, and how the conception of the human person is thereby radically altered, has been spelled out in lay terms in this book, and is something every well informed person who values the findings of science ought to know about. The conception of self is the basis of values and thence of behavior, and it controls the entire fabric of one’s life. It is irrational, from a scientific perspective, to cling today to false and inadequate adequate nineteenth century concepts about your basic nature, while ignoring the profound impact upon these concepts of the twentieth century revolution in science. (Stapp 2007, 143)

It is curious that some physicists want to improve upon orthodox quantum theory by excluding ‘the observer’, who, by virtue of his subjective nature, must, in their opinion, be excluded from science. That stance is maintained in direct opposition to what would seem to be the most profound advance in physics in three hundred years, namely the overcoming of the most glaring failure of classical physics, its inability to accommodate us, its creators. The most salient philosophical feature of quantum theory is that the mathematics has a causal gap that, by virtue of its intrinsic form, provides a perfect place for Homo sapiens as we know and experience ourselves. (Stapp 2007, 143)

One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. In a time when scientific relativism (social constructivism, postmodernism, de-constructivism etc.) is expanding, it’s important to guard against reducing science to a pure discursive level [cf. Pålsson Syll 2005]. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is to reveal what this reality actually looks like. This is after all the object of science.

— Lars Pålsson Syll. On the use and misuse of theories and models in economics (Kindle Locations 113-118). WEA. Kindle Edition.

Conclusions

How can our world of billions of thinkers ever come into general concordance on fundamental issues? How do you, yourself, form opinions on such issues? Do you simply accept the message of some ‘authority’, such as a church, a state, or a social or political group? All of these entities promote concepts about how you as an individual fit into the reality that supports your being. And each has an agenda of its own, and hence its own internal biases. But where can you find an unvarnished truth about your nature, and your place in Nature? (Stapp 2007, 145)

Science rests, in the end, on an authority that lies beyond the pettiness of human ambition. It rests, finally, on stubborn facts. The founders of quantum theory certainly had no desire to bring down the grand structure of classical physics of which they were the inheritors, beneficiaries, and torch bearers. It was stubborn facts that forced their hand, and made them reluctantly abandon the two-hundred-year-old old classical ideal of a mechanical universe, and turn to what perhaps should have been seen from the start as a more reasonable endeavor: the creation an understanding of nature that includes in a rationally coherent way the thoughts by which we know and influence the world around us. The labors of scientists endeavoring merely to understand our inanimate environment produced, from its own internal logic, a rationally coherent framework into which we ourselves fit neatly. What was falsified by twentieth-century science was not the core traditions and intuitions that have sustained societies and civilizations since the dawn of mankind, but rather an historical aberration, an impoverished world view within which philosophers of the past few centuries have tried relentlessly but fruitlessly to find ourselves. The falseness of that deviation of science must be made known, and heralded, because human beings are not likely to endure in a society ruled by a conception of themselves that denies the essence of their being. (Stapp 2007, 145)

Einstein’s principle is relativity, not relativism. The historian of science Gerald Holton reports that Einstein was unhappy with the label ‘relativity theory’ and in his correspondence referred to it as Invariantentheorie…. Consider temporal and spatial measurements. Even if temporal and spatial measurements become frame-dependent, the observers who are attached to their different clock-carrying frames, like the respective observer on the platform and the train, can communicate their results to each other. They can even predict what the other observer will measure. The transparency between the reference frames and the mutual predictability of the measurement is due [to] a mathematical relationship, called the Lorentz transformations. The Lorentz transformations state the mathematical rules, which allow an observer to translate his/her coordinates into those of a different observer.

(….) The appropriate criterion for what is fundamentally real will (…) be what is invariant across all points of view…. The invariant is the real. This is a hypothesis about physical reality: what is frame-dependent is apparently real, what is frame-independent may be fundamentally real. To claim that the invariant is the real is to make an inference from the structure of scientific theories to the structure of the natural world.

Weinert (2004, 66, 70-71) The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries

Reply to Sam Harris on Free Will

Sam Harris’s book “Free Will” is an instructive example of how a spokesman dedicated to being reasonable and rational can have his arguments derailed by a reliance on prejudices and false presuppositions so deep-seated that they block seeing science-based possibilities that lie outside the confines of an outmoded world view that is now known to be incompatible with the empirical facts. (Stapp 2017, 97)

A particular logical error appears repeatedly throughout Harris’s book. Early on, he describes the deeds of two psychopaths who have committed some horrible acts. He asserts: “I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.” (Stapp 2017, 97)

Harris asserts, here, that there is “no extra part of me” that could decide differently. But that assertion, which he calls an admission, begs the question. What evidence rationally justifies that claim? Clearly it is not empirical evidence. It is, rather, a prejudicial and anti-scientific commitment to the precepts of a known-to-be-false conception of the world called classical mechanics. That older scientific understanding of reality was found during the first decades of the twentieth century to be incompatible with empirical findings, and was replaced during the 1920s, and early 1930s, by an adequate and successful revised understanding called quantum mechanics. This newer theory, in the rationally coherent and mathematically rigorous formulation offered by John von Neumann, features a separation of the world process into (1), a physically described part composed of atoms and closely connected physical fields; (2), some psychologically described parts lying outside the atom-based part, and identified as our thinking ego’s; and (3), some psycho-physical actions attributed to nature. Within this empirically adequate conception of reality there is an extra (non-atom-based) part of a person (his thinking ego) that can resist (successfully, if willed with sufficient intensity) the impulse to victimize other people. Harris’s example thus illustrates the fundamental errors that can be caused by identifying honored science with nineteenth century classical mechanics. (Stapp 2017, 97)

Harris goes on to defend “compatibilism”, the view that claims both that every physical event is determined by what came before in the physical world and also that we possess “free will”. Harris says that “Today the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist—because we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true”. (Stapp 2017, 97-98)

But what Harris claims that “We know” to be true is, according to quantum mechanics, not known to be true. (Stapp 2017, 98)

The final clause “in every sense relevant to human behavior” is presumably meant to discount the relevance of quantum mechanical indeterminism, by asserting that quantum indeterminism is not relevant to human behavior—presumably because it washes out at the level of macroscopic brain dynamics. But that idea of what the shift to quantum mechanics achieves is grossly deficient. The quantum indeterminism merely opens the door to a complex dynamical process that not only violates determinism (the condition that the physical past determines the future) at the level of human behavior, but allows mental intentions that are not controlled by the physical past to influence human behavior in the intended way. Thus the shift to quantum mechanics opens the door to a causal efficacy of free will that is ruled out by Harris’s effective embrace of false nineteenth science. But what Harris claims that “We know” to be true is, according to quantum mechanics, not known to be true. (Stapp 2017, 98)