Ed's Reviews > Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness

Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum
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Aug 11, 11

bookshelves: philosophy, physics, my-reviews

Rosenblum and Kuttner do a good job of calling attention to a remarkable problem at the heart of modern physics. Traditionally, science has worked within a realist perspective, assuming that the objects of our experience exist independently of our experience of them. Since our experience is all we know, we don't really know of any objects existing apart from subjects, and the idealist tradition in philosophy has placed subjectivity at the heart of reality. But science has considered it more objective to regard subjects as marginal to reality, perhaps because objects do exist independently of any particular subject, such as myself! So as they explored smaller and smaller realms of reality, physicists expected to find little particles of matter whose definite properties didn't depend on their being observed. Instead, they found wave functions describing only possibilities whose actualization seems to depend on observation. In the words of John Wheeler, "No microscopic property is a property until it is an observed property." This reopens the question of whether a real world exists independently of observation.

The book is strongest when it is telling the story of how quantum physics came to be and describing the scientific and philosophical dilemmas it has created. I found it less exciting when it got to the question of interpretation beginning in Chapter 14. As other reviewers have noted, the authors give rather short shrift to some of the more popular interpretations, such as consistent histories and many worlds, probably because they feel that these approaches are still trying to minimize subjectivity and avoid confronting the real issue of consciousness. Here I wish they had provided a more thorough discussion and critique. I was also a little disappointed in the chapters on consciousness because they seemed to have only human consciousness in mind. But higher animals like ourselves appear too late in the evolutionary story to take too much credit for actualizing the possibilities of the universe! If physics is to confront consciousness in a serious way, it must confront the idealist philosophies that place the subject-object relationship at the heart of all reality, not just humanly experienced reality (but preferably without falling into a dualistic conception of subject as immaterial or supernatural being). In other words, the concept of consciousness must be thoroughly analyzed and perhaps singificantly broadened. Maybe whenever little things interact to form larger things, some form of "measurement" or "observation" is occurring to actualize posibilities. As John Bell asked, "Are we not obliged to admit that more or less 'measurement-like' processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere?"

I gave the book five stars, despite my reservations, because it is an important step toward getting people to address the philosophical questions raised by quantum mechanics. The alternative is to wall off post-classical physics in some isolated compartment of our brains, so it won't disturb our classical worldview.
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