Rob's Reviews > Quantum Philosophy: Understanding and Interpreting Contemporary Science

Quantum Philosophy by Roland Omnès
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Sep 04, 08

bookshelves: non-fiction-for-egghead-spacealiens
Read in August, 2008

i have a new hero. Roland Omnes. and the astounding thing is that i'm not sure i even agree with him. but holy crap this guy can write. his wit and charm and genius absolutely dance and swirl off every page. his metaphors go bam-bam-bam-boom!

and this in a book whose principal purpose is not to entertain (though it is endlessly entertaining); not to educate (though it is constantly teaching); fundamentally, this book is an intricate argument and an intellectual call-to-arms that sort of knocked me off my chair. i'm still dazed.

the thesis: every time quantum mechanics has ever been tested, ever, in any way, it has been confirmed as exactly correct. everything in the universe is made of matter that obeys the laws of quantum mechanics. therefore, it is impossible to understand the universe and everything in it and what it all means unless we understand QM. BUT, the quest for ever greater exactness and certainty has led to the rise of the Formal, which now dominates physics and mathematics and philosophy. by Formal, we mean a concept which is not intuitive or visualizable or expressible in the common language of human experience, but instead is expressed in terms of the mechanical manipulation of abstract symbols. QM is built upon a formalism which gives predictions always in agreement with the outcomes of experiments, but the formalism itself is inscrutable and incomprehensible and the edict from copenhagen is simply Thou Shalt Not Ask Such Questions as "But HOW does measurement cause state reduction?". perhaps in 1930, there was no better answer, but we now have an answer: consistent histories and decoherence. however, while this may be the breakthrough that allows a new philosophy of knowledge to be constructed (discovered?), most of that work remains yet to be done. the chasm to be bridged by the new philosophy is the one between our common sense experience of unique facts, classical objects, and deterministic logic on the one hand, and the inescapably probabilistic nature of QM and its entangled states on the other. what is the nature of the connection between abstract mathematical laws and the actual events that take place in the universe? is mathematics simply a human game where any axioms can be supposed and the resulting (abstract) structures explored, with no particular choice of axioms being "true"? No. the fact that mathematics seems to order the universe means that it comes from "out there", not from within ourselves. we shall find that there is one Logos that is the "correct" mathematical description of reality, and it will explain how to bridge the chasm. but as long as modern physics and mathematics are inaccessible to almost all serious philosophers, and as long as almost all physicists and mathematicians eschew philosophizing as being beyond the bounds of their work, the chasm will remain unbridged, and we will be unable to understand reality.

or something like that. maybe. anyway, i have ordered the other two (more technical) books Omnes wrote.

HOWEVER, there is one elephant in the room which prevents Omnes from displacing Roger Penrose in the top spot in my pantheon: general relativity. while it is true that QM has passed every experimental test so far, the theory STILL DOES NOT INCLUDE GRAVITY. it has not even faced a test on that front, because it does not even know how to deal with it. it is not legitimate to say that gravity is simply a tiny correction to QM of the order 10^-40. general relativity says that time and space themselves are NOT some independent stage on which matter and fields dance. spacetime interacts with matter, which means that even if the current version of QM gives correct predictions to 35 decimal places, IT IS NOT AND CANNOT BE CORRECT as a full description of nature. no one will ever "figure out how to quantize gravity", because current QM assumes a priori the spacetime of SR to be correct, which we know from GR is a fundamentally incomplete description of spacetime. thus, by more or less ignoring GR, i'm afraid that Omnes is sweeping the elephant under the carpet. tsk, tsk.

and yet, i loved, loved, loved this book.

a few samples:

"the Cartesian Project has become almost a fundamentalist doctrine among scientists - the claim that nature obeys universal mathematical and logical principles. ... If we take a cold look at this idea, we must admit that there is in it an element of madness. ... an article of faith, the stronger because not pronounced."

"There is in this situation more than meets the eye, more than the consequence of an excessive specialization or an immoderate taste for abstraction: the existence of an intrinsic darkness."

"The cracklings announcing the fracture were clearly heard, but their deep rumblings went unnoticed..."

Math is a tool, a language, more formal than descriptive - it embodies not the nature of things, but the relationships that exist between them. It does not have any meaning by itself. "When seen through mathematical goggles, every physical science provides its own metalanguage that comes with a particular meaning."
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana Okay, Rob, you've sold me on this. I must read it!


message 2: by Greg (new) - added it

Greg me too...


message 3: by Greg (new)

Greg Plante Me three - very nice review. I can't wait to read it. Thanks Rob!

BTW, does this make me an egghead-spacealien?


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