For many years I've had a strong interest in quantum physics -- from the perspective of someone who knows next to nothing about its mathematics, but is fascinated by the philosophical side of it.
There's a "shut up and calculate" position that most quantum physicists embrace.
The theory works. Spectacularly. If it didn't, our technological modern world would be much different.
So lots of scientists don't worry about the philosophical foundation of quantum physics. They're just interested in applying the mathematical underpinning to practical problems and applications.
Then there are physicists like Carlo Rovelli.
He wrote a fascinating piece in the March 13 issue of New Scientist, "Why quantum is relative." The online version has a different title. Here's a PDF file.
Download Quantum weirdness isn’t weird – if we accept objects don’t exist | New Scientist
Rovelli has written a book about his take on quantum physics, Helgoland. It's to be released in the United States in May. Naturally I've put in a pre-order.
Here's the Amazon description of the book, which sums up Rovelli's approach.
One of the world's most renowned theoretical physicists, Carlo Rovelli has entranced millions of readers with his singular perspective on the cosmos. In Helgoland, he examines the enduring enigma of quantum theory. The quantum world Rovelli describes is as beautiful as it is unnerving.
Helgoland is a treeless island in the North Sea where the twenty-three-year-old Werner Heisenberg made the crucial breakthrough for the creation of quantum mechanics, setting off a century of scientific revolution. Full of alarming ideas (ghost waves, distant objects that seem to be magically connected, cats that appear both dead and alive), quantum physics has led to countless discoveries and technological advancements. Today our understanding of the world is based on this theory, yet it is still profoundly mysterious.
As scientists and philosophers continue to fiercely debate the meaning of the theory, Rovelli argues that its most unsettling contradictions can be explained by seeing the world as fundamentally made of relationships rather than substances. We and everything around us exist only in our interactions with one another. This bold idea suggests new directions for thinking about the structure of reality and even the nature of consciousness.
Rovelli makes learning about quantum mechanics an almost psychedelic experience. Shifting our perspective once again, he takes us on a riveting journey through the universe so we can better comprehend our place in it.
Since I'm supremely confident that if I tried to sum up the New Scientist article on my own, I'd screw it up, I'm sharing some excerpts from it that I found particularly compelling.
Read the whole piece via the PDF file above to get a fuller picture of Rovelli's quantum philosophizing. It sure seems like Buddhist notions of reality are extremely close to Rovelli's viewpoint.
Dig down deep enough, and things have properties that are independent of anything else, right?
Perhaps not. Quantum physics, which describes the bizarre behaviour of the physical world at the most elementary level we know, may be telling us the opposite.
Things don’t have properties exclusive to themselves: their properties only exist by virtue of their relationship to other things, just like there are really no “chairs” without someone around to interact with them and see them as such.
Coming to terms with this idea may clarify the persistently mysterious nature of the quantum world. It might even help make other mysteries, such as the nature of our conscious experience, a little bit less mysterious.
...A chair is the way it interacts with its surroundings. To talk about the properties of the chair by itself, when it isn’t interacting with anything, is meaningless.
All of the properties we commonly use to characterise a chair – its colour, its comfort, its weight – are defined through interactions with something else. And so it is for the properties of the single atoms or elementary particles forming the chair.
...As hinted at in the opening of this article, it isn’t a novelty to realise that aspects of the world are relational. Biology, psychology, economics and many other sciences focus on relations more than entities.
Physics itself is already full of relational notions: velocity is only defined with respect to something else, as are electric or gravitational potential and orientation, to name just some examples. The physical world seemed to provide a non-relational substratum formed by substances with absolute properties.
Quantum mechanics, I think, is the discovery that this isn’t the case: the world is woven by relationships that go all the way down to the smallest physical entities.
An understanding of the world in terms of relations rather than entities might even help us disentangle other thorny issues, for instance the nature of consciousness. If we think of the physical world as if it were made by little stones each with its own properties, the jump from this picture to the subjective experience of mental phenomena is huge.
But if the physical nature of the world is better described in terms of how physical systems, simple as well as complex ones, affect one another, perhaps the disjoint will appear less dramatic: products of the mind are just the complex phenomenon formed by the tangled and richly interwoven interactions between the world and the brain.
Our old metaphysical prejudice was that physical reality is made by some fundamental substance with absolute properties. Quantum theory questions this.
I think this is fine: our metaphysical prejudices have formed and evolved within the restricted domain of our everyday experience. We are used to thinking about the world in terms of things with absolute properties because this is what we experience, thanks to the stability generated by decoherence.
But we shouldn’t force what we have discovered about nature to align with these prejudices: rather, our prejudices should be modified by our discoveries about nature.
Quantum theory has altered our understanding of physical reality in ways that are even more profound than the Copernican revolution, when we learned that we live on a madly spinning rock. Digesting the full implications of Nicolaus Copernicus’s work has taken centuries.
We are only beginning to digest the full implications of the quantum revolution.