Dividing up the Wholeness of the Text

Quantum Ripples

The Reader vs The Read
As I make my way through Bernard d’Espagnat’s On Physics and Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2006) I’m taking notes to keep track of his often dense arguments.

Although I don’t think “ontological” reality is necessarily binary, I do find for my own study purposes that extracting an A vs. B division can be helpful when making summaries.

So in that spirit, here are some of the dichotomies that d’Espagnat points to in the first thirty pages or so of his book, including the front material and first chapter.

These are just my impressions of some of the issues d’Espagnat raises, so check the original text for all the juicy stuff.

French vs English Edition
D’Espagnat writes that no significant material on the philosophical issues he raises had been published in between the French edition (2002) and the English one four years later.

He says that for the English edition he made some of his remarks stronger and clearer, and he also had a chance to respond to critics of his latest work.

Philosophy vs Science
D’Espagnat says that philosophers need to go beyond their own “cogitation” and examine evidence from other fields.

Epistemology vs Physics
D’Espagnat says that in theory epistemology bridges science and philosophy, but all too often epistemologists think having a broad idea of the results of 20th-century physics is enough. He says they should pay far closer attention to the details.

The Right Answer vs Not the Wrong Answer
D’Espagnat notes criticism that science in the past has been wrong, and will likely be wrong in the future. Science’s positions change over time.

While acknowledging that scientific theories can evolve, d’Espagnat says that science can at least indicate to philosophers which positions are no longer viable, for instance: “Being is not this.”

Ontological Reality vs Empirical Reality
What is “really” out there is ontological reality, and different philosophies take different positions on whether we can “access” that reality. In other words, they have different views on whether our perceptions and our immediate inferences from those perceptions (our empirical reality) can lead us to an understanding of (the ontological) reality behind the veil.

Nonseparability vs Separability
D’Espagnat believes that quantum experiments (empirical reality) indicate that nonseparability underlies any notion of a “mind-independent reality” (ontological reality).

Nonseparability comes up in the way that two particles originally paired up can travel a great distance but measurement of one particle’s state then limits the possible results when measuring the other particle’s state later.

The opposite position, separability, implies that objects separated by distance are indeed distinct entities that cannot directly influence each other.

Nonseparability vs Action at a Distance
Nonseparability refers to a quantum connection between what we might think are distinct entities some distance apart. In classical physics there’s also an influence but that would be through action at a distance, such as gravity, called a force or (later) field.

Empirical Limitations vs A Mirage
D’Espagnat does not believe empirical knowledge is a mirage, even if it can’t lead us to direct knowledge of the underlying “ground of things” (which he says cannot be described analytically).

He says that the symmetries and regularities of our empirical evidence will presumably correspond “to some form of the absolute” even if this correspondence is obscure.

Quantum Predictions vs Descriptions of Reality
D’Espagnat says that despite appearances quantum theory makes predictions (which have been well verified) instead of describing a “mind-independent reality.”

Aristotle vs Galileo
D’Espagnat says that Aristotle’s wide-ranging data are collected by the senses, data that Aristotle regards as basically lying on the same plane.

Galileo (and the more philosophical Descartes) uses a hierarchy of concepts, some considered basic, which are then used to explain other concepts. It’s a mechanistic world view in which some concepts can be built up from smaller ones.

However, both Aristotle and Galileo view their fundamental ideas as “common sense” and so neither doubts they are talking about some kind of (what we’d call) an “ontological reality.”

Objects vs Properties
Two particles collide. In some situations instead of just continuing on their way or destroying each other they’ll survive and create new particles.

How did they create these new particles? Well, the original particles have motion, and it’s this motion that creates the new particles.

But this raises an interesting issue: a property of the particles creates more particles, which are objects.

It’s as strange, says d’Espagnat, as if the height of the Eiffel Tower managed to create a second Eiffel Tower.

Quantum Approaches vs Basic Ideas
D’Espagnat notes that general quantum rules lead to at least three different theoretical approaches for making predictions — predictions that are basically the same.

He says that this undermines the idea that there are “basic notions” out there acting as the “real” foundation for other ideas.

Creation vs Change of State
Classical physics might see the creation or destruction of particles, but quantum physics sees these transitions as changes in various states of “Something.”

Building Blocks vs Wholeness
This “Something” suggests a wholeness of some sort instead of classical physics’ multitudinist world view founded on localized atoms or particles as basic building blocks.

Physicists’ Practical vs Theoretical Concerns
Although a physicist might acknowledge that particles and trajectories don’t “really” exist, they are useful concepts that have a pseudo-reality, especially in Feynman’s approach to quantum calculations.

Idealism vs Realism
Idealism says our only knowledge of the outside world comes from our (often mistaken) senses. Realism believes there’s a mind-independent reality we can either gain access to or say something about.

Counterfactuality vs Observation
If we leave an office with books on the shelves we normally assume that the books are still there even if we’re not observing them. This is called counterfactuality.

Stability vs Realism of the Accidents
Some observations are relatively stable, leading some people to see them as pointing to stable features of the world.

Other sense impressions change frequently. A belief we could term realism of the accidents entails that these quickly changing contingent “accidents” also point to something real.

Realism of the Accidents vs Realism of the Events
Galileo appears to have believed in the realism of the accidents. Space and time are real (despite Galilean relativity) but relative positions are “accidents” and hence “paradigmatically true.”

Einstein emphasized events but still believed that there were elements out there that physics could determine were true or not. Hence he believed in what could be called realism of the events.

UPDATE (15 April 2010)
Princeton University Press offers the first chapter as a sampler.


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