Briefly on quantum mechanics and dialectics

Remarks on quantum mechanics

by Phil, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #21, August 15, 1999)


Dear Joseph,

. You asked me to tell you what I think about Quantum Mechanics and your "non-standard" analysis of it. In your recent article in CV (1), you comment on the attempts of early 20th century physicists to create a philosophy based on quantum theory, and how they frequently resorted to idealism to do this. A long time ago, I read a book by Werner Heisenberg (of the Uncertainty Principle fame) called "Physics and Philosophy", in which he went to great lengths to refute simple materialism and explain how the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics was the only possible one. However, I do not believe he refuted all forms of materialism here, because he had no conception of dialectics and the only so-called "dialectical materialists" with which he dealt were two Soviet scientists, Blochinzev and Alexandrov, who quote Lenin and attempt to reformulate QM in a way that does not threaten their concept of materialism. To do so, they must expel the observer from any role in the experiment -- a concept which I think misses the point of QM and results in a misconception of materialism as well.

. Observation is an act of the flesh, not of the mind. In the macro-physical world, this statement may seem to have little practical effect, but in the micro-physical world its effects are profound.When I engage in a physical measurement, I am using material means to discern material facts, and the reaction of the material equipment with which I am measuring with the object of my measurement is the essence of measurement. Usually (in the macro-physical world) the elements of this reaction are present in the system under observation, regardless of the presence or absence of the observer, and the introduction of the observer into the system constitutes an infinitesimal perturbation whose results are included in the margin of error of the observation, Not so in the micro-physical world. There the presence of the observer is a major alteration of the system under observation, for he must introduce elements which are not there under normal conditions, and which are included for the express purpose of performing the observation. Furthermore, the terms in which the interaction is described need to be modified -- in the macro-physical world the difference between "particle" and "wave" are clear and distinct, whereas in the micro-physical world these two terms loose their distinctive character. A particle is a point-mass, whose diameter and physical dimensions are not commensurate with the scale of its activity -- it is perfectly elastic and entirely limited in extent. A wave is, on the other hand, of diffuse character, with indefinite boundaries and physical dimensions which may interact with its surroundings. In the micro-physical world, these opposites form a unity -- they complement each other rather than being in conflict. So it is also with such concepts as chance and certainty, chaos and causality, succession and simultaneity. time and space.

. Does this vitiate the objectivity of science? No, it merely forces us to reformulate this objectivity in terms given to us by nature, by the material world, rather than to impose terms upon it which are created in our heads. "Paradigm shifts" (as described by Kuhn) may indicate the relativity of scientific terminology OR they may indicate the inadequacy of this terminology and the need to develop a better, more accurate set of terms, grounded in the reality of the world rather than in our conception of it.

I would appreciate more discussion of the ideas presented above.

. Revolutionary regards,

. Phil, Seattle.

Response by Joseph Green

June 12, 1999


. Thanks for the comments on quantum mechanics. You hit the nail on the head with your remarks that "Observation is an act of the flesh, not of the mind" and "the reaction of the material equipment with which I am measuring with the object of my measurement is the essence of measurement." The idealist interpretation is that the consciousness of the observer has altered the physical situation and caused the "collapse of the wave function", but actually, it is a physical interaction between two material entities that has done so. We may be using one of these entities (such as a stream of photons/ray of light) to make an observation on a beam of electrons, but it is irrelevant to the physical interaction whether we have caused the photons to be present (or whether something else did), whether we are using the photons to make a measurement, or whether we are conscious of the results of the observation. All that matters is that the photons are there, and are interacting with the beam of electrons.

. The issue of whether it is our consciousness that causes the collapse of the wave function or a material interaction, is, as you point out, the issue of idealism versus materialism. (It would be transcendental ignorance of the debates among physicists, to present this as an issue of "agnosticism" [referring to a third party mentioned in previous letters -- JG].) If there were doubt about whether it was physical interaction or consciousness that caused the collapse of the wave function, it would seem that it could actually be decided by experiment. (The famous two-slit experiment could be performed in such a way--perhaps it has been?--to see whether it is the interaction of photons with an electron beam that changes the way the electrons act, or whether it is our observing the result of the interaction of the photons with the electron beam.)

. An interesting sidepoint to this, is that there has been some controversy among physicists about whether protons can be "observed" by neutrons inside the nucleus (this clearly being an "observation" that goes on independently of human consciousness). The issue involves why protons inside the atomic nucleus are stable--why don't they decay? Certain physicists have proposed that the reason is that they are continually jostled by neutrons, which thus "observe" whether they exist. The result is an immediate collapse of the wave function. This constant collapse of the wave function doesn't give the wave function of the protons enough time to evolve to the point where proton decay would be probable. This interpretation is not universally accepted, and is denied by other physicists. But it shows that the idea of explicitly considering "observations" as a material interaction, independent of consciousness, may eventually force itself upon physics. (See David Wick, The Infamous Boundary, pp. 168-170. The author has no conception of dialectics, but he does discuss some useful things.)

. I was also interested in your discussion of the attempt to reformulate quantum mechanics by Blochinzev and Alexandrov, where you point out that they didn't properly understand what materialism is. This seems to be one of the early examples of the continual attempts at reformulating quantum mechanics out of the belief that this was needed to preserve quantum mechanics. (The issue, of course, isn't that it is forbidden to try to reinterpret quantum mechanics, but that these physicists believed that this was required by materialism.) By the way, when you say that "they must expel the observer from any role in the experiment", does this mean that they were upset by the phenomenon of the "collapse of the wave function", couldn't see any alternative to an idealist interpretation of it, and so believed that they had to reformulate quantum mechanics to avoid it?

. As I understand it, your approach to the Copenhagen interpretation and the collapse of the wave function is about the same as mine. You separate the issue of idealism or materialism (whether our consciousness causes the collapse of the wave function or a material interaction causes it) from the issue of the dialectical relations involved. I think this separation of the two issues is crucial; it is the key issue.

. You also go on to say that the wave-particle duality in the micro-physical world is an example of the unity of opposites, that is, that it is dialectical. And you connect this to other such dialectical relations. Precisely so.

. One minor point. You say that the opposites "complement each other rather than being in conflict". I agree with the content of what I think you are saying here, but you run up against a certain terminological problem that is similar to one I ran up against in my article with respect to the "absurdity" of contradictions. In stressing the duality, which the mechanical materialist finds hard to understand, the struggle of opposites can't be ignored. The complementary opposites are also "in conflict", but not in the way that mechanical materialists suppose. For the mechanical materialist, wave and particle natures being "in conflict" would mean that they couldn't form a complementary duality, and an entity must be definitely one or the other; but for a dialectician the wave and particle natures could be "in conflict" and yet also complementary aspects of one entity--indeed, this would be what one would expect of complementary aspects. The unity of opposites can and does involve a struggle of opposites. I tried to deal with a similar terminological problem in my article by the distinction between absurd and dialectical contradiction (see p. 46, col. 1 [CV. Vol. 5, #1] ). The mechanical materialist sees only absurd contradictions, and not opposites which affect each other and are in unity. But my distinction between "absurd" and dialectical contradiction has its own terminological problems. One of these problems I try to deal with in a footnote, where I point out the issue isn't so much that a particular contradiction is absurd in itself, but that under certain conditions, it is absurd, and under other conditions, it is not. But beyond that, upon reflection, I am not sure that dialectical literature refers to the problem with the same terminology I have used. It may perhaps sometimes describe the unity of opposites as absurd contradictions, as the unity of things which it is absurd to consider as combined, and yet which really are combined. And there would be a point to doing so. True, after years and decades of working with certain contradictions (such as wave/particle duality) it is hard to think of this as "absurd". But that something is both a wave and a particle is absurd. So, maybe, after more thinking about the problem and more restudy of other dialectical literature, I will have to surrender the term "absurd contradictions" and go to a formulation like "sterile" contradictions versus dialectical contradictions--with the mechanical materialist thinking all contradictions are sterile and "disjoint".

. So much for now,

. Regards,

. Joseph


(1) This refers to Joseph Green's article "On Sokal and Bricmont's book Fashionable Nonsense/Postmodernism versus materialism" in Communist Voice, vol. 5, #1, March 28, 1999, and in particular to the sections entitled "The dialectics of nature" and "Dialectics, motion, and infinitesimals".--CV. (Return to ext)

Back to main page, write us!

Last changed on October 16, 2001.