The Defeat of Reason?

Niels Bohr brainwashed a whole generation of theorists into thinking that the job of interpreting quantum theory was done 50 years ago. 

Dr. Murray Gell-Mann

Re-reading Tim Maudlin’s famous book review at Boston Review on the fundamental problems of modern physics and of the enterprise of reason itself in relation to two noteworthy books gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own thoughts, half formed, on this subject which I have entertained for a while.

In the course of development of a technologically advanced society a well informed individual at the dawn of the 20 century would likely have believed that the scientific theories developed thus far and those to be developed would eventually advance likewise in sophistication, internal correctness, and correlation with observable reality, leading to ever greater predictive models. Which can then be applied to the practical arts in the form of engineering, political economics, social development, and human-societal uplifting. With the positive feedback loop reinforcing and accelerating the pace of development.

Certainly this was the expectation of many by the mid 20th century.

Now from the perspective of 2022 we can confidently analyze the events of the preceding century on Earth using retrospective and counter factual comparison and come to the conclusion that events did not develop entirely along a straightforward progression.

The reason why can be seen through the lens of the stagnation and profound contradictions of fundamental physics that has developed in the last few decades, or Maudlin so implies. Thus, we approach the first book:

The title of the first book is self explanatory: What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker

The theory reminds me a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoiac.

Albert Einstein on Niels Bohr’s theory (later becoming the Copenhagen Interpretation, which became commonly accepted as the default view on quantum physics )

Most notably in the field of physics the stagnation, according to Maudlin, is both profound and inexplicable according to the commonly accepted Copenhagen Interpretation, some may say even necessitating an anti-intellectual and anti-rational mindset to resolve the contradiction. This theory was developed by Niels Bohr and his followers in the first half of the 20th century, with later refinements eventually installing the theory as the textbook, the default, interpretation of physics.

Personally, as it’s highly unlikely that the universe is actually divided by some mysterious boundary between the domain of quantum mechanics and the domain of general relativity, nor between regular matter and some type of special ‘observer’ matter, the temptation to reject the Copenhagen interpretation and redevelop foundational physics along some alternative line is obvious and a clarion call for contrarians. It is these contrarians that provide the narrative impetus for the book.

In the new, post-1925 quantum theory the ‘anarchist’ position became dominant and modern quantum physics, in its ‘Copenhagen interpretation’, became one of the main standard bearers of philosophical obscurantism. In the new theory Bohr’s notorious ‘complementarity principle’ enthroned [weak] inconsistency as a basic ultimate feature of nature, and merged subjectivist positivism and antilogical dialectic and even ordinary language philosophy into one unholy alliance. After 1925 Bohr and his associates introduced a new and unprecedented lowering of critical standards for scientific theories. This led to a defeat of reason within modern physics and to an anarchist cult of incomprehensible chaos.

Imre Lakatos

Einstein, Schrödinger, and several other notable physicists at the time disagreed with Bohr and his followers. Yet tragically none of them lived long enough to develop a complete alternative interpretation, leaving only scattered puzzle pieces.

And the defenders of what later became the widely accepted theory were quite persuasive in labelling any contrary theory as unknowable, undecidable, beyond the realm of physics, metaphysics, etc. Even von Neumann weighed in and wrote a paper concerning a mathematical proof that supposedly proved that quantum mechanics is complete and one could not add anything more to it and retain its successful predictions.

Thankfully, an interesting fellow named David Bohm, originally a Copenhagenist, defected and sought to prove the alternative theory left unfinished by Einstein. He was also the one who published the refutation of von Neumann’s paper.

Bohm rediscovered the pilot wave theory that Louis de Broglie had presented at Solvay in 1927. The theory slices through the enigma—wave or particle?—like Alexander’s sword through the Gordian knot: the answer is wave and particle. The wavefunction becomes a pilot wave that guides the particles along their paths. The theory is completely deterministic—no playing dice—and recovers all the predictions of standard quantum mechanics. One would think Einstein would love the theory, but he did not. The dreaded nonlocality had not been exorcized. Indeed, it was even more striking.

Tim Maudlin

Although a non-local physics was viewed as preposterous at the time, most notably by Einstein himself (‘spooky action at a distance’), later developments seem to have established very convincingly that a non-local interpretation is the only way forward. You may be surprised that such a revelation did not immediately precipitate a revolution in physics, but the same dynamics that ensured preeminence of Bohr’s theories in the first place likewise subsequently hand-waved away even the most expertly presented refutations.

If we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him.

Robert Oppenheimer

Hugh Everrett and later John Stewart Bell took on the contrarian’s mantle and sought to decisively disprove, or in modern terms debunk, Bohr and his followers. Although they were hardly rewarded for these efforts during their lifetime, their work subsequently became the basis for Many-worlds theory, Bell’s inequality, and their intellectual descendants.

The last third of What Is Real? could hopefully be titled “Slow Convalescence.” Gradually the worst excesses of Bohr’s influence are mitigated as Bell’s work inspires a new generation to look into foundational issues. We meet a new cast of characters, and the overall atmosphere is mildly optimistic. But there is a long way to go, and this very book could prove to be a watershed moment for the physics community if it faces up to its own past and its present. Or, following the fate of Einstein, Bohm, and Everett, Becker could just be ignored. But if you have any interest in the implications of quantum theory, or in the suppression of scientific curiosity, What is Real? is required reading. There is no more reliable, careful, and readable account of the whole history of quantum theory in all its scandalous detail.

Tim Maudlin

The change in physics seems inevitable as the need to bridge the divide between large scale and small scale structures grows more pressing. The nature of such a change however presents its own logic and attendant issues.

This leads into the second book: The Ashtray: (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) by Errol Morris

Within is presented an explanation on the possible motivations of why an alternative path of scientific, philosophical, and technical development was ultimately taken on this Earth to begin with in the narrative form of a recounting of Thomas Kuhn’s story. And this was not obvious at the time as nearly all signs pointed to a continuous and unalterable uplifting trajectory.

The resulting consequences for broader society are touched upon, along with interesting remarks by the reviewer.

Namely that Thomas Kuhn’s well known theory of ‘paradigm shifts’ ultimately leads to a conclusion not commonly discussed but inevitable if one were to maintain logical consistency:

Kuhn believed that we can do no better than miscommunicate, misunderstand, and ultimately resort to raw institutional power to resolve our disputes.

Errol Morris

In game-theoretic terms, as pathways to positive sum games, and possibilities for discovering more thereof, were slowly circumcised by the philosophical and scientific stagnation that appeared in the mid 20 century, first in the most abstract fields and eventually in ever broader intellectual directions, the defeat of reasonable and rational cooperation became inevitable.

The consequences of such a development redirected human efforts from pursuing positive sum games into pursuing zero sum games or destructive games. The attendant effects of which we are now observing progressing in amplifying and mutually reinforcing spirals.

The destructiveness of such a course of action has been precipitated by and obscured among the educated elites, the decision-makers, and broader society, via many mechanisms, of which the reviewer believes acceptance of certain elements of Immanuel Kant’s radical philosophy, such as rejecting an external world unconnected with internal mental processes, was the prime instigator.

In short, Tim Maudlin summarizes the consequent result of the acceptance of these peculiar theories and their logical implications:

When the Copenhagen interpretation got imported to the pragmatic soil of the United States, Bohr’s incomprehensible nonsense was replaced by the more concise “shut up and calculate.” That is the philosophy that dominates physics to this day.

What of Kuhn? He was quite explicit about his relationship to Kant. Late in his life, Kuhn declared, “I am a Kantian with movable categories.” That is, he embraced Kant’s thesis that the mind imposes structure on the experienced world rather than discovering structure in it, but, contrary to Kant, the imposed structure can change. Such a change is a paradigm shift, the ultimately irrational replacement of one experienced reality with another incompatible one. Caught in our own little thought-worlds, deprived of access to objective truth (because there is no objective truth), we can do no better than miscommunicate, misunderstand, and ultimately resort to raw institutional power to resolve our disputes. As appropriated and mangled by Bohr and Kuhn, Kant—despite his own embrace of science and reason—becomes the agent of the anti-Enlightenment, the post-truth Age of Spin and Branding we live in.

Tim Maudlin

Although Maudlin presents a convincing story of the origin and propelling forces of the deviation from the theoretical ideal we have observed over the recent past, there have been developments contrary to the trend of stagnation. Notably in the biological, mathematical, and computer sciences.

Why stagnation was avoided in these domains remains unexplained though perhaps a few interesting clues may lead future geniuses to develop into a general theory and allow future historians to clarify the pattern of development of human societies. Such as:

  • The replacement of computer science research largely by metamathematics in academia, and thus the mass migration of computer science research into industrial and commercial organizations beginning in the 1970s may have contributed to the fecundity and diversity of subsequent developments relative to physics.
  • The astonishing growth in the sophistication of instruments, manufacturing, and our knowledge in their use, popularly expressed by Moore’s laws and by even more extreme growth in biological genotyping, have allowed for theories to be tested and compared using brute force means in addition to observation and logical argumentation.
  • The greater market demand for quality of life improving products and services as opposed to large military production since the end of the Cold War. Favouring feedback cycles targeting smaller scale, lower cost, ease of use, etc. Which benefit certain types of developments over other types.