Quantum mechanics somewhat syncs up with Kant: What I learned this week
I’ve been reading Quantum Reality by Jim Baggott. When the second part of it starts he starts to get into the real stuff he wrote the book for.
I’m probably going to butcher this, but Baggott comes to present a quantum understanding of the world as something of a verification of the perspective of Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s so-called Copernican revolution changed epistemology by contending that our knowing all depended on the mind. That is, we can only know the things that we can apprehend, but he can only apprehend images of things, not things.
All of the representations of our senses are “images,” insofar as they are an interpretation by our minds. Taste is an image. Touch is an image. They are all representations.
So OK when you look at a quantum understanding of the world, it seems to sync up with this view.
Good God bear with me.
To paraphrase Baggot, electrons are going to do their electron thing whether we are there or not, but they are so tiny and delicate that any thing we would do impacts the environment we are looking at. So we can never know the thing. We can only know a part of the thing, an interpretation of the thing.
Further, once we are done looking, the state of the thing has been changed by the looking itself. So we really can never know what Kant called “the thing in itself.”
Everything is interpretation.
Apparently Kant was Einstein’s favorite philosopher when he was younger, and it shows in the theory of relativity. Einstein, as Baggott explains it, sets out to show the world that the universe is not the fixed thing. To know anything is to know it in relationship to something else. Everything is relative.
This gets confused to say that it makes the human the center of the universe again, but that’s not right. It’s just that everything can only be understood as relative to something else (the other thing doesn’t have to be a human, though it usually will be because so far we are the only ones who seem to be looking).
Small aside, I also read this story in the New Yorker this week, which was in very small part about how hard it can be to hide something in a foreign land when you want to find it again.
Before anyone reads this and thinks it’s all garbage: look, it might be! This is a personal blog! I write these little takes down to help me learn this stuff.
Anyway, I also listened to another swapcast with Meta-Nomad. I didn’t really love his interlocutor on this, but I enjoyed listening to James on the subject at hand: is science a new religion?
He brought up Heidegger and his idea of dasein, which I probably don’t actually understand. I first encountered dasein in this essay by Farah Abdessamad in Philosophical Salon.
To butcher a complex concept, dasein is being that’s aware of its own being. It is self that interrogates itself. To extend Kant though, it would still just interrogates itself with images. It raises the perplexing question: if the thing can never know the thing in itself, does that mean the thing only knows representations of itself?
In particular, can the dasein only know representations of the dasein.
My gut reaction? Yes.
So what, then, right? No. The point is all of science, with its materialism, is bounded by representation. Science is limited. It’s not enough.
This was part of Einstein’s fight with Niels Bohr. The consensus since Einstein, seems to be, that the questions Einstein continued to ask weren’t worth asking.
After all: the scientific findings we have so far work. We can do engineering with them. What else matters?
And maybe nothing else matters to scientists and engineers, but questions persist.
And this brings us back to the beginning, the ontological point. Does science tell us what the universe is? Or does it simply show us what we can do within it?
We are not on this earth to build bridges and fitness tracking apps.