Monday 21 August 2023

REVIEW ARTCLE: Quantum Mechanics and the Rigor of Angles

 From The Philosopher CXI No. 1 Spring 2023

A young, fresh-faced Werner Heisenberg

Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality

William Egginton’s quest to make sense of life, the universe and everything is ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful. Unsuccessful? Yes, I know that sounds harsh, but then Egginton seeks not only to make sense of the mysteries of quantum physics, something the physicists abjectly fail to do, but to finally pin down the essential secrets of reality – something the philosophers likewise have made a fist of over the centuries. 

Part of the reason Egginton himself makes little progress is that he doesn’t see either group as having failed though. Rather he sees his role more as a cultural critic, picking out the best bits from the more mediocre.

For Egginton, there is essentially one key issue: whether reality exists ‘out there’, fixed and eternal, or whether it is rather a shifting miasma, a theatre performance in which the actors (say atoms) subtly respond to their audience (you and me and the scientist with a particle detector over there in the corner). Plato, we may summarise, largely emphasises the former view – although he certainly acknowledged the paradoxes it brought with it. Indeed, he suggests in some of his writing that reality is best approached through poetry and the imagination rather than through practical experiments. But Egginton is no great fan of Plato, instead he eulogises Immanuel Kant, who he often prefaces with the adjective ‘great’. 

Actually, many of the traditional pantheon of philosophers are introduced like this:  There’s “the great John Stuart Mill”, “the great French thinker” René Descartes, and Hegel, “the greatest German thinker of the nineteenth century”. All of them though slightly beneath that “great font of German wisdom”, Immanuel Kant. Kant, you see, intuited that the world scientists observe is not entirely independent of their gaze. It is instead, the product of the way they look at it, coloured by the perceptual spectacles they wear.

It is a good point, but one we could equally well have been attributed to Plato, or Zeno - let alone the “gloomy Scot”, David Hume, author of “that great book, The Treatise on Human Nature”. The danger with this kind of  praise for the philosophers is not so much that it is grating (ahem, “greating”), but that it is uncritical. You see, it is important to remember that Kant actually had many views and clearly some-of his theories were just plain daft. Famously he thought that all the planets in the solar system had life on them, with their intelligence related to their distance from the sun. 

Indeed, in the Critique of Pure Reason, the “famed” Critique of Pure Reason, he  occupies himself with the “inhabitants of the planets”, a happy speculation that is, of course, completely groundless. The point is, Kant’s writings should not be consumed uncritically – and while Egginton provides a rather fine overview of the philosopher’s oeuvre, it is flawed by the apparent assumption of the brilliance of all Kant’s words. And Kant is a big part of the book, as the subtitle plainly indicates. 

The same issue, with bells on, concerns Jorge Luis Borges. Why should this writer, excellent dramatist as he certainly was, be taken as a guide to quantum mechanics? It’s on the face of it implausible. Especially as no one actually understands quantum physics. That’s not just me sniping. Egginton himself acknowledges the words of the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who once wrote:  “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics”. To read Borges as a guide to QM is a bit like reading Winnie the Pooh as a guide to Taoist philosophy, as Bengamin Hoff did in The Tao of Pooh. Only Hoff’s book was a joke!

Mind you, I was recently a speaker on a panel discussing “the nature of the universe“ recently, alongside two quantum physicists, and they insisted that they did understand it. The problem was simply (they said) that average Joes lack the intuitive understanding of the beautiful and complex mathematics underlying the subject. You know, things like the extra dimensions quantum theory works daily with. How many dimensions are there according to quantum physics, you might ask? Well, ten, a mere ten we might say, dimensions are used to describe superstring theory, while eleven dimensions can describe supergravity and M-theory. But as Wikipedia helpfully explains, “the state-space of quantum mechanics is an infinite-dimensional function space”.

The theoretical physicist Roger Penrose has queried the logical coherence of such airy mathematical talk of multiple dimensions, yet as I say, many “experts” insist that it all makes perfect sense, albeit being hard to explain without complex mathematics. At least Egginton doesn’t go down that rabbit hole. There is next to no maths in this book, even though his third major character, Werner Heisenberg, made his contributions in just this “toe-curling“ area. As Egginton puts it: “The uncertainty principle, as it came to be known, showed with inescapable, mathematical precision that … full knowledge of the present moment wasn’t just hard to pin down; it was actually impossible.”

Which point explains why, to paraphrase Borges, the rules that govern the world are the man-made, artificial ones of chess, not the heavenly ones of the angels. So let’s give the last word to Egginton, who has produced an account that is always highly original, often insightful and only, in places, rather difficult and obscure. 

“There is rigor there, indeed. But to see that we are the chess masters who made it, we must let the angels go. And that, it seems, is the hardest task of all.”

Reviewed by Martin Cohen





The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality

By William Egginton 

Pantheon, New York, 2023

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