Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Quantum Idealists

One marvels at the following letter to The New York Review of Books, from one Clinton C. James of Sylvania, Georgia in response to a piece by the N.Y.U. Law School professor and philosopher Thomas Nagel. The letter from James and Nagel’s response appear under the title, “Quantum Idealism?” in the 1/19/17 issue of the journal.  James writes, “Thomas Nagel suggests, perhaps inadvertently, in his review of Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment (NYR, September 29, 2016) that modern physics, specifically quantum mechanics, can only be interpreted as a theory of materialistic Hobbesian naturalism. Certainly professor Nagel is aware that the ontological status of quantum mechanics, the supposed theory of physical reality, is far from settled among physicists.” You might want to have your dictionary at hand, but you don’t have to understand anything about physics or philosophy to realize the brilliance of the formulation. The “key words” here are “materialism” and “ontology.” Materialism of course refers to what one can see and feel, the meat and potatoes of life. When you think about Newton’s formula for gravity and the anecdote of the apple, you’re thinking about a scientific theory based on the observation of physical reality. But matters in the quantum world of tiny particles are not always so visible and also do not participate in such easy to parse conceptions. For instance the notion an electron can be at two locations simultaneously is counterintuitive. Here quantum matters verge on the ontological, to the extent that they question the nature of being. Is this what Mr. James is getting at? Maybe not.

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