Last night I was reading in the book “The part and the whole” by Werner Heisenberg, a quantum physicist of the first hour, who formulated the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle”.
In the book there is an essay (“Quantum Mechanics and Kantian Philosophy”) about how in around 1932 Heisenberg and his colleague, Carl Friedrich von Weizäcker, had a discussion with a young philosopher, Grete Hermann, comparing quantum mechanics to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, arguably one of the most influential thinkers ever.
(C.F. von Weizäcker was a true philosopher/physicist, who in later years softened his stance considerably. Not so Heisenberg.)
Why can’t we look deeper, to a cause behind the quantum world?
Quantum mechanics has a strong element of chance and randomness, where no direct causal connections can be perceived. That is in direct contrast to the world we know and live in, where cause and effect are ever present. Kant (in response to David Hume) said, that causality is a category of thought, that it is basically wired into us.
So Herman wondered why causality is treated differently in quantum mechanics than in Kantian thought?
Particular, her key inquiry was, why is it that if we cannot see a causal relationship NOW, why do you – such as Heisenberg and Bohr-- rule out that such a causal relationship could maybe be found in the future?
That was her key point, her key questions being: why don’t you look deeper? Can’t there be more?
In a way, she foreshadowed the discussion on hidden variables, meaning that there is possibly more to all of this but we cannot discern it. In the 1950 David Bohm introduced this concept into quantum physics, and was not received well the by the “establishment,” because by then, the view illustrated below by Heisenberg had become the de facto standard. However, today, this is ongoing topic of discussion.
So this dialogue by Heisenberg, von Weizäcker and Hermann goes straight to the heart of it, and it is helpful to see how the early defenders “of the faith” of the quantum viewed the world.
A super quick review of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy
[What follows is what I spoke into the voice recorder, and it is not meant to be an all complete or perfectly correct view of Kant’s philosophy. More like a flavor.]
Kantian thought is kind of like the philosophical basis behind science, behind let's call it classical physics, in that there is something that is “a priority” given. And causality is one of those things that is called a “category of thought:” as humans we simply see causal relationships, because that is just “how we are wired.”
Beyond that is something called the “thing-in-itself,” that we just cannot describe or get to, empirically. Kant stated that there are limits to human knowledge.
There is, however, something that we CAN grasp, Kant calls it “Gegenstand” or object. It’s not necessarily an object that we can touch, but maybe more like the concept of an object. In the dialogue, Hermann gives the example of a chair, where we can certainly see the front of the chair, but there is also the back of a chair, which we know implicitly that it’s there, because we know what this object is like.
Heisenberg: Kant is right only for the normal world, but fails at the quantum world
Heisenberg and von Weizäcker then talk to Hermann about how that's not true in quantum mechanics; how atoms are not objects in that sense, and how we can only have an observation of certain things that is a probability, and so on.
Their point was: what Kant is doing is a valid mechanism, but it is only a mechanism that is applicable to the objects that we live in, our normal world. Kant, back when he lived, could not have gone deeper and described the quantum world, like what they are looking at, because quite simply he did not know about it back then.
So at the quantum word, so they say, this kind of mechanism breaks down.
Heisenberg: Language limits us
And here is the thing: their key argument is that we need language to describe certain behaviors or processes. But our language itself is based on everyday things, it is based on things and objects, tangible stuff in the world, that we are in. So we simply do not have a language that can go to these “deeper levels,” whatever that might be, that we cannot describe.
And, so argue Heisenberg and von Weizäcker, the reason why we cannot look deeper is because this language problem.
Kant formed this thesis of a priori, categories of thought, a thing-in-itself based on the language and worldview of his time, within that historical context. Thereby it's just more applicable to classical physics, than to this quantum mechanical thing. So they say…
Language, language, language… as the problem?
The whole point about why they can’t pursue this in more depth is this argument about the limits of language.
This is a key threat that I see in the argument of these early quantum mechanics scientists, at least the most influential ones, such as Niels Bohr and Heisenberg.
Bohr also said that an observation can only be valid if we can convey it through >concise< language to another person.
I do understand why they said it: we have to be able to communicate the results and observations cleanly. Otherwise it is metaphysics, isn’t it? Thereby they formed a clean view of how the quantum world works, and we can use it pragmatically, but we can, so Bohr and Heisenberg said, never talk about why that is so.
Yet it is so clear to me that many others of the early quantum physicists -- Schrödinger, Bohm, Wheeler, Einstein, Oppenheimer, even later on Weizäcker himself– felt there was more to it when we are dealing with the quantum world: We are at tethering at the brink of Being.
Meta-Languages: There are other ways to transfer information
Thus, this notion of language is a key thread.
And I think it is wrong.
I think that there are other ways beyond language that we can convey information, and we do that all the time.
One thing that, in fact, these early quantum scientists did all the time is to use another kind of language, and that is mathematics.
Mathematics can express concepts that we have a hard time expressing in language, or could be really hard to express in language. So mathematics is being used by them to go to concepts that are deeper, beyond, and state these probabilities of quantum mechanics, the behavior of atoms and electrons, and so on. So they found a way to go beyond the regular language by including something, mathematics, that can express these concepts cleaner.
Yes, mathematics is a very clean system. But as I already stated, I suspect there is a potential fault line in that system: the imaginary number. This may a fault line that really goes beyond the physical, possibly to what Kant called the thing-in-itself. But that's another story, and I may be wrong.
The main point made here is that there are “languages” that go beyond what normal speech language does and can do.
I talked about this already in my imagined dialog with my “inner Robert Frost.” Frost was a great American poet, to me, the greatest. In that dialog he/I talk about how through his poetry Frost was able to convey an emotion to me. An emotion! And HIS emotion, through HIS words, became MY emotion.
So in this META context of language, which he skillfully used in his poems, he is able to convey these feelings to me.
And through these, call them, meta-languages we can go beyond what regular every day language, the language of objects, can convey. That is, to touch and be one with the transcendent.
There are several of these meta-languages. I also call them the “gates of truth.”
So like I said before: poetry and literature can go beyond what language normally does; and mathematics can go beyond; and Art can go beyond; music can go beyond; and just love, itself, pure unconditional love, can go beyond.
Also think about how a Zen teacher transfers knowledge through Koans -- paradoxical statements to be mediated upon. So Meditation can go beyond, clearly. One premise in Buddhism or Hinduism is that through mediation one can eventually reach enlightenment, nirvana, moksha or whatever you like to call it.
We also find a similar idea in modern psychology, in ACT psychology (I used it in the Steps of Essence), which applies a technique similar to meditation to still thoughts, to not be in thought but to step outside the system of thought, and thereby go beyond, to a point where a person once more can resolve mental blocks.
So there are all these meta-languages, beyond normal language – that is the literal meaning of “meta,” to be beyond. And these meta-languages are able to break through the barrier of objects and regular things, and convey something deeper, that lies beyond.
Yet, whatever it is, it is also something that is part of human experience.
So it does work! You, somebody, anybody, CAN transfer and receive information in other ways. It is just not as reliable as, say, the mathematics and language that Bohr liked us to use.
But, if it CAN work, even though not as reliably, does that now show there really is something deeper to be explored?
Should we really bracket out a whole range of human experience, only because it cannot be cleanly stated to the point of being reproducible?
To that I say, resoundingly, no!
Heisenberg and other approaches to Quantum Mechanics which allow us to look “deeper”
This whole discussion is interesting in another aspect. I'm going to switch it up a little bit now.
Heisenberg also wrote another essay, “Criticism and counter proposals to the Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum theory” (my translation). In it, he examines some other types of quantum mechanics which try to go beyond the purely measureable, and attempt to understand exactly WHAT we are dealing with. These approaches are “ontological,” that is trying to understand the basis of being. They include the physics of David Bohm’s implicate order (which includes hidden variables, see above), Everett/DeWitt’s many-worlds-theory, and so on.
And Heisenberg ripped them. He ripped them, even though these are just different descriptions of quantum mechanics, all are equally valid as far as stating the mechanics.
They “just” rearrange it, coming from it from a different angle.
And they still use language. The same language as he did: text and mathematics. And using that language these other interpretations are able to transfer their findings to other people, just as cleanly as Heisenberg and Bohm did.
So by his own argument from 1932, these descriptions should have validity. But in his mind there were not. His distain is almost palatable. Of course, I understand, because all these theories challenge in a way his own findings, his own system of thought.
But it really throws light on a deeper issue that is at play.
Not just language, but metaphysics is the deeper issue
I think it goes deeper than language. And here is the real fear: that they are bringing a deeper metaphysical aspect into quantum mechanics. And that is not allowed. We're back to the same fundamental problem of why Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg tried to keep physics clean, from what they thought was metaphysics.
And “hidden variables,” that which Grete Hermann touched upon implicitly already in 1932 is something that touches on metaphysics. For, how else could we ever explain them?
I think, the language aspect is just sugar coating on top of that. But metaphysics is the real concern.
Yet, when I talked about the imaginary number, I have some doubts, in that this may be something that can be tied to metaphysics, too. At least in my mind. And that has to be proven.
I will stop here, and just leave it at that for now, picking up another time.
Namaste — I bow to you and the Divine in you.
Copyright © Hanns-Oskar Porr