‘The year of that Slovay Congress, was, it is well to recall, the year in which Heisenberg gave his derivation of the principle of indeterminacy concerning measurements in physics. One can therefore in a sense understand Einstein’s tactics in taking on the Copenhagen interpretation at its nerve center, which consisted in the insistence that measurements were inconceivable without someone doing them. Thus it would be argued that the act of measurement, which in one way or another implied pointer readings and therefore a reliance on light quanta, deprived the measurement of absolute precision. Such insistence when elevated into a first principle became equivalent to withdrawing into a citadel. Once confined to measurements within that citadel, one could declare that physical theory was limited to the measurable and therefore had no need of hidden variables. Withdrawal into that citadel also meant the the viewing of anything outside it as unreal. It was such a citadel that Einstein wanted to conquer from within, by trying to devise a thought experiment in which absolute precision was in principle possible. He was bound to fail for the very reason that no measurement is possible without observation. But it did not follow from this that knowledge of reality was equivalent to measuring it with absolute precision. Philosophically the citadel in question did not represent the full range of man’s knowing reality, and it certainly did not represent the full range of modern physics. Einstein’s own theory of relativity was a case in point, and all members of the Copenhagen school could have been forced to admit that it was a telling case.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 209)
‘Whatever the distance of human passions from atomic physics, the real question was whether one’s epistemological attitude was truly general, that is, consistent or not. The impression Bohr gave was that one was to have two kinds of epistemology, one for atomic phenomena, another for everything else, but it was still to be explained whether the understanding, or episteme, could be split in two. On this decisive point Bohr gave at best an impression which was vague and superficial. Staying with superficial impressions means staying on the surface, and this in turn implies the avoidance of deep questions. Typically enough, Bohr completed the final review of his epistemological conflict with Einstein with the remark that “through a singularly fruitful cooperation of a whole generation of physicists we are nearing the goal wheere logical order to a large extent allows us to avoid deep truth.” The most obvious of such deep truths should have been for Bohr the truth of the complementarity of matter and light, waves and particles, atomic stability and indeterminacy. The truth that they were complementary to one another was not a matter of observation, but an inference, and a genuinely metaphysical one, which had no justification in the Copenhagen theory. The truth in question was about the truth of a reality which had complementary aspects. These aspects could really complement one another only if they inhered in a deeper reality, about which Bohr could only be agnostic. A harmony of relations or aspects, complementing one another, such was Bohr’s epistemological message, a message void of reference to the ontological reality of anything harmonious. About the entity which embodied the harmony of relations he was not permitted by his own premises to make any claim and he carefully avoided doing so. In a truly pragmatist way, which he learned from Hoffding, a forerunner of William James, Bohr could speak of fruits, though not of their harmny (which is never a matter of direct observation) and certainly not of the tree which produced the fruits, to say nothing of the soil which supported and nourished the tree. For Bohr the deepest aspect of existence was pragmatic fruitfulness, the rather shallow perspective in which he saw physics itself: “Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the present position of physics is that almost all the ideas which have ever proved to be fruitful in the investigating of nature have found their right place in a common harmony without thereby having diminished their fruitfulness.”
As will be seen shortly, this was not even true of quantum mechanics, a fact which should surprise no one. The really creative elements of quantum mechanics are not the data observed by physicists bu the marvelous ideas formed in their heads. Of those heads few were as impressive as that of Bohr, who for many was a twentieth-century Moses with two flaming horns on his forehead. The horns were the horns of complementarity, but as interpreted by Bohr they could not secure reality to the atomic realm, to say nothing of Moses or Bohr himself. Bohr’s pairs of complementarity resembled pairs of horns from which one could not even infer unambiguously that they were rooted in the same head and thereby truly complementary or that the head itself was real, and even more fundamentally real than the horns themselves.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and he Ways to God’, p. 205-206)
If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.
This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.
Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:
‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)
This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:
‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)
I’ll be the first to say that a lot of physics and a lot of metaphysics goes right over my head. Whoosh. Modern analytic philosophy, which is what most folks mean when they say metaphysics, is about as comprehensible to me as advanced mathematics (I’m terrible at math). A lot of modern physics, at least the mathematical parts (which is a lot) is the same – whoosh.
However, I do try and keep up at least somewhat with the latest developments of the broader ideas and underpinnings of metaphysics and physics – especially physics, which is way more metaphysical than a lot of folks think it is. Philosophy of physics and the broad metaphysical ideas behind and under modern cosmology are just as important, and in my mind way more interesting, anyway.
I say all this to pick a fight with something Tim Maudlin says in his great book, ‘The Metaphysics within Physics,’ :
‘Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’ (p. 104)
Now, it should be fairly obvious the issues here: the definition of ontology. Ontology is not the study of what exists, ontology is the study of being, or existence (you can be real anal and dispute whether or not those two words mean the same thing. I’m not going to). Being as such, not this or that particular thing that has being – or existence as such, not this or that thing that happens to exist. Being qua being. This is a pretty significant thing to get wrong.
A more concrete example: metaphysics studies how it is that change is possible (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aristotle) and not this or that example of change (a chemical reaction, for example). What Maudlin does is to shift metaphysics from being the study of the absolute fundamentals of reality to a slightly more abstract form of empirical science, which analyzes various empirical theories. That isn’t metaphysics, that is just normal thinking.
In a nutshell, Maudlin’s scheme is that we derive metaphysics from physics, and further, ontology from physics. Our notions of existence comes from physics. Earlier in the same volume:
‘First: metaphysics, i.e. ontology, is the most generic account of what exists, and since our knowledge of what exists in the physical world rests on empirical evidence, metaphysics must be informed by empirical science.’ (p. 78)
I’m tempted to say that simply knowing what exists gives us no knowledge past bare sensory knowledge of particulars, which doesn’t really lead to knowledge of any kind, which is what Maudlin is setting out to do by analyzing various theories. But why restrict our knowledge of what exists to the physical, as Maudlin implicitly does? Twice above he says that whatever exists in the physical world is supported by empirical, or physical evidence. But that’s only trivially true – obviously, if something exists in the physical world, it will have physical evidence. But it doesn’t follow from that that the only notions of existence, or what exists comes from the physical world.
This seems to be a tangled way of thinking, which has its origin in Maudlin’s confusion of what metaphysics is. Now, as I said above, this isn’t my game. Analytic philosophy ain’t my thing, so it’s possible I’m quite wrong in my analysis. But what I see, in another nuthsell, is (a) a confusion of terms (ontology as the study of what exists), which leads to (b) the idea that our only knowledge of what exists is physical. To make ontology the study of what exists is to make metaphysics and ontology, as stated above, a slightly more abstract brand of empirical science.