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Department: Parting Shot
Article originally appeared in
As cosmology reaches the edge of the universe and gets closer to the beginning of the Big Bang, scientists are drifting into metaphysical and philosophical musings about the cosmos. Their theories about multiverses and parallel universes cannot be empirically tested, so they are left only with speculations. These are intriguing products of human imagination working upon empirical facts and mathematical descriptions of reality. Some scientists don't want to call these speculations philosophy, but at the very least they are literally metaphysics—beyond physics.
A parallel drift into metaphysics is occurring in the study of the subatomic micro-world. The one place where particle physics and cosmology meet is in the conscious human mind, where "grand theories of everything" (GTEs) are conceived in the attempt to bring both worlds together.
In the materialist's worldview, the world "out there" eventually will be fully explained by science, with no need for philosophy or, God forbid, theology. Hence, many scientists are reluctant to consider that a philosophy of human mind or consciousness may have a role in any final theory.
The Quantum Engima
Two physicists, Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, are not so reluctant. In Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness (Oxford University Press), they boldly explore "the boundary where physics meets speculative philosophy," noting that the empirical results of quantum physics present an enigma:
This is a controversial book. But nothing we say about quantum mechanics is controversial. The experimental results we report and our explanation of them with quantum theory are completely undisputed. It is the mystery these results imply beyond physics that is hotly disputed. For many physicists, this mystery, the quantum enigma, is best not talked about. It displays physics' encounter with consciousness. It's the skeleton in our closet.
Every prediction quantum theory makes has been tested with consistent results. It is one of the most successful theories in science. But the empirically verified results of quantum experiments, considered all together, are baffling. The results of certain kinds of experiments seem to depend on the act of observation. A photon, for example, may be in either a wave or a particle state, but which it appears to be depends on a choice made by the observer. The troubling implication in these cases is that "a physical reality is caused by observation."
This enigma is not new. "The encounter of physics with consciousness has troubled physicists" for more than eight decades. Einstein called the troubling results of such experiments "spooky actions." He sought for a scientific GTE to explain it, but failed to find one.
A Participatory Universe
Kuttner and Rosenblum admit that thinking about the quantum enigma requires imagination and the use of metaphysics and philosophy. In their short and readable book, they explain quantum science so that non-scientists can understand the enigma—and ponder it.
Some scientists insist that we should only describe what we see and leave it at that, since no one can solve the enigma scientifically. Nonetheless, some physicists, the book notes, "argue that Nature is trying to tell us something, and we should listen." Some scientists, like John Wheeler, whom they quote, have reached tentative conclusions:
Useful as it is under everyday circumstances to say that the world exists "out there" independent of us, that view cannot longer be upheld. There is a strange sense in which this is a "participatory universe." (219)
While the authors present no final answer, they conclude, "Copernicus dethroned humanity from the cosmic center. Does quantum theory suggest that, in some mysterious sense, we are a cosmic center?" Perhaps we are living through a post-Copernican revolution in slow motion. Imagine that! •
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