If we can uncover the smallest quantum particles in nature, will we have uncovered the fundamental secrets of reality? A longstanding philosophical tradition in the sciences claims “yes.” Uncovering the mystery of the world, we’re told, lies in the ability to interrogate the smallest of the small.
But Is That True?
What special status does the tiny have over the large? A paper at IAI News by London philosopher Peter West argues that reality can’t in fact be elucidated simply by observing quantum mechanics. He talks at some length about the 17th-century text Micrographia by Robert Hooke, which features various images of insects and other organisms under the microscope. West notes that Hooke set the stage, in part, for the impending empiricism of the Enlightenment, writing,
According to Hooke, microscopes, like telescopes, put us on the cusp of doing what philosophers from Antiquity onwards had always tried to do, namely, understand the fundamental nature of reality.PETER WEST, REALITY IS NOT REVEALED BY QUANTUM MECHANICS » IAI TV
Hooke’s book brought about the formerly unconsidered notion of another world teeming everywhere around them. Not only were the heavens seemingly infinite, but the downward regions of the infinitesimal suddenly abounded with complexity and mystery. West believes the book sparked a “paradigm shift,” and furthermore, relates today’s interest in quantum mechanics to Hooke’s microscopic ventures. However, unlike the microscopic, the quantum realm continues to evade human observation. West continues,
The microscopic realm, once thought of as the bottom-most layer of reality, has been replaced by the quantum realm; and the quantum does not succumb to human observation. Indeed, the more of it we observe, the less we seem to understand it; for the quantum realm is, or seems to be, observer-dependent. And yet, the quest to identify a ‘base layer’ that the world around us is reducible to doesn’t seem to have been given up.
A Philosophical Commitment
West notes that many scientists and mathematicians, such as the late Stephen Hawking, remain committed to the idea that ultimate reality will eventually be explained via material causes and substances. However, the commitment is philosophical, not scientific, resting on prior assumptions and aims that color the scientific endeavor. West recommends giving up the hope of reducing all of reality to the physical, and instead to be open to many areas of inquiry, accepting that nature is “multifaceted and complex.” As mathematician David Berlinski writes in his new book, Science After Babel,
That quantum mechanics makes no sense is widely celebrated as one of its virtues. Not a day passes in which its weirdness is not extolled. As much might be said of the Eucharist, but with this considerable difference: scientific weirdness tends inexorably toward a kind of bleakness.DAVID BERLINSKI, SCIENCE AFTER BABEL | EVOLUTION NEWS
Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.