Quantum Indeterminacy and Unresolved Science/Reality Questions Show the Greatness of Science As a Liberal Art

Thanks, folks! We’re enjoying three or four very interesting conversations here at the moment ( in my opinion). But you can’t see any of them, can you? It’s very sad.

Lamentably, the pundit was quite correct who complained that blogs are “inhospitable to genuine conversation.” Their very layout seems to undermine their most cherished aim. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

But we do seem to manage, nonetheless, to carry on, even if our exchanges are hidden away at the bottoms of very old posts here or here or over in one of the Pages on the right, in #4 in of my lit theory course…. Still, given that some of you are scientists, and some are literary or theoretical folk like me, I’m going to help both groups locate conversation threads they might enjoy, and give some links in case you need some background.

One comment thread (at #4) deals with the “pandora’s box” that is quantum mechanics, specifically as illustrated by Schrodinger’s famous cat, who is either shot by a gun, or not shot by a gun, or is both shot by a gun and not. Now, scientists get very grumpy when “New Agers” take “quantum entanglement” and run with it, but the stuff is very weird.

As a semiotic theorist, I’m fascinated, because quantum indeterminacy poses so exquisitely some of the problems semiotic theorists also encounter in thinking about the relationship between reality and our formalized descriptions of reality. These paradoxes and puzzling limitations advance our knowledge, even as they raise (precise) questions about how easy or even how possible it is to separate what we observe from the limitations built in to the very methods that enable us to produce the observations.

Now hang on, I’m not leaping from Heisenberg to “relativism.” This is the whole beautiful thing about the truly great poststructuralist thinkers. They are as precise as Bohrs and Heisenberg are, or Bohm or Penrose, and there are REAL problems they are working with, and in both fields (science and poststructuralism) the problems can be formalized precisely and explored and argued about as we look for better formalizations, while standing on the shoulders of giants.

Jacob Bronowski interpreted the QM indeterminacy (and related discoveries) in this form: that if we genuinely desire to advance in knowledge of what we already know and of what we do not yet know, then we must give up the distorting ideal of methodological certainty. (He explicitly associates the insistence that our methods lead to certainty with Fascism, just as poststructuralists see it as fueling every kind of fundamentalism.)

This is the prize we receive for abandoning an absolutist world, however: the vigorous and satisfying and never-ending practice of critical thought and a variety of paradigms, which confers upon us the freedom to take up positions about truth that are nonetheless qualified and open to future developments. (So reminiscent of Michael Polanyi.)

But an absolutist world is the same thing, formally speaking, as a world that claims there is only one authoritative method for arriving at truth, and hence only one truth. Yet this is the message, a profoundly uncritical and anti-liberal and obscurantist message, delivered every day by dogmatic science bloggers who need to study the beautiful nature of their science and accept its limits as well as its astonishing rigor. It is the uncritical and uninformed way they HOLD their method (their blind faith in its absolute powers) that makes them fundamentalists, just as biblical fundamentalists HOLD biblical texts (read in one monlithic way) as their only authoritative means to (once again) certainty.

We have to resist this temptation to absolutism! Here’s where we need Socrates and the art of thinking called dialectics. Truths have to be tried against other truths before we can even know any of them as the truths they are. We have to experience a wonderfully effective method, and then experience another, completely different, wonderfully effective method. (And then another…) This is what the GE part of the liberal arts and sciences is supposed to be all about.

And how can there be many wonderfuly effective (“liberating”) methods? Because “reality” has so many aspects and dimensions and complexities, and each of them deserves its own discipline. I put reality in quotes because science (being such a profound way of knowing) profoundly raises many questions about the realtionships between reality and science (or any sharply focused instrument for knowing).

To judge from millions of comments repeated over and over again by science bloggers every day, you would think there is only one truth, one method, and no problem about “reality” in science at all! So I take comfort from a 2006 essay co-authored by three physicists (associated with the Institute For Advanced Study at Princeton), who tell us, Do not believe any scientist who tries to tell you that the problem of reality in science is settled. (They give as examples three very different positions, each held by one of them, and they call these views fundamentalist, secularist, and mystical.) Or read Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose debating so thoughtfully. Hawking, a positivist, says “I don’t care about reality because I don’t know what it is.” He just wants maths that make accurate predictions. You begin to see how doing science on the one hand and faith positions about science on the other are different kinds of critters!

So I have a treat for you, if you are “just an innumerate humanist,” as I’ve been called! Go read Sean Carroll’s gorgeous post on quantum indeterminacy, using A Nice Little Puppy Sleeping in Box instead of that poor ole dead/alive cat — and there’s no violence in it, either. For the more “numerate” readers, Hi offers an excellent link to the “double slit experiment” (but sorry, it offers no cats or dogs or domestic pets of any kind).


Of course, I should also mention that my once-upon-a-time student Jennifer Ouelette has also written about this kitty in Black Boxes and Quantum Cats, her stunning collection of great columns and posts she’s written as a science educator. I’m blown away by her energy and acumen, but then, long ago she was a supercharged Falcon editer (and I was her college newspaper adviser), so I should have known she would go off to the Big Apple and never quit until she had made her own way there.

(But hey, now, in all the conversation at #4, with all that stuff about the cat and Copenhagen — yes, I am thrilled that some of you read the section, to see if I could explain Derrida! But I have just realized that the genuine explanation of Derrida and his “trace” is in Part # 3, and unfortunately, Part #4 simply alludes back to it… So would you mind reading Part # 3 instead…. I guess I AM an innumerate humanist… “I’m sorry, so sorry…..”)

Socrates was perfectly right. Once you allow yourself to take method questions (in all the arts and sciences) seriously and work through some of them, you end up gentler, nicer to be around, and even quite a bit wiser — wiser because you used to think that you knew more than you did — and now perhaps you know that you don’t!

I study this fascinating stuff all the time, in science and elsewhere, because I am a (semiotic or cultural or literary) theorist, and we are interested in formalisms of all kinds pertaining to language and cultural meanings. And these formalisms all come back to deflate our pretentions to facile knowing, even of ourselves. Most especially of ourselves. Here’s where theology and psychoanalytic theory hit home especially hard. Like the other disciplines, this effect is “liberating.” That’s what “the liberal arts and sciences” means.



3 thoughts on “Quantum Indeterminacy and Unresolved Science/Reality Questions Show the Greatness of Science As a Liberal Art

  1. Janet

    Well, here’s the opposite quandary. Lots and lots of you are reading this post and clicking on its links to other parts of this site, and even commenting there, in those other locations…. Yet is looks like no-one reads or cares, if you just look for comments here! The beauty of blog design!

  2. I always thought that the best authority on quantum physics and theology was Xavier Zubiri whose writings are still in translation. If you can catch any of it, its a worthwhile systematic approach to ‘change within continuity’. Peace

  3. Thank you so much. You are right; he looks very interesting. Is there a particular essay or work you were thinking of for his response to quantum indeterminacy?

    He’s dealing with many of the same issues and philosophers that I am working on in my own project. Interesting that he was taught by Heidegger and Husserl. I think Aristotle was much closer to what he himself is getting at than he thinks Aristotle was, btw.

    Thanks for commenting!

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