Physics and philosophy mesh in professor’s book

Peter Kauffner

Although philosophy Professor Geoffrey Hellman has been working to clarify the concepts that underlie modern physics and mathematics, he knows that gaining any public recognition will be an uphill struggle.
“People may know about Aristotle and Plato, but they don’t think much of the work that has been done (in philosophy) since then,” Hellman said.
Hellman is currently editing a book of academic papers on the philosophy of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that deals with subatomic particles and phenomena. The book, to be entitled, “Quantum Measurement: Beyond Paradox,” will be published next year by the University of Minnesota Press.
While Hellman’s contributions are highly regarded by scientists, quantum physicists have not always taken kindly to the idea of philosophers intruding on their turf.
“The idea that quantum mechanics shows that Eastern philosophies had it right all along — that’s nonsense,” said physics and astronomy professor Serge Rudaz. “Books like ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’ or ‘The Tao of Physics’– I would seriously discourage people from reading those things, because they get both the Eastern philosophy and the physics skewed.”
Several hundred years ago, science and the philosophy of science were a single field called natural philosophy. Hellman hopes that his work will help reunify the two specialties.
“In the modern age of proliferating specialization, fruitful communication across disciplines has become the exception rather than the rule,” wrote Hellman in a preface to his upcoming book.
One aspect of quantum mechanics that makes the theory counterintuitive is its claim that all matter has the attributes of both particles and waves. Particles and waves are viewed as distinct phenomena by other branches of physics. But in quantum mechanics, objects are said to “travel as waves and arrive as particles.”
In the orthodox view, known as the Copenhagen interpretation, a particle, such as an electron, whose position is not yet known, behaves as a wave. Such an electron does not have a definite position, but rather a “smeared in space” quality that is calculated by a probability equation called the Schroedinger wave function.
But an electron always has a definite position whenever a measurement is taken. The explanation of this paradox offered by the Copenhagen school is that an electron’s wave function instantaneously “collapses” at the moment a measurement is taken.
The word “measurement” suggests an event that occurs in the mind of an observer. Because it holds that an event may not occur until an observer notices it, the Copenhagen interpretation allows an internal mental process to affect external physical reality.
As a “confirmed physicalist,” Hellman believes that any satisfactory explanation of quantum mechanics will have to treat the mind as a physical object, subject to the same scientific laws as any other physical object.
“Even if you appeal to the mind in this context, you still have to account for how computers are able to print out (the results of quantum mechanics experiments). Nobody really takes seriously the idea that computers don’t print out and that you have to think of them as part of some complex superposed quantum state,” Hellman said.
Rudaz agreed. “I think (the Copenhagen interpretation) is a colossal misunderstanding,” he said.
“When (the founders of quantum mechanics) started trying to pursue the philosophy, perhaps they were not as clear-minded as they should have been,” Rudaz said. “I think that is why there is some cleaning up that has to be done.”
A recently developed theory called the modal interpretation is the solution Hellman finds most satisfying.
“The modal interpretation is a good interpretation in the sense that it is objective,” Hellman said. “It doesn’t contain words like ‘observer,’ ‘apparatus’ and ‘measurement.’ Those are all bad words. They imply that the mind has a position outside the physical realm,” Hellman said.
This interpretation introduces additional quantities not included in the standard equations of quantum mechanics.
“You resolve the paradox by avoiding contradiction, by saying there is some new information that is compatible with the quantum information. So, it’s a kind of hidden variable theory,” Hellman said.
A hidden variable is a quantity introduced into an equation merely for clarity of interpretation; its existence is not required to explain any experimental result. The hidden variable view of quantum mechanics was championed by Albert Einstein in the 1930s, but has since fallen into disrepute.