01 December 2015

Why didn't philosophers predict the quantum universe?

Anyone who's read my blog(s) over the years knows that I'm very skeptical about 'metaphysics' as an intellectual and academic discipline — particularly the notion that a 'study of metaphysics' can reveal any stable truths about reality. There are many reasons why, but I'll recap the most important ones:
  • 'Metaphysics' as a concept has never been consistently and clearly defined
  • The notion of what constitutes a metaphysical problem has never been consistently and clearly defined; indeed many past 'metaphysical' conundrums have been subsequently subsumed under scientific inquiry
  • A clear and consistent methodology of solving metaphysical problems has never been established. Instead, to quote Lakoff,
    • "For the most part, philosophers engaged in making metaphysical claims are choosing from the cognitive unconscious a set of existing metaphors that have a consistent ontology. That is, using unconscious everyday metaphors, philosophers seek to make a noncontradictory choice of conceptual entities defined by those metaphors; they then take those entities to be real and systematically draw out the implications of that choice in an attempt to account for our experience using that metaphysics. Metaphysics in philosophy is, of course, supposed to characterize what is real-literally real. The irony is that such a conception of the real depends upon unconscious metaphors."
The problem is simple, but provocative: we cannot know our own minds through introspection alone. Our processes of reasoning are dependent on a litany of subconscious processes to which, by definition, we have no access; the mind must be studied empirically. So if we cannot know through introspection alone the processes that shape our reasoning, how could we possibly reason our way to stable ontological truths?

Philosophy and quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics is without question the most successful field of science in history. Its predictions are astoundingly accurate; Richard Feynman once described it as akin to predicting the width of the United States with a margin of error the width of a human hair. But quantum mechanics does not neatly follow classical conceptions of being, causality, time, and space that Newtonian physics does. A philosopher of antiquity likely could not have discovered the exact mathematical formula for the effect of gravity (the force decreases with the square of the distance), but such a philosopher could have said that no matter the exact parameters, you could not have an object in more than one place at once. A change in one object could not instantaneously affect another at an arbitrary distance. Objects would have clearly defined volumes and exist at specific points in space. We could know their location and velocity with equal precision, and they would certainly never just instantaneously materialize into existence.
All of these things happen in quantum mechanics. Particles follow all possible paths between points simultaneously [1]. Entanglement allows particles separated by an arbitrary distance to instantaneously affect each other [2]. Subatomic particles do not have a definite, location, speed, or volume [3]. Quantum systems are described by a wave function, and we cannot know the location and velocity of a particle with equal precision [4]. And virtual particles instantaneously materialize into existence [5], and even form a crucial aspect of the theoretical evaporation of black holes through Hawking radiation [6].

If metaphysics were a legitimate field of inquiry, then we should be able to assume that even if the equations were the domain of scientists, metaphysicians could clearly define the parameters under which a proper quantum theory must be logically subsumed. But philosophers of antiquity could never have predicted the emergence of quantum theory, because metaphysical philosophy is based upon purely intuitive assumptions about reality — it has to be, because it is derived purely from rational introspection. It can't be understated the degree to which the inconvenient truth that we cannot know our own minds undermines such assumptions. Our rational intuition gives us much useful information about the world, certainly; but it stops well short of allowing us to derive immutable truths about reality — it must, because even our own rational introspection is shaped by subconscious processes which we can only understand through empirical study.

Quantum mechanics, meanwhile has proved an astounding empirical success despite its bizarre, frequently counter-intuitive concepts. Indeed throughout its history, esteemed physicists have scoffed at the implications of quantum mechanics; Einstein himself famously described entanglement as "spooky action at a distance" and scoffed at now universally-accepted quantum indeterminacy [6], saying "God does not play dice". Metaphysicians (insofar as that's a thing) did not predict quantum theory because the 'study' of 'metaphysics' is derived purely from rational intuition, while quantum mechanics has shown us that reality is often highly counter-intuitive. In philosophy of antiquity, local empirical observations — "something cannot come from nothing", or "everything must have an explanation for its existence" — were subsequently cantilevered into universal principles. Quantum mechanics shows us why such an exercise is short-sighted: what we take to be intuitively true is not necessarily a complete description of reality. We might not be able to imagine a particle in all possible places, or intuitively comprehend an entangled system, or visualize how virtual particles can emerge into existence in a manner that can only be understood as probabilistic rather than causal. But these are stable truths nonetheless, and their success shows why 'metaphysics' today remains little more than a relic of antiquity championed almost exclusively by religious philosophers who mistakenly believe it can guide them toward immutable truths about the divine.

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