Quantum physics and philosophy 

Berkeley, a philosopher from the 18th century, was an idealist – the direct opposite of materialism. He believed that matter is really mind, that nothing exists unless it is being observed and that everything remains in existence because it is being observed by one Mind.

Scoff you might, as have many others; yet 200 years later in the 20th century, quantum physics told us that on the most basic level we know of, all physical things depend on a measurement by an observer.

To explain change, 2300 years ago Aristotle posited the idea of potentialities as a kind of halfway house between existence and non-existence.

Halfway between existence and non-existence? Yeah right, Aristotle . Except that quantum physics ultimately describes material things as being probability functions. 

Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, describes things this way in his book “Physics and Philosophy”:

The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Slater… was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.

A few caveats are in order here. Philosophy and science ask very different types of questions and it is a mistake to let one overly bias the other. Philosophical positions such as idealism and Aristotelian dualism are supposed to work regardless of the underlying empirical details. Not to mention that idealism and Aristotelian dualism are very different ways of thinking; they can’t both be true.

Nevertheless is is clear how quantum physics could bias people towards a non-materialist philosophy, in the same way that classical physics might bias people towards materialism. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how science could give a bigger free kick to non-materialist philosophy than quantum physics.

The main lesson to learn from quantum physics is this: science is not going to support anyone’s worldview in any straightforward sense. Nature is too strange for that.


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