Quantum mechanics and scientific realism

atom711by Quentin Ruyant

One of the main tasks of philosophy is to clarify conceptual problems and sketch the landscape of possible solutions to these problems. Of course, individual philosophers often tend to defend specific positions, but what emerges at the level of the community is, generally, a landscape of possibilities.

Take, for example, the question of scientific realism: what is the status of scientific theories? Should they be interpreted as literal descriptions of reality? Or are they rather predictive instruments, tools for interacting with reality? Or perhaps they are mere social constructions? The standard way of framing this problem that emerged from philosophical discussions over the years is to decompose it into three distinct questions:

  • Metaphysical question: does nature, the object of scientific inquiry, exist independently of our conception and observations of it? Idealists and radical constructivists would deny that it does.
  • Semantic question: what makes theories true? Are they literal descriptions of nature? Is there a direct correspondence between language (including formal languages or mathematical models) and the fundamental constitution of nature, or does the meaning of our theoretical statements reduce to their conditions of verification? Instrumentalists would typically opt for the latter view.
  • Epistemic question: are we in a position to know that our theories are at least approximatively true? Empiricists would say that, inasmuch as our theories pretend to say more than what is verifiable at the level of observable phenomena, we are not in a position to know that they are any more true than (perhaps unconceived) alternative theories with as much empirical confirmation.

Scientific realism is thus the position that reality exists independently of the mind, that our theories should be interpreted as literal (if approximate) descriptions of reality, and that we are in a position to know that they are (at least approximately) true.

The conceptual landscape we are considering is also constituted of arguments pro- and con- each positions. Nowadays, the semantic and metaphysical propositions of scientific realism are often accepted by philosophers (at least in the analytic tradition). Only the epistemic aspect is still under discussion.

One of the main arguments for scientific realism, once formulated by Putnam, is that realism is the only position that does not make a miracle of the predictive success of science. The point being that anti-realists have no convincing explanation for the impressive success of science (notably for making novel, unexpected predictions), while realists have a simple one: our theories work because they correctly describe reality.

Conversely, one of the main arguments against scientific realism is the so-called pessimistic meta-induction: past, abandoned theories were false after all (there are no gravitational forces as Newton had thought, only deformations of space-time according to relativity), so it is reasonable to expect that contemporary theories will also eventually be replaced by different ones. It is therefore unreasonable to believe in their truth.

Some have sought a compromise between realism [1] and anti-realism, meting the challenge of the pessimist induction by restricting realism to the structural content of theories (the lawful relations between entities, rather than the entities themselves), which, they say, is retained in theory change. That position is accordingly known as structural realism [2]. Others, for the same reasons, want to restrict realism to the concrete entities with which we causally interact. This is called entity realism [3].

Instrumentalism and quantum mechanics

As noted above, most arguments in this debate are epistemic in nature: they concern scientific knowledge in general. They don’t get into too much detail about the actual content of scientific theories, except sometimes for the purpose of illustration. The argument I wish to defend here is that, on the contrary, the specific content of scientific theories should not be overlooked in these discussions, and that one theory in particular poses a serious threat to scientific realism, namely quantum mechanics. This theory, I will argue, has no straightforward, “literal” interpretation.

If this is correct, then scientific realism loses its grip: why argue that scientific theories should be interpreted literally, if no such literal interpretation exists for our best physical theories (which purportedly address the most fundamental levels of reality)? Shouldn’t we go back to a more modest conception of the meaning of our theories and accept a more humble view of the status of our representations? Perhaps we could find a way to still accommodate some of the desirata of realism while giving up on a strict correspondence between models and reality after all.

First, let me say a word on the long-standing relationship between quantum mechanics and instrumentalism. Quantum mechanics was developed at a time when different forms of instrumentalism (a denial of the semantic proposition above, for example through a verificationist theory of meaning) were prevalent. It was also a time when philosophers and scientists entertained strong intellectual relations. Famous scientists and philosophers gathered in the Vienna Circle in the 1920’s. The circle gave birth to logical empiricism [4], a philosophical movement which durably influenced the philosophy of science. Instrumentalism faded out in the course of 20th century, after the demise of logical empiricism. Instrumentalist positions were attacked by strong arguments, both internal and external to the movement, but principally in the philosophy of language [5]. However, quantum mechanics remained, and, so to speak, became orphan of a philosophical interpretation, as illustrated by the notorious “shut up and calculate” school of thought among some practicing scientists, which began after WWII.

Unfortunately for the realist, the weirdness of quantum mechanics is here to stay. Not that the theory won’t be superseded by a better theory. It certainly will, as standard quantum field theory, which is the fusion between quantum mechanics and relativity, does not account for gravitation. However, there are strong indicators that its successor will share most of its puzzling aspects. Some of them are addressed by Bell’s theorem [6], which is largely independent of the theory itself, but rests on a few, uncontroversial empirical principles. The weird consequences of the theorem, that no local-realist theory can account for observed phenomena, have been well confirmed by experiments, such as that of Aspect in 1982 [7]. Any future theory will have to accommodate this result.

Personally, I tend to think that the theory could not have been developed without the strong instrumentalist stance of its founders, and that the empirical success of the theory calls for a compromise between the now prevalent realism of philosophers and the almost built-in instrumentalism of the theory. There are attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics with realism, but I think they face serious challenges and lead to unacceptable conclusions. Perhaps another path is preferable.

The purpose of this essay, however, is not to find this alternative path, a far too ambitious goal. More modestly, I will simply lay out the difficulties in formulating realist interpretations of quantum mechanics.

The measurement problem

There are two main difficulties facing realist interpretations of quantum mechanics: first, the measurement problem, then the problem of reference.

The measurement problem is one area where philosophers have done their job properly in clarifying the issue. In standard quantum mechanics (I will not address quantum field theory, but the problem is essentially the same) systems are described by wave-functions. Different properties can be measured on a system: its position, its momentum, its spin. A wave-function is a mathematical structure which, loosely speaking, describes the correlations between all possible measurement outcomes for these properties, including, in the case of composite systems, the possible outcomes for all combinations of measurements on distinct parts of the system, however far apart. Note that the wave-function encodes all complex measurement possibilities but not all measurements are compatible and can be performed simultaneously (think, by analogy, of a 3D object which encodes all possible 2D perspectives on that object, but only one perspective can be had at a time). Scientists call these complex possible ways of measuring a system “observables.”

The wave-function evolves according to a linear equation, the Schrödinger equation. The coefficients associated with possible outcomes for an observable are complex numbers (a weight and a phase), which entails that (again, loosely speaking) possible outcomes may interfere with one another, at least when they are not measured (imagine that from a given 2D perspective, parts of the object overlap and interfere in a destructive or constructive way).

In addition to this mathematical model, the Born rule tells us how to infer specific outcome probabilities from the model. This amounts to projecting the wave-function onto only one of the possible outcomes to get a probability, calculated from the corresponding coefficient.

The problem is this: if realism is true of standard quantum mechanics, then reality, as described by the theory, is the wave-function, which encodes all possible outcomes for all possible measurements on a system, but empirical reality, from which we test the theory, is constituted of determinate measurement outcomes for specific observables only. There is thus a gap between the model and empirical reality. The gap is filled by the Born rule, but the Born rule is not part of the physical model. It is not an object, nor a process occurring in space-time: it is only a mathematical rule. It is also relative to a way of measuring the system. How can we make sense of this?

One could think that the problem is easily solved: just interpret the wave-function as an epistemic object, describing our ignorance of a real, underlying state. That’s how probabilities were usually interpreted in classical physics after all: as reflecting our ignorance. Perhaps the wave-function can be seen as a superposition of possible states, but only one of them actually exists. However, decomposition into possible states depends on the observable. How could the system know in advance how it will be observed? Remember, also, that “possible states” of an observable which are not measured can interfere with each other, they all potentially contribute to the final outcome for the observable which is eventually measured, at least statistically. How can they do that if they did not all exist? But if they all exist, why do we ever observe determinate outcomes, and not superpositions thereof? What happens during a measurement?

As I said, philosophers did a great job of clarifying the problem; here is one of its formulations (that I take from Maudlin [8]) in terms of a trilemma: three propositions which cannot all be accepted together:

  1. The wave-function is a complete description of the state of a system
  2. The wave function evolves according to a linear dynamic (the Schrödinger equation)
  3. All measurements have determinate outcomes

Following (1), a system can be viewed, for any observable, as a “superposition of states.” Following (2), a superposition of states will necessarily evolve into another superposition of states, there is no physical “projection.” Let us accept (1) and (2) and describe the state of a measuring apparatus coupled with a system as a composite wave-function. The measuring apparatus is also a physical system after all. At the end of an experiment, the system+apparatus will be in a superposition of states, contradicting (3): the experiment does not have a determinate outcome.

The logical conclusion of the argument is that we have to abandon one of the three propositions. This is the measurement problem.

The prospects of realist solutions

One benefit of this formulation is that it allows for a classification of possible solutions to the problem. I won’t enter into too much technical detail here, but no solution is entirely satisfying.

Rejecting (1) or (2) involves completing the theory with additional structure.

Bohmian mechanics [9] is the most conservative move. It rejects (1) by postulating punctual (and causally idle) particles in addition to the wave-function, just as in classical physics. It restores determinism but is obliged to postulate instantaneous interactions at a distance, and is perhaps the less well apt to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics (relativity has a notoriously complicated relationship with non-locality and simultaneity).

Another possibility in this class of solutions is implemented by modal interpretations [9], initially proposed by van Fraassen, which complete the theory with a dynamical, privileged observable for which there is a determinate state at any time (and which should eventually coincide with the observable that is measured). Bohmian mechanics can actually be read as a modal interpretation where the privileged observable is static and is always the position. Modal interpretations also require a notion of absolute simultaneity, because the state of a non-local system is, by construction, determinate at a particular instant. For this reason, they are hard to reconcile with relativity theory.

Some theories reject (2) by postulating random physical projection processes, also called collapses. An early possibility, envisaged by Wigner and von Newman, was a collapse induced by conscious observers [9], but this solution seems too anthropocentric and dualistic to be acceptable and it has never been precisely articulated anyway. More concrete formulations are GRW and CSL theories [9], which postulate spontaneous collapses (respectively, discrete and continuous). These theories make distinct predictions from standard QM, but they come with parameters (the rate and strength of collapses) which are fine-tuned to stay compatible with current empirical confirmations of the theory. This is a bit ad-hoc, obviously.

All these theories postulate additional mathematical structure for a non-empirical purpose: to save our realist presumptions. Arguably, this is a case of “domestication of science by metaphysics” [10] that we would have liked to avoid. A more concrete price to pay lies in the difficulties in reconciling these additional structures with relativity theory and in formulating consistent quantum field versions of these theories. Needless to say these theories are rarely considered by physicists. In any case, as far as they postulate additional structure, they cannot be considered straightforward, literal readings of quantum mechanics: they are distinct theories.

Rejecting (3) seems prima facie absurd: how could empirical outcomes, the ones which serve as very tests for the theory, not be determinate?

A solution, proposed by Everett, is to view them as relative to an observer [9]. The idea is that the wave-function of the universe evolves into relatively independent branches (accounted for by the theory of decoherence [11]), and that experimenters are only ever situated in one of the branches, from which empirical outcomes seem determinate. Each measurement outcome is instantiated in a separate branch. Following this proposal come the many-mind and many-world interpretations [9].

The move is tentative: we could have a realist theory without the cost of additional structure, only if we abandoned certain common-sense intuitions and accept that trillions of alternative, unaccessible worlds are instantiated each millisecond. Alternatively, we could view the universe as the interrelated set of all physically possible worlds and their complete evolutions, and each of our instant selves located somewhere in this huge block-universe. But the devil is in the details. The many-mind interpretation comes with a very strange ontology (infinitely many minds inhabiting every one of us at any instant, following diverging branches) plus a problematic commitment to dualism and epiphenomenalism. The many-world interpretation does not seem to make sense of probabilities: why talk of probabilities if all outcomes are equally real? We cannot invoke ignorance probabilities here: there is nothing relevant that we ignore. We know that every outcome will occur. Moreover, why the Born rule? Shouldn’t every outcome have an equal probability?

There are attempts to solve the issue by grounding probabilities on rationality constraints on epistemic agents (the proposal was made by physicist Deutsch and improved by philosopher Wallace [12]). Probabilities would be subjective and correspond to bets on future outcomes. The Born rule can be retrieved as the only rule which satisfies certain symmetry constraints on the assignation of probabilities to quantum states. However, it is not clear that these solutions succeed. Bets are based on past empirical results, but without a more robust conception of probabilities (something that could be linked to a statistical distribution in the multiverse) there is no reason to think that past empirical results are representative of the whole universe: if this theory is true, it seems that we are not rationally entitled to believe that quantum theory is true! [13] In any case, what are we really willing to bet for if all our future selves equally exist? Why should we care? Rationality constraints supposedly have a normative aspect (they are not psychological laws: they tell us what we should do), but here, what is the point, exactly?

The many-worlds interpretation also requires decoherence, but perhaps the theory of decoherence also depends on a more robust interpretation of probabilities [14]. It also presupposes a distinction between systems and their environment, but does the universe as a whole have an environment?

The problem of reference

Enough about the measurement problem. There is another challenge which realist theories face: the problem of reference.

Following the semantic proposition of scientific realism, there should be a correspondence between mathematical models and real entities. However, the wave function is not the kind of structure that can easily be mapped to real entities, as commonly understood. The problem, then, is with connecting this picture to our everyday experience.

Take the electromagnetic field of classical physics: it assigns vectors to every position in space-time. The object is not too difficult to represent. Just imagine that a vector is some kind of property of the field at a specific location. But what kind of object is a wave-function? The wave-function, interpreted as a field, does not assign specific properties to space-time points: it lives in an abstract mathematical space of almost infinite dimensions (called the configuration space). Traditionally, these mathematical dimensions are construed as the degrees of freedom of different particles. Fine, but that supposes that particles exist in addition to the wave-function: what if, following many-worlds or GRW or CSL theories, we wish to view the wave-function as an autonomous object, as “all there is”? It is not easy, from this abstract representation of an object with infinitely many degrees of freedom to recover the “manifest image of the world”: the familiar, 3+1 dimensional space-time, filled with ordinary objects, in which we perform the empirical tests of our theories. Some authors are ready to bite the bullet (for example Albert) and hope that our familiar space-time is somehow emergent on the configuration space, but many think that there is a problem, and that a physical theory should be able to tell us what exists in space-time [15].

A possible solution is to think of the wave-function as a “nomic” entity, akin to laws of nature, or dispositions, rather than a concrete object, and to supplement the theory with an additional structure which describes the bearers of these dispositions, or the followers of these laws, in ordinary space-time. Bohmian mechanics already has the particles for that purpose. Proposals for GRW include the peculiar space-time points where the collapses occur, aka “flashes,” or matter density fields [16]. Note that this additional structure is idle and serves no empirical purpose: aren’t we, again, trying to force scientific theories into the mold of our metaphysical prejudices?

Furthermore, thinking of wave-functions as laws hardly makes sense: laws of nature do not vary in space and time. But thinking of wave-functions as dispositions is difficult too, because the wave-function is a non-local object and these dispositions cannot be assigned to local bearers directly (as Esfeld and Egg observe in a forthcoming paper [17]). They should be assigned to “configurations of stuff” instead. In the end, we could be left with a huge abstract structure which would represent the disposition of the universe to evolve. Not very enthusing.

In sum, in any of these theories the wave-function cannot be dispensed with because it does all the predictive job, so to speak; but its ontological status and the way it is connected to ordinary objects of our experience remains somewhat obscure.

Other interpretations

The framing of the discussion so far has been realist. The problem of reference directly stems from a realist commitment, that the structure of the theory should correspond to real entities, and implicit in the formulation of the measurement problem is that the wave-function describes a state (if not a complete state) which evolves with time.

Let us now say a word on a few anti-realist interpretations. Contemporary physicists do not agree on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. Some of them are realists and explicitly defend the many-world interpretation (for example Carroll [18]). Perhaps some have a non-explicit collapse interpretation in mind, and others don’t have an interpretation at all (the above mentioned “shut-up and calculate” school), or stick to the vague Copenhagen interpretation [9] (roughly, realism with regard to classical objects and instrumentalism with regard to quantum states), or the more elaborated consistent histories approach [9]. In any case, having a clearly articulated ontological interpretation is not necessary for all scientists. It seems that instrumentalism is perfectly fine, for all practical purposes. The question of realism is more a philosophical issue, although there has been a number of influential scientists, from Newton to Einstein, who held strong metaphysical views underlying their theoretical reflections. This is probably the case for many contemporary scientists too, but it’s a subject for another time.

Of course, an immediate benefit of instrumentalism is that it trivially eschew the problems above. All that is required is that the theory works. However, there are more subtle ways of throwing light on the mysteries of quantum mechanics from an instrumental perspective.

Viewing quantum mechanics as a theory of information, or as a generalized probability theory [9] (which roughly amounts to revising classical logic!), has gained in popularity in recent decades, notably in the field of quantum computing. The most sophisticated proposals include quantum bayesianism, or Q-Bism [9]. This is clearly an anti-realist move (Bayesianism is a subjective theory of probabilities). Following these views, the wave-function is epistemic: it describes our knowledge of reality. All that these theories say is that our inferences on the physical must follow counterintuitive logical rules, the rules of quantum logic.

Another possibility is to adapt Everett’s relative state formulation with an anti-realist twist (and without the many worlds). This is the relational interpretation [9], proposed by physicist Rovelli, which holds that wave-functions do not describe objective states, but relations between physical observers (any physical system) and observed systems. There is no objective “view from nowhere.” Other similar attempts relativize the wave function to frames of reference. There are also perspectival modal interpretations in this vein, which attempt to resolve the problem of compatibility between relativity theory and standard modal interpretations. These kinds of view are indeed relativistic in spirit: one could say that they push relativity theory one step further, through a relativization of all physical states (not only of space-time coordinates) to physical observers.

Finally the transactional interpretation [9] proposed by Cramer postulates that measurements are transactions between emitters and receivers. A transaction involves the combination of a retarded wave (going forward in time) and an advanced wave (a wave going back in time, traditionally discarded as “unphysical” by physicists). The interpretation proposes a narrative in pseudo-time, where retarded waves are offered by emitters to absorbers, which respond with advanced waves. An absorber is selected and a transaction occurs. The interpretation retrieves the Born rule in a nice, elegant way from the formalism. I did not classify it as a realist interpretation because transactions are not really physical processes, they do not occur in space-time, and they are sometimes said to be some sort of perceptive relations (for example by Kastner [19]). Perhaps this interpretation, with its emphasis on relational aspects (the transactions), is not too far from relational interpretations.

I am somewhat sympathetic to these proposals, in particular when they retain a realist component and do not force us to go back to hard-core idealism. But they too face challenges and work remains to be done to obtain fully consistent and metaphysically explicit theories. They also probably need to confront more general arguments that are part of the epistemological debate on scientific realism.

Conclusion

So what shall we conclude? It seems to me that debates on scientific realism in the epistemology of science should pay attention to the content of scientific theories. In the case of quantum mechanics, the problem is that there is no uncontentious literal interpretation of the theory. The closest is actually instrumentalist in flavor: it tells us to apply a mathematical rule to calculate outcome probabilities from a model, which is not very realist-like. Arguably, all other interpretations (including the many-world interpretation, pace many of its defenders) are conjectures layered on top of the theory. Furthermore, all encounter difficulties: either we complete the theory with an ad-hoc structure which plays no predictive role and threatens the compatibility with relativity theory, or we face conceptual problems in the interpretation of probabilities (or we are forced into the adoption of a dubious many-mind ontology). And in any case, the ontological status of the wave-function remains quite a bit obscure. No solution to date is entirely satisfying.

Note that concerning the epistemological debate we started with, suffice to say that there is more than one possible metaphysical interpretation or theory, all compatible with the same empirical data, and none of them being more natural or straightforward [20]. This amounts to undermining scientific realism about quantum mechanics: what interpretation or theory should we be realist about? Perhaps future developments will convince everyone that one realist interpretation or the other is the right one, but I don’t find that prospects are very good at the moment.

What about anti-realist interpretations then? If there is no straightforward sense in which the bare content of quantum mechanics can be said to “correspond to” reality, shouldn’t we amend the correspondence theory of truth in consequence, and adopt a more pragmatic stance toward scientific theories? I am personally inclined to think so, but admittedly, matters are not simple. At least some of the desirata of scientific realism are quite sensible. The challenge is to formulate a position that does not fall prey of standard objections against instrumentalism (in particular the “no miracle argument,” but the semantic arguments as well), and that recovers the “manifest image of the world,” the common-sense intuition that there are objective states at a macroscopic scale in a low dimensional space-time. All this, if possible, without the vagueness of the Copenhagen interpretation. With these difficulties standing before us, it is no wonder that many authors prefer to accommodate one or the other realist interpretation.

Let us remain optimistic though: quantum mechanics is weird, and we probably shouldn’t get away with its weirdness, which means that there is a lot of really exciting philosophical work to do!

_____

Quentin Ruyant is a PhD student in the philosophy of physics in Rennes, France. His thesis is on the potential implications of structural realism on the interpretation of quantum mechanics. He blogs at Philosophie des Sciences.

[1] Scientific Realism, SEP.

[2] Structural Realism, SEP.

[3] Entity realism, Wiki entry. See also Massimo’s recent post: On the Reality of Atoms and Subatomic Particles.

[4] On the Vienna circle and on logical empiricism.

[5] Popper criticized verificationism as early as 1934 (see: The Logic of Scientific Discovery). Quine’s “Two dogmas of empiricism” (1951) and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  are among the most cited criticisms of logical empiricists’ positions. Kripke (in Naming and Necessity, 1980) and Putnam (“The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” 1975) are often credited for their arguments against descriptivism, a semantic theory underlying logical empiricist’s positions.

[6] Bell’s Theorem, SEP.

[7] Aspect, A., Dalibard, J., and Roger, G. (1982), “Experimental test of Bell’s Inequalities using time-varying analyzers,” Physical Review Letters, 49:1804–1807.

[8] Maudlin, D., (1995) “Three Measurement Problems.”

[9] Here are some resources for the many interpretations of quantum mechanics: Bohmian mechanics; modal interpretations; Wigner-von Newman interpretation; collapse theories (GRW and CSL); Everett’s relative state formulation; many worlds and many minds; Copenhagen interpretation; consistent histories approach; quantum Bayesianism; quantum logic and probabilities; relational interpretations; transactional interpretation.

[10] Ladyman, Ross and Spurett vehemently argued against this attitude in Every Thing Must Go.

[11] The Role of Decoherence in Quantum Mechanics, SEP entry.

[12] Quantum Probability and Decision Theory, Revisited, arxiv.

[13] Against the Empirical Viability of the Deutsch Wallace Approach to Quantum Mechanics, PhilScience Archive.

[14] Many Worlds: Decoherent or Incoherent?, PhilScience Archive.

[15] See for example Wave function ontology, PhilPapers.

[16] On the common structure of Bohmian mechanics and the Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber theory, PhilPapers.

[17] Primitive ontology and quantum state in the GRW matter density theory, PhilSci Archive.

[18] Why the Many-Worlds Formulation of Quantum Mechanics Is Probably Correct, Preposterous Universe.

[19] The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, IEET.

[20] Underdetermination of Scientific Theory, SEP entry.

106 thoughts on “Quantum mechanics and scientific realism

  1. “.. classical metaphysics. Unfortunately, that ultimate reality is now vanished forever.” ejwinner

    “The reason we should all have given up searching for “ultimate reality” isn’t because finding it is really hard or will take a long time. It’s because there’s no such thing. It’s because the search for it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the meanings of words like “real” and “exist.”” Aravis

    Yes, there is a fundamental difference in our understanding of the meaning of words. In my lexicon there is some difficulty in distinguishing between ultimate reality (reality as it is in itself) and existential reality (reality as it appears in consciousness), but with diligence and application, it gets easier. In essence, the more one knows about existential reality, the more interesting theories about ultimate reality become.

    Life interacts with reality as it is in so many unsuspected ways. We receive input from electromagnetic radiation, longitudinal pressure waves, thousands of different molecules, trillions of other organisms, etc. We also have multiple outputs: motion, language, tools, culture, technology. The latter has been extraordinary, especially in the way it has allowed us to gain inputs from sources unimaginable just a few decades ago.

    Therefore, we are receiving signals from ultimate reality that provide many hints as to what is ‘really’ going on. These hints will slowly change the way we see ourselves and the universe. That is what has been going on anyway since the scientific revolution.

    Reality as it is is out there. A priori prohibitions against entertaining the thought are beside the point. Our misuse of our conscious faculties is the real culprit, IMHO, leading to much confusion.

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  2. Philip, you say that my dismissal of “hidden variables, Bohmian pilot waves, and parallel universes” seems to be at odds with a pragmatic view.

    No, certainly not. Those ideas have no pragmatic utility at all. They are not used to explain or compute anything. They are just philosophical fantasies.

    I would really be curious to hear how would you possibly go about testing the notion of realism empirically.

    Here is a recent expository article on Physicists debate whether quantum math is as real as atoms. But see also this rant explaining that the issues were settled 80 years ago, and only confused by post-WWII anti-positivist philosophers.

    Physics did address these issues of quantum mechanics realism in the 1930s, and resolved them to the satisfaction of nearly everyone, with a few realism holdouts like Einstein. In the 1960s, Bell revived the issues, and claimed that there were some loopholes in those 1930s arguments and experiments. Had he been right, a drastic revision of quantum mechanics would have been required. But since then, the Bell test experiments have proved that the 1930 understanding of quantum mechanics was essentially correct. Ruyant explains pretty well why attempts to layer some philosophical realism on top of quantum mechanics have failed.

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  3. All these objects and events, concepts and descriptions, terms and analyses are efforts to create a static perception of a dynamic reality and while much of what results seems solid, because it is static, there is still that sense of the little boy with his finger in the hole in the dyke. The reality isn’t bothered. In fact it is also creating static forms, so long as their context remains stable. It is also the function of our minds to create form. Yet is form all there is?
    What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is form without motion? What is thought without consciousness? Left without right? Up without down? The chicken without the egg? Particles without fields? Complexity without simplicity? The wave without the trough?
    The answer to all of them is nothing. Flatline.
    So all of our answers are relative to their questions. Yet if we don’t ask questions, then the answer will always be nothing.

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  4. Quentin Ruyant: “Perhaps no ideal theory can possibly describe reality. Then scientific realism is false.”

    This is a similar position of Zen Buddhism 2,000 years ago. Of course, there was no chance of any kind for those Zen monks to know better, and there was no person able to challenge that position. Zen’s position can be described with a simple analogy.

    Analogy: there is a vault which is locked by a combination lock, with a set of numbers (C-lock-numbers, or CLN). Without the way of ‘derive’ those CLN, there can be three positions for the ‘state’ inside of the vault.

    P1, there is nothing in the vault: the anti-realism.

    P2, there is something in the vault, but it is ultimately ‘UNKNOWABLE’: the Christian position.

    P3, there is something in the vault, and it is knowable, but it is ultimately “UNDESCRIBILE’: the Zen position.

    Yes, if the CLN is not derivable, all the three positions are reasonable. Yet, the situation is completely different today. The CLN of the following process is totally derivable and now known.

    Process: {Initial condition (locked by CLN) with an “emergent process” to produce the “current universe”}.

    By being able to derive the CLN, the initial condition (whatever it is, something or nothing) can and will be known (the 4th position).

    Byron Jennings (a very prominent physicist, at TRIUMF, Canada) and I had the following conversation:

    Tienzen: “Anti-realism on the epistemological sense is okay. Any anti-realism on the ontological level is simply wrong.”

    Jennings: “I would suggest your last statement is incorrect. Quine in his essays ‘On what there is’ and ‘Two dogmas of Empiricism’ gives the counter argument. Poincare’s ‘Hypothesis and Science’ also has a contrary view.” See, http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2015/01/09/string-theory/#comment-1787724448 .

    Well, as both Quine and Poincare did not know the way of deriving CLN and did not even know that that derivation is possible, they two had no chance to reach the 4th position. Simply, their conclusion (arrived from lacking the new knowledge) is wrong. Of course, the best way to show that they are wrong is by showing the exact ‘thing’ in the vault, but I will do this later. I should clear the ‘field’ first.

    All problems {superposition, naturalness, fine-tuning, etc.} in the HUMAN physics are caused by the wrongness of the human physics, and all those problems are not problems of Nature.

    The ‘field’ concept is very successful in Electromagnetism which defines the ‘causality’. But, for gravity and quantum, the Nature is more than a ‘FIELD’ which cannot go into the arena of ‘non-causality’. So, GR (general relativity) is good approximation but is totally wrong as the ‘exact’ description of gravity. QFT (quantum field theory) is also a good approximation but is totally wrong as the ‘exact’ description of quantum-ness. Is there any evidence for their wrong? Yes, because that they both play “no role” in the calculation of CLN. Only “EXACT” description of gravity/quantum is able to calculate the CLN.

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  5. Hi all,

    @John Smith (and perhaps others who think that we should just wait for future physical theories to solve the measurement problem)

    I think the problem is here to stay, for several reasons:
    – a series no-go theorem (including Bell’s theorem which as I said in the article is almost completely independent of the theory, but also Kochen-Specker theorem). In theory change, the successor usually embed the former theory in one way or another, and it is able to recover it as a limit case. I doubt we’ll go back to a fully classical view of reality after quantum mechanics.
    – the measurement problem is well clarified, and we know its possible realist solutions. If a future theory solves the issue realistically, that will certainly boil down to one of these families of solutions in any case. My bet is that some tenets of realism will have to be abandoned.
    – thinking of a conceptual problem thoroughly can help advance the issue, toward a futur scientific theory, precisely.

    @Marko Vojinovic

    I have a scientific formation. I learned quantum mechanics at school, then tried to keep up to date with recent developments.

    @schlafly

    You can call me Quentin 😉
    Noone, realist or anti-realist, denies that quantum mechanics is “true” as you say. The problem is: what do you mean exactly by “true”? Correspondence to reality ? Pragmatic assertability? Just saying “it works” does not really answer the question. This is a philosophical issue, but of interest for the scientists. Note that most interpretations were proposed by physicists. That should convince you that there is a conceptual problem to be solved with quantum mechanics, which is recognized by physicists themselves. Metaphysical worries and principles have always driven scientific progress (example: atomism and reductionism in the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics, or relational space and the principle of sufficient reason, both championed by Leibniz, for relativity theory). Refusing to confront philosophical problems because “the theory works” is not very “scientific” in the end.

    @Mark English

    Sorry for the imprecision, I couldn’t go into too much detail in the article.
    Here “literal” opposes instrumentalists or operationalist conceptions of the meaning of theoretical terms. Some philosophers proposed that “electron” really means “traces in a cloud chamber” (or any other manifestations of electrons).
    This is an interpretation which is at odd with the way we commonly understand the term (electron being an entity existing in reality, and the cause of its observable manifestations). That is what is meant here by “literal”, and I think that your use of “metaphorical” more or less fits my use of “literal”.

    @Coel

    I am quite sympathetic to the “web of belief” view, which is precisely why I defended the view that the issue of realism should be informed by the content of theories. Now as Massimo observes, some beliefs are further from the periphery of the web (direct observations). They cannot be settled empirically, nor can they be strictly deduced from our theories alone. Intuitions and philosophical arguments come into play (and, I would say, drive future scientific inquiry).
    Our representations, scientific or not, rest on metaphysical principles, this is unavoidable.

    @socraticGadly

    I think the ensemble interpretation is problematic, because it cannot account for predictions based on a single experiment.

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  6. Quantum Physics Is Not Weird

    Indeed what the historical idea about the small? Go back to biology. Centuries ago, one thought that a human being originated as a “homunculus”: a human being, just much smaller. Similarly, physicists, for centuries, thought that the physical universe, the smaller one looked was just the same, just smaller.

    Could the small be like the big, just smaller and smaller?

    That would mean that there was no different explanation to the inner working of what we see… From what we saw in the Middle Ages.

    Such was the Classical Prejudice.

    However, nature is not like that. First, Planck found that supposing that light energy was emitted in lumps explained two mysteries. Einstein then explained the photoelectric effect by the reception of light in lumps too: the “lichtquanten”.

    Where did the lumps come from? The most natural explanation was waves. In a constrained space, stable waves happen only at some frequencies. This explanation appeared with Bohr, and was generalized with De Broglie’s Wave Principle” (“to any particle is associated a guiding wave”).

    At that point, Quantum Physics was essentially done: if it was all about waves, the uncertainty principle was obvious. Next one had to defined what a “wave” could be. Well, something given by a wave equation. The De Broglie(-“Schrödinger”) equation was just the most obvious candidate, but others appeared, like the relativistic Klein-Gordon.

    Dirac rolled out the most general, simplest wave equation, the square root of the most obvious relativistic wave. That first order Dirac equation required a new space, Spinor Space (discovered independently much earlier by the mathematician Elie Cartan in 1913). It predicted a new particle: the anti-electron.

    So Quantum Physics is actually the simplest imaginable logic to organize Nature as we have observed it. It’s not “weird”, it’s enlightening.

    Notice that I implicitly solved the “Measurement Problem”: the concept of wave is, well wavy, fuzzy (actually, Quantum Waves penetrate walls, to some extent). So we cannot be sure the “wave-function” we have are really perfectly defined, to START WITH (actually there are non-linear, arbitrarily close approximations of the “Schrödinger” equation).

    Actually the history of Quantum Physics (and QFT) is a succession of wild guesses about what the wave equations could be. A few of these guesses worked, most of them did not (in many cases because non-linear effects had been neglected, such as “Normalization”).

    De Broglie’s “Guiding Wave” class of theories was rejected (erroneously, it turned out) by some arrogant mathematicians. However, very recent experiments showed that some basic Quantum behavior can be duplicated experimentally with waves in fluid mechanics.

    Bohm’s approach is just the PARTICULAR case of De Broglie’s general approach; as Bohm was born in the USA, the Anglosphere refers to him, but it’s truly De Broglie who invented the whole thing. Reintroducing particles, is throwing baby with the bath. The bath, and the baby, are made of waves.

    And it’s waving out there in many ways, in many spaces, some infinite dimensional. That’s the best realism we have.

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  7. Hi Massimo,

    Coel, a like the web metaphor too, but that’s all it is: a metaphor. I would really be curious to hear how would you possibly go about testing the notion of realism empirically.

    You test it the same way as any other idea in science, bearing in mind that no idea is ever tested in isolation, but rather one compares webs both with and without that idea.

    So let’s pick an example of scientific concordance, say fossil coral rings from Devonian coral, 380 millions years ago, whose age we can measure radiometrically. We can use theories of the Moon’s orbit (checked by laser-ranging of Apollo lunar reflectors), to find that (owing to exchange of angular momentum exchange) the length of the day and the number of days in a lunar month were very different from today. Then we check this using coral rings (which record days per month) and we get the same answer. So all of these different areas of science (biology, geology, planetary orbit theory, nuclear physics), largely developed independently, all mesh beautifully and consistently with copious explanatory and predictive power.

    This all fits with the realist notion that there actually was a moon, sun and earth back then, long before we came on the scene and thus entirely independently of human concepts or human observers. We also have a consistent account of why we evolved on that earth and why we now think as we do and why our scientific instruments give the readings that they do.

    Now knock out the notion of that really existing Earth and substitute in anti-realism. The above scenario then stops working, it just falls apart. There is then no explanation for us, for why we are here, for why we think as we do, and for why our scientific instruments give the reading they do. So, one would have to come up with some alternative account, a brain in a vat for example. There is no sensible alternative that has even been proposed. If it were all a social or cultural construct, there is no way to explain the concordance between independently developed areas of science or the predictive power of the model.

    The upshot is that this amounts to a scientific verification of scientific realism, using the standard scientific method. Scientific realism is a necessary component of the web, as are “1 + 1 = 2” and modus ponens. Without them, the whole explanatory edifice of science would disintegrate. They are verified in the same way that an inverse-square law is verified if the model stops working if one substitutes something different.

    Now, if some anti-realist wants to give an alternative explanation for why a scientist working on long-term orbital motion of the moon, modelling this over eons, can find the values verified by fossil corral, even though he didn’t even know about fossil coral when he made his calculations, then I’d be interested to hear it.

    Without that, scientific realism has strong evidential support as a scientific theory (with the standard caveat about provisionality). Of course that doesn’t mean all scientific notions are “real”, it just means that they are “about” an underlying reality that is independent of humans and human concepts and language. For any particular concept we still have to decide the issue on the evidence, and for the wavefunction we currently don’t understand quantum mechanics well enough to do that.

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  8. Cool, in a word: no. The antirealist position is just as compatible with the realist one with the data. And the debate concerns only theoretical entities that cannot be observed. So no, science isn’t going to settle it.

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  9. Patrice,
    The irony of your point is that wave behavior does describe so much from the big to the small. We just have a bias toward the more classical, emergent category of objects and thus particles. So we like those clear demarcations and not the fuzziness. The measurements become more important than what is measured, because they fulfill that preference for precision in the delineation of the object.
    Since this is my last post, as some of my points have been dismissed as too broad or general, not because they were wrong, I would like to point out the contradiction of looking for universal theories, but dismissing general and broad observations.
    Patrice rightly points out the wave is the most elemental aspect of reality and a wave has two primary features, amplitude and frequency. When we encounter amplitude en masse, it creates the effect of temperature, as the collective energy tends toward equilibrium. While frequency en masse is simply static or noise, because they have to all be moving in one direction to measure the rate between one and the next.
    What I keep pointing out is that this is the basis of time. Whenever we do measure time, it is as frequency, be it rotations of the planet, or oscillations of a cesium atom. Now our minds, not to mention hearts, do function as just such a sequence of flashes, or beats and so we are constantly moving from prior to succeeding events. From this we have constructed a communal history and culture, based on our memory of these occurrences and so this narrative effect seems fundamental, but just keep in mind that under it all is that wave, rising and falling. Expanding and contracting. On and off. The vector of time is only an effect of this process and prior events leave only residue.
    We will always experience time as just such a sequence of events, but then we still see the sun rise in the east and set in the west, even though we now understand it is the earth spinning west to east. So to it is not actually the point of the present moving from past to future, but the creation and dissolution of these circumstances which drives them from future to past.

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  10. Coel,
    How do you test a claim that is about what it means to test any claim without begging the question? You cannot prove there is an ultimate reality by testing it unless you’re sure empirical testing establishes what corresponds to ultimate reality but that is exactly what the anti-realist contests and we’re back where we started.
    This is why the arguments you yourself advance are not empirical arguments. You reject anti-realism because anti-realism “just falls apart” and on anti-realism “There is then no explanation for us” as to why science makes successful predictions. The former argument contends that anti-realism is incoherent. The latter is a version of the “no-miracles” argument discussed here in the past. Neither is based on empirical evidence. What would such evidence even be? No, you can’t say all of science unless you want to take the circular train ride to where we started as I pointed out to begin with. What you are doing is looking at two views, examining the conceptual problems with both of them and preferring one to the other on that basis. This activity is called philosophy and it ain’t science. If you think it is, explain your experimental design. (And yes I know you argue that all scientific testing presupposes realism but anti-realists take issue with that. At any rate you are making a conceptual argument that empirical testing conceptually presupposes realism. That’s where all the action is, not with the evidence.)
    “Now, if some anti-realist wants to give an alternative explanation…then I’d be interested to hear it.”
    Basically, every anti-realism (starting with Kant) is an attempt to give an alternate explanation. You say youre interested but Aravis and I keep naming books. He has a good list above. I would add Putnam’s Mind, Language and Reality and Realism and Reason (which includes “Why There Isn’t a Ready Made World”, Michael Dummett’s “Realism”, Quine’s Mind and World and “Ontological Relativity”. Michael Loux wrote an introductory book on metaphysics for Routledge with a chapter on realism and anti-realism which introduces the topic, some arguments and contains citations and suggestions for further readings.

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  11. “That said, we all have to realize that scholars are no more resistant to the pressures of the marketplace than anyone else, so it is not a surprise that many will simply ignore those theories that suggest that the area they work in ought not to exist at all.”
    That’s a bit shabby, no? Like you my sympathies are with anti-realism (or at least the rejection of “ultimate reality” if you are more comfortable with that formulation) but I find the realists are (usually) intellectually honest. And I do think they have some serious arguments.

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  12. Jacob, Quentin and others, the commentary is much appreciated.

    I agree that MWI, Bohm and other interpretations say some very interesting things but obviously lack rigorous evidential support (if they ever will). I’d love to hear more from Jacob in a post down the road highlighting his own views on the reality of the wavefunction and the interpretations that he finds most promising.

    I just wanted to say that some of the above comments, especially those by Aravis and Schlafly, that question whether an ultimate reality can even be said to exist are misguided. In addition, I don’t think that Aravis’s critique based on the ‘counting objects’ succeeds, as others have noted.

    No matter what someone takes the world’s existence to actually be, every single one of them is a realist of some form. Whether they believe that its all physical objects (noting that this is a much more loaded concept, as I discussed in my first comment), the thoughts of some brain, or a hallucination brought about by an evil demon, every single one of those ideas has an underlying reality (physical world, dreamspace, evil demon hallucinations). That’s why I noted previously that to not be a metaphysical realist about something is inherently absurd. It goes back to Descartes. Even though we couldn’t know if we weren’t dreaming objects in front of our eyes or under the control of some other entity, there is, with absolute certainty, ‘something happening.’

    Now I not sure about others, but the dreamscape and evil demon scenarios seem a bit more absurd than the physical world scenario, though I am well aware this can never be proven, it is only what I consider to be the extremely reasonable choice. Even then, and as I’m sure others know, the ethereal aspects of ‘material objects’ that modern physics has shown (almost completely empty atoms, with subatomic particles that are at present literally taken to be mathematical points with no known substructure) makes a pretty strong case for something akin to ontic structural realism/mathematical relations underlying the world. But that is a discussion for another day!

    Thoughts are welcome.

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  13. The Question of Realism and the Multiverse Error

    Thanks Brodix. Yes waves are the ultimate. The operator approach is a simplification. To hide this fact, Von Neumann, a founder of Functional Analysis, produced a false “proof” to shut down De Broglie and his wave approach: because mathematicians wanted to make operators the end-all, be-all of the Quantum.

    Unfortunately, that approach leads straightforwardly to the Multiverse derangement, which makes explaining nothing into a new religion. Moreover, Quantum Computer engineers have realized the foundations of the Quantum are imprecise, if not outright wobbly (see the new approach “Quantum Discord”).

    Finally, De Broglie Matter Waves have been proven to exist even with macroscopic objects, making operators wonderfully irrelevant.

    What’s real? Certainly the Earth, the Moon, the stars… The ultimate nature of the Moon: a big rock, massive enough to become round by self-attraction. We can view the Moon as Homo Erectus viewed a rock. Now,
    when one talks about say, light, one has to be more careful.

    Most (not all) of today’s theories assume that light is made of “photons”, and that those have mass zero. This is all very nice, but it’s just theory. In truth, experimentally, we have an upper bound on the masses of photons. If photons don’t have mass zero, just as already happened with neutrinos, theory would have to be changed. That’s all. Does that mean reality would have changed? No.

    For those who have made Special Relativity into a religion would be hurt, but reality would not be affected.

    In general, it’s pretty dangerous to pick out some features at the edge of physics, and use them to define “reality”. For example, “string theory” or “supersymmetry” are real, but only as psychological, mathematical phenomena.

    Are Quarks real? Well, as a phenomenon in Quantum Field Theory, yes. More than that, not clear.
    Actually, it’s not clear that photons exist. Einstein said they did, and he got a Nobel, officially, in part, for that (Planck still thought it was a blunder!)

    But Einstein was just a man. And there are, arguably, more parrots than men.

    In his photoelectric paper, Einstein, in one sentence, creates the “lichquanten”. Here it is: …”light consists of energy quanta of energy…”
    http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_a_Heuristic_Point_of_View_about_the_Creation_and_Conversion_of_Light [around level 146.]

    In seven words, particle theory was created. Amen. (Ironically following Lenard, soon to get a Nobel, and enter the Nazi Party!)

    Einstein did not need the hypothesis, that light consisted of “energy quanta”, he just needed to mirror the reasoning of Planck, concluding more modestly, that light was absorbed as a quantum.

    Fast forward to the Quantum computation, applied to “wavefunction”, a sum of coefficients applied to “eigenstates” (the FINAL states). As Einstein pontificated that light was “made” of “energy quanta”, it was natural to identify “quanta”, thus reality, and this sum of FINAL states.

    Thus reality (whatever propagates between emission and final state) was identified to an eigenbasis of a Hilbert space. Thus the one was identified to the many. This is the core of the Multiverse error.

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  14. >Bohr was right in the Bohr-Einstein debates

    >These supposedly-realist interpretations only gain credence if you have some sort of Einsteinian disbelief in quantum mechanics.

    >with a few realism holdouts like Einstein.

    Roger,
    Would all of this be spelled out in greater detail in your book?

    How Einstein Ruined Physics: Motion, Symmetry, and Revolution in Science
    by Roger Schlafly (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1461120195)

    I spotted the book from your blog which your SciSal handle links to, & you mention it there.

    (also summarized in a short youtube video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7t3eVukfdkg

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  15. Isn’t another way of understanding how the ensemble interpretation makes predictions about a single event is that is doesn’t predict “A” or “B” but rather, on classical probabilities, 80 percent A or 70 percent B?

    Or, if that’s not the usual tack within the ensemble interpretation, it at least could be such a tack.

    I personally don’t have any problem with “statistical predictions.” I mean, behavior of gases is stochastic; we talk about a collection of quintillions of molecules, not individual ones, there. I know this is basically the line of reasoning that defenders of the ensemble interpretation, tracking from Born on, use, and it’s reasonable to me.

    It’s certainly reasonable, if inexactitude with a single experiment is the “price” to be paid for throwing out the window all the metaphysics that have generally accreted to other interpretations like barnacles.

    And, thus, to me, it checks the Occam’s Razor box better than other interpretations.

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  16. This discussion has deviated. You should try to stick with actual problems with physics if you want to arrive at a metaphysics to explain physics. You are not going to get there via Kant. What is the point of this discussion?

    Way too much jargon about philosophy, again. So let me explain Kant in as clear terms as I explained the nonsense physics has built around its inability to conform to definitions of motion & direction in its Uncertainty Principle.

    Kant confined mind to our own personal construct, which is good. But he garnished it with a soul to guide the experience, because he had no explanation for the “unified forms” imposed upon “sense datum” beyond a gift from God to give us reasoning to guide us. No evolution in those days, and plenty of scope without neuroscience to look beyond the entity for explanations. A soul would be fundamental to creating the experience itself, as an event, rather than neural activity in a contained brain for the experience. And?

    What’s the point of that to metaphysics as it applies to physics? Well, I suppose you can go on to say that neuroscience today makes exactly the same mistake by another route! Neuroscience replaces a Homunculus God giving us an intact soul, with a Homunculus Brain giving us an intact mind (bypassing a God & soul). Same diff. Both of them bypass a body entirely!

    Kant had no idea about anatomical structure and neither does modern neuroscience. They both mistrust anatomy so much that they invent independent entities to make our decisions, or guide them There is nothing moving in the brain expect current to directly and faithfully represent functional site interfaces with a world, rapidly and automatically. Manual functions with manual awareness from a rapid faithful facility.

    So where does that leave “truth about reality” as understood by an entity. What provides the “amazing” facility of reasoning about the world we interface? Your body does. Neuroscience is as bad as Kant, and with far less excuse for ignoring the source of reasoning, which is a comprehensive, balanced anatomy. The functions, eye, ear, hand, etc have greater value than currently known, and a brain directly reveals them – it does not invent or change or decide them – it just automatically reveals them by processing their diverse receptor inputs and their reactive outputs.

    And how reliable is our anatomy at creating “concepts” about its interfaces to determine “accurately what might be “out there”? Very reliable as a rule (present company excepted), due to its fixed structure, set out here http://1drv.ms/1tnKM6f Happy to help where I can, and I reckon you should all give science or philosophy some much needed help by exposing errors so that it can correct itself, particularly any well credentialed professionals in other fields who read their “stuff” and jargon. Keep at it!

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  17. Question (to Aravis, Massimo and other resident experts):

    David Bourget and David Chalmers gave the following results in their survey of academic philosophers What Do Philosophers Believe?, page 15:
    25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%“.

    Aravis questioned scientific realism with the following statement and this was reflected in the tenor of several other replies:
    Yes, of course, there are many in philosophy who still hold to the idea that there is an ultimate reality and that the aim of science and the pursuit of knowledge, more generally, is to determine what it is. I find this fact incredible, given the literature I’ve mentioned

    Bourget and Chalmers conclude:
    philosophers as a whole have quite inaccurate beliefs about the distribution of philosophical views in the profession.“.

    So, it would seem the majority of philosophers hold beliefs about scientific realism similar to those of Coel while Aravis and others hold to a minority position. Now I don’t for one moment suggest that truth is determined by voting and I accept that a majority can be wrong. To further complicate the issue, I have perhaps misunderstood what Aravis means by ‘an ultimate reality‘.

    Aravis said:
    The problem is that the conversation in philosophy has advanced far beyond the point at which you are trying to engage it

    Is this a case where the majority of academic philosophers are unaware of advances in this field? Or perhaps they reject them? Or is this a consequence of specialisation in philosophy? In any case I think it is fair that we should recognise that Coel’s views are held by a majority of academic philosophers.

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  18. A helpful comment, as I spread myself around lots of blogs. Try to be original to break through contentious muddles, rather than give a scholastic account of the contentious muddles. Its just an issue of methodology, if you are trying to get somewhere. Never go around in circles, always try to invent a way out, pretty simple.

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  19. Hello All … I am no scientist . no philosopher . and (at a guess) only about 12% of what I’ve just read above is comprehensible to me … However . there is one point I’d like to make about the Old Assumption … This is the assumption . first made by religionists . that . in the end . there is only ONE right answer .. and that furthermore . we will judge that answer to be the one given by the person who wins the DEBATE .. Physics has produced TWO answers … And that’s as far as human truth can go … the rest is MYSTERY .. and DEMOCRACY

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  20. “the relational interpretation [9], proposed by physicist Rovelli, which holds that wave-functions do not describe objective states, but relations between physical observers (any physical system) and observed systems. There is no objective “view from nowhere.” Other similar attempts relativize the wave function to frames of reference.”

    That’s actually quite good and useful. Indeed, when you understand “field” photons as loops that carry momentum as a wave-function in a void, you are part the way there. Viewed from a void, its a wave function, but that is unobserved. It is delineated by a void and not by (correct) reference to the particles exchanging them (or receiving them at an observer’s instruments). The relative view is the correct view, and the absolute in a void is putative, but constrained by mechanics to serve the relative view as a wave.

    The purpose of a field is to be exchanged between particles, and it is always properly measured relative to them, going away or coming in. It is both at the same time when between particles in a void. This is getting closer to your much needed metaphysical rules and concepts now – I decided to help you further, don’t know why.

    Readers who are interested in physics only need to Google or Wiki “wave function” and “circular polarization” to see photon loops with backward rotations making an electrical and magnetic deviation from its irregular loop shape. It makes a wave just like a wire loop for soap bubbles, but far more precisely and in conformity with its loop irregularities, for smooth up-down and in-out deviation.

    When it is absorbed, it is absorbed at a loop with an angle, not a wave, because it is a loop moving at light speed in a void while rotating backwards around an axis to make a wave. I couldn’t see much else in your piece of great use. As I said, too much jargon, it just cuts off a lot of people who can make real progress in these areas by cursory analysis, in passing. You need to pick up the passing, not just your mates.

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  21. Hi David Ottlinger

    You reject anti-realism because anti-realism “just falls apart” and on anti-realism “There is then no explanation for us” as to why science makes successful predictions. The former argument contends that anti-realism is incoherent. The latter is a version of the “no-miracles” argument discussed here in the past. Neither is based on empirical evidence. What would such evidence even be?

    Science is not just about empirical evidence alone, it is also about explanations, and the interaction of explanations and empirical evidence. The “no miracles” argument *is* about empirical evidence, being about how we explain what we observe. That is exactly what science is all about.

    How do we test realist versus non-realist schemes? We test both against the empirical evidence for explanatory and predictive power. If the anti-realist scheme lacks explanation for science’s findings then it lacks explanatory and predictive power. This is exactly the scientific method for arriving at better explanations.

    You cannot prove there is an ultimate reality by testing it unless you’re sure empirical testing establishes what corresponds to ultimate reality …

    We don’t have to start off being sure that empirical testing gives us “ultimate reality”, we start off being unsure. Then we arrive at a scientific conclusion based on which idea works best. Faced with the scientific results outlined in my previous comment, we can test the competing explanations: (1) there really was an Earth and Moon 380 million years ago, independent of then-non-existent humans; (2) there is no reality beyond our fingertips and our immediate scientific instruments; (3) some other anti-realist scheme. In terms of explanatory and predictive power (1) wins outright. Schemes 2 and 3 haven’t even begun to compete in actually explaining anything about science’s findings.

    Basically, every anti-realism (starting with Kant) is an attempt to give an alternate explanation.

    OK, but the question I asked was a specific one about a specific aspect of science:

    “Now, if some anti-realist wants to give an alternative explanation for why a scientist working on long-term orbital motion of the moon, modelling this over eons, can find the values verified by fossil coral, even though he didn’t even know about fossil coral when he made his calculations, then I’d be interested to hear it.”

    Obviously I’m much less familiar with the philosophical literature on anti-realism than you or Aravis, but can you point me to anti-realist attempts to answer that sort of specific and detailed question about science? If this hasn’t been done then I’ll conclude that realism wins hands down, on scientific grounds, and that anti-realism is currently a non-starter.

    Most philosophical critiques of realist science have been based on the idea that science must make foundational and unquestionable assumptions. The `web’ reply says that we can question even those basic ideas, and thus that they get tested and examined as much as any other part of the web, and so end up as being tested conclusions.

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  22. A “philosophical fantasy” (parallel worlds?) could be a useful idea in implementing the lower-level simulation layer of a quantum programming language.

    Wouldn’t the pragmatist not care whether an idea comes from “philosophical fantasies” or “scientific facts”?

    “A foundation for quantum programming and its highly-parallel virtual execution”
    http://soft.vub.ac.be/soft/content/foundation-quantum-programming-and-its-highly-parallel-virtual-execution
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.416.990&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    “LIQUi|⟩: A software design architecture and domain-specific language for quantum computing”
    http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/liquid/
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.4467

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  23. labnut, I wouldn’t say that the majority of philosophers hold views similar to those of Coel’s. But yes, realism is the dominant position in philosophy of science. It is also the one I endorse, despite my appreciation for antirealist arguments and of some problems with specific realist interpretations of cutting edge science, particularly in QM, as this essay argues.

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  24. This is my last post, and it may be just as well, as I am clearly not getting anywhere.

    Yes, the view to which I am sympathetic is a minority view. I’ve said as much. That said, it is a view held by a very distinguished minority — more distinguished, I would argue, than the majority — how many simplistic realists do you have to stack to match Wittgenstein, Quine, Putnam, and Davidson, I wonder? — but the point is, ultimately, irrelevant.

    Incidentally, I am not an anti-realist, as it is commonly understood, and have said so, though it seems to have gotten lost in the exchange. But anti-realism is not one thing — and neither is realism. I am a realist, but not in the crude sense being described by those on the pro-side — i.e. in either the “ready-made-world” view or the ding an sich view. Both of those views have been thoroughly discredited, and it is, frankly, amazing to hear people continue to defend them (especially as *empirical* theses*), while failing to engage a single one of the arguments against them; arguments that I have indicated, now, several times, to as great an extent as is possible in a forum like this. All that I can say at this point is this: Get back to me when you have a reply to Davidson’s arguments against the scheme/content distinction. Because until you do, you can’t even make sense of the distinction between a conceptual scheme and the thing it is a scheme of, let alone talk of “ultimate reality.” To be committed to such a view is what Davidson called “The third dogma of Empiricism.” (And the web of belief gets you nowhere — it appears in the same article in which Quine demolishes the analytic/synthetic distinction, which also renders the scheme/content distinction impossible — and is where Davidson got the idea.)

    I am a realist in the way that Searle describes, in the quote given above. I had hoped that the pre-Kantian days of trying to prove the external world exists (empirically or otherwise) had given way to a greater understanding of how linguistic frameworks and conceptual schemes work and their impact on metaphysics — the conditions under which ontological commitments are made; the analytical, non-empirical nature of principles of individuation and the role they play not just in reference but ontology; the meaning and uses of the words “real” and “reality.” But, alas, it looks like we are going to have to go through a third round of this argument, which began back in the days of Descartes, and a whole new crop of Humes, Reids, Austins, Wittgensteins, Quines, and Davidsons. I guess that really bad ideas die really hard.

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  25. Coel,

    “Now, if some anti-realist wants to give an alternative explanation for why a scientist working on long-term orbital motion of the moon, modelling this over eons, can find the values verified by fossil coral, even though he didn’t even know about fossil coral when he made his calculations, then I’d be interested to hear it.”

    If a realist asserts that the moon exists whether or not there is consciousness to know it, then does not the orbit of the moon equally exist? And so to deny the ‘reality’ of the moon is also to deny the reality of the orbit. All you assert is the scope of the illusion. One can assert that only the measurable can truly be said to exist, but not that just because something can be measured it must exist.

    As for that coral: given the vastness of the (apparent) world, surely we will find some coral strata somewhere that will confirm our ideas. In many (not all) ways we are forced to act as though realism were true: anti-realism does not require that we stop doing science, and scientific findings are provisional anyway. We work now with the concept of space-time, so these examples of prediction or retrodiction do not impair an anti-realist view.

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  26. I found the spooky debate between partisans of “anti-realism” from the Eighteen Century and Twenty-first physicist Coel defending “realism” astounding. What does Kant have to do with Quanta? How can a servant of the Prussian dictator who loved slavery have anything to say about today’s struggles about determining what reality is? Completely unreal.

    As in many of the essays here, Quentin mad a long “academic” list of all the possibilities that one has to mention to be taken seriously at this point in time among academics. As John Smith put it: “Try to be original to break through contentious muddles, rather than give a scholastic account of the contentious muddles”.

    What is astounding is that Quentin is French, but did not mention Louis De Broglie. But he mentioned Bohm, who advertised a small part of De Broglie’s work. De Broglie not cool? This constitutes, a bias against reality.

    De Broglie’s thesis contained all of basic Quantum Mechanics (I checked that myself). Proof? De Broglie got the Nobel in Physics three years later. De Broglie also launched basically all the alternative theories to the Copenhagen Interpretation (including the one attributed to Bohm). Other alternatives to the Guided Wave Theory was the “Double Solution”, etc.

    De Broglie was Secretary of the French Academy of science for most of the Twentieth Century. Clearly research done in the Paris area in the last 35 years has to do with De Broglie’s will to go beyond Quantum Physics (Various Nobel prize rewarded works in Quantum Optics to cool and isolate atoms, Aspect’s Non-Locality, Haroche’s Quantum Decoherence and seeing light with atoms are example)

    Quentin also mentions Everett’s Many Worlds, a theory that was viewed as so insane when Wheeler rolled it out, that his student Everett could not get an academic job (at a time when there were plenty). Some European physicists basically asked Wheeler if he had become crazy.

    The problem with the Multiverse (aka Many Worlds) is that it requires zillions of universe per nanometers per picosecond. Multiversists reply that it costs no energy to create a universe (another sign that they do not have a feeling for basic physics).

    I had heated exchange with a physics correspondent about the Multiverse for years. Finally I left him no logical escape. He admitted that he liked the Multiverse because “it brought back imagination to physics”.

    Putting zillions of angels on every pinhead is not new.

    I think Quentin would improve his knowledge of possible avenues towards a better sense of what reality is by reading De Broglie. De Broglie’s intuition is even more difficult than spinor space to intuit. Spinor space is a square root of space.

    We do know that wavefunctions are what reality is about. Somehow, 3D space emerges out of them. Maybe it’s just a stochastic average of intersections of transverse submanifolds.

    What is clearer is that the arrow of time emerge from Quantum Entanglement. Indeed Quantum Entanglement cannot be reversed. There is the arrow. QED. Va de retro Kantum.

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  27. I would like to clarify a few points…

    First, scientific realism comes in degrees and there are many different versions of it. You are not either a realist or an anti-realist: you can be realist about certain theories, or certain aspects of theories only (the structures, …), or have a peculiar conception of what realism is and call yourself a realist, as many philosophers did (examples : “internal realism”, “weak realism”, …).
    Labels can be misleading, in particular when they become fashionable: almost everyone wants to be a realist.
    The article aimed at addressing the strictest versions of realism, the one which accepts the three propositions in the begining of the article, and it only concerned one particular domain: physics. Now realism could be true for all practical purpose at a higher level.

    Saying that most contemporary philosophers are scientific realist is probably true, but not very informative. I am, too, a scientific realist. I think some irreducible, relational aspects should be incorporated at the fundamental level of reality, which weakens strict scientific realism, but I don’t think we should go full instrumentalist or idealist. I am also quite happy with the idea that biological concepts, such as cell or protein, successfully refer to real entities, independent of our conception of them. At least in approximation.
    Perhaps I am not as realist as others with regards to physics, or in general, but I think I would still have answered “scientific realism” to Chalmers et al’s survey, because there is no intermediate positions.
    In any case in philosophy, the most sensible positions are often nuanced (this caveat is addressed by Chalmers et al in their comments on the survey).

    Second, scientific realism is definitely a philosophical position. It is not a necessary prerequisite for doing science and it’s not established by science itself. True, the ability of realism to explain the predictive success of science is an important argument in its favour, but scientists need not have such an explanation for doing their job. The founders of quantum mechanics did not bother with this problem. Some of them at least were seeing their activity as the development of predictive tools. Here is a simple, anti-realist explanation for the success of science: the phenomena we predict are in part created by our interactions with reality. We could have different theories which would work as well. Not necessarily convincing, but it’s a possibility… Another explanation to scientific success is given by van Fraassen in evolutionary terms (our theories are adapted to reality).

    I said I was sympathetic to the web of belief view. What I meant is that there is no clear-cut separation between science and philosophy, both are interwined. Science informs philosophy and conversely. Yet some questions are definitely empirical and fall in the domain of science, and others are definitely conceptual and fall in the domain of philosophy, otherwise “philosophy” and “science” would loose their meaning. You don’t need a clear-cut separation to have meaningful terms.
    I think that when one says “all this is science, all this is empirically grounded”, one has slightly changed the subject and redefined terms.

    Finally, saying that the whole debate is pre-kantian is a bit dismissive. I doubt contemporary philosophers haven’t read Wittgenstein, Davidson and Quine. Contemporary views can be sophisticated (see the semantic conceptions of theories for example). Noone thinks that theorietical statements are tested individually. You can have meaning holism, that does not undermine some kind of correspondence to reality. Pragmatic stances are not incompatible with scientific realism either (not all versions at least). The demise of logical empiricism has played an important role in the renewal of scientific realism. There are also strong arguments against the radical incommensurability of conceptual schemes. All this should not be neglected.

    @John Smith

    I am sorry that the philosophical jargon was an obstacle to you. I tried to be as accessible as I could but it’s not always easy to know which terms the average reader might not be familiar with, especially when you got used to use these terms for a long time. That would help me if you told me which terms exactly are obscure to you.

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  28. Hi Aravis, I was hoping you could reply to Boghossian’s objections to your position that you were talking about earlier on in this thread (which I think is called description-dependence of facts).

    You said,”The reason we should all have given up searching for “ultimate reality” isn’t because finding it is really hard or will take a long time. It’s because there’s no such thing. It’s because the search for it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the meanings of words like “real” and “exist.” (Hence my claim that it involves a category error.) The example I gave of the world consisting of X X X is instructive: the question how many objects *really* exist is ill-formed, given that what exists is relative to a system of counting. If we only count discrete individuals, then three objects exist in this universe. But if we count sums of objects, then seven objects exist. If you then ask, “But, which system of counting is the one that corresponds to reality?” there is no answer. The question misunderstands how the word “real” works in our language.”

    In Boghossian’s book, “fear of knowledge,” he takes the time to reply to this kind of view, and specifically to Putnam’s “three individuals” argument. First, let’s look at the claim that what exists only does so relative to a system of counting. Let’s take your example of XXX. You point out that there are various ways of counting the objects. Even if this is true (that there are various ways of counting the objects) Boghossian points out that there clearly must be some “dough” upon which you are counting! After all, how could you be counting anything if there were nothing out there for you to be counting? There could be 3 objects or 7 objects depending on how you decide to carve up the world descriptively, but the point is there must be some stuff upon which you are doing the carving.

    Also, you point out that you could say that there are 3 objects (3 discrete entities), or there are 7 objects (sum of objects).
    If we were to ask, “which system of counting is the one that corresponds to reality?” You say that there is no true answer. Boghossian points out that this case does not point out that there is no true answer, all this case does is to point out that there can be many, perhaps infinite, equally true descriptions of the world, none of which contradicting each other. Consider the following:

    In your case, when there are 3 objects, “objects” means discrete entities (which is how we count 3). When there are 7 “objects,” the world “object” means something different (the sum of objects). Fortunately, since each definition of “object” has changed from one case to the other, these two statements don’t contradict eachother at all! They are entirely consistent since the word “object” means two different things. As Boghossian puts it, “These two statements no more contradict each other than my saying that there are eight people at the party contradicts my saying that there are four couples at that very same party.”

    Consequently, all your argument shows is that there are many equally true ways of describing the world, not that reality is ontologically description-dependent.

    If you’re interested, Boghossian states these arguments (and replies to Goodman and others that you mention as well) in “Fear of Knowledge.” This stuff that I exposited is somewhere between pages 32 and 37.

    I would really like to hear your thoughts on this if possible, because I have only recently started reading up on this topic. Thanks!

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  29. “Following Thales and Parmenides, pre-Hegelian philosophers attached themselves exclusively to the notion of “Substance,” while forgetting that the notion of “Subject” is just as primordial and irreducible.” A. Kojeve

    How does the realist/anti-realist debate here align with this apercu?

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  30. Liam Ubert: “Yes, there is a fundamental difference in our understanding of the meaning of words. In my lexicon there is some difficulty in distinguishing between ultimate reality (reality as it is in itself) and existential reality (reality as it appears in consciousness), … Reality as it is is out there. A priori prohibitions against … Our misuse of our conscious faculties is the real culprit, leading to much confusion.”

    Amen!

    We can define ‘realism’ any which way we want, but it must finally deal with two simple issues.

    I1, is there something REAL (especially the ultimately real)?

    I2, can we know and/or describe that REAL?

    Science is ‘defined’ as the empirical knowledge. “Empirical” by definition is viewing something as real by the conscious beings. Even the mirage is real in physics (in accordance to the optic laws) while it is not real in our ‘interpretation’ (as a city in the sky).

    Yet, today the scientific real is gained by a theory/law based telescope (Epi-telescope). We can be very much sure that the law based telescoping is seeing the real, but the theory based telescoping is definitely biased. Thus, I have proposed an “Anchor-endo-cast” (web) as the base for physics epistemology. See, https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/apa-2014-5-on-the-reality-of-atoms-and-subatomic-particles/comment-page-1/#comment-10811 , as Anchor must be laws or nature constants (no longer as theories).

    As science has confirmed many anchors (laws and nature constants), there are something real. Any argument against these reals goes beyond being wrong but simply nonsense. Yet,
    Q1, can these reals assure that there is a Final Real?

    Q2, Can that Final Real (if any) be known and described?

    My discussion on the Realism is only about these two questions and will not engage with any other arguments. My answers for these two are two big Yes. Of course, I must first remove some FAILURES which become the solid evidences for the “NO” argument. The most prominent failure is GR (general relativity): 1) unable to be compatible with quantum, 2) totally useless for deriving any nature constant, 3) etc.

    Yes, most of GR’s predictions are verified by some Epi-telescoping one way or the other. But, it totally fails on the Anchor-based web matching. By believing this failure-GR as the Real, it becomes the base for the anti-realism.

    GR is conceptually WRONG. Newton viewed gravity as the ‘force’ between two massive objective (apple and Earth), and its calculation is based on {sweeping out the same “area” from there center-of-mass}. This is a total Geometry description; that is, timeless {which leads to instantaneity and simultaneity}. GR views the gravity is the geometry of spacetime (timed, thus totally causal), and this is wrong as the Nature does encompass the non-causality.

    There is a true FACT in Nature {in physics and in common sense}. This universe is moving from {here, now} to {here/there, next}. In physics, this is called ‘expansion’, dark energy. In common sense, this is called ‘aging’. What is the force doing this moving?

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  31. “Is this a case where the majority of academic philosophers are unaware of advances in this field? Or perhaps they reject them? Or is this a consequence of specialisation in philosophy?”
    I myself think there is a little bit of all of the above. As references to Putnam, Dummett, Wittgenstein, Austin, Goodman and Quine make clear, many arguments for anti-realism (or irrealism but we won’t get into that) come from philosophy of language, where philosophers were thinking about intentionality in a broad way. Nearly every philosopher has read some Quine and Wittgenstein but not everyone is necessarily immured in that debate (and there is a vast and conflicting literature on both). A cliche view of analytic philosophy (or as it is sometimes disparagingly called anglo-phone philosophy, because it only seems to hear English speaking debates) is that it is uninterested in the history of philosophy. Unfortunately I think there is some significant truth in this. While there are exceptions (particularly the deeply histoically oriented Wilfrid Sellars) many analytic philosophers either don’t engage the history of philosophy or do so in a fairly light-hearted kind of way. Analytic philosophy also has a bad habit of banishing views as nonsense (and here I think I come apart a bit from Massimo). Analytic philosophy formed to a large extent around a view of language. So many philosophers adopted an attitude of we know what meaning is, we know what nonsense is and that is nonsense and I don’t have to read it. This was quite adamant in the 40’s, cooled off a bit and I think is making a bit of a comeback. There is a fashion which favors scientific sounding, some would say “commonsense”, “straightforward” philosophy (it’s neither) and disfavors against close, dense conceptual argument. Hence Sellars is not nearly as well read as, say, Fodor (in my view that’s a shame). Such arguments are “obscurantist” *hand-waive*. Hence I do think, as Aravis contends, that we repeat debates and forget the lessons of history. None of this is to say that there are not good reasons to adopt realism or that there aren’t problems with anti-realism, or that realists have not developed responses but I think these factors have been much more influential than they should.

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  32. Coel, you sound like Einstein trying to defend realism. He would argue against the Copenhagen interpretation by saying that he believes that the Moon is there even if no one is looking.

    Unfortunately, philosophers have co-opted the word realism. Usually they just mean vague generalities, but when applied to quantum mechanics, they mean things like hidden variables, Bohmian pilot waves, and parallel universes. They argue that the theory is somehow defective unless those things are added to make it more real. But adding those things does not do any good, as Quentin has explained.

    Much of XX century physics is based on a different view. Relativity was founded on the FitzGerald contraction being different for different observers, time being relative to the Poincare synchronization of clocks, and Lorentzian mass being the velocity-dependent inertial resistance to force. The observer has a crucial role, and some questions about reality without the observer become meaningless, such as whether events are synchronous. Likewise with quantum mechanics.

    Most scientists accept reality like Coel, but this philosophical version of “scientific realism” means a belief in unobservable fantasies. If you subscribe to textbook relativity and quantum mechanics, then you are a philosophical anti-realist.

    SciSal would say that realism and anti-realism are just philosophical beliefs that are equally compatible with the facts. If you buy that, then they are just labels with no scientific significance.

    Philip, that “lower-level simulation layer of a quantum programming language” is indeed a fantasy. That language is for a yet-to-be-invented quantum computer. David Deutsch has argued that demonstration of a true quantum computer would be evidence for many-worlds, because the mysterious computation would be taking place in parallel universes. If he turns out to be correct, then I would agree that MWI and that language have some pragmatic value. But I doubt it. No such computer has been built, no such language has found any utility, and I doubt that you could find many physicists to agree with Deutsch.

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  33. “The “no miracles” argument *is* about empirical evidence, being about how we explain what we observe.”
    In a sense, but as I said above, in a sense on which conceptual arguments for and against make all the difference. That’s where the action is.

    “How do we test realist versus non-realist schemes? We test both against the empirical evidence for explanatory and predictive power.”
    Just as in other context you are willing to stretch “science” to cover all rational argumentation and “empirical evidence” to cover mathematical proofs, here you are willing to stretch “test” and I think you mean “empirical test” to cover conceptual, philosophical challenges. We “test” realism and anti-realism by subjecting them to philosophical scrutiny, not by performing experimentation . There is no rule saying you can’t refer to both by the same word but you can’t thereby make them into the same thing. Philosophy just isn’t science. They are radically different.

    “This is exactly the scientific method for arriving at better explanations.”
    There is no scientific method but if there were this wouldn’t be it. Once again you are stretching science to cover practically everything and this doesn’t work. Yes between scientific and philosophical arguments share some very, very broad similarities but they are radically different.

    “OK, but the question I asked was a specific one about a specific aspect of science.”
    Not really. All your questions generalize easily such that they could be about everyday empirical knowledge. Replace ” there really was an Earth and Moon 380 million years ago” with “there is a hand in front of me” and the argument runs the exact same way.

    “(1) there really was an Earth and Moon 380 million years ago, independent of then-non-existent humans; (2) there is no reality beyond our fingertips and our immediate scientific instruments; (3) some other anti-realist scheme. In terms of explanatory and predictive power (1) wins outright.”
    I take it that this is partly a taking up of my challenge to produce an experimental design. Firstly you have an extremely simplistic understanding of anti-realism. No anti-realist maintains ” there is no reality beyond our fingertips”. They might maintain that the way we experience the world is partially informed by the way we conceptualize it. No anti-realism would predict that you would have no experiences. When we say there is no ultimate reality, it’s the ultimate part we are denying, not the reality part. The point is not that is no way the world is, it’s that the way the world is is always multiply describable and can be carved up different ways (or that’s one point Aravis and I have been making, the author is considering different types of anti-realism). More fundamentally what you are producing here is clearly not an experiment. The problem here is not with knowledge of the moon, but with all knowledge in general. We could begin to talk about evidence for the moon’s age but we would changing the subject. We are questioning whether or not anything counts as evidence for the conclusion that there is an ultimate reality. As such you can’t turn to observations without begging the question. Yes we have observations about the moon’s age supporting the conclusion “There was a Moon 380 million years ago.” (Or I take your word for it as a physicist that we do.) What is the status of that conclusion? No one doubts it should be taken as true but does “There was a Moon 380 million years ago” correspond to some state of affairs in a completely ultimate and mind independent reality? These are the questions. If you feel like saying “YES! It must otherwise there would be no SCIENCE!” then fine, make your argument. But make your argument. And notice it will be a conceptual one. And you owe the anti-realist a response because they make positive arguments as well.

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  34. schlafly, as moderator of this group I’m seriously struggling to moderate myself. You ignorance of philosophy of science is matched only by your arrogance about the subject, which is too bad, because you obviously have interesting thoughts to contribute to the discussion. Philosophers haven’t “co-opted” the term realism: they invented it, own it, and keep producing interesting thoughts about. Are these thoughts pertinent to everyday scientific practice? No. But neither is a lot of what goes on in human affairs, so what?

    No, realism doesn’t mean believe in “fantasies,” unless you are prepared to call electrons, quarks, and superstrings “fantasies,” a position that would put you at serious odds with the majority of scientists, I would think. But please, continue, don’t let calls for a more constructive discourse stop you from your next barrage of contempt about things you manifestly know nothing about, or have any interest in knowing anything about. Cheers!

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  35. “I am sorry that the philosophical jargon was an obstacle to you. I tried to be as accessible as I could but it’s not always easy to know which terms the average reader might not be familiar with, especially when you got used to use these terms for a long time. That would help me if you told me which terms exactly are obscure to you.”

    That’s an easy one, but I won’t just list the jargon, the definition of jargon is clear and anyone can relate it to their work. Every person is more lay in different fields than others, so you would know what jargon is from reading something outside your field, and most would prefer to access other fields as easily as possible.

    My long winded suggestion is to work from facts, not disparate opinions about facts, but that is less scholastic. For example, lots of chat about the reliability of awareness, and you can name a dozen variations of opinions about it. But Kant, and the others you mention, and neuroscience, can be removed by returning to the facts – I set them out above. In that case, look to anatomy itself and start valuing what you have not previously valued.

    However, that is not a scholastic exercise, it is a creative exercise more fundamental than scholasticism, and the way to make real progress. Its good to do a survey of other opinions if those opinions are easily accessed and reconciled, but they generally are not – which why these threads are so long. From my point of view, if it isn’t dished up on a plate, I generally don’t have time.

    What else can I offer…maybe treat the subject seriously as a subject, and not as a means of exchange between people. Long threads of unresolvable, not just unresolved, discussion are a social exercise for many, but that’s not the point as I see it. I look for a bit of an angle in something someone writes when I pass through blogs, usually completely unknown to the writer, and say thanks for that in the rare cases I find them. Not here, not today, but perhaps in future Quentin. You got close to peaking my interest with that reference to Rovelli, who I had never heard of, but his view is quite primitive.

    My opinion, for what its worth, is that you don’t understand all this, or you would have taken the trouble to challenge my view of the Uncertainty Principle – a supposed fundamental of physics that is in fact a massive obfuscation around a complete lack of conformity to definitions of motion & direction. See, that is a novel view that purports to make progress, and my opinion naturally is that it deserves examination above endless scholastic repetition. So, ultimately I doubt this will get through, but its here for others to read as well.

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  36. Hi Aravis,

    Get back to me when you have a reply to Davidson’s arguments against the scheme/content distinction.

    Having just read his paper I am happy to concur with his argument. As you have noted, it is in line with the “web” idea — the “organizing scheme” and the “stuff to be organized” are both parts of the web and thus are not independent.

    Let’s be clear that Davidson’s argument is that we cannot distinguish between the human conceptual scheme and the human ideas about the content of the scheme, but this does not refute the notion of an underlying reality that is independent of human language and concepts, and which the human ideas are about.

    Hi David Ottlinger,

    Just as in other context you are willing to stretch “science” to cover all rational argumentation …

    Well yes! I’m certainly not going to concede that science is somehow forbidden from using good and valid rational arguments! Science without explanations and rational argument is just stamp collecting (to mis-quote Rutherford).

    Replace ”there really was an Earth and Moon 380 million years ago” with “there is a hand in front of me” and the argument runs the exact same way.

    OK, so let’s complete the anti-realist account, complete with an account of the vat, the Evil Daemon, the reasons for that Daemon and the reasons for the particulars of the stream of fake sense data, and then test that whole scheme against a realist scheme for explanatory and predictive power. The realist scheme would win that with ease.

    The point is … that the way the world is is always multiply describable …

    I have no problem with the world being multiply describable (especially given the limitations of human descriptions). There is a quote by Feynman that every good theoretical physicist knows seven different ways of thinking about the same thing. All of them are useful ways of analysing reality. So long as the different ways are mutually consistent, this is fine. For example a physicist knows that one can say “energy is conserved” or “fundamental laws are time-independent” and also know that these are different aspects of the same thing (as proved by Noether).

    … does “There was a Moon 380 million years ago” correspond to some state of affairs in a completely ultimate and mind independent reality?

    Obviously we can never be certain, we can only (as ever in science) do our best. And we do our best by sticking all of these things (including realism, logic, empirical evidence, rational thinking, etc) into the “web” and then testing different variants for explanatory and predictive power.

    For anti-realism to be taken seriously it needs to get its hands dirty and actually give an account of what apparent-length of apparent-orbit the apparent-moon would have 380 million apparent-years ago, and why this meshes exactly with apparent-tidal-rings in apparent-coral that has an apparent-radiometric apparent-age equivalent to the apparent-orbit calculation.

    But I’m not aware of anything such, or any decent attempts at actual anti-realist schemes that actually do have explanatory and predictive power, which is why scientific realism currently wins hands down.

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  37. It is unfortunate that Aravis has no more replies, since his observations have been by far the most useful. That his points have been ignored by most (other than by those like, e.g., EJ Winner, David Ottlinger, and Daniel Tippens) is unfortunate and, if anything, speaks to the need for science to catch up with much of the history of philosophy (i.e., things we’ve known are problematic for *centuries*). It also speaks to (with all due respect to our hard-working site master) how the 5 comment limit militates against the natural flow of discourse with those who have substantial points to make and many and sundry philosophically-uninformed replies to rebut. I think limiting the time (say 3 days) but not comments would be better. Otherwise, the casual reader might easily get the wrong impression from the absence of replies on one side after a certain point.

    As to Aravis’ views being in the minority within the field, I must say that I would agree that a Wittgenstein et. al. are worth any number of other, lesser lights. As for Boghossian, although he also poo-poos Kant(!), Hume(!), and Nietzsche(!) in his book, we’ll still be reading them long after Boghossian himself is forgotten.

    To Daniel Tippens:

    “You point out that there are various ways of counting the objects. Even if this is true (that there are various ways of counting the objects) Boghossian points out that there clearly must be some ‘dough’ upon which you are counting! After all, how could you be counting anything if there were nothing out there for you to be counting?”

    This is question-begging, for the simple reason that it assumes the ding an sich (thing in itself). But that is precisely what is under dispute.

    “Boghossian points out that this case does not point out that there is no true answer, all this case does is to point out that there can be many, perhaps infinite, equally true descriptions of the world, none of which contradicting each other.”

    This is not scientific realism (which needs metaphysical realism as a necessary condition). Scientific realism accepts that there is only one correct view. Furthermore, given that the notion of “object” differs in the two descriptions, all we have done by saying that both are ways of describing things is simply granting the second view as the true one, which the advocate of there being only three objects would reject. Putnam says as much:

    “If the answer is that…[the latter grouping- 7 objects instead of 3] are all the different “pieces,” then we have not a neutral description, but rather a partisan description-just the description of the Warsaw logician [referring to the latter grouping of 7]!”

    Of course, even discussing Putnam doesn’t engage the other significant points (scheme/content problem, etc.), none of which have been really addressed.

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  38. “Let’s be clear that Davidson’s argument is that we cannot distinguish between the human conceptual scheme and the human ideas about the content of the scheme, but this does not refute the notion of an underlying reality that is independent of human language and concepts, and which the human ideas are about.”

    So, it doesn’t refute a notion incapable of being conceptualized, but anti-realism still needs to “get its hands dirty.” Uh-huh.

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  39. Coel, I’m no expert on Davidson, but I don’t think you are reading him correctly. Perhaps we’ll have a whole separate discussion on this specific topic, where you and Aravis can have five additional rounds!

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  40. My previous comment can be further reduced to two cases.

    C1, is Nature a field (or fields), but nothing more?

    C2, Nature is much, much more than a field (or fields).

    If C2 is correct, then both GR (general relativity) and QFT (quantum field theory) are wrong. Thus, I will consider the C1 as correct first.

    GR views the Nature as a spacetime field, totally describable by tensor (a high dimensional geometrical language). GFT views the Nature as a probability field.

    It is not impossible to make a ‘translation’ between the two languages. But, the mass-term is expressed differently in these two fields, and this is a more difficult issue while is not impossible. Yet, I did not and will not try to work out this unification, for two reasons.

    R1, the unification of two wrong theories will not produce a correct one.

    R2, there is already a correct ‘DESCRIPTION’.

    Description is not a theory. Theory is a ‘part’ of a process: the interplay between the speculation and verification. Description is an ‘endo-cast’ which MATCHES all anchors.

    This ‘description’ is all about the force which moves the entire universe from {here, now} to {here/there, next}, the U-move.

    This U-move was understood by ancients, a sitting still person is after all moving in TIME. But, even after the discovery of the accelerating expansion of universe, moving-in-time is still not an issue in the mainstream physics.

    I have showed that this U-move is powered by the force F (U-move) = ħ/ (delta S x delta T), see http://prebabel.blogspot.com/2013/11/why-does-dark-energy-make-universe.html . It is the base for {delta P x delta S >= ħ}. Thus, it is fair to say that the quantum action {ħ} powers this U-move.

    Then, it is not too difficult to show that this quantum action {ħ} also defines the ‘STRUCTURE’ of this universe. The {1/2 ħ} spin defines a {real/ghost} symmetry, as all fermions see two copies of universe. That is, they are bouncing between two copies. The dynamical equation of this bouncing is the gravity-equation (see http://www.prequark.org/Gravity.htm ). With this, F (U-move) is identified as gravity.

    Now, both {delta P x delta S >= ħ} and gravity are the emergent of the U-move (moving-in-time). This unification shows that Nature is more than fields.

    For U-move itself, it moves from EH (event horizon) to Yonder. While EH can be wholly described with fields, the Yonder is not.

    For the GR field, there is only one copy of universe. For the probability field, it implicitly can encompass more than one universe (as the multi-world-‘interpretation’), but it does not explicitly described more than one copy. Thus, both theory (GR and QFT) are incomplete.

    Furthermore, both EH/Yonder and {two copies of universe} are the expressions of {Real (fields)/Ghost (non-field)} symmetry. Thus, the C1 is wrong.

    By removing one option (the wrong C1), we are one step closer to open the vault to see whether any REAL is in it.

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  41. Aravis,

    Sorry to hear you can’t answer, perhaps you could elaborate more on this in the future somehow. Thanks anyway.

    Jarnangua,

    ——-“You point out that there are various ways of counting the objects. Even if this is true (that there are various ways of counting the objects) Boghossian points out that there clearly must be some ‘dough’ upon which you are counting! After all, how could you be counting anything if there were nothing out there for you to be counting?”

    This is question-begging, for the simple reason that it assumes the ding an sich (thing in itself). But that is precisely what is under dispute.——

    So this is not a case of question begging. Boghossian was pointing out that in order for the description-dependent argument against there being some fundamental reality to get off the ground, one has to assume that there is some fundamental reality. In other words, in order to point out that there are various ways of counting some objects, one has to assume that there is something out there which you are counting. So, Boghossian was saying that the Putnam-type argument for description dependence of facts requires, or at best assumes, that there is a fundamental reality in order for it to work at all.

    In other words, Boghossian wasn’t assuming his conclusion in his premises, he was pointing out that the argument for description dependence of facts assumes the negation of its conclusion in its premises (it assumes that there is a fundamental reality even though it is arguing against that claim).

    ——“Boghossian points out that this case does not point out that there is no true answer, all this case does is to point out that there can be many, perhaps infinite, equally true descriptions of the world, none of which contradicting each other.”

    This is not scientific realism (which needs metaphysical realism as a necessary condition). Scientific realism accepts that there is only one correct view. Furthermore, given that the notion of “object” differs in the two descriptions, all we have done by saying that both are ways of describing things is simply granting the second view as the true one, which the advocate of there being only three objects would reject.——

    So when you say “all we have done by saying that both are ways of describing things is simply granting the second view as the true one…” this is precisely what Boghossian is denying. Perhaps I can try to make it clearer this time. Boghossian ultimately tries to claim that the advocate of there being three objects and the advocate of there being 7 objects don’t actually disagree (nobody is saying one claim to be true and the other is false), both of their claims are true, and this is in no way metaphysically problematic.

    Using Boghossian’s example again, if you and I were at a party and I said, “there are four couples here,” and you said, “there are eight people here,” nobody would say that we are disagreeing. It would actually be odd if someone thought we were disagreeing.The idea is we were just describing the same stuff (guests) in the party in two different but completely consistent ways. Nobody would have to step in and say, “Dan you are wrong and Jarnangua you are right.” We are both right, and not disagreeing.

    Similarly, just as “couple” and “people” mean two different things, so too “object” in one case and “object” in another case mean two different things, and the two claims with different senses of “object” are not contradicting eachother. Just as how it seems odd for one to claim that you are incorrect when you say “there are 4 couples at the party,” because really, “there are eight people at the party,” so too it would be odd for one to claim that you are incorrect when you say, “there are 3 ‘objects” because really, “there are 7 ‘objects” (where “objects in both cases mean different things).

    So saying that “the advocate of there being only three objects would reject that there are 7 objects” is wrong, just as saying “the advocate that there are 4 couples at the party would reject that there are 8 people at the party” is wrong. Both claims are perfectly consistent with eachother, and nobody is disagreeing.

    Maybe I didn’t understand your reply to Boghossian and if so, apologies. I hope this either cleared up my epxosition of Boghossian or made it clearer how you can exposit your objections once again.

    Lastly, you point out I have only handle Putnam’s claims. True, I certainly can’t go through expositing all of the replies to all of the various authors that Aravis brought up. That is why people like Boghossian wrote an entire book on the subject. Instead I thought it would be good to try to present an elaborate defense against one author’s arguments instead of trying to tackle a whole literature on the subject.

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  42. This is my last comment. Thank you all for the discussion.

    @John Smith

    That’s not an “easy one”, and no, it’s really not that easy to know what the jargon is once you’ve become familiar with it. That’s a problem teachers and popularizers face. Reading you, it seems you’ve never been confronted to this problem. I don’t run a vocabulary comparison algorithm each time I read an artical outside my field of research and that would be irrelevant in any case: obviously, a political essay will use a different vocabulary… So what? However your failure to help me in telling me what words are obscure to you, and your dissmissive comment, make me doubt that it’s really a problem of jargon here…

    Your view that Kant and neuroscience (!) are irrelevant because we should just “look at facts” is philosophically naive, to say the least. Your appraisal of Rovelli’s position is naive too: Rovelli is a renowned specialist in quantum gravity. Sincerly, I doubt that his interpretation of quantum mechanics is “primitive”. Perhaps you should restrain yourself from judging things you didn’t make the effort to understand. Scientific realism is of interest for philosophers and for scientists interested in the philosophical aspects of their discipline. If you’re not interested, just don’t comment.

    I did not take the trouble to challenge your point of view on the uncertainty principle because it is irrelevant. There is no uncertainty principle in classical physics: you can measure both momentum and position with arbitrary precision. Momentum is a physical property that particles possess at any time.

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  43. Quentin:”There is no uncertainty principle in classical physics: you can measure both momentum and position with arbitrary precision. Momentum is a physical property that particles possess at any time.”

    There is no uncertainty principle in physics and at the same time nature can be measured arbitrarily or in other words: with uncertainty?

    Is Nature measurable???

    =

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  44. Coming in at the very end, and I don’t really have anything to add, except that this seems to be a discussion about the meaning of the word ‘real’ rather than anything else.

    Also, if EQM is the ‘realist’ interpretation of QM, doesn’t that just shift the discussion as to what is the ‘realist’ interpretation of EQM?

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  45. Daniel Tippens:

    First, I very much appreciate your direct engagement of the point re: Putnam. My note at the end about there being other issues was for clarification only.

    Now, Boghossian: Yes, I see your point precisely. However, it seems to me that Putnam is not as easily dispensed with as Boghossian claims. First, he straightforwardly addresses the issue immediately following the 3 vs. 7 objects example with the following statement:

    “…metaphysical realism cannot really recognize the phenomenon of conceptual relativity-for that phenomenon turns on the fact that the logical primitives themselves, and in particular the notions of object and existence, have a multitude of different uses rather than one absolute ‘meaning.'”

    It seems to me that Boghossian wants to reimport the notion of absolute meaning by pointing to the ding an sich, unproblematized in terms of its having one meaning a la existence, regardless of its different uses. Why should we assume this? Putnam himself address the issue thusly:

    “…given a version, the question ‘How many objects are there?’ has an answer, namely ‘three’ in the case of the first version (‘Carnap’s world’) and ‘seven’ in the case of the second version (‘the Polish logician’s world’). Once we make clear how we are using ‘object’ (or ‘exist’), the question ‘How many objects exist?’ has an answer that is not at all a matter of ‘convention.’ That is why I say that this sort of example does not support cultural relativism. Of course, our concepts are culturally relative; but it does not follow that the truth or falsity of what we say using those concepts is simply “determined” by the culture. But the idea that there is an Archimedean point (or a use of ‘exist’ inherent in the world itself) from which the question ‘How many objects really exist?’ makes sense is an illusion.”

    To Coel:

    Regarding your statement concerning Davidson: “…but this does not refute the notion of an underlying reality that is independent of human language and concepts, and which the human ideas are about.”

    Davidson, *same* article, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”:

    “I want to urge that this second dualism of scheme and content, of organizing system and something waiting to be organized, cannot be made intelligible and defensible. It is itself a dogma of empiricism, the third dogma. The third, and perhaps the last, for if we give it up it is not clear that there is anything distinctive left to call empiricism.”

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