Monday, January 30, 2012

Grounded in 19C materialism

The UK Guardian reports:
Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, once observed that history could be divided into periods according to what people of the time made of matter. In his book Physics and Philosophy, published in the early 60s, he argued that at the beginning of the 20th century we entered a new period. It was then that quantum physics threw off the materialism that dominated the natural sciences of the 19th century. ...

Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: "The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology."
String theorist Lubos Motl adds:
Of course, the main arena where this obsolete viewpoint manifests itself is quantum mechanics. A huge percentage of scientists, especially those who are not working with quantum mechanics on a daily basis and in "practical proportions", still think that the world is ultimately classical in the sense that everything we have ever observed is a reflection of an objective reality that in principle contains some totally accurate information that we could learn (and all of us could agree about) if we only overcame various obstacles all of which are surely just technical in character...

On the other hand, there are lots of crazy people who are convinced that quantum physics is destined to prove their particular religious or spiritual speculations about the usual topics that religious and superstitious people love to care about – afterlife, soul flying away from your body, direct communication with the Creator, methods to make outcomes of quantum experiments more favorable to subjects who have prayed, telepathy, other paranormal phenomena, and so on.
I agree with Motl here. Science writing seems divided among (1) those stuck in 19C materialism, (2) promoters of pseudoscientific mysticism, and (3) physicists who denounce the first two groups, and yet promote their own incoherent interpretations of modern physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics seem less well understood today than in 1930. I have my sharpest criticisms for that third group, because they should know better.

I don't think that the situation is improving. There are textbooks from decades ago that explained quantum mechanics well, and yet modern physicists and respectable science publications continue to say goofy things about quantum mechanics.

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