Quantum Physics, Philosophy, and Understanding Our World

Quantum Physics, Philosophy, and Understanding Our World

Author: Dirk Eidemüller, Vera Köster

Dr. Dirk Eidemüller is a science journalist and author from Berlin, Germany. The physicist and philosopher is the author of the just-published book Quanten – Evolution – Geist (Quanta – Evolution – Mind). Here he talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about what quantum physics and the theory of evolution mean for our understanding of the world.


Are we as human beings capable of understanding the world? What does the scientist and what does the philosopher say?

This is a very deep question. Niels Bohr once answered to that question, with regard to quantum physics: Yes, we will understand, but we will also learn anew what understanding means. When I first read his statement as a student, it made me wonder, but at the same time, it encouraged me to keep on studying the miracles of quantum physics.

I personally regard Bohr’s remark as probably the most important general philosophical insight we can gain from quantum physics: That due to its weirdness, quantum physics forces us to start thinking about what understanding actually means, and how limited our human imagination is. Quantum physics, like no other scientific theory ever devised, pushes us to the point where we have to accept that we cannot find any kind of visualization of what happens in nature anymore. We can devise models for one phenomenon or another, but these models will certainly fail in different circumstances.

And when you start thinking about why our mind is not able to imagine microscopic processes, you easily reach the conclusion that it is like that because evolution has not made us this way. Never in the history of our ancestors have microscopic phenomena been part of their sensory environment. So there has never been any need to develop structures of consciousness that would enable us to better understand the quantum world.

Now, what is important: In many fields, we can develop models and visualizations once we get acquainted with the field, once we get used to it. But that does not work in quantum physics. Here we find something like an absolute barrier for our understanding, where only the power of mathematics keeps us going. Of course, the limits of visualization also apply to other scientific concepts, like the curved four-dimensional space-time of Einstein’s theory of relativity. But that applies to large stretches of space. In quantum physics, we are dealing with the elementary building blocks of matter.


Do you think this understanding affects the way we live?

If we see fundamental limits in our understanding of the simplest pieces of matter, maybe that could teach us a little humility regarding our capacity to understand and control complex systems like the climate, ecosystems, societies, economic orders, … In my book, I have worked that out a bit more in-depth. It is along these lines that you find important connections between philosophy of science, epistemology, and anthropology. Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that explains how human beings can have knowledge about the world. I have left out any deeper ethical discussions, though. That would have gone too far beyond the scope of the book, and it leaves space for the reader to think about his own position.


Your book is called Quanten – Evolution – Geist. Eine Abhandlung über Natur, Wissenschaft und Wirklichkeit (Quanta – Evolution – Mind. A treatise on nature, science, and reality). What is it about?

The book deals with the implications of modern science for our world view. The discussion revolves mainly, but not exclusively, around the meaning of quantum physics and the theory of evolution for an estimation of the human capacity for understanding nature.

The book consists of three parts: The first part discusses the weird theory of quantum physics and explains its interpretations. The second part deals with evolutionary epistemology and the relationship between different parts of science, namely, physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience. Now, since the established philosophical theories concerning the connection between these theories do not fit together in a conclusive way, I have worked out a different approach to these questions in the third and last part of the book.

Interestingly, in the developed perspective, a couple of general topics from very different disciplines, like philosophy of mind, anthropology, or aesthetics in science, can also be discussed in a coherent and harmonious way.


Why is there a discrepancy between the view of the world from a scientific perspective and from what society often thinks?

Well, that is not easy to say, because in the end scientists and people working with technology are also a part of society. But, to put it in a very general perspective, every society has developed its own view of the world during the course of its history. Thus, such a view contains various influences: religious, philosophical, political, practical, and for the last couple of hundred years, increasingly also scientific and technological.

And today, in the era of globalization, these views intermingle. This, on one hand, allows us to compare the different cultures around the world better than ever before. On the other hand, it also confronts us with different world views and puts us up to the question: How relative and limited is my view of the world actually?

Now, in western countries, since modern science was developed mostly here and found its industrial applications here earlier than in other countries, we also feel a much stronger influence of scientific theories on philosophy and the general view of the world. The interesting thing about this: For most of the time, more than two centuries, the main philosophical influence was that of deterministic classical physics. If we look at the hugely influential philosophical debates in the beginning of the modern era, we find the idea of a deterministic world view everywhere. Kant’s philosophy, for example, is an ingenious way of construing the human freedom of will in a world that runs completely deterministic. You can also look at Laplace or at dialectical materialism (the philosophical foundation of Marxism), whose authors incomprehensibly enlarge the concept of determinism to the development of societies. Today, this kind of deterministic thinking has certainly softened up, but it is still very prevalent.

Modern developments like the indeterministic quantum physics and the concept of complex evolutionary self-organization are clearly at odds with these traditional world views. Thus, in the west, we are probably more prone to thinking of having a scientific world view than elsewhere, while, actually, our world view is heavily influenced by old theories, which describe only certain aspects of reality, not the totality of physical reality as once assumed.

It also takes a lot of time before scientific ideas enter into the general culture. Especially quantum physics, being very abstract and counter-intuitive, is only very slowly being digested in its philosophical content. Hopefully, its reception will, step by step, increase our knowledge about the world, as well as our insight into the capacities and limitations of the human mind. My book is meant as a systematic contribution to such a development.


Is it important for society to understand science?

Well, it certainly helps in handling technology and understanding its failures. And of course, it’s a wonderful intellectual adventure to learn new things about nature. But it’s probably too optimistic to believe that a large part of any population would be too enthusiastic about science.

Still, we see how popular some TV series are like for example Big Bang Theory. And, speaking as a science journalist, we experience a growing interest in science and technology, not only among younger people. There are many initiatives in schools to improve the quality of science teaching, something that had been neglected for a while. So, I guess, we are not on a bad road.


Why is quantum physics important?

Because it is so new. Well, maybe not for the physicists and the chemists, but certainly for a wider audience. Today, many people start getting interested in these questions. I have been talking with people from psychology and linguistics, from philosophy, engineering, and the crafts sector, who have a genuine interest in knowing more about this weird stuff. Maybe it’s also because of the influence of certain television series, who knows? But still, the knowledge about quantum physics is very superficial, because even in the academic community there is only partly an agreement on what quantum physics actually means. You always hear about uncertainty and many worlds, as if both topics were on the same level of acceptance.

The same situation applies to academical philosophy. There is also a very small group of experts, often with a background in physics, who work on the philosophy of quantum physics. So you have a couple of really devoted experts on the one hand, and quite a lot of people who are interested in the field but know very little about it on the other hand. When they ask their specialized colleagues, they are not very encouraged by the many different opinions and the extremely abstract level of the discussion. For that reason, I tried to include the most important results of the academic discussion in my book, but in an accessible language.


Will the advances in quantum computing and artificial intelligence help us in our understanding or make things more difficult to understand for us?

Personally, I don’t believe very much in artificial intelligence. True intelligence, or self-consciousness, is an emergent quality of consciousness, which is a characteristic of living beings. Today, we are just about to glimpse the sheer complexity of living beings. I believe that quantum computing and smart algorithms will be very helpful tools in designing new materials, medicine, and stuff like that. But the step from there to true intelligence is huge. Maybe purely electronic machines will never be able to develop intelligence because they lack bodily experience? Maybe bio-cyber-systems will do better? But that would bring a lot of ethical questions with it.


You studied physics and philosophy. What got you interested in these fields?

Actually, from elementary school on, I was always interested in science. Later, I also found an interest in history, which brought me to the ancient Romans and Greeks. That again, step by step, got me interested in philosophy. I had the luck to have some very inspiring teachers in high school in these subjects. So I also followed that course later during my studies.


What got you interested in writing?

That is a fair question, because as a teen, I was never too enthusiastic about writing. When I started studying physics, I would never have thought of becoming a professional writer one day. I knew from my time in school that I had some talent in languages, but at that time I was mostly interested in foreign languages, not in writing. It was only when I started doing my Ph.D. in philosophy of science that I really discovered the pleasure in writing.


You mentioned the Big Bang Theory TV series and the popularity of quantum physics. Do you have any advice for chemists on how to make chemistry more attractive to society?

Well, on one hand, everybody knows that chemistry is a huge discipline and incredibly important both in science and industry. On the other hand, it is incredibly under-represented both in the media and in intellectual discussions. Astrophysics, instead – I say that as an astroparticle physicist – is massively over-represented, even the most speculative and weird theories. Quantum physics has become “cool” now, but nearly nobody outside of the natural sciences knows that there is something like quantum chemistry.

But surely, the public image of chemistry will not change unless more people from chemistry start to communicate what they are actually doing. I know how difficult that often is and how much you have to simplify things already when you speak to, let’s say, physicists. But it doesn’t help. Only by trying to communicate, failing to communicate, trying again with different pictures, and so on, will chemistry get the attention it deserves. And society needs to know more about it.

If we think about new materials needed for renewable energies, if we think about new medicine or nanoparticles: There are many important fields which will have a huge influence on tomorrow’s society. And nobody knows how these things are done in the lab. Not the general public and certainly not the politicians that have to make the right decisions. Today, there are so many platforms, not just the classical media, but also blogs, videos, science slams. Find some way of making your lab work visible and accessible. Don’t wait for the public to develop an interest in chemistry. People get bombarded with lots of other things. Go out, create your own audience.

And don’t be shy to present real-life experiments. In a public lecture recently, I showed a slide with a complicated optical table with a really weird quantum experiment. After the talk, everybody wanted to see that experiment again and to get some explanation, how in heaven that could work. Of course, I could not give a satisfactory, understandable explanation, because that experiment was pure quantum magic by Zeilinger’s people [1, 2]. But I learned from this experience that there are quite a lot of people out there who want to know more about science, much more than what you usually get in television or newspapers. Many people want to know what doing science is really all about. Show them the truth. Not just image films. Nothing is better than the real thing.


Thank you very much for the interview


[1] Gabriela Barreto Lemos, Victoria Borish, Garrett D. Cole, Sven Ramelow, Radek Lapkiewicz, Anton Zeilinger, Quantum imaging with undetected photons, Nature 2014512, 409–412. DOI: 10.1038/nature13586

[2] Dirk Eidemüller, Fotografieren mit verlorenem Licht, Spektrum 2014.

Dirk Eidemüller studied physics and philosophy in Darmstadt and Heidelberg, both Germany, as well as in Rome, Italy, and Berlin, Germany. He received his diploma in astroparticle physics and his Ph.D. in philosophy of science. After working in science at the Humboldt-University, Berlin, Eidemüller now is a free journalist and author in Berlin. 



Selected Publications


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