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Gabriel Catren - "A Throw of the Quantum Dice Will Never Overturn the Copernican Revolution"

Gabriel Catren - "A Throw of the Quantum Dice Will Never Overturn the Copernican Revolution"

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Published by: Evan Garris on Mar 28, 2014
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12/02/2014

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COLLAPSE V45312345678910111213141516171819202122232425262728293031
Gabriel Catren
Illustrations by Cristian Turdera
 A Throw of the Quantum Dice WillNever Abolish the CopernicanRevolution
1
I. T
HE
 P
TOLEMAIC
 R
EDUCTION
 
OF 
 Q  
 UANTUM
 M
ECHANICS
1
One of Kant’s seminal contributions to modern science is the injunction according to which the Copernican reflection on the spatiotemporal localisation of the subject of science has to be radicalised into an inquiry regarding its transcendental localisation. If the Copernican revolution allowed the development of a rigorous scientific astronomy delivered of the limits imposed by the contingent localisa-tion of the earth, Kant’s critique opens up for the first time the possibility of performing a transcendental deanthropo-morphisation of science. Instead of imposing juridical limits on science, such a transcendental self-consciousness should allow a progressive emancipation of the scientific com-prehension of nature from the limitations imposed by the a priori structures of scientific knowledge (such as human
1. I would like to thank Damian Veal for his insightful criticisms and comments on a first draft of the manuscript. Of course, I take sole responsibility for the final result.
 
ndd 45313/1/09 05:
 
COLLAPSE V45412345678910111213141516171819202122232425262728293031Catren – Quantum Dice45512345678910111213141516171819202122232425262728293031In particular, quantum mechanics is a privileged target of what Meillassoux has notably called the transcendental ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’. Indeed, many interpretations of quantum mechanics could be translated – to differing extents – in transcendental terms. In what follows, we will use the term ‘transcendental’ to characterise any interpretation according to which quantum mechanics can be considered a scientific formalisation of certain impassable limits to the knowledge of physical nature. We could say that a transcen-dental interpretation of quantum mechanics states that the conditions of possibility of scientific experience restrict the amount of accessible information that can be predicted of (or extracted from) physical systems.
3
 This transcendental interpretative framework could thus be summarised in the following terms:
[...] it now proves quite easy to justify transcendentally a large part of the structure of Quantum Mechanics. One can for instance derive a crucial part of the quantum formalism from assumptions about the limits of accessible experimen-tal information; or from assumptions about contextuality of phenomena [...] This means that one is no longer compelled to understand quantum theories as a representation of the ‘external’, ‘independent’ world, with all the strangeness and paradoxes that are associated with such a representation. Rather, quantum theories can very naturally be understood
3. The forthcoming book
Constituting Objectivity: Transcendental Approaches of Modern Physics,
 M. Bitbol, P. Kerszberg and J. Petitot (eds) The Western Ontario Series in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 74 (Berlin: Springer Verlag, forthcoming February 2009) is entirely devoted to the relationship between transcendental philosophy and modern physics. Some of the most interesting and far-reaching transcendental analysis of the quantum formalism can be found in the works of S. Y. Auyang, M. Bitbol, E. Cassirer, B. Falkenburg, G. Hermann and P. Mittelstaedt. We address the reader to the aforementioned work for all the relevant references.
physiology, categories of human understanding, scales accessible to human experience, technological possibili-ties, imaginary and ideological representations, limitations imposed by the anthropic principle, particular linguistic structures, sociological, political and economical precondi-tions of research, and so on). Alas, instead of exponentiating to a transcendental power the projective dehumanisation of science, most proponents of the critical philosophy instead attempted to stitch up the narcissistic wound opened by the Copernican revolution. Even Kant, far from pushing the transcendental revolution to its ultimate, inhuman denouement, instead used his critique to demonstrate that science would never  be able to sublate its humanity. In this way, the required transcendental reflection on the preconditions of scientific experience did not lead to the announced transcendental Copernican revolution. On the contrary, the ultimate sense of the Copernican revolution was, as Meillassoux clearly shows in
 After Finitude 
,
2
 completely distorted. A narcissistic reaction aims to counteract the Copernican decentring of the planet earth – and tries to heal what Freud called the ‘cosmological humiliation’– by re-situating human existence on a transcendental ‘unmoving
Ur 
-earth’ (Husserl). In the last instance, it does not matter whether humanity dwells on an orbiting earth; the transcendental ego is the ultimate centred source of the objective consistency that science naïvely believes itself to discover in nature.
2. See Chapter Five, ‘Ptolemy’s Revenge’, of Q. Meillassoux,
 After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency 
, trans. R. Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008).
 
Catren.indd 454-45513/1/09 05:17:37
 
COLLAPSE V45612345678910111213141516171819202122232425262728293031Catren – Quantum Dice45712345678910111213141516171819202122232425262728293031In this way, physicists seem forced to accept that they cannot abstract from the
constitutive 
 role that their measuring instruments play in experimental inquiry. This means that quantum systems seem to be inherently
contextual 
, that is to say we cannot separate their properties from the experi-mental contexts that constitute them as systems. The quantum realm that underlies our everyday object-oriented macroscopic experience is a kind of uncanny domain peopled with weird, shadowy entities that assume definite properties only when they are observed, that ‘decide’ to  behave like waves or particles depending on the experimen-tal setup, and so on. In Kantian terms, we could say that quantum systems seem to conform to our faculty of experi-mental intuition. If classical mechanics is supposed to rely on a classical ontology of observer-independent physical objects endowed with intrinsic objective properties, quantum formalism seems to forbid any ontological extrapolation in terms of decontextualised physical objects. Employing Popper’s characterisation of the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, we might say ‘that quantum mechanics does not represent [physical systems],  but rather our knowledge, our observations, or our con-sciousness, of [physical systems]’.
6
 Instead of pushing our comprehension of nature’s rational structure further than
‘Properties of quantum systems have no absolute meaning. Rather, they must be always characterised with respect to other physical systems. Correlations between the properties of quantum systems are more basic that the properties themselves.’ C. Rovelli, ‘Relational quantum mechanics’,
International Journal of Theoretical Physics 
 35, 1996, 1675. See also F. Laudisa & C. Rovelli, ‘Relational Quantum Mechanics’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
 (Fall 2008 Edition), at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/qmrelational/.6. K. Popper,
Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics 
 (Cambridge: Unwin Hyman, 1982), 35. (Popper writes of ‘particles’ rather than ‘physical systems’).
as expressing the constraints and bounds of (experimental) knowledge. This is very much in the spirit of Kant, if not in the letter of his original texts.
4
In classical mechanics, the exact position and the exact momentum (roughly speaking, the velocity) of a particle can  be simultaneously predicted for all times from a given set of initial conditions. In quantum mechanics, on the contrary, we cannot predict the momentum of a particle characterised  by a well-defined position (and vice versa). More generally, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of variables can be simultaneously predicted only up to some inversely-correlated uncertainties. It is therefore tempting to try to localise the transcendental a priori structures (instrumental, pragmatic, cognitive, linguistic, etc.) that are at the origin of this supposed limitation. According to this ‘Kantian’ strategy, quantum mechanics seems to show that it is impossible to go through the ‘transcendental’ looking-glass towards a hypothetical ‘nature-in-itself’ inhabited  by systems with intrinsic properties. Rather, quantum mechanics seems to provide a mathematical account of the correlations between the ‘observed’ systems and their (not necessarily human) ‘observers’.
5
4. M. Bitbol et al.,
Introduction to Constituting Objectivity: Transcendental Approaches of  Modern Physics 
, op.cit, 17-18.5. It is worth remarking that the thesis according to which quantum mechanics only describes correlations between physical systems does not necessarily entail that there exist impassable limits to the knowledge of nature. For example, the so-called ‘relational’ interpretations of quantum mechanics maintain that the notion of an isolated system with ‘absolute’ properties is meaningless. We could say that this strategy amounts – in a Hegelian style – to avoiding anthropomorphic interpretations of the quantum ‘limitations’ by ontologizing the correlations and doing away with any phantomatic ‘thing-in-itself’. Hence, relational quantum mechanics cannot be considered a transcendental interpretation of the theory. These relational interpretations could be summarised by means of the following claims:
 
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