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Our new film columnist has discovered an exciting new type of movie: there’s no screen and the parts are played by live actors, in real time. Thomas Wartenberg reports on the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.
Look, I know this is supposed to be a film column, but I can’t resist the opportunity of commenting on a play that I saw recently, for Copenhagen is one of the most philosophically interesting plays that I have ever seen. Michael Frayn’s play, now playing on Broadway after a long run in London, concerns a meeting that took place in September 1941, between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Both men were pioneers in the development of quantum physics during the early decades of the twentieth century: Bohr is best known for his model of the atom as a microscopic solar system, with electrons circling the nucleus in determinate energy positions, as well his as account of quantum theory known as the Copenhagen Interpretation; Heisenberg is known for the famous principle that bears his name according to which you cannot simultaneously determine the position and momentum of a particle.
When quantum theory was first discovered, it caused a great sensation among philosophers and philosophically inclined scientists. At base was the question of what the philosophic ramifications of a theory that denied causality a crucial role in the understanding of physical phenomena. Einstein’s well-known rejection of quantum theory – “I cannot believe that God played dice with the universe.” – indicates how fundamental the challenges quantum theory was thought to play in our understanding of the universe.
Frayn’s play manages to capture the excitement of those heady times through an interesting dramatic technique. In 1941, the half-Jewish Bohr and his ex-student, Heisenberg, were separated by a deep political divide. Bohr was living in a country that was occupied by the Nazis while Heisenberg was serving as the director of research for them in Berlin. Surprisingly, Bohr’s ex-student appeared for a visit with his old teacher. Questions still remain about Heisenberg’s reason for the visit and Frayn makes this issue the centre of his play. In so doing, he creates a parallel between the question of whether we can ever know the actual motivation for our actions and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
The first act of the play keeps asking the question of why Heisenberg had come to see Bohr. Various possibilities are presented: had he come to alert his friend and former teacher that he was in danger from the Nazis and to give him some connections that could save him? Had he come to ask Bohr to help with the German atomic bomb project? Was he trying to tell Bohr that the Germans did not have a bomb project and that he would do what he could do slow down any such development? The possibilities multiply.
In the second half, Frayn’s own philosophy emerges. He more or less presents his own view of the significance of quantum physics for our understanding of human action. He argues that quantum physics represents a recentering of the human being from the various humiliations it has faced through the development of modern science. Once, our ancestors saw humanity as being at the centre of the Universe, which had in fact been created especially for us. There is a well-known adage that the discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud each in turn moved humans further from the centre of things, made us successively less and less ‘special’ in the Cosmos. Frayn seems to play off this adage by maintaining that Bohr and his fellow physicists put the human being back at the centre of things by demonstrating that our observations of the world shape what it is that we see.
Frayn goes on to present the idea that the human being at the centre of his own universe cannot see one thing: himself. As a result, his own motivation is less clear to him than to the others who are able to observe what he does. The play thus ends with the skeptical message that human motivation remains opaque to all of us, that we just act as circumstances force us to without having a clear understanding of why we act as we do.
As a play, Copenhagen is a real achievement. Frayn has managed to take difficult ideas and make them interesting. It’s amazing to realize that you and hundreds of other theatre-goers have spent two and a half hours raptly considering the philosophical implications of quantum physics. Given the usual subject matter of Broadway theatre, this is truly an accomplishment.
Philosophically, Frayn’s ideas are less successful. It was not quantum physics that recentered the human being, allowed us back into the centre of the world. That happened through the Enlightenment, most centrally with the ideas of both David Hume and Immanuel Kant. For each of them, although in different ways, the world we see is a thoroughly human one. They both rejected the aspiration of knowing what the world looked like to God, arguing that the world that we know is our world, a world that fits our finite, human capabilities.
Even more problematic, I think, is Frayn’s attempt to link quantum mechanics to a skeptical view of human action. It is true that one implication of quantum theory that was seen early on to have important epistemic consequences is that the very act of observing a particle changes the state of the particle, so that it no longer will be in the state you observed it as being. And while it is suggestive to say that this applies to ourselves, I don’t really believe this to be true. Our motivations for at least some of our actions may lie hidden in our souls, and they may be simultaneously determined by a variety of different factors, as psychoanalysis believes, but Frayn’s conception of the human being not being able to perceive himself or herself, while dramatically interesting, won’t stand up to rigorous philosophic scrutiny.
Nonetheless, this is a philosophically interesting and challenging play that deserves to be seen and, hopefully, thought about by many people. At a time in which many see films as no longer engaging with the deep philosophic issues raised by the art films of the 1960s, Copenhagen may signal a rebirth of theatre as a site of serious philosophical investigation.
© Thomas E. Wartengerg 2000
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts