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Nature Loves to Hide by Shimon Malin
Sam Nico commends Shimon Malin’s illuminating look at the philosophy in quantum physics.
One could be forgiven for assuming that this was yet another book from the popularising-of-science stable, written to assuage the general public’s unquenchable thirst for them. This book, however, is the most lucid account of the significance and implications of quantum theory written to date. When Stephen Hawking was writing A Brief History of Time, he was warned not to use equations as each one would halve the sales (and yet he still managed to write a text that few understand). Malin never has a use for them, and writes as one dedicated to elucidation. He proceeds step by step, frequently summing up the main points. There is no obfuscation and no mystery. We are left in no doubt with regard to meaning, and the problems that remain to be solved are clearly outlined.
Malin traces the history of quantum theory through the spirit of philosophy that imbues it. The founders of quantum theory did not work out these ideas as though they were merely puzzling phenomena. They were enthused by a sense of philosophical curiosity and dissatisfaction. Were it not for this, we may still be trying to work out the implications of the very small in a Newtonian context. It is the philosophy contingent on the science that is the real subject here.
The front cover reads ‘Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality’, but these are not synonymous terms. Malin makes it clear that the former is an aspect of the latter, while philosophy already contains the perspective of the former as an intrinsic feature. This is clear from the ideas of Plato and Plotinus, but Malin emphasises their influence on another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).
This is significant, because Whitehead is almost forgotten as a major figure, and yet there is not a statement in quantum physics that is not already prefigured in his philosophy. It is based on the relations between temporal and non-temporal, or eternal, objects. Noting the dislike for ‘eternal objects’ as a concept, Whitehead suggests that one use the idea of potential instead, an idea that is crucial to understanding quantum collapse. It is the relationship between the potential and the actual that is the stuff of quantum theory, and yet, in Whitehead, these are explored as a matter of course. The relationship between Whitehead’s philosophy and quantum physics is the major contribution that Malin makes in the pursuit of the paradigm shift that currently evades us.
Science, as Malin points out, is restricted in its relevance by its objectivating nature, which excludes the subject of cognizance from its domain of relevance. It is for this reason that reality in a scientific treatment is essentially inert. Malin points this out, quoting from Heisenberg, one of the leading figures in quantum theory. It is a great pity that these philosophical outpourings from scientists themselves are not more openly displayed, for we live in an age that assumes that all of reality can be captured in a scientific concept. A paradigm shift, as Malin points out, must extend beyond the bounds of science since these exclude the very essence of that which defines the new paradigm. It is a rare thing these days to hear a scientist speaking so boldly concerning the limitations of their work, compared with Stephen Hawking, say, who, through science, hopes to know the mind of God, while assuming that philosophy ended with Wittgenstein. Perhaps if he read Whitehead, he might conclude differently.
However, (and this ‘however’ is intended as constructive criticism to help point the way into the new paradigm) Malin underestimates the significance of emotion as Whitehead employs it in his philosophy. He does not quote Whitehead on the subject, but a third party who interprets it:
Victor Lowe is right, I believe, when he warns us of “the danger of reading too much into the term ‘feeling’.”Feeling is the relationship between the one who feels and that which is felt.
This is not Whitehead’s thought, but Lowe’s. For Whitehead, the significance of emotion is central and crucial. Whitehead’s actual words are, “It is an essential doctrine in the philosophy of organism, that the primary function of a proposition is to be relevant as a lure for feeling.”It is this conception of feeling that is the defining quality of Whitehead’s philosophy. Without it, organism becomes a ‘system’, to be understood in the traditional way that excludes the very thing that is the focus of attention for Whitehead. To reduce it to the terms of a relationship is to convert it into a mathematical equation and so negate the very principle that Malin is trying to introduce.
In some ways, this is understandable, for to move towards the new paradigm requires the old to be discarded. This is happening in this book, admittedly very slowly, but nonetheless it is moving. Consequently, in his chapter ‘Nature Alive’, Malin writes:
If the universe is alive, emotions may well have cosmological significance.
What he should be writing is “The universe is alive, and emotions do indeed have cosmological significance.”To take this step forward, and speak with such a confidence that removes the doubt from it is a huge undertaking. Whitehead knew this and said so.
Rationalism is an adventure in the clarification of thought, progressive and never final, but it is an adventure in which even partial success has importance.
Malin has had that partial success with this book, for no-one has come as close to this convergence between philosophy and science as he. I hope he will continue the adventure and find the courage to intuit the next step and involve himself more fully. Most certainly this is one of the few books you will read that does not feel finished. It is on an edge of discovery. It points somewhere. It points somehow. Read it!
© Sam Nico 2001
Sam Nico is a philosopher living in London.
• Nature Loves to Hide by Shimon Malin, Oxford University Press