Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

The Quantum Aristotle
by Peter Cresswell

Victor Hugo described the Renaissance as "a setting sun, which all Europe took for a new dawn," and he had a point. In many ways, the Renaissance was the sunset of reason, whose fading glimmer still lights our way forward.

Since that false dawn, and for several centuries now, western philosophers such as Descartes, Kant and Hume have underpinned the sunset of reason in western thought; the ideas of Aristotle remain as the west's only widespread protection against that sunset - an implicit Aristotelianism most people call 'common sense.' But common sense is becoming increasingly uncommon - especially, and sadly, among university graduates, who learn a great deal about Descartes, Duschamps and Deridda, and very little about Aristotle. Or common sense.

Since the Renaissance the west has revelled in technological progress and scientific advances - even as the philosophical ideas underpinning these successes ('common sense' if you will) have been undercut and undermined. A reality-and-reason focus is implicit with contemporary science, and this is what allows science to survive. So far. But it can't continue to survive without a good, explicit philosophical base - and it hasn't had one of those, literally, for centuries.

We've seen what atrocious philosophy has done to art in the twentieth century; we saw what it did to politics in Cambodia, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union; we've seen the results of atrocious western philosophy writ large recently on the streets of Genoa, Seattle and Quebec, and in the pages of anti-genetic engineering rants. Sometimes it seems that the veneer of reason is only paper thin.

And arguably we've seen what it has done to physics, as it disappears up its quantum orifice. We in the west can still enjoy the benefits of past thinking, even as the rays of reason's sunset sink slowly in the west - benefits such as the idea of individual rights and the institution of common law; still widespread common sense (at least in non-university graduates); and of course science and the splendid technology that most people take for granted. But science is being undercut by the embrace of irrationalism, and it will not long survive without a new philosophical revolution to underpin its achievements - which is what we neo-Aristotelians and Objectivists are working on. (Ask us again in a hundred years how we got on.)

Science and technology need a philosophical base to defend the foundations of their discipline. But all too often, scientists and technologists attack their allies, and embrace their destroyers. The first of their allies that scientists attacked was Aristotle. They really should have known better.

The Church's Aristotle - Summum bon loco

Some scientists say that Aristotelianism as applied to science was discredited centuries ago by Galileo. Scientific atheists say Aristotle was simply a handmaiden of the church and thus should be ignored. They really should know better!

Many of the details of Aristotle's science were indeed challenged and refuted by Galileo and others, which is certainly what you might expect after a millennia and a half (although it is still true that some of his biology remains current). As a consequence, "Aristotelianism as applied to science" was rejected (rather than discredited) by Galileo. On this however, he was tragically mistaken, as I intend to explain; the tragedy is that, had Galileo despised the church less, he might have understood Aristotle more.

Happily for us, Thomas Aquinas had resurrected Aristotle's ideas for the west, and thus kicked off a rebirth of reason which led to the Renaissance. Sadly, the 'resurrection' of Aristotle by a Catholic saint led many otherwise intelligent people like Galileo to see Aristotle as 'the Catholic philosopher.' Tragically for science (and for us), Galileo and many of his contemporaries took the view that my enemy's friend is my enemy, and rejected Aristotle holus bolus. Galileo was perhaps predisposed to reject Aristotle because of Aristotle's primitive cosmology which the Catholic Church attempted to protect - and about which Galileo and the Pope famously battled - but he really should have delved deeper.

But what exactly did they reject? Put simply, Aristotle's philosophy defended reason and had a reality focus. His philosophy had been developed partly as a result of his rejection of the ideas of his teacher Plato, but mostly from his own love of observing and understanding the world around him. That much of his cosmology, biology, physics and so on were flawed does not undercut his achievement - he was literally starting from zero in developing these sciences, and in positing the idea that we can know the world around us through science he had his hands in the very stuff of reality (quite literally, in the case of his many dissections of animals).

It was partly as a result of his own researches into reality that he developed his reality-based metaphysics (i.e., the first branch of philosophy itself - loosely translated as 'what comes before the physics'). It was also as a result of his scientific work that he developed his theory of knowledge, as a part of which he outlined what reason is, and showed that reason (as he defined it) is competent to know reality. His was a uniquely 'primacy of existence' approach - in other words, all thinking must start with what exists 'out there' in the real world, rather than with our own thoughts or feelings or whims which more than often are the result of something happening 'out there'.

Aristotle said (in direct contrast to Plato, and to most modern philosophers) that conceptualisation should be preceded by observation. This is an explicitly 'primacy of existence' approach.

He said that any science is "an organised body of systematically arranged information." That means essentially a hierarchical structure based on logical reasoning from premises that are true by observation: "To have scientific knowledge, then, is to have explanatory understanding: not merely to 'know' a fact incidentally ... but to know why it is a fact." Knowledge is not complete, he says, unless it is knowledge "down to the root."

This was exactly the philosophy that science needed. Aristotle defended reason and adopted a reality focus. But the concretes of his science were flawed, say the scientists. So what? Aristotle was the father of two sciences, and virtually philosophy's only advocate of the primacy of existence approach in all history (at least until Ayn Rand). To complain that he should have done more or done it all a little better is churlish indeed. But complain, people do, and did.

Galileo and co. complained. One can certainly understand why they complained, and given the church's support of a bowdlerised Aristotle we can even sympathise. But the result was tragic. Aristotle was actually their ally, if they only knew, and by throwing him out with the anti-church bathwater, they threw out their only hope for an explicitly reason-based philosophical underpinning for science. Bugger!

In their revolt against the concretes of Aristotle's science, Galileo (and Bacon, and others) kept the reality-focus which enabled their science to flourish (which they failed to realise they had got from Aristotle in the first place) but they essentially rejected his reason and logic in favour of a flawed and unconvincing nominalism. That nominalism (which many scientists still support) would eventually come back to haunt science.

The rebirth of Aristotle's philosophy (note, his philosophy - not his actual science) is what explicitly underpinned the Renaissance, and still implicitly underpins scientific achievement today, whether you care to identify that fact or not. If Galileo and his followers had not rejected Aristotle as they did, then his philosophy could have explicitly underpinned science and so avoided many of the problems that still plague science today (problems such as how you can prove the certainty of your conclusions - problems of induction - problems of explaining what mathematical equations refer to in reality - and so forth).

The fact is, without Aristotle, you have no science.

Objectivism's Aristotle - the Primacy of Existence

The primacy of existence approach that most scientists take as a given (and which is the basis of common sense) is virtually unique to Aristotelian-based philosophies. The starting point for philosophical and scientific research is, obviously enough, with what exists. Now this is an approach that unsurprisingly is far more fruitful for understanding existence than beginning inside your own skull.

Beginning inside your own skull is the hallmark of the opposite approach - what we might call the 'primacy of consciousness' approach - which is to try and 'prove' reality on the basis of what we find in our craniums. On the face of it is obviously absurd since it is in reality we look for proof of anything. Nonetheless, otherwise intelligent people have for centuries tried to 'prove' reality, and naturally enough have failed because they have started in the wrong place. The classical example is Descartes, trying to 'reason' to reality from inside his own skull. Naturally enough, Descartes ended up in error (i.e., unable to explain reality) so he simply made up a world of his own. That consequence is common - when the primacy of consciousness approach fails to explain reality adequately, the Primacy of Consciousness advocate will make up a world (or say that a god made it up), or might simply say the world is unintelligible or unknowable (David Hume is a good example of this approach), or will say that the 'real' reality is unknowable, and the best we can hope for is to know the world as it appears to us (stand up Immanuel Kant, who popularised this approach in answer to Hume's uncertainty).

Aristotle explicitly rejected the teachings of Plato - whose approach was also to start inside his own skull - and affirmed that knowledge of existence may only proceed by examining existence. Common sense, you might think! There are corollaries to this approach that Aristotle identified - particular aspects of existence that allows us to rely on what science says, at least to the extent that it is science.

Perhaps the three most important corollaries he identified are: 'identity,' 'non-contradiction' and 'causality.' These Aristotelian principles of logic and of metaphysics (that's 'before the physics,' remember) and many of their implications have been developed further by Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Contrary to the belief of some scientists, Objectivism is not doing battle with science. Objectivist ideas in fact underpin the fundamentals of science. How? Let me explain.

What Objectivism says about existence is that whatever existence is, THAT IS WHAT IT IS, and wishing (or your own mistaken principles) will not make it otherwise - it is what it is (this is often said as "A is A"). So whatever science discovers is the fundamental building block(s) of the universe, is what it is.

Stating that 'things are what they are' is simply the Law of Identity, the fundamental building block of Objectivism. In other words, a thing can't be an elephant and an acorn at the same time and in the same way - (which, if you put it that way, is called the Law of Non-Contradiction).

Going further, if things are what they are, then the way things act will depend on their nature - and that is actually the Law of Causality, a further building block of Objectivism. Causality is not just saying that 'this will cause that,' it is saying more fundamentally that the nature of a thing will cause the way it acts.

Identity, non-contradiction, and causality are all tenets of Aristotelian philosophy, and of Objectivist philosophy. They are not derived from navel-gazing, but from observation of existence - in their original form, from Aristotle's own observations.

Now, what fundamental principles of existence do you think science assumes and relies on? Let me tell you: Identity, non-contradiction, and causality. Without these principles, you have no science - as modern physicists are beginning to find out. Far from scientists fighting a battle with Objectivists (as some think) they rely every day on the basic principles of Objectivism, and of Aristotelianism. lf you think they don't, then perhaps you might suggest how you might found any science without these underlying principles? (Clue: Think astrology, alchemy, phrenology, palmistry etc.)

Scientists themselves are not immune from stupidity however, and when they don't rely on these principles they do go wrong. Cosmologists are not immune from stupidity either; that cosmologists are in desperate need of a rational philosophy can be seen from Stephen Hawking's utterly stupid comment that astrophysics may eventually "help us to know the mind of God." Hawking shows us that science relies on some philosophy (in his case a mystic supernatural one), and not the other way around; the job of scientists is to make and test hypotheses by observing and testing the stuff of existence; the job of philosophers is to explain what (if anything) these observations and tests mean. But mainstream philosophers haven't been doing their job, and the scientists are left to fall back on platitudes, like Hawking did.

Worse! Many scientists fall back on the anti-scientific views of Messrs Descartes, Hume and Kant; especially, and unfortunately, Mr Kant. And in the field of Physics where Kantian ideas have been widely embraced, it has not been good for science. Let me explain what I mean when I say that, and in doing so I'll also explain a little about how modern philosophy derived from Kant undercuts science, and reason.

The Scientists' Kant

Modern scientists would mostly disagree that they hold any philosophical views at all - let alone those of a fusty eighteenth-century philosopher who "found it necessary to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith." But they cannot avoid taking philosophical positions about what they see and about what their research shows (as Stephen Hawking's comment shows). They cannot avoid asking questions like: What is the nature of the reality being observed? Can we know it, or is it what we 'see' merely a veil of appearances? Can we safely make predictions from our observations? Does causality hold? To what do the mathematics in our formulae actually refer? These are all actually philosophical questions, and when physicists answer them they do so from their own philosophical positions, whether they care to accept that or not.

Now when I said at the outset that physics is rapidly disappearing up its quantum orifice, that does not mean that I deny the reality of the observations of quantum physics - Objectivism, as I said, is based on the primacy of existence, and the observations of quantum physics are, necessarily, what they are. Nor am I am denying the mathematics derived from those observations; nor yet am I denying the possible technological applications of quantum physics like quantum computing (although as far as I'm aware quantum computers are not yet working machines, merely theoretical ones). All of these things are part of science, not philosophy.

It is important to understand the distinction. It is no accident (at least, not entirely an accident) that metaphysics is loosely translated as "what comes before the physics." That is because Aristotle's students, who compiled and named his book 'Metaphysics,' correctly realised that discussions of what constitutes reality and how we know it actually come BEFORE physics, and that these discussions if they are any good actually serve to underpin (or, if they are bad, to undercut) the science. Whether the particular metaphysics underpins or undercuts the science depends on the metaphysics.

Objectivist metaphysics underpins science: it holds that existence exists prior to consciousness - that reality exists whether we know it or not; that entities have identity - they are what they are; that entities act according to their nature - they have causality. Without these three things - the primacy of existence, and the laws of identity and causality - there is no science, and little else besides!

So, what's my beef with quantum physicists then? Basically it's this: they have a quasi-religious approach to reality - observations 'create' reality they say. They reject the 'Satanism' of causality. They 'slay the dragon' of identity. They embrace the 'liberation' of quantum 'logic's' contradictions - and they use their reasoning about their observations of reality to reject reality itself (and by doing so they also, incidentally and eventually undercut their own science).

And they do all this in the name of 'what they already know' before they even begin their observations. ("Facts," said leading physicist Werner Heisenberg, "must conform to quantum theory," and not as Aristotle had said the other way around!) They say that we can never know reality as-it-is, but that the 'world of appearances' we experience is all we can ever know. Further, they say that that this 'world of appearances' is unintelligible, chaotic and ruled by chance, and the best we can hope for is to find an occasional 'regularity' in the appearances we perceive to allow us to make tentative predictions mathematically.

Whether you like it or not, this is not physics, it is philosophy - the philosophy of the hugely influential Immanuel Kant, who had, one and a half centuries earlier, denied reality in favour of illusion; had denied knowledge in order to make room for faith; (and, incidentally, had denied happiness in order to make room for pity). Pity really that the eighteenth century didn't deny Kant a living! Unfortunately, the early quantum physicists quote or paraphrase him at length, and his ideas underpin the conclusions they draw from the observations they make: Mathematician Erwin Schrodinger: " Consciousness is prior to matter; matter is image in mind"; Heisenberg: "Quantum mechanics is approached by asking why mathematical terms can exist in nature"; physicist Neils Bohr: "There is no quantum world, only an abstract description." Reading Kant informed these too-enthusiastic disciples that "physics is just the mathematics of appearances" and the poor saps stampeded to make it so!

Neils Bohr said in 1922, "The [then new] development of quantum theory demands the renunciation of causality, and of physical reality." Explaining to a friend in 1929 that he was 'renouncing reality' Bohr, a student of Kant's philosophy, was told: 'But Neils, you were saying that to us all twenty years ago." He probably was. He found in quantum physics what he wanted to find, based on what he 'already knew to be true,' i.e., what had been revealed to him by immersing himself in Kant.

Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation, which was probably what he was explaining to his friend, attempts to explain experiments that appeared to show that sub-atomic particles could be both a wave and a particle at the same time. It is the basis for all quantum physics. Looking for a real world answer was rejected by Bohr as being too 'classical' - instead he rejected the 'real world' altogether. He concluded that 1) there is no 'deep reality' ("there is no quantum world" - Bohr), and 2) reality as we know it (i.e., the phenomenon of appearances) is quite literally created by observation. This explanation is not necessitated by the facts observed, but was a straightforward primacy-of-consciousness answer. What the interpretation does is reject causality and identity outright.

Some physicists initially rejected the absurdity of the Copenhagen Interpretation. Quantum mathematician Erwin Schrodinger argued initially that "mathematically real" properties are real even in the absence of observation; in support of this argument he pointed out that if Bohr's interpretation was correct, then if a cat was put into a closed box and left unobserved and at the mercy of a diabolical quantum-particle cyanide pill, then the cat would in reality be both alive and dead at the same time. The intention of the Cat thought-experiment was to show that quantum theory is absurd on its face; that if quantum logic was correct "the cat is actually in both states." Heisenberg and Bohr enthusiastically embraced the absurdity: Destroying Causality and Excluded Middle, and 'setting science free from its Promethean chains,' they held that "theory doesn't allow a description between observations" and so concluded (using 'quantum logic' which tells them that appearances ARE the only reality, and that contradictions are normal) that the cat is in limbo IN REALITY: It is both alive and dead at the same time, and in the same respect until an observer 'collapsed' it from that state into the observed state.

Questions about whether the cat itself constituted an 'observer' led later physicists such as Richard Feynman to become more relaxed about the claim, saying that belief or disbelief in a 'deep reality' makes no difference to the experimental outcomes and that science should simply accept the paradoxes and 'see where they get you.' In other words, this view affirms that science should give up trying to understand the 'deep reality' and should instead only deal with the "phenomenological world of appearance." As Ayn Rand said: "Don't bother to examine an absurdity, ask yourself only what it achieves. In this case, what it achieved was to give the game completely to the irrationalists

For men such as these, if we have a gap in our observations or in our knowledge it is not possible to just say "we don't yet know," or "it's too early to tell, or "we don't yet have enough facts"; or just "it beats my pair of jacks!" They say instead: "We CAN'T know," and proceed to abandon reality in favour of what they do know - the readings of Kant, and the results of research inside their own skulls.

Causality itself was finally 'rejected' by quantum physicists in 1964. Physicist John Bell assumed, for experiment, three premises: 1) identity (particles are what they are), 2) causality (physical effects propagate by physical means), and 3) that particles on one side of a screen would not affect particles on the other side ("that the state of the instruments measuring the particles was uncorrelated"). As Bell expected, experimental evidence proved these three assumptions could not co-exist in reality (N.B. - the reality the quantum physicists rejected) and they correctly concluded that at least one of the three premises must be rejected. Now, which premise do you think the quantum physicists gleefully rejected? Not the latter triviality about correlation, of course, but identity and causality, which they knew 'all along' were Satan's work. As one quantum theorist exalted at the result: "Reality has been refuted!" To paraphrase Victor Hugo: "To reject reality in the name of reality! What could be more ingenious?"

Quantum physics had disappeared up its quantum orifice for good. They had renounced identity; they had renounced causality; and they had now renounced reality. What was left to hold on to? In the name of Kant, they still had mathematics! Physics has become the mathematics of appearances, just as Kant told physicists a hundred and fifty years before that it should be.

Quantum physicists do not even attempt to explain reality anymore. Following Feynman, they say instead that they ignore deep reality and merely predict isolated phenomena in the so-called realm of appearances. As such, a contemporary quantum theorist would not even accept the claim that the theory of quantum physics is correct or incorrect - since correctness or incorrectness is a 'real-world' claim - he would point simply to its predictive power. Quantum theory does have predictive power - true. But the value of those predictions is increasingly diminishing as the irrationality of what underpins the quantum explanations refuses to disappear.

The result of this religionist, primacy-of-consciousness approach in physics has been (to summarise):
  • the rejection of causality and identity and reality itself ("The development of quantum theory demands the renunciation of causality, and of physical reality" or in the words of John Lennon, "nothing is real");
  • the wide acceptance that the so-called 'world of appearances' is all we can ever know ("There is no quantum world, only an abstract description") and that science is simply like a cookbook with more or less successful recipes for ordering the phenomena of appearance;
  • to claim (or at least to allow mystics to claim) that this 'world of appearances' is a) simply a 'veil of apperception' over reality itself, which can only be known through various kinds of mystic insight (I give you books such as The Tao of Physics) or b) is merely one of several different universes in which al things are possible, or c) is literally unknowable (I remind you that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle tells us that momentum AND position are unknowable - not that they are unclear, or difficult to establish, but literally UNKNOWABLE) or d) is knowable only through mathematics, or e), is one in which contradictions exist, and in which things can be both alive or dead at the same time, or f) that this reality is actually created by consciousness itself, and is one in which we are all mystically linked. Of course, all of these claims are made without a shred of proof;
  • to reify mathematics - (i.e., to make the maths itself the reality, by constructing mathematical models into which reality has to fit - a world in which "mathematical terms can exist in nature");

  • Now let me repeat that, being an advocate of the primacy of existence myself (unlike Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg et al) I do not deny the reality of the observations of modern physics, merely the irrational interpretations of those observations (for example, descriptions by physicists of just how many universes in which we can each find our 'evil twin'). And I don't deny the accuracy of the mathematics to make predictions about what we might observe, but I do disagree with the mathematician's reification of their mathematical model - when they say in effect that the mathematical models they describe are in effect the reality, and that reality itself is unknowable. (Climatologists are awfully prone to this with their 'models' predicting impending disaster, as are modern economists - see for example the last year's Nobel Prize winners - and for similar philosophical reasons).

    The observations physicists make are of the real world, of existence as such, and the mathematics simply describes relationships that exist in the real world, and predictions about the real world. They are not in themselves a so-called 'world of appearances.' Reality exists independently of us, and if we can't yet explain it then it simply means we can't yet explain it - not that reality is inherently unknowable, chaotic, random or the result of a nocturnal erotic encounter between Immanuel Kant and several Taoist monks in innumerable and as-yet undiscovered universes.

    It is interesting to note that there were physicists who did try to explain the observations of quantum physics without rejecting identity and causality and non-contradiction - physicists such as Louis de Broglie who rejected the Kantian interpretation of quantum 'reality' - but the reaction to these efforts of such physicists was unbelievably hostile.

    It is also interesting that since physicists stopped trying to understand reality itself, their science has been stagnating. It hardly seems necessary to point out that if you reject reality you reject any basis for any science whatsoever. There have been no fundamental discoveries in physics in the last fifty years, and certainly nothing to compare with the half-century from 1785 to 1835 when reason and a reality-focus were more widely accepted - and research grants and the numbers of researchers were infinitely less and orders of magnitude fewer then than they are now.

    It might be fruitful to begin again with a different philosophical approach - an Aristotelian one, beginning with the recognition that reality exists prior to our consciousness of it, and that reason is competent to understand it. To paraphrase David Harriman, who finishes his excellent lecture series The Philosophic Corruption of Physics by reminding us of Newton's famous quote about himself simply being like a boy playing about on the seashore, occasionally picking up a shell or two to examine: "The seashore is still there, if only the bastards would go outside to have a look!"

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