Eugene Wigner -- reality conforming to our ideas.

How does science work? And what's all this about quantum mechanics?

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Kuznetzova
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Re: Eugene Wigner -- reality conforming to our ideas.

Post by Kuznetzova »

There were enlightenment philosophers who wrote that reality conforms to our ideas. George Berkeley probably the most vocal in this regard, although we can see Kant using the phrase many times in his writing.

I think where the contention arrives because the word "conforms" is confused with "controls". So when laypeople here a philosopher say, "reality conforms to our ideas", they misinterpret the sentence to mean "Our emotions and desires control reality", like some sort of telepathy. They believe the philosopher is adopting the position that if I wake up one morning and I want the sky to be brown, the sky will be brown. They then get angry and bent-out-of-shape in this debate because they (mistakenly) believe the philosopher is arguing for magic.

The confusion is the because the verb "conform" does not mean "control" or "dictate". Further the word "ideas" itself can mean something completely different than "temporary daily desires and wants".

In the case of Quantum Mechanics, the world did indeed CONFORM TO OUR IDEAS, where the word "conform" means: "to act in accordance with".

This is totally unexpected, and the world should not be this way, from any common-sense standpoint. This eeriness was the primary motivation for Eugene Wigner to write the article linked above. It is here that Wigner (a nobel prize winner in Physics) coins the now infamous quote: the UNREASONABLE effectiveness of mathematics.

Two examples should suffice. The Schroedinger equation does not rule out the possibility of subatomic particles going into a superposition of states. But regular common sense would entail that it probably still does rule out these things because these are just" silly formalisms of math on a chalkboard". Common sense dictates that we should just discard these possibilities as "non-physical" and rest assured reality is not conforming to these equations.

This is not correct and common sense is wrong here. The physical world does indeed obey this aspect of mathematics, even while it is ontologically and philosophically uncomfortable for us. Not only is this unreasonable, it is shocking. The world conforms to math even when the math becomes "exotic" in character.

Second example would be discovery of the positron, which is a particle that is in all ways identical to an electron, save for its charge being opposite. The mathematical formalism highly suggests that this thing should exist, even when no one had ever seen such a thing. Common sense would call this ghostly particle (that is stuck into our equations to balance them) a mere mathematical oddity; some formalistic, syntactic sugar, that surely physical reality would not bother itself with.

Wrong again.

Some two decades later, the positron came shooting out a laboratory. It is physically real. Reality conformed to the mathematics.


If we re-visit Descartes for a few minutes, we see that he often talked of "clear and distinct ideas", which should never be confused with our personal desires, or with our temporary and daily wants. We might go farther and define "ideas" to mean those very formal mathematical ideas which are shared among a group of professionals working in a discipline. If the word "conform" means only "acts in agreement with" and the word "ideas" is defined as "those clear and distinct mathematical truisms" then we can declare, with impunity, that reality conforms to our ideas. This is definitely the case in Quantum Mechanics.

This should not be true. And we should, in any common-sense way, expect that reality is more mysterious and intricate than this; that reality evades our understanding, always staying one step ahead of our fallacious human reasoning. In quantum physics this is not the case. If the Schroedinger equation does not rule out superpositions of particles, those particles moving in actual, physical labs don't rule them out either.
Impenitent
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Joined: Wed Feb 10, 2010 2:04 pm

Re: Eugene Wigner -- reality conforming to our ideas.

Post by Impenitent »

reality conforms to our ideas...

I am glad the world is still flat...

-Imp
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