We’ve done the metaphysical and ontological dance countless times over — Theseus’s ship has accrued many nautical miles and forms; the brain in a vat has become a Hollywood trope more than anything else… Old philosophical thought experiments have become child’s play in comparison to the meaty quantum theories bugging us out today.
Look up quantum philosophy on Google and you won’t get much except for a Wikipedia page that, besides the usual worn-thin donation plea, promotes a 2002 book written by Roland Omnes. The book itself is likely worth a read but, as far as Medium patronage goes, we need only feast on the silver linings.
Philosophy, as a subject, seems immune to the winds of time. Inviting generations after generations of new minds, Philosophy shakes the rust off our conditioned modes of thought and prompts us to evaluate everything around us, within us, above and beneath us.
As we’re pushed ever-father along the precipice of unfathomable scientific and technological achievement, new understandings have understandably unlocked new horizons. What we didn’t even consider decades ago is now a reality. This is especially true in the microscopic world of atomic and subatomic particles — where everything that should make sense simply falls by the wayside.
“Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.”
― Werner Heisenberg
We know by now that things aren’t as they seem and, anyone who has spent even a fraction of a moment delving through quantum literature (or other forms of more digestible media) has come across mind-bending theories that seek to explain how the world around us really works, theories that are so phenomenally out of this world that they defy all logic and comprehension.
The new paradigms, which emanate from quantum science and which we use to try and decipher the architectonics of our reality, are merely the beginning. We can only try to scratch the very surface of whatever it is we don’t even know we’re looking at.
So, with all these questions floating about regarding the structure of our reality, what better opportunity is there (or has there ever been) for philosophy to step in and start poking its inquisitive finger around?
Think of it this way — knowing what we know now, about wave functions and entanglement, about non-locality and probability, what would Plato or Socrates say about the world? How would Aristotle treat the many-worlds approach to interpreting our reality? They’d undoubtedly be entranced by the theories put forward by the likes of Bohr and Schrodinger. I’d go as far as to say they’d consider many of their own renowned musings to be largely fruitless by comparison or rework a number of their sacred theories.
We’ve done the metaphysical and ontological dance countless times over — Theseus’s ship has accrued many nautical miles and forms; the brain in a vat has become a Hollywood trope more than anything else; the Chinese room less and less inviting with the impressive feats achieved by A.I. on the daily. Old philosophical thought experiments have become child’s play in comparison to the meaty quantum theories bugging us out today.
“Science is what you know. Philosophy is what you don’t know”
— Bertrand Russell
So it can be said that the monumentally head-scratching discoveries of the quantum world have not only evolved our understanding of how reality works, but also evolved our need to question, along with our motivation to understand the world around us. Moreover, they’ve set the bar higher in respect to that questioning, demanding a much more informed and puzzling look into the unknown.
In this way, anyone who says that philosophy is dying (I too once ignorantly entertained this idea) is simply stuck in the past; philosophy has simply taken on a new form, prompted by the old triage: the more we learn, the less we know. Philosophy, like our comprehension of the world around us, has drastically evolved.
Despite the title of this post, it’s not even fair to call it quantum philosophy, for philosophy will always be the love of wisdom, and quantum science has simply presented itself as another perplexing step in the pursuits of our curiosities — but quantum mechanics have simply torn open a new avenue for us to explore.
While this isn’t a relatively new avenue (we’re almost 100 years in to the thick of it), it’s only recently been gaining more traction atop mainstream interest. With religion taking a backseat on the winding drive towards an explanation for our universe, attention is slowly being directed towards all things quantum, and it’s here that philosophy will undoubtedly see a rekindling like never before.
My guess? A few more particle collisions will have us salivating to know even more. And more. Livescience wrote an intriguing piece summarizing 18 ways by which Quantum Particles have blown our minds last year alone — detailing discoveries touching on elemental aspects of our livelihood: water, life, time, energy.
“An experiment conducted in 2016 did seem to show bacteria interacting quantum mechanically with light in a very limited, subtle way. In 2018, another group of researchers went back and looked at that experiment and found that something much deeper and stranger might have been going on, forcing us to re-evaluate life and the quantum world.”
Things are quickly coming to a head, as there are more and more perplexing questions that grow louder with each new discovery, questions intimately tied to our fundamental understanding of reality.
A quick example:
Identity is a pillar of philosophical questioning. Thought experiments, like the Ship of Theseus, seek to ask certain existential questions about what truly forms our identity — is it our memories? Our qualities? Our consciousness? These questions has been assessed time and time again under a classical context — which focuses on one person aging through time in a linear way. That person is an arrangement of atoms and cells that are replaced over time and, under the classical approach, we tend to anchor identity in concepts such as consciousness.
Now, let’s look at the same topic but under a new context of quantum physics— specifically, we may choose to look at the many-worlds approach to understanding how reality works: that everything is incessantly and fractally branching off into eternally-duplicating copies (hence the term, many-worlds). How do we measure continuity here, entertaining the notion that there are multiple versions or copies of our consciousness continuously bifurcating throughout time?
In short, quantum science both intriguingly and frustratingly adds countless new dimensions to the best questions we had previously been able to think of. It’s humbling, really. It also demands a renewed dedication to philosophy like never before.
To assume we know as much as we had seemed to lead on is rather asinine. To assume that there will be no need for philosophy in our techno-driven future is just as ludicrous. And to not anticipate the convergence between our curiosity and the increasingly-complex ways by which we’re coming to better understand reality — well, that’s just a missed opportunity to ask deeper questions.