Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Heisenberg on Nature and Science

Last post, I mentioned how I have been reading Werner Heisenberg's Gifford Lectures (1955-56), and I related an incisive insight of his on peace declarations to Christmas.

Of course, Heisenberg has written much more of interest on science than on peace. His philosophical observations are surprisingly well informed—or at least seem so these days in which prominent scientists seem to have taken it upon themselves to prove the depth of their education in philosophy is inversely proportional to expertise in their own field.

This is not to say that everything Heisenberg says is flawless, but simply that his remarks are surprising in their philosophical sanity. Below I've excerpted several of the better passages.

To begin with, it is important to remember that in natural science we are not interested in the universe as a whole, including ourselves, but we direct our attention to some part of the universe and make that the object of our studies. (52)

In classical physics science started from the belief—or should one say from the illusion?—that we could describe the world or at least parts of the world without any reference to ourselves. This is actually possible to a large extent.... Certainly quantum theory does not contain genuine subjective features, it does not introduce the mind of the physicist as a part of the atomic event. But it starts from the division of the world into the "object" and the rest of the world, and from the fact that at least for the rest of the world we use the classical concepts in our description. This division is arbitrary and historically a direct consequence of our scientific method... (55)

The concept of atom does ... has its origin in ancient Greek philosophy and was in that early period the central concept of materialism taught by Leucippus and Democritus. On the other hand, the modern interpretation of atomic events has very little resemblance to genuine materialistic philosophy; in fact, one may say that atomic physics has turned science away from the materialistic trend it had during the nineteenth century. (59)

In the theory of general relativity the answer is given that geometry is produced by matter or matter by geometry. The answer corresponds more closely to the view held by many philosophers that space is defined by the extension of matter. (66)

It has been pointed our before that in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory we can indeed proceed without mentioning ourselves as individuals, but we cannot disregard the fact that natural science is formed by men. Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is a part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning. This was a possibility of which Descartes could not have thought, but it makes the sharp separation between the world and the I impossible. (81)

Our perceptions are not primarily bundles of colors or sounds; what we perceive is already perceived as something, the accent here being on the word "thing," and therefore it is doubtful whether we gain anything by taking the perceptions instead of the things as the ultimate elements of reality. (84)

The limitations of the field [of physics] can generally not be derived from the concepts. The concepts are not sharply defined in their relation to nature, in spite of the sharp definition of their possible connects. The limitations will therefore be found from experience, from the fact that the concepts do not allow a complete description of the observed phenomena. (101)

In order to give a quantitative description of the laws of chemistry one had to formulate a much wider system of concepts for atomic physics. This was finally done in quantum theory, which has its roots just as much in chemistry as in atomic physics. Then it was easy to see that the laws of chemistry could not be reduced to Newtonian mechanics of atomic particles, since the chemical elements displayed in their behavior a degree of stability completely lacking in mechanical systems. But it was not until Bohr's theory of the atom in 1913 that this point has been clearly understood. In the final result, one may say, the concepts of chemistry are in part complementary to the mechanical concepts. If we know that an atom is in its lowest stationary state that determines its chemical properties we cannot at the same time speak about the motion of the electrons in the atom. (101-2)

Just as in the case of chemistry, one learns from simple biological experience that the living organisms display a degree of stability which general complicated structures consisting of many different types of molecules could certainly not have on the basis of the physical and chemical laws alone. Therefore, something has to be added to the laws of physics and chemistry before the biological phenomena can be completely understood. (102-3)

It is very difficult to see how concepts like perception, function of an organ, affection could be a part of the coherent set of the concepts of quantum theory combined with the concept of history. On the other hand, these concepts are necessary for a complete description of life, even if for the moment we exclude mankind as presenting new problems beyond biology. (104)

We would never doubt that the brain acts as a physico-chemical mechanism if treated as such; but for an understanding of psychic phenomena we would start from the fact that the human mind enters as object and subject into the scientific process of psychology. (106)

But the kind of stability that is displayed by the living organism is of a nature somewhat different from the stability of atoms or crystals. It is a stability of process or function rather than a stability of form. (154)

As Bohr has pointed out, it may well be that a description of the living organism that could be called complete from the standpoint of the physicist cannot be given, since it would require experiments that interfere too strongly with the biological functions. (155)

Therefore, we have here actually the final proof for the unity of matter. All the elementary particles are made of the same substance, which we may call energy or universal matter; they are just different forms in which matter can appear. ¶ If we compare this situation with the Aristotelian concepts of matter and form, we can say that the matter of Aristotle, which is mere "potentia," should be compared to our concept of energy, which gets into "actuality" by means of the form, when the elementary particle is created. (160)

The physicist may be satisfied when he has a mathematical scheme and knows how to use it for the interpretation of experiments. But he has to speak about his results also to nonphysicists who will not be satisfied unless some explanation is given in plain language, understandable to everybody. Even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached. To what extent is such a description at all possible? This is a problem of language as much as of physics.... (168)

Furthermore, one of the most important features of the development and the analysis of modern physics is the experience that the concepts of natural language, vaguely defined as they are, seem to be more stable in the expansion of knowledge than the precise terms of scientific language, derived as an idealization from only limited groups of phenomena. This is in fact not surprising since the concepts of natural language are formed by the immediate connection with reality; they represent reality. It is true that they are not very well defined and may therefore also undergo changes in the course of centuries, just as reality itself did, but they never lose the immediate connection with reality. On the other hand, the scientific concepts are idealizations; they are derived from experience obtained by refined experimental tools and are precisely defined through axioms and definitions. Only through these precise definitions is it possible to connect the concepts with a mathematical scheme and to derive mathematically the infinite variety of possible phenomena in this field. But through this process of idealization and precise definition the immediate connection with reality is lost.(200)

We know that any understanding must be based finally upon the natural language because it is only there that we can be certain to touch reality, and hence we must be skeptical about any skepticism with regard to this natural language and its essential concepts. (201-2)

Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958).