"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Oct 22, 2008

Fields of Potential


by Shimon Malin,

Oxford, 2001, 288 pp, £27.50 h/b ISBN 0 19 513894 5

Book review by Ian Thompson, Feb 2002

This is an ambitious book, that starts from quantum physics, incorporates Whitehead's process philosophy, and then suggests that some ideas from Plotinus are relevant to an overall understanding of nature and mind. This is certainly a worthy aim, and if achieved would have important consequences for current research, but, while the details are initially extensive, the later chapters are more suggestive sketches.

Shimon Malin is a physicist who has been thinking long about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and has excellent explanations of the problems in the way of achieving a ‘sensible’ interpretation. He starts by explaining the influence of Ernst Mach’s positivism on Einstein's formulation of relativity. Mach also influenced Heisenberg's construction of quantum mechanics in 1924, but by then Einstein’s position had changed. "Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning," Einstein told Heisenberg, "but it is nonsense all the same ... on principle it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe."

In this book Malin follows Heisenberg’s ‘potentiality’ view, to see quantum objects as ‘fields of potentiality’. This goes some way to describing how physicists think in practice, and gives, I agree, the best realistic account of the quantum world. Malin, however, still want to marry this view with Bohr's account of quantum states as ‘what we can know’ rather than ‘what is’. He reconciles this by claiming that the ‘quantum state of a quantum system is understood as representing the epistemic available or potential knowledge about the system’, and holds that this is necessary in view of the apparent faster-than-light correlations in non-local quantum systems. The long-standing measurement problem is solved by using some ideas worked out after talking to Dirac (a difficult process, as he amusingly explains), whereby ‘nature makes a choice’ when there is no longer any possibility of interference.

All these ideas are then linked to Whitehead’s process philosophy, where reality does not consist of continuous substances, but intermittent throbs of experiences that give actual occasions of selection events. The experiences themselves, he surmises, are the ‘acts of looking’ (as in Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics) that ‘create their subject just as they create themselves’.


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