The Copenhagen Interpretations, Part 2

(To read “The Copenhagen Interpretations, Part 1,” click here.)

Here’s the real Copenhagen scandal: the side it takes in the science wars. In the four years since physicist Alan Sokal made postmodern theorists of science look ridiculous by getting the cultural-studies journal Social Text to publish an article full of made-up pomo gobbledygook that passed itself off as “science studies” (click here to read about his hoax), philosophers, sociologists, and scientists have been feuding over whether science reflects objective reality (positivism; what the scientists say) or is a product of the conditions of its creation (relativism; what the philosophers say). At stake is nothing less than the future of reason, or so it is often asserted. Physicist Steven Weinberg has warned that if we question the absoluteness of scientific truths, then we’ll be hard pressed “to protect ourselves from the irrational tendencies that still beset humanity.” (Click here for the essay on Alan Sokal in which that statement appears.) Philosopher Richard Rorty thinks Weinberg is being naïve about how much we can ever come to know about reality; worse, he’s unfairly privileging natural scientists over all other kinds of researchers. (Click here to read his essay.)

The positivists have been winning the day, at least in the court of public opinion. After all, how could a bunch of jargon-spewing, Armani-suit-wearing, French-influenced theorists be right about science not being true? Copenhagen, though, can be read (if you’re so inclined) as a relativist’s rebuttal. Frayn has Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe advance science-studies-friendly theses, and Heisenberg leaves them more or less intact. Plus Frayn makes liberal metaphoric use of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a no-no for science purists, who believe, as Weinberg has put it, that “the results of research in physics (as opposed, say, to psychology) have no legitimate implications whatever for culture or politics or philosophy.”

1) Margrethe suggests that the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics–a dominant theory in physics for most of the past century–looks the way it does largely because of the Oedipal struggle between Bohr, the mentor, and Heisenberg, the protégé. The Copenhagen Interpretation represents Heisenberg and Bohr’s decision to merge into one their two competing theories–Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which holds that the position and the velocity of subatomic particles cannot both be measured exactly at the same time, and Bohr’s complementarity principle, which holds that phenomena such as light and electrons are both waves and particles and must be analyzed as such, but that it is impossible to observe both aspects at the same time. “A political compromise, like most treaties,” Heisenberg admits. Later, Margrethe asks,

And why did you both accept the Interpretation in the end? … [W]as it because now you were becoming a professor you wanted a solidly established doctrine to teach? Because you wanted to have your new ideas publicly endorsed by the head of the church in Copenhagen? [She means Bohr, whose students called him “the Pope.”] And perhaps Niels agreed to endorse them in return for your accepting his doctrines. For recognizing him as head of your church.

The men interject at various points with the standard anti-sociological argument: The Copenhagen Interpretation is true! Bohr declares, “[I]t was the only way to explain what the experimenters had observed.” “It works,” says Heisenberg. “That’s what matters. It works, it works, it works!” Nonetheless, they don’t refute the implication of her remark, which is that the shape of scientific knowledge is tied to the psychology and sociology of the men who produce it–even when the theory works. To quote Rorty again, summarizing the views of much-vilified philosophers of science Bruno Latour and Thomas Kuhn, “As they see it, scientific progress is like biological evolution: no particular life-form is destined to emerge, and lots of different ones might have turned out to be equally good at survival. In this view, scientific theories are tools that do a job. They do it well, but some other tools might perhaps have done the same job equally well.”

2) Bohr makes a speech in which he explores the philosophical implications of Copenhagen Interpretation. Heisenberg doesn’t disagree with him. Bohr says:

[Y]ou see what we did in those three years, Heisenberg? Not to exaggerate, but we turned the world inside out! … We put man back at the center of the universe. Throughout history we keep finding ourselves displaced. We keep exiling ourselves to the periphery of things. First we turn ourselves into a mere adjunct of God’s unknowable purposes, tiny figures kneeling in the great cathedral of creation. And no sooner have we recovered ourselves in the Renaissance, no sooner has man become, as Protagoras proclaimed him, the measure of all things, than we’re pushed aside again by the products of our own reasoning! We’re dwarfed again as physicists build the great new cathedrals for us to wonder at–the laws of classical mechanics that predate us from the beginning of eternity, that will survive us to eternity’s end, that exist whether we exist or not. Until we come to the beginning of the twentieth century, and we’re suddenly forced to rise from our knees again. 

Here Bohr is referring to an ancient debate in the philosophy of science. Rorty summarizes it as follows: 

These alternating intuitions have been in play ever since Protagoras said “Man is the measure of all things” and Plato rejoined that the measure must instead be something nonhuman, unchanging, and capitalized–something like The Good, or The Will of God, or The Intrinsic Nature of Physical Reality. Scientists who, like Steven Weinberg, have no doubt that reality has an eternal, unchanging, intrinsic structure which natural science will eventually discover are the heirs of Plato. Philosophers like Kuhn, Latour, and [Ian] Hacking think that Protagoras had a point, and that the argument is not yet over.

Who’s right? Sorry, but Culturebox is not going resolve the science wars in a brief item. Frayn’s embittered nemesis Paul Lawrence Rose (see yesterday’s Culturebox for an introduction) thinks he knows the answer. He’s convinced that Frayn’s scientific relativism is equivalent to moral relativism, which in turn is tantamount to Holocaust revisionism: “The play cleverly exploits parallels between the questioning by humanistic postmodernists of historical facts and the questioning by constructivists of scientific facts,” he writes, sputtering just a bit.

Copenhagen is a kind of Rashomon-like treatment of a central historical episode, but one refracted through a postmodernist lens and complicated by philosophical ideas derived (a little too glibly) from the quantum mechanics pioneered by Heisenberg and Bohr–such oft-misunderstood, if oft-cited, concepts as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s complementarity principle. The limits of knowledge, of knowledge of others, of oneself, of the external world of politics and morality; the plasticity of memory; the impossibility of arriving at definitive moral judgments–this is the heady stuff of Copenhagen … If we can come nearer the historical truth of the meeting than Frayn’s uncertainty principle allows, then the glittering decor of Copenhagen may turn out, indeed, to be constructed on false historical foundations that undermine its whole intellectual edifice.

Maybe. Maybe not. Rose may also be forgetting something that hadn’t occurred to Culturebox, either, until she saw Copenhagen: You can’t argue for Absolute Truth in the theater. Drama eschews the single path to knowledge. The form itself demands dialogue, debate, disagreement, temporary alliances, standoffs, provisionality. Over time, as mores change, this character will become more sympathetic and that one will start to seem villainous. Is the Copenhagen Interpretation a human artifact or a Platonic one? Depends on whom you trust, Margrethe or Heisenberg. Which is the “measure of all things,” the human mind or the impersonal laws of nature? Depends, perhaps, on whether you’re speaking in a theater or in a college lecture hall. It is surely not a coincidence that drama flourished in pre-Socratic Greece and during the Renaissance and the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For those are periods when man was viewed as “center of the universe,” or as Bohr further puts it, “we recovered ourselves … [and rose] from our knees again.”