Reality is not revealed by quantum mechanics

The very small is not fundamental

The craze with all things quantum is not just because of its inherent weirdness. It’s motivated by a reductionist impulse that has been animating science from Robert Hooke in the 17th century to Stephen Hawking in the 21st. The idea that we can discover the fundamental level of reality might be alluring, but it’s based on a faulty philosophy, not science, writes Peter West.


The idea that reality is reducible to its most fundamental parts still animates much of science, particularly physics and philosophy. The craze with all things quantum is partly animated by this thought: understand quantum mechanics, the way that matter behaves at the smallest level known to us, and you’ve understood everything. But this philosophical impulse - because contrary to belief, it’s not scientific - that the microscopic holds the key to the secrets of the universe, is much older than quantum mechanics. It goes back at least all the way to the 17th century and the inventi

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Alan McKay 2 July 2023

The implications of the deeply felt intuition that the fundamental level (assuming there is one) is privileged also spill over into areas of philosophy such as free will and mental causation. The intuition has led many to conclude that if our thoughts and intentions are “really” the activities of fundamental particles blindly following inexorable causal laws then our sense of ourselves as free agents is illusory and we never actually decide or are responsible for anything - as the saying goes “my neurons made me do it”, but of course on this account not even neurons are causal factors since the real causes drain down to the bottom level.

But on the view West describes, we can avoid this cynical and despairing conclusion. My decision to get a beer from the fridge just is a different description of an enormously complex pattern in the activity of the basic stuff, but the former, and its causal effects, need not be thought of as any less real than the latter. In fact, given that the creative ability of nature has compressed a description that could only be expressed by an impossibly large computation to one that requires a few words, there may well be a case for saying it is more real.

David Simpson 2 July 2023

The world is made of Lego bricks, or it is a seamless piece of whole cloth. Time to change tack I think.

Donald Palmer 1 July 2023

Thank you for this discussion, Peter West.
What I think is missed by most people, including scientists, is that reality is the integration of all levels of scale. Reality is not just one level or another, it is all of them together. When we touch our finger to a table surface, the actions we can perceive at multiple scales (through our eyes and various instruments) all are observation-ally apparent - they can all be observed to occur. I will guess that Ms. Cavendish would agree.
These are all levels of scale, with each level being investigated in a three-dimensional space. The integration of all of them will require a four dimensional model, since locating any object in reality will necessarily include the level of scale of the object in addition to our three traditional dimensions. This would allow for the actions on the molecular level to be causally connected (e.g. by an equation and measurements - not statistical inference) with actions on the organ or human body level. It would also allow for actions at the human level to causally impact the level of atoms (e.g. building and running the LHC).
I will suggest this is the paradigm shift scientists are looking for requiring the integration of many scientific disciplines into a single model of reality across all levels of scale.
What is needed for this shift, however, are new mathematics that can provide a means of measuring and connecting across scale.