Posted in John Stewart Bell

John Stewart Bell: The Nature of Reality

CERN / ATLAS Particle Collision
CERN / ATLAS Particle Collision
(c) Ars Electronica/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the 4th November 1964, the physicist John S. Bell published a paper called On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. This was an important paper for both philosophy and physics with implications for our understanding of reality and freedom.

When quantum theory was developed in the early 20th century, the philosophical implications troubled some, including Einstein. The “Copenhagen interpretation” put realism in science under threat. Although the “macro” world (people, planets, plates and platypuses) were argued to be real existing things, electrons and other particles were held not to be. The world was therefore divided into the “classical” and the “quantum” worlds, or as John S. Bell later called them, the “speakable” and the “unspeakable”.

In 1935, Einstein published a paper with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky (known collectively as EPR) arguing that quantum mechanics was not a complete theory, but required additional “hidden” variables to preserve realism and locality. “In the vernacular of Einstein: locality meant no instantaneous (“spooky”) action at a distance; realism meant the moon is there even when not being observed.” (wiki)

Bell also argued for realism, thus rejecting the Copenhagen Interpretation. He worked with realist theories such as de Broglie–Bohm theory, but the theory violated the EPR locality criterion. This fact was used to argue that it was on the wrong track, but Bell’s 1964 paper showed that “any serious version of quantum theory (regardless of whether or not it is based on microscopic realism) must violate locality. This means that if nature is governed by the predictions of quantum theory, the ‘locality principle’ is simply wrong, and our world is nonlocal” (American Scientist)
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Posted in John Toland

Newton in the Letters to Serena

The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. Toland fully accepted Newton’s physics. In fact he was one of the first writers to bring word of Newton’s science into France. However, he argued that Newton’s interpretation of his own laws was not the only possible interpretation.

The acceptance of Newton’s physics in Letters to Serena by the most notorious freethinker of the time had the effect of making Newton somewhat suspect to orthodox Anglicans. The first edition of Opticks (1704) had only sixteen queries; Newton added seven more between 1704 and the 1706 Latin version. However, there is in existence an early draft of the twenty-third query which differs significantly from the later (published) version. Thus Newton wrote and rewrote this query between the publication of Serena, and the Latin edition of Opticks in 1706. Here he tried to grapple with the significance of Toland’s hylozoism [the doctrine that all matter has life]. The draft version of the twenty-third query states:

it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deity for its laws of motion as well as for its existence. These are passive laws and to affirm that there are no others is to speak against experience. …all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life.

This text does not appear in the final version of query twenty-three. As the person who had given the English ruling class its ideological justification, publicly stating that ‘all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life’ would have undermined the status quo and aligned Newton with Toland and the heretic Bruno! One suspects that Newton may have become a prisoner of his own ideology, trapped in the cul-de-sac of orthodoxy.

From Philip McGuinness (1996) ‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists, History Ireland, Issue 4.