[Marxism] Re: quantum phyics as metaphor

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Mon May 10 20:40:27 MDT 2004


Jim Farmelant wrote:

>The logical empiricist philosopher Philipp Frank dealt with that issue in regards to both relativity and QM in his book *The Philosophy of Science: The Link Between Science and Philosophy*. In that book he discussed the metaphysical interpretations of different scientific theories and how such interpretations can support various social and political agenda.  He focused among other things on the popular mystical interpretations of QM and how those interpretations supported reactionary<> political agendas.
>

On Jim's advice i checked out Frank's book, particularly his chapter 
entitled "Metaphysical interpretations of the atomic world". Though he 
gives some pretty funny examples of  "popular mystical interpretations 
of QM", i found myself wanting to know a lot more about how those 
interpretations were used specifically in support of  reactionary politics.

After reviewing George Bernard Shaw's take on quantum metaphysics, Frank 
continues with a discussion:

    "The idea that the conceptions of organismic science have "risen
    from the dead", as Shaw puts it whimsically, has been taken very
    seriously by a great many philosophers, We may quote as an example
    of the German philosopher and science writer, Bernard Bavink.

        There is today within the circles of natural scientists a
        willingness to restore honestly the threads from these sciences
        to all higher values of human life, to God and Soul, freedom of
        will, etc.; these threads had been temporarily all but disrupted
        and such a willingness had not existed for a century.

    Bavink points out that this rebirth of organismic science had arisen
    from "purely scientific motives"; he mentions the remarkable
    coincidence that at the same period a type of political regime
    appeared that claimed to be hostile to materialism and to be based
    upon the organismic conception of science. These new regimes are
    obviously Italian Fascism and German Nazism. As a matter of fact,
    materialistic or anti materialistic interpretations of science do
    not arise usually from "purely scientific motives" but generally
    have their origin in wishes to set up goals for desirable human
    conduct. These interpretations are connected with social, political.
    and religious trends.

Frank then discusses General Smuts, a former Prime Minister in South 
Africa, who seems to have appropriated terms like "action", as in the 
"quantum of action 'h'" and the "principle of least action". Frank says:

    This anti materialistic interpretation of twentieth century physics
    has appealed to men of action who were concerned about a scientific
    basis for their political goals.

But Frank leaves it to the more historically minded reader (i.e. not 
someone like me) to figure out just how Smuts used these ideas and to 
what ends. It would be interesting to track this stuff down.

Frank then discusses the German philosopher Aloys Wenzel's writings on 
elementary spirits and the new quantum mechanics. Frank:

    In this interpretation, the quantum conditions that determine, for
    example, the energy levels in the hydrogen atom, are interpreted as
    forms in which "lower spirits" manifest themselves. The laws of
    quantum theory that cannot be expressed in common-sense language are
    interpreted by common-sense analogies like the "behavior of
    spirits", just as primitive tribes have interpreted sunrise and
    sunset as the behavior of orgnaisms, superior to, but analagous to
    human organisms.

Frank returns to Bavink and the Schroedinger equation:

     From the scientific aspect, it is hard to understand why the
    solutions of the Schroedinger equation are more "spiritual" than the
    solutions of the differential equations in Newtonian mechanics. But
    Bavink argues by way of analogies. The solutions of Schroedinger's
    wave equation (psi-functions) can be interpreted as probabilities;
    probabilities, however, are mental pheonomena; hence the
    psi-function is interpreted as a mental phenomena that happens in a
    human mind; the hydrogen atom is described by psi-functions; hence
    the hydrogen atom is a mental phenomenon and is a product of
    spiritual powers. The case against materialism is proved.

I don't know if Frank is taking a too simplistic view of Bavink, though 
we clearly have our own Bavinks today.  Finally Frank discusses Bavink's 
take on quantum jumps of the electron in the hydrogen atom. Quoting Bavink:

    We must remember firstly, that the individual elementary act (of
    jumping) as such is not calculable, but left free; secondly, that
    the real essence of this freedom is perhaps or probably a psychic
    event. ... In other words, the "free" choice of  the elementary act,
    which is left undetermined by physics, exists actualy only as part
    of an embracing "plan" or "form". exactly speaking of a "hierarchy"
    of "forms"; the superior form always absorbs the inferior one and
    performs a higher synthesis. ... What is new is only the fact that
    physics itself suggests trying out this idea.

My question is, apart from the obviously alarming talk of "the superior 
form", how do these metaphysical meanderings get used in politics, on 
the ground so to speak. for example, a lot of the stuff on Iraq in the 
US papers continually harps on freedom and democracy for the Iraqi 
people. i mean every news article has some allusion to some mystical 
event that can happen in the Iraqi people's lives if we could only get 
thru this "bad spell" and things calm down a bit. etc etc. likewise, was 
the quantum spiritual nonsense actually harped on in German culture and 
politics circa 1930's, or are these Bavink's just isolated speculators 
rambling away and we notice them only in hindsight as fitting in somehow 
with the times?

Les Schaffer







More information about the Marxism mailing list