Lewis, Peter J. Quantum Ontology: A Guide to the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics

By Novak, Ben | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Lewis, Peter J. Quantum Ontology: A Guide to the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics


Novak, Ben, The Review of Metaphysics


LEWIS, Peter J. Quantum Ontology: A Guide to the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xviii + 207 pp. Cloth, $99.00; paper, $35.00--Before describing what Peter J. Lewis actually does in this work, let me lay out the background against which it may be seen as a significant milestone in the history of interdisciplinary research. Ever since the advent of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, physicists have known that the results of their experiments challenged not only the fundamentals of classical Newtonian physics, but also the foundations of our intuitive metaphysical understanding of reality. In its early years, debates concerning these issues were largely confined within the physics community. This period is best known by Albert Einstein's doubts about God not "playing dice" with the universe, and "spooky action at a distance." Among the physics community, this debate was temporarily resolved by adoption of the Copenhagen Interpretation--often described as "shut up and calculate"--which urged physicists to forge ahead with their experiments and applications while avoiding the deeper conceptual problems.

Beginning in the 1950s, however, some quantum physicists began reaching out to philosophers as well as the general public to join in confronting the conceptual implications of the subatomic phenomena they were investigating. Werner Heisenberg led the way with his groundbreaking book, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. Over the next six decades, numerous physicists followed with direct appeals to see the connection between philosophy and quantum physics; for example, Nick Herbert's Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics; Henry Krips's The Metaphysics of Quantum Theory, and Templeton Award winner Bernard d'Espagnat's Quantum Physics and Philosophy, to name only a few. Meanwhile, an entire industry has grown up--often referred to as "quantum mysticism"--seizing on one or another of the metaphysical issues and ambiguities of quantum mechanics to make sensational claims for various New Age, Buddhist, Hindu, Indian, or other psychological and religious forms of mystical experience.

It has therefore proved difficult to entice serious philosophers to bring the rigorous methods of their disciplines--especially in metaphysics and ontology--to bear. There are two reasons for this; first, a solid grounding in the technical details of quantum physics is necessary; and second, once immersed in the details, the results are not necessarily glamorous. In other words, what is needed most can only be characterized as down-and-dirty spadework--no match for the click-bait value of quantum mysticism.

It is exactly at this point that the work under review enters the picture. It is addressed to serious philosophers, and it aims to overcome several of the major barriers to their involvement. Lewis is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. …

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