Plato (427 – 347 BC) is perhaps the most famous Greek philosopher in as much as many of his ideas are as relevant today as they were in his time. Incidentally,
he is one of the few great men who are known only by their nicknames. His real name was Aristocles. One of his often-quoted statements is:
“Thus in sum, we conclude, if there is no one, there is nothing at all".
This is a far-reaching metaphysical statement, which implies that the objective reality is entirely dependent on the observer. It is interesting to compare it with the statements made by some eminent physicists in reference to quantum physics.
“Quantum physics has forced us to take seriously the concept that the observer is as essential to the creation of the universe as universe is to the creation of the observer".
- John Wheeler
“Nothing is real unless we look at it, and it ceases to be real as soon as we stop looking".
- John Gribbin
Although quantum physics emerged only in the twentieth century it is remarkable how Plato’s words resonate with those of the physicists. Plato essentially says that the role of the observer is critical in asserting the existence (or reality) of the object of observation, which is the central theme of the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Here we get into the fundamental question of the distinction between subject and object that is inherent in the thought process of the mind. The object of thought cannot exist independent of the thinker – the subject. This problem had been discussed at length in ancient Eastern philosophies.
Quantum mechanics has been the most successful theory in the interpretation of the behavior of physical systems. Still it describes only ‘what is observed’ and not ‘what is’. Uncertainty is one of the critical elements in quantum theory. Before the observation the state of the system is indeterminate and can be described only in terms of probabilities through the use of wave functions and a highly sophisticated abstract mathematical language. The system can be in any of several states, each with a certain probability. It is only when the observation takes place that it acquires a definite state. Technically this is called wave function collapse (or state vector reduction). In simple language it means that of all the probable states the act of observation makes the system go into a single state. Thus the observer has a critical role in the determination of the outcome of the measurement.
But the whole idea of the system being simultaneously in several states prior to the observation leads to apparently ridiculous results. However, once we realize that the uncertainty principle is the cornerstone of quantum physics, the results become more amenable to rationalization. Physics has had this kind of problem before. The idea that light could be both particle and wave also seemed absurd at one time. The equivalence of matter and energy first seemed absurd even to Einstein when he derived his famous equation. We shall discuss the absurdity and then the plausibility of the results in the second part of this article.
The quotations have been taken from the book ‘Meditation, Oneness, and Physics’ by Glen Peter Kezwer (p. 127).
Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with electrical engineering and physics background. He obtained his M. S.degree in physics in India and Ph. D.in electrical engineering at Cornell University. He has taught at a few universities here and also in Brazil, where he spent sometime. He maintains a website http://www.cosmosebooks.com devoted mainly to philosophy and science.