Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does Plotinus tell us about theistic science?
A review of Nature Loves to Hide by Shimon Malin

This is an ambitious book, that starts from quantum physics, incorporates Whitehead's process philosophy, and then suggests that some theistic ideas from Plotinus are relevant to an overall understanding of nature, mind and God. This is certainly a worthy aim, and if achieved would have important consequences for theistic science, but, while the details are initially extensive, the later chapters are more suggestive sketches.

Shimon Malin is a physicist who has been thinking long about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and has excellent explanations of the problems in the way of achieving a ‘sensible’ interpretation. He starts by explaining the influence of Ernst Mach’s positivism on Einstein's formulation of relativity. Mach also influenced Heisenberg's construction of quantum mechanics in 1924, but by then Einstein’s position had changed. "Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning," Einstein told Heisenberg, "but it is nonsense all the same ... on principle it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe."
In this book Malin follows Heisenberg’s ‘potentiality’ view, to see quantum objects as ‘fields of potentiality’. This goes some way to describing how physicists think in practice, and gives, I agree, the best realistic account of the quantum world. Malin, however, still want to marry this view with Bohr's account of quantum states as ‘what we can know’ rather than ‘what is’. He reconciles this by claiming that the ‘quantum state of a quantum system is understood as representing the epistemic available or potential knowledge about the system’, and holds that this is necessary in view of the apparent faster-than-light correlations in non-local quantum systems. The long-standing measurement problem is solved by using some ideas worked out after talking to Dirac (a difficult process, as he amusingly explains), whereby ‘nature makes a choice’ when there is no longer any possibility of interference.
All these ideas are then linked to Whitehead’s process philosophy, where reality does not consist of continuous substances, but intermittent throbs of experiences that give actual occasions of selection events. The experiences themselves, he surmises, are the ‘acts of looking’ (as in Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics) that ‘create their subject just as they create themselves’.

Malin furthermore tries to link his potentiality fields to Whitehead, but here, I believe, he is on shakier ground. He claims that ‘the transition from potentiality to actuality is a central element in Whitehead’, but in fact there is no ‘potentiality’ in Whitehead's mature philosophy (1927), only some suggestions, not adopted, in earlier work. Whitehead does not have any sense of ‘efficacious potentiality’ in his Process and Reality, only a ‘potency’ that is more like an abstract ‘possibility’. Malin’s view of potentialities, as partly epistemic, also plays down their causal role compared with Heisenberg or Popper, and furthermore leads to the curious position that potentialities are ‘eternal’ and ‘unchanging’. There is a persistent confusion in the book between the real potentialities in the physical (and biological and mental) worlds, and the abstract eternal objects which are the possible forms of such realities. The former have causal powers to actually do something, the latter do not. This difference is deliberately blurred in Malin’s book, because he tends to believe the mathematical physicists such as Schrödinger when they want to say that nature is really ‘form’ rather than ‘substance’: nothing but ‘pure shape’.

The next and most adventurous step in this book is to link all the above ideas with the ‘many levels of being’ ideas of Plotinus that stem from Plotinus' view of creation as an 'overflowing from God'. Malin is particularly struck by Plotinus’ view that each level of being is produced by the one above it through ‘contemplation, which is not different from mere presence’. No effort is required, apparently: merely looking is sufficient to create multiple levels, eventually leading to the physical world. The similarity of this view to the production of actual events in quantum mechanics by (mere) ‘acts of looking’ convinces Malin that there is a deeper connection between Plotinus and quantum physics, and we might think of a foundation for theistic science.

Again, I believe, both Malin and Plotinus suffer through only considering contemplation, as sight in the understanding, rather than whatever power, love or energy there may be in the will. Malin mentions the possibility of love being efficacious, but only as a throw-away remark in reference to Empedocles. The absence of this second aspect has produced a world view in which everything is thought / form / looking / awareness, and nothing is efficacious / substantial / love / energy. Any scientific theism must tell us about love, and about substance, but Malin's view does neither.

We might hope that Malin goes on to discover the ideas of thinkers after Plotinus, such as Swedenborg, who has certainly advanced from Plotinus’ position. Swedenborg's views do explain how love and being (substance) are related to power and energy, and thus develops a view of humanity that allows us hearts as well as heads, and hence life as well as looking.

Now doubt we will be discussing this further!

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