Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution – Beyond Quantum Irrationality

July 26, 2019

Science, truth and realism are under attack in the early 21st century. ”Quite literally, parts of our society appear to be losing their grip on the boundary between reality and fantasy.” The problem lies also with science itself. “When fundamental physics itself get hijacked by an anti-realist philosophy, we are in danger.” Humanist academics have contributed to the current predicament by drawing anti-realist conclusions from quantum mechanics and by holding that science is no more than a social construction. Thus interests of power and business tend to prevail over truth and realism. Einstein initiated the quantum revolution, but he “did not become one its leaders, because his realism required that he reject the theory as it was developed in the late 1920s”. Einstein left the revolution unfinished, in spite of making moves in the right direction. Lee Smolin aims at nothing less than the completion of Einstein’s project in realist terms.

Smolin, Lee. 2019. Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum. London: Allen Lane, 322 p.

Lee Smolin’s new book combines an account of quantum science with social and political observations, culminating toward the end of the book in a systematic argument for going “beyond the quantum”. The story is attractive and relevant. It is one of those rare books that I have recently read from cover to cover basically in one go. Smolin critiques strongly the prevailing orthodoxy of the unreal. He defends the ontological project of building a realist framework for understanding quantum level phenomena. This project has also ethical and political consequences.

The first part of the book explains in an accessible but critical way the basics of prevailing ideas in quantum mechanics. The starting point is that quantum mechanics explains why there are atoms, why those atoms are stable and have distinct chemical properties, and how atoms can combine to form molecules, the building blocks of life etc. The paradox appears sharp. Quantum mechanics makes our ordinary macroscopic world possible – while the quantum world itself seems weird from the point of view of our common sense realism. Quanta can be simultaneously here and there and they seem to be entangled in non-local ways. Matter seems to be both waves and particles and somehow at sub-atomic scales the world appears to be probabilistic. Our ability to measure the properties of sub-atomic things is limited because the wave function seems to “collapse” at the moment of measurement (while that moment can be specified in different ways).[1] By measuring property A another property B becomes unmeasurable. By then later measuring B one will make the past knowledge of A irrelevant. The degrees of unmeasurability are called uncertainty.

The early history of quantum mechanics includes dramatic stories about unexpected discoveries and heated debates about the fundamentals; about competition and friendship; about political convictions and tragic personal destinies in the context of the early 20th century world historical turmoil. Einstein initiated the process in 1905 by suggesting that radiation existed in spatially localized packets which he called “quanta of light”, but it was the young Dane, Niels Bohr, “who would assume the leadership of the revolutionaries who invented quantum mechanics” (the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen was opened in 1921). The problem for Smolin is, however, that “Bohr was a radical anti-realist, and it was he, more than anyone else, who was responsible for making the quantum revolution a triumph of anti-realism”. Louis de Broglie developed a realist alternative already in 1927 called the pilot wave theory. It was totally marginalised until David Bohm re-invented it in the early 1950s in Brazil – where he had been forced to migrate after he had lost his job at Princeton due to McCarthyism and American anti-communist witch hunts. Bohm laid out a realist causal version of quantum theory and its mathematics in the 1950s and developed it further later. The de Broglie-Bohm theory was mostly ignored for decades. The case for it among scientists may not have been helped by Bohm’s apparent turn to a form of Eastern mysticism later in his life, although his work in that area is compatible with his contributions to theoretical physics. Bohm died in London in 1992. His final work, with Basil Hiley, was published posthumously in 1993 and called The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory.

A question raised but not really answered by Smolin is why the pilot wave theory did not become a major framework of research rather than the anti-realist Copenhagen interpretation becoming totally dominant, even though it predicts virtually all the same observations and explains more? (The slight differences in predictions can, in principle, be used to test the pilot wave theory, but so far this has not been technically possible). I will come back to this question shortly. But first a brief summary of the thrust of Smolin’s main argument. Smolin discusses physical collapse models and some other realist-sounding “alternatives to revolution”, but is ultimately dissatisfied with all of them. Also the pilot-wave theory has problems such as a vast amount of “ghost branches”, which are in fact the same branches as in the Many World Interpretation, which is perhaps Smolin’s main target of criticism. The pilot wave theory is much more realistic than the Many World Interpretation – which Smolin also labels as “magical realism” – because it “requires no exotic ontology in terms of many universes, or a splitting of observers, because there is always a single occupied branch where the particle resides”. Nonetheless, it is not elegant to conflate possibilities with actualities. Several new approaches have emerged during the last few decades and many of them are covered as well. In particular, those involved in developing quantum computing tend to see the entire universe as a computer – a metaphor Smolin finds highly implausible. Some apply rational choice theory (from economics and game theory) to decide in which universe we are. No genuine breakthrough seems in sight.

At one level Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution is a story of personal frustration. At the age of 64, Smolin is deeply disappointed about the lack of progress in physics during the last four decades. Most scientists seems content doing normal science (in the sense of Thomas Kuhn). Our contemporary academic world is full of subtle mechanisms feeding conformism. Smolin is convinced that something essential is missing, concluding that “the hidden variables” of Einstein must be relational. The most fundamental relation, from which also space emerges, may be entanglement. The possibility of interaction is correlated with locality, but really depends on similarity. There are links across the space-time fabric at the quantum level, like narrow wormholes that can also be seen as “defects of locality”. Here Smolin turns to philosophy and especially to Leibniz’s monadology. The universe comprises a set of events and their causal relations, involving energy transmissions and constituting time. “All the rest, including the impression that there are unchanging laws, is approximate and emergent.” The world consists of monads – or “nads” as Smolin calls his version of them – and they are connected through similarity of their causal histories (or more precisely information about those causal histories). As long as they remain simple they can be entangled, but more complex subsystems tend to be unique in terms of causal history and thus locally bound in the emergent space-time. This is how our macroscopic world in space-time emerges. The universe is generating more variety over time. Vastly complex entities such as ourselves are not part of any ensemble of causal histories of simple relational entities. “We are singletons, with nothing similar enough to interact with through the nonlocal interactions.”

What Smolin’s book manages to do is to show that plausible realist alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation (and other prevailing approaches) have existed all along and that they can be developed further, also in terms of fundamental principles. The book also suggests quite plausibly that time is real and that events and causation are irreversible, whereas even the laws of nature are mutable and evolve in time (even though they may appear as extremely stable in a universe as old as ours). Smolin has developed these points with Roberto Mangabeira Unger in great detail in their inspiring book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time.[2] Here I would like to stress that Smolin’s new book succeeds also in showing how important philosophical moments can be for science. Although philosophy has no monopoly over the deepest questions, philosophy means conceptual work at the level of fundamental principles. The alternative to philosophy is not no philosophy, but bad philosophy. As a realist Smolin is interested in ontological issues and develops explicitly arguments about the basic categories and relations of being and becoming.

The last chapter of the book is called “Note to Self”. Here Smolin uses the economistic language of “bets” in reflecting on the choices a scientist must make. He also makes it known that he has been devoting his available time and energy between (i) the existing theories (derived from the Copenhagen interpretation), assuming that they will turn out to be the correct completion of quantum mechanics, and (ii) searching for new approaches at the level of fundamental principles. Career-wise (i) has been more important. Smolin may be exceptional among physicists in not doing (i) only, but he too acknowledges that “to try to invent a whole new physics [can be] risky for my career and damaging to my emotional stability”. Meanwhile every day is busy “with a schedule full of seminars, faculty meeting, working with students, classes, review panels, airplanes, hotels and conference talks”. It is no wonder then that Smolin seems unaware of the philosophy of critical realism (CR), as CR is best known among social scientists.[3] Yet Smolin is not only close to CR but, arguably, CR can shed light on why quantum irrationality prevails in the early 21st century.

Chapter 11 is called “critical realism”. By that term Smolin means new and more sophisticated versions of the magical realism of the Many Worlds Interpretation, especially the approach of David Deutsch and his Oxford colleagues. This is hugely different from CR proper. A key point of CR is that in the absence of closure – always the case in social sciences – decisive tests between theories are hard to come by. Ideological positions evolve easily and tend to fortify themselves rapidly. The situation seems quite similar in the frontiers of physics, where the problem often lies in the indirect and technologically and theoretically mediated nature of observations and tests as well as in the practical limits of achievable tests. Moreover, outside laboratory, physical systems tend to be open as well. There are of course major differences between the fields. The physical world is extremely stable when compared to the layers of life and society. As Smolin makes clear, the basic elements of the physical world are also simpler. Thus it makes more sense to use predictability as a key normative criterion in physics than in other fields such as life sciences and (especially) social sciences.[4] Predictability is achievable in conditions that constitute or approximate closure and are not too complicated, although already the three body problem in standard Newtonian mechanics poses problems in this regard. Laboratory experiments exploit artificially created closures to study the mechanisms of nature.

Smolin speculates with a counterfactual history, in which the pilot wave theory would have become the dominant framework for research rather than the anti-realist Copenhagen interpretation. Yet Smolin seems mistaken in assuming that the anti-realist (aka empiricist) way of thinking emerged only with quantum mechanics. His rather tentative explanation for why the pilot wave theory did not become mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s is the following:

Why, then, is so much of the talk about quantum theory inspired by the weirder ideas in which reality depends on our knowledge of it or there are multiple realities. This is a problem for historians of ideas. One such historian, Paul Forman, has tied the dominance of Bohr and Heisenberg’s anti-realist philosophy within the scientific community in the 1920s and 1930s to the embrace of chaos and irrationality advocated by Spengler and others in the wake of the First World War.

There is no doubt that the catastrophe of WWI affected the modern Western culture and shook its belief in progress through gradual improvements, but there are also deeper explanations. What the Copenhagen interpretation is saying is basically that what matters is our ability to calculate observables and, thereby, manipulate things to a certain degree. Similar sceptical and empiricist elements were advocated already in the 17th century in Europe. David Hume (1711-1776) developed the sceptical and also political implications of this emerging metaphysics in the Lockean heartland of the world economy. Hume’s devastating critique of ontology was based on doubting everything, although he also assumed that we can put some trust on sense-perceptions and habits of thought (which we sometimes “must be corrected by reason, and by considerations”).

Knowledge for Hume and his followers is essentially instrumentalist. A typical CR interpretation of this is that Hume’s philosophy reflects the profit-motive of the emerging and increasingly technologically oriented capitalist market society.[5] Although this is only a part of the story, it is an essential part. The other main part of the story concerns states and war. Many quantum theorists have been interwoven with the military-industrial complex of states, especially in the US.[6] Almost all the main characters of the early history of quantum mechanics were involved in the process of developing nuclear weapons, one way or another. John von Neumann is perhaps the most famous case in point. A role model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, von Neumann became the key figure also in quantum mechanics by, among other things, proposing a “proof” that Einstein’s hidden variable theory is impossible. Smolin cites John Bell, who identified an erroneous assumption in von Neumann’s attempted proof:

[T]he von Neumann proof, if you actually come grips with it, falls apart in your hands! There is nothing to it. It’s not just flawed, it’s silly. … When you translate [his assumptions] into terms of physical disposition, they’re nonsense. You may quote me on that: The proof of von Neumann is not merely false but foolish!

Another case in point is Hugh Everett III, who first proposed the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Smolin writes laconically that “Everett, as many have, left academic science just after his PhD to begin a career in defence industry”. Over time, quantum mechanics has started to have also commercial applications, from computational chemistry to quantum information science and – possibly in the future, though this is uncertain – quantum computing. Instrumentalist attitude remains good for careers in the increasingly business-oriented universities, where Kuhnian “normal science” and subservience are systematically rewarded,[7] and where unresolved tensions in practical positioning are susceptible to generating substitute worlds in fantasy.

Hegel’s famous distinctions – as reinterpreted by Roy Bhaskar[8] – between different subservient attitudes to power continue to illuminate this problematic. The first attitude Hegel considers is that of the Stoic, who purports to be indifferent to the reality of the world (the mode of operationalist science and its pedagogy is: “shut up and calculate”). What the Stoic tries hard to ignore, namely the real world, the more advanced Sceptic attempts to deny in terms of various contemporary versions of relativism (while continuing to calculate in the operationalist mode). But both the Stoic and the Sceptic end up in a theory/practice contradiction. What they try to ignore or deny (reality at different levels), they approve in practice. “All philosophies, cognitive discourses and practical activities presuppose a realism – in the sense of some ontology or general account of the world – of one kind or another.”[9] It is impossible to act without approving, in some sense, the physical, biological and social realities, including the relations of power that set the terms for one’s activities.

The Unhappy Consciousness sees all this, but imagines another world, perhaps an after-world, where the reality of prevailing circumstances and relations of dependency are overcome. She may be religious, but in the contemporary world the compensation for disappointing reality often comes in a fantasy world of sport, soap, nostalgia, science fiction etc. If you are scientifically minded, it is possible to imagine a vast amount of Many Worlds, in some of which you might be genuinely happy as a result of doing something that is good and important in its own right – and doing it also for the right reasons.

Fantasies such as stories about many different selves existing in parallel universes provide apt topics for commercial Hollywood movies – while such stories can also relieve oneself from any ethical and political responsibility. This is the logic whereby parts of our society are losing their grip on the boundary between reality and fantasy. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are not mere coincidences.



[1] For a critique of those anti-realist fantasies according to which the measurement problem implies – not only that observers produce physical realities but also – that consciousness resides at the quantum level and that panpsychism prevails, see my blog “(Mis)uses of Quantum Theory in Our Real Evolutionary Cosmos, part II”.

[2] R.M. Unger & L. Smolin (2015) The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. My essay reviewing this book in some detail is available here.

[3] Critical realism (CR) is often associated with the works of Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014). Rom Harré was a considerable influence on Bhaskar, whom Harré also supervised from 1970-74. Bhaskar’s first book A Realist Theory of Science (originally published in 1975) can also be seen, in important part, as a systematic articulation and further development of Harré’s scientific realism. CR has been a collective endeavour involving several prime movers such as Margaret Archer, Bob Jessop, Tony Lawson and Andrew Sayer. The 1990s saw the establishment of the International Association for Critical Realism (IACR) and Journal of Critical Realism (at first known as Alethia). The key ideas of CR can be understood with the help of three philosophical theses: ontological realism, epistemological relativism and judgmental rationalism. Ontological realism forms the basis for our knowledge of the different aspects of the world, but this knowledge is always socially produced, contextual and fallible (epistemological relativism). This interpretative pluralism does not mean that all knowledge claims are equally valid. According to judgmental rationalism, we can compare various interpretations, explanations and models to make well-grounded and plausible judgements about their truth and other merits. This is critical realism in contrast to any form of naïve realism (the term naïve realism is used by Smolin in a positive way). My most recent overview of CR is “The Promises of Critical Realism in the 2020s and beyond”, Teoria Polityki, (3), forthcoming in August 2019, will be available at http://www.ejournals.eu/TP/.

[4] Smolin discusses also the explanatory – and not only predictive – power of theories. Fundamental theories help us to understand better why things happen the way they do, not only to describe in mathematical or other terms how they happen. Also untrue theories can enable manipulating the world through predictability.

[5] There are different layers. Scepticism means in practice tacit acquiescence in the status quo, i.e. more or less, ‘everything stays’, no matter what the context. Modern empiricist knowledge seeking for event-regularities involves the possibility and desire to manipulate and control both nature and society. Starting with the industrial revolution, and especially since the second industrial revolution, science has been harnessed increasingly systematically to create something new in terms of forces of production, products and markets. The atomist ontology of closed systems thinking translates effortlessly into individualism in social and political theory, defined also in terms of private property (nationalism in turn is a collective form of individualism on the international plane, where nations/states are the liberal individuals). From a Marxian perspective, Humean type of philosophy “at once naturalises and normalises things and reflects in an endless hall of mirrors the self-image of Bourgeois Man” (R. Bhaskar (2009) Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. With a New Introduction. London & New York: Routledge, p. 210).

[6] This problem was acute much before the Cold War and Pax Americana. Already during WWI, Einstein was facing a community of scientists who were eagerly supporting the war efforts of Germany and other countries. Einstein wrote an anti-war manifesto in response to German scientists’ pro-war “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three”. He could get only three fellow scientists to sign it. A quarter of century later Einstein signed a letter to F.D. Roosevelt urging the US to develop atomic bomb in fear that Hitler’s Germany might succeed in doing so. “Later, when atomic bombs were dropped on civilian populations in an already virtually-defeated Japan, Einstein bitterly regretted having signed Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt. He said repeatedly that signing the letter was the greatest mistake of his life, and his remorse was extreme. Throughout the remainder of his life, in addition to his scientific work, Einstein worked tirelessly for peace, international understanding and nuclear disarmament. His last public act, only a few days before his death in 1955, was to sign the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, warning humankind of the catastrophic consequences that would follow from a war with nuclear weapons.” See “Albert Einstein, Scientist and Pacifist” by John Scales Avery, available here.

[7] Smolin downplays the role of particular institutional arrangements and contexts in conditioning how science operates. Steve Fuller in his 2003 book Kuhn vs. Popper. The Struggle for the Soul of Science (Thriplow: Icon Books) argues that Kuhn’s “normal science” was closely connected to US Cold War science policy and to the functions of the military-industrial complex. “[P]ure inquirers – mathematicians, philosophers, computer programmers, physicists – [were] inserted unproblematically into military strategy and other government schemes that were decided without their consent” (p. 87). The military-industrial complex and similar science policies remain in place, but what has happened in addition is the repurposing of the universities in terms of success in global competition, usefulness for moneymaking, and efficiency, meaning application of New Public Management ideas. In my 2005 book on the future of the university, I argued that in performance- and auditing-driven universities, where research is based on short-term projects with built-in relationships of dependency and superiority, the explicit motivation for action is first and foremost private good. Also, risk taking is not encouraged because each individual is solely responsible for their immediate productivity in the light of the prevailing (and largely externally given) criteria. Principle is that “you are free to do whatever research you want, as long as you just find someone who wants to pay for it”. Typical financiers, however, do not want to waste their money and therefore they want to be assured that the research will produce (preferably immediate) results in accordance with expectations. Close monitoring and control ensure that you do not deviate from the intended path. The result is normal science, atomisation of the academic life-world and thus widespread conformism. H. Patomäki (2005) Yliopisto Oyj. Tulosjohtamisen ongelmat – ja vaihtoehto [University Inc. The Problems of New Public Management – and an Alternative], Helsinki: Gaudeamus, pp. 130-135. See also “Repurposing the University in the 21st Century: Toward a Progressive Global Vision”, Globalizations, 16:5, 2019, pp. 751-762 (a next-to-final version is freely available here.

[8] R. Bhaskar (1994) Plato Etc. Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution. London: Verso, pp. 1–3, 81–94.

[9] R. Bhaskar (1989) Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. London: Verso, p. 2.