Quantum Physics

A recent edition of the radio discussion programme ‘In Our Time’ was devoted to the arcane world of quantum physics.

In explaining their discipline to a lay audience, the panel of scientists managed to befuddle listeners and presenter alike; so much of it just did not seem to ‘make sense’. Memories of A-level physics came flooding back to me. The dynamism of Schrödinger’s equation, the strangeness of his metaphorical cat, the aptness of ‘the uncertainty principle’, and the flirting with oriental mysticism in such books as ‘The Tao of Physics’, all conspired to link my studies of modern physics to the whirlpool of adolescent psychology.

Listening to these ideas thirty years later, an echo of that earlier excitement reverberated through a perceived analogy with psychoanalysis. Philosophical problems abound in both fields; the difference between reality and theory, the status of ‘understanding’, the role of the observer and so on. The Alice-in-Wonderland world of quantum physics follows a logic of its own, different from the familiar world of everyday reality.

“The quantum world,” one panelist said, “cannot be spoke about” (sic), arguing in effect that the sequential ordering of human language is incommensurate, or at least not adequate to, the simultaneous layering of quantum reality. Electrons can be in two places at once or in two states at once; light is both a wave and a particle, and we have little idea of the what and the when and the wherefore. The panelists pointed out that ‘rules of interpretation’ are at the heart of quantum explanations, rather than the ‘deterministic laws’ of Newtonian mechanics.

But interpretations exist in a kind of world of their own. “The Copenhagen interpretation is an algorithm that explains the results of certain experiments” said one, “it does not address what the reality would be”. Another added: “And it is not a very good algorithm at that, because it uses this word ‘measurement’, but the things cannot be measured”.

Freud may have been pleased at this uncertainty at the heart of ‘hard’ science. He frequently regretted that psychoanalysis could not be put on a firmer footing, and even suggested (though I can’t remember where) that psychological theory would one day be superceded by an understanding of the physiology and chemistry of the brain. Meantime he would have to make do with the observation that a science of the most complex object in the universe – the human mind – may turn out to be no less simple than a science of inorganic matter.

This necessary indeterminacy is not acceptable to those who hanker for the simple explanations of a clockwork universe. Yet it did not prevent Freud expressing his envy of the physicist. In a letter to his friend and colleague Marie Bonaparte he wrote:

“Mediocre spirits demand of science a kind of certainty which it cannot give, a sort of religious satisfaction. Only the real, rare, true scientific minds can endure doubt, which is attached to all our knowledge. I always envy the physicists and mathematicians who can stand on firm ground. I hover, so to speak, in the air. Mental events seem to be immeasurable and probably always will be.”
Quoted in Jones, Vol 2

In similar vein he writes to Einstein in 1929. But this time he expresses no illusions about the certainty of natural science:

“I used to think that we had other reasons to envy the physicist: the beautiful clarity, precision and certainty of the fundamental concepts of his science, such as force, mass, acceleration and the like. I have since learned the lesson that this is merely a semblance. If someone reproaches us with the uncertainty and vagueness of our libido, energies, instincts and cathexes, it is now my custom to appeal to the example of physics and to assert that, while clear fundamental concepts may be demanded of the humanities, this is not the case with a true natural science”

Letter to Einstein, 26 March 1929
Translated by Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1995) 76, p115

It is indeed a strange paradox that the more complex and indeterminate our object, the simpler we want our theories to be.

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