Bitbol M.
A cure for metaphysical illusions: Kant, quantum mechanics, and the madhyamaka
Cite as: Bitbol M. (2003) A cure for metaphysical illusions: Kant, quantum mechanics, and the madhyamaka. In: Wallace B. A. (ed.) Buddhism and science. Columbia University Press: 325-361. Available at
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My purpose in this paper is to show that the transcendental approach, first formulated by Kant, and then elaborated by generations of neo-Kantian thinkers and phenomenologists, provides Buddhism in its highest intellectual achievement with a natural philosophy of science. I take this highest achievement to be the Madhyamaka dialectic and soteriology,[Note 1]Note 1. NOTETEXT-1 which was developed in India from the second century C.E. to the seventh century C.E. by masters such as Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, and Candrakīrti.
Yet I am aware that we are likely to meet obstacles in the course of this attempt at establishing a threefold relation between science (especially modern physics), transcendental philosophy, and Madhyamaka Buddhism. Every possible mutual relation between these three terms has been studied in the recent past, and each one of them has raised serious doubts. My preliminary task, in sections 1, 2, and 3, is therefore to locate the obstacles. Then, in section 4, I suggest a promising way to overcome these obstacles. In sections 5, 6, and 7 I use the ideas developed in section 4 to give three examples of a possible synergy between a neo-Kantian philosophy of science and the Madhyamaka. One example concerns reifications in particle physics, another one develops the dialectic of determinism and indeterminism in various readings of quantum theory, and the last one deals explicitly with the concept of relation in quantum mechanics.
1. Kant, modern physics, and the Madhyamaka: Three difficulties for a comparison
To begin with, what are the obstacles?
First, the relevance of Kant’s philosophy for modern physics has repeatedly been challenged during the first half of the twentieth century by the very creators of the new theories. According to Kant, space, time, causality, etc. are “norms” imposed in advance by our sensibility and understanding onto the “matter” of sensations. These forms are supposed to hold true “for all times and for all rational beings.”[Note 2]Note 2. NOTETEXT-2 But modern physics has undermined this invariability clause. According to Einstein, general relativity has jeopardized an important aspect of Kant’s a priori forms of sensibility (space and time) and, according to Heisenberg, quantum mechanics has shown the lack of universality of Kant’s a priori forms of thought (the categories of substance and causality). A large majority of philosophers of science currently accept these claims. Following the pioneering work of Moritz Schlick, Emile Meyerson, and Hans Reichenbach in the 1920s, they thus agree that most features of Kant’s original a priori forms are outmoded, or at least that their validity is restricted to the cognitive ordering of the local mesoscopic[Note 3]Note 3. NOTETEXT-3 environment of humanity. Moreover, these philosophers implicitly consider that this failure of Kant’s original philosophy of physics condemns any renewed transcendental approach of modern physics.
Second, a huge amount of work has been done in order to draw parallels between the most striking features of modern physics and several trends of Eastern thought, including the Madhyamaka. But a high proportion of this work (e.g., Fritjof Capra’s, Michael Talbot’s, or even David Bohm’s) was disparaged by the academic world at the very time it was arousing a large popular interest. Undoubtedly, part of this academic discredit was due to an overestimation of science as the only acceptable source of truth. Another part of it expressed a misapprehension of the high rational standards of many schools of Eastern philosophy (especially the Madhyamaka), which triggered a spurious fear of “obscurantism.” But there were also good reasons to distrust the most popular parallels between science and Eastern philosophies. One of these reasons was the poor methodological background of the attempted comparisons. No systematic assessment of the difference of status between the two terms to be compared was made, no discrimination of the points on which the confrontation between physics and Eastern spiritualities do or do not make sense was undertaken, and no clear idea of what can or cannot be expected from the comparison emerged. With a few recent and remarkable exceptions,[Note 4]Note 4. NOTETEXT-4 this type of reflection thus resulted in little more than mere analogy at an ill-defined level of the two discourses, with obvious apologetic purposes.
Third, T. R. V. Murti already proposed, years ago, a Kantian reading of Madhyamaka thought.[Note 5]Note 5. NOTETEXT-5 But this reading raised a series of sound objections which were remarkably expressed by Jacques May,[Note 6]Note 6. NOTETEXT-6 and by other authors.[Note 7]Note 7. NOTETEXT-7 I will elaborate on this problem in the two following sections, for it has been less documented than the former ones. But readers who are more interested in solutions than in problems can perfectly well skip sections 2 and 3. After all, the aim of this essay is to undo some conceptual knots of our current belief system; it is not to indulge in philosophical technicalities.
2. Kant and the Madhyamaka: some similarities
The manifest resemblance between Kant’s critical philosophy and the Madhyamaka system bears on at least four points:
1. The Madhyamaka is intended, even etymologically, as a middle way between absolutism and nihilism, that is, between the view of an absolute self-subsisting reality and the view of no reality. Due to its insistance on holding no view about reality,[Note 8]Note 8. NOTETEXT-8 it was wrongly accused of holding a no-reality view.
Similarly, Kant’s transcendental philosophy was construed from the outset as a middle way between dogmatic rationalism (which tends to identify the ideas of reason with absolute realities) and sceptical empiricism (which radically challenges the claim of reason in regard to the possibility of gaining anything like objective knowledge). Due to his strong criticism of dogmatic transcendent realism, Kant was wrongly accused of defending a form of subjective idealism.
2. The Madhyamaka and the philosophy of Kant both involve an analysis of the dialectic of reason. On the one side, Nāgārjuna undertakes a systematic rejection of all opposing metaphysical views either by a form of logical reductio ad absurdum or by pointing out an absence of empirical proof.[Note 9]Note 9. NOTETEXT-9 On the other side, Kant develops an analysis of the internal conflicts of pure reason, which culminate in the so-called antinomies.
At a more detailed level, one may notice a striking equivalence between (i) Kant’s first cosmological antinomy and (ii) Nāgārjuna’s symmetric rejection of the view that the world is limited and of the view that the world is unlimited.[Note 10]Note 10. NOTETEXT-10 Even the ways in which Kant and Nāgārjuna explain the antinomic character of any assertion about the world taken as a whole are surprisingly close to one another. Kant insists that since cosmological questions bear on an ideal absolute totality, namely, on a closed and static entity called “the universe,” they transgress the bounds of human experience. Indeed, for human beings, significant questions can concern only the open series of phenomena and the unended progress of knowledge tending toward a synthesis.[Note 11]Note 11. NOTETEXT-11 As for Nāgārjuna, he similarly suggests that the reason neither the finitude nor the infinitude of the world as a whole makes sense is that the world should not be construed as a single absolute entity of which something can be significantly predicated. If anything, the world should rather be construed as an indefinite “series of flickering events”[Note 12]Note 12. NOTETEXT-12 compared to the flame of a butterlamp.
3. Kant restricts the validity of the concepts of our pure understanding, such as the category of substance or causality, to the formal ordering of the empirical contents; he also restricts the validity of the ideas of our reason to a “regulative” use, namely, to providing us with an inaccessible goal (a focus imaginarius) that motivates the unended process of the ordering of phenomena. If we do not recognize these restrictions, we can easily take the form given by our intellectual faculties to phenomena for the form of the things in themselves. We take the risk of projecting the a priori structure of the knowing subject onto the world, thus mistaking it for a pregiven worldly structure. This confusion defines what Kant calls the “transcendental illusion,” which, unlike the ordinary empirical illusions, is all-pervasive and extremely difficult to recognize and to compensate for.
On the other hand, unlike subjective idealists, Kant accepts that our senses are affected by an “external” thing in itself taken as an absolute reality. He often explains that the ground of phenomena has to be found beyond the immanence of the phenomena in a “transcendental object.”[Note 13]Note 13. NOTETEXT-13 But this affecting thing in itself, this ground of phenomena, is, by definition, beyond any possibility of knowledge; it can but be for us a noumenon, a purely intelligible reality whose epistemological function is to be formally opposed to phenomena.
T. R. V. Murti then displays some analog features of the Madhyamaka system. He insists that, in the Madhyamaka as in Kant’s philosophy, “causality is of empirical validity only,”[Note 14]Note 14. NOTETEXT-14 that causality is not (and cannot be) a process of substantial production giving rise to an intrinsinc being out of another intrinsic being. Moreover, whereas the Madhyamaka invites us to accept bodily forms as part of an empirical reality, it rejects them at the same time as not ultimate, not absolute.[Note 15]Note 15. NOTETEXT-15
The basic illusion, in the Madhyamaka as in Kant’s philosophy, thus amounts to taking the empirical reality as it is molded by our perceptive automatisms, basic presuppositions, concepts, and conventions for some intrinsic reality. Disclosing this illusion, Murti says, would mean “disabusing the mind of its presuppositions” and, to begin with, recognizing these presuppositions as such. Yet, criticizing the absolutization of the elements of the empirical world does not mean denying the existence of any absolute reality. In fact, according to Murti, the Madhyamaka system is a variety of absolutism.[Note 16]Note 16. NOTETEXT-16 But the absolute it sketches is “utter indeterminateness and non-accessibility to reason… Even existence, unity, selfhood and goodness cannot be affirmed of it.”[Note 17]Note 17. NOTETEXT-17 Murti concludes by equating boldly Nāgārjuna’s distinction of two truths, namely, sam vr ti (usually translated as “conventional”)[Note 18]Note 18. NOTETEXT-18 and paramārtha (translated as “ultimate” or “absolute”), with Kant’s distinction between phenomenon and noumenon.[Note 19]Note 19. NOTETEXT-19
4. Denunciation of false absolutes is associated, in both Kant’s philosophy and the Madhyamaka system, with a strong emphasis on relations, constitutive relativities, or relative existence.
Kant describes two classes of relations, which one may call “transversal” and “lateral.” First, there is a “transversal” relation between the thing in itself and a knowing subject.[Note 20]Note 20. NOTETEXT-20 Second, there are direct “lateral” relations between consecutive perceptions, even though these perceptions admittedly arise from a human subject’s being “transversally” affected by the thing in itself.
According to Kant, in the empirical world we only know relations between phenomena.[Note 21]Note 21. NOTETEXT-21 Matter itself is construed by him as a bundle of relations, since the only characteristics by which it manifests itself are (attractive or repulsive) forces. Developing this conception systematically in the Transcendental Analytic of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant replaces any statement of inherence (say about substance or productive causality) by a corresponding a priori law of succession of phenomena. These laws, imposed onto phenomena by our understanding, are constitutive of objectivity. Indeed, objectivity is understood by Kant as universal validity, for any subject, of a certain mode of relational organization of phenomena rather than as intrinsic existence.
Not surprisingly, the most important categories among those that impose laws onto phenomena are those falling under the rubric relation. They are derived from the class of judgments that state relations either between a predicate and its subject, or between a premise and its consequence, or between the terms of a disjunction. In the empirical network of interrelations the only elements that can be taken as absolute are the very principles that govern the relations among phenomena, since they are the conditions of possibility of there being an experience of phenomena at all. To summarize, one could say that, according to Kant, we have access only to phenomenal relations that are themselves in turn constituted by a basic epistemological relation.
Now, we find a fairly similar pattern in Madhyamaka thought. Despite some obvious differences with Kant, to be discussed in the next section, the idea of a constitutive epistemological relation can, for example, be recognized in Nāgārjuna’s following remark: “Someone is disclosed by something. Something is disclosed by someone. Without something how can someone exist? Without someone how can something exist?”[Note 22]Note 22. NOTETEXT-22 This sentence, and other ones in the same chapter or in other texts,[Note 23]Note 23. NOTETEXT-23 can easily be understood as a way of emphasizing “the corelativity and interdependence of subject and object.”[Note 24]Note 24. NOTETEXT-24 More generally, as it is well known, Nāgārjuna considers that emptiness, understood as universal reciprocal relativity (or “dependent coarising”), is the very condition of existence of empirical (or “conventional”) reality. Disclosing the true nature of this reality here means only perceiving it as empty, or as constituted by reciprocal relations of dependent coarising. Both the absolutists who think that existence can only be intrinsic and the nihilists who think accordingly that their denial of intrinsic existence amounts to a denial of existence tout court are thereby rebutted. Their construal of causality as a process of metaphysical production having been extensively criticized, it is replaced, in the Madhyamaka system as in early Buddhism, by lawlike codependence of consecutive forms.[Note 25]Note 25. NOTETEXT-25
3. Kant and the Madhyamaka: The differences
Jacques May and other authors have given some reasons to regard virtually every point of the former parallel between Kant’s philosophy and the Madhyamaka as approximative. They have thus reached the conclusion that there could be only superficial analogies between these two systems of thought whose status and aims are utterly different.
There are, to begin with, many noticeable differences between Nāgārjuna’s and Kant’s dialectic.
To be sure, Nāgārjuna’s dialectic is much more radical than Kant’s. Whereas Kant carefully analyzes the antinomies, and considers them to be unavoidable (but unwelcome) consequences of an otherwise valuable functioning of reason, Nāgārjuna treats them, according to J. Garfield, as nothing other than pairs of “nonsensical verbal formulations.”[Note 26]Note 26. NOTETEXT-26
Even the structure of the dialectic is much stronger in the Madhyamaka system than in Kant’s philosophy.
In his studies of the (cosmological) antinomies Kant shows that we are able to derive two mutually contradictory conclusions from principles that are selected according to conflicting interests of reason. He then divides such couples of contradictory conclusions into two classes. In the first class the two conclusions (i.e., that the world is limited and that the world is unlimited) are both necessarily false, because they both apply to an ideal totality whose concept goes beyond any possible experience.[Note 27]Note 27. NOTETEXT-27 In the second class the two contradictory conclusions (i.e., that there is free will and that everything is ruled by the law of nature) are both true, because each one of them expresses a partial but significant aspect of the situation. To summarize, Kant displays either negative or positive dilemma.
By contrast, Nāgārjuna most often uses a negative tetralemma. In a tetralemma he denies (by challenging their logical coherence [na yujyate, nopapadyate] or their factual relevance [na vidyate]) the four following forms of a thesis:[Note 28]Note 28. NOTETEXT-28 P, P, P& P, P& P. Moreover, unlike Kant in his second type of antinomy, Nāgārjuna is careful not to endorse any one of the available theses. Indeed, even if a thesis were to express a significant aspect of a situation, this would mean that its truth is relative to a certain point of view and that it is thus, once again, merely “conventional.”
Another difference concerns the situation of dialectic in the respective systems. In Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, dialectic is all-pervasive; it is already there in the first verses of the first chapter, which state a basic tetralemma about causality. But in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the Transcendental Dialectic comes quite late, after the Aesthetic and the Analytic. Even if one agrees with Murti that the dialectic could have been Kant’s starting point,[Note 29]Note 29. NOTETEXT-29 this factual difference of order and emphasis cannot be ignored. It manifests very clearly that Kant’s priorities are diametrically opposed to Nāgārjuna’s. When Kant marks the bounds of reason, his purpose is to secure the mathematics and the (Newtonian) science of nature within these bounds. It is to drive back the illusion outside the bounds of a proper application of reason in order to provide science with a new illusion-free foundation. Here, again, a typical Mādhyamika thinker such as Nāgārjuna is much more radical. For him illusions arise not only from an extension of concepts beyond their empirical domain but also from their application to this domain. Indeed, the very fact that these concepts are successfully used within their range favors forgetfulness of their having a merely pragmaticconventional value. As May points out, the Madhyamaka does not try to document the empirical validity of concepts, but rather to convey their nonvalidity at the ultimate level.
To recapitulate, Kant’s dominant intention was to provide objective scientific knowledge with firm (though not ontological) ground. But Nāgārjuna’s exclusive mission was to free everyone from the spell of a reified conventional truth, including science understood as an exceptionally efficient (but thereby also exceptionally liable to reification) part of pragmatic-conventional truth.
Last but not least, the divergences about the ultimate and its status should not be minimized. In Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic there appears to be a relation of transcendence between the affecting thing in itself (the ultimate or the absolute) and the affected human subject. This dual relation is underpinned by a presupposed duality of (sensory) matter and (intellectual) form of knowledge. Indeed, in the wake of Kant’s “Copernican revolution” the form of the experienced world is specifically ascribed to the subject in general, not to the object(s), whereas the so-called matter of knowledge is considered as the byproduct of a subject’s senses being affected by the thing in itself. A strongly dualist structure thus persists in the Critique of Pure Reason, despite many opposite tendencies such as the criticism of the idea of a substantial self (the soul) in the paralogisms of pure reason. In that respect Kant’s philosophy is predominantly an epistemology. Ontology creeps in only when ethics is at stake. In the latter context Kant ascribes free will to the subject as a thing in itself, and determination by the law of nature to the subject as a phenomenon.[Note 30]Note 30. NOTETEXT-30
By contrast, says May, the Madhyamaka can by no means be construed as an epistemology. It is, so to speak, ontological from the outset, despite the fact (i) that its exposition of ontology is apophatic[Note 31]Note 31. NOTETEXT-31 rather than dogmatic and (ii) that this exposition has the status of a factor of transformation in being, not of a discourse on being. In the Madhyamaka a modification in attitude and in knowledge is also an internal mutation of being (or rather, if one wishes to impute some slightly less inappropriate words on it, a change in the direction of becoming). Thus one cannot say, as Murti does in order to strengthen the parallel with Kant, that the function of prajñā is to induce “an epistemic (subjective), not an ontological (objective)”[Note 32]Note 32. NOTETEXT-32 change, even less that prajñāprompts a transformation of our attitude, not of the real. In the Madhyamaka the duality of subject and object is empty; it is part and parcel of the “conventional” truth (it is even one of its most crucial departure points). It is not asymmetric and hierarchical, as Kant’s dualities of form and matter or of subject and thing in itself; it is rather symmetric and reciprocally coconstitutive. One central function of prajñāis appeasement of the latter duality in the immanent flux of becoming of which we are participants; it is therefore flatly mistaken to see it as operating at a purely subjective level.
This being granted, it is clear there can be no relation of transcendence in the Madhyamaka system, as some expressions of Kant suggest there is between phenomenon and noumenon. Not even between saṃvṛti and paramārtha or between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. In no way can one say, for instance, that the ultimate truth points toward an underlying ground of the conventional truth, by analogy with Kant’s referring to the thing in itself as the ground of empirical reality. The lack of any such relation of transcendence in the Madhyamaka thought is made as clear as possible by Nāgārjuna, in the following celebrated sentence: “There is not the slightest difference between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa.”[Note 33]Note 33. NOTETEXT-33 Everything, including nirvāṇa, is embedded in the same immanent plane, in the same network of relative coarising. To be in nirvāṇa, according to J. Garfield, means seeing the very same things that appear to the deluded consciousness of saṃsāra, but seeing them “as they are – as merely empty, dependent, impermanent, and nonsubstantial.” It does not mean “to be somewhere else, seeing something else.”[Note 34]Note 34. NOTETEXT-34 An even less inappropriate expression could be found by avoiding the expression “seeing as,” which still conveys an epistemological connotation, and replacing it by “living as” or “being as.” This would help to dissolve any residual picture of a transcendence.
4. Function rather than analogy: A methodological turn
At this point one can see that part of the difficulties that hinder these comparisons arises from a static and reified conception of discourses and doctrines. No serious use of the evolution of the doctrines can be made if, from the outset, they are considered to be immutable claims of truth. Further, analogies between two closed systems of thought fail to be convincing if one does not display extensive elements of isomorphism bearing on their contents, presuppositions, and scope. No other relation than similarity and dissimilarity is conceivable between them.
Another part of the difficulties comes from a dominant representational conception of knowledge. It was implicitly accepted in some of the previous analogies that comparing two theories means showing that they provide the same picture of the world. It therefore proved easy to criticize these analogies by showing that the pictures (i.e., that of modern physics and that of the Madhyamaka) are only superficially similar and that they are based on very different bodies of evidence.
But giving up the static and representational outlook is likely to allow a thorough renewal of our conception of the threefold relation between modern physics, transcendental philosophy, and the Madhyamaka. Let us then consider a scientific theory or a system of thought as an operator within an open network of practices, rather than as a closed set of truths or as a (more or less) faithful representation of a pregiven reality. Let us construe scientific theories as operators of structuring our actions within the world and of anticipating their outcomes. Let us construe philosophical doctrines as operators of mutual adjustment between our possibilities of action (stated by scientific theories) and the set of values, scopes, and representations that define our culture. And let us construe the Madhyamaka dialectic: (i) as a patient reminder of the all-pervasive impermanence and emptiness of appearances and, accordingly, (ii) as a universal operator of self-transformation.
In this case establishing a relation between modern physics, Kant’s philosophy, and the Madhyamaka does not amount to displaying their strict isomorphism; it means showing that, as operators, they fit well enough to be articulated into a higher-order, broad-range operator. Here, the analogies have no value by themselves; they are only signs indicating the most appropriate locus of articulation between the operators. Moreover, insofar as they are nothing but tools (operators) the three terms to be related must be taken as plastic and evolutive; each term has to be seen in the context of its history, of its potential developments, and of the dynamics of its possible coadaptation to the other terms rather than treated as a closed doctrinal system.
True, the widespread trend toward strict separation of domains between science, philosophy, and religion, which culminated at the end of the nineteenth century, may make this idea of a higher-order integrated operator look quite odd. But, actually, partial integrations work daily in the making of science, philosophy, and broader outlooks (or “forms”) of life. Science is driven by extrinsic values, aims, motivations, epistemological conceptions, or metaphysical pictures, and it modifies them retroactively.[Note 35]Note 35. NOTETEXT-35 So much so that saying that scientific theories are nothing but guiding operators of action usually seems too narrow a characterization. On the other hand, philosophy is constrained (though underdetermined) by scientific advances at the same time that it provides scientists with general directions of research. As for religious dogmas and forms of life, they have either been shaken by changes of values, behavior, and representations related to science or forced to protect themselves by community closure and explicit denial of some scientific theories.
Furthermore, nowadays it is widely accepted that, from the end of the middle ages to the first half of the eighteenth century, Western science was given its impetus by Christian theologies and, more indirectly, by simplified versions of Jewish and Moslem metaphysical speculations.[Note 36]Note 36. NOTETEXT-36 Disclosing the fabric of God was no small motivation for the dawn of science. Concepts such as the laws of nature or absolute space were directly derived from belief in an omnipotent and omnipresent God. And the dominant realist-representationalist philosophy of science was clearly favored by creationism associated with theological foundationalism. Such a genealogical link between representationalism and theological foundationalism holds true notwithstanding the fact that the first reaction of the Catholic Church at the time of Galileo was to confiscate the benefit of realism for its own dogma and to impose a purely instrumentalist status on science.
This historical many-level organization having been recognized, the call for separation that has prevailed since the second half of the nineteenth century can be read retrospectively as an expression of felt failure. It reveals the breakdown of the original compromise between science, a predominantly representationalist philosophy of science, and Christian theology. True, the separation, and the correlative feeling of failure, had some positive consequences: an increased concentration on specialized tasks and a better definition of the respective domains. But it also had very negative consequences: (i) a schizophrenic appraisal of indissociable aspects of human life and (ii) a variety of nihilism, as Francisco Varela defines it,[Note 37]Note 37. NOTETEXT-37 namely, a state of mind where we are perfectly aware that our system of values and beliefs is incoherent, but where we cannot do without it.
The components of this contemporary nihilism are well documented: scientists who look toward religion for an ethical guarantee, even though they are deeply sceptical, philosophers of science who try to save realism at any cost in spite of the acknowledged resistance of modern physics, or who adopt empiricism with the bitter feeling of having renounced the very meaning of the scientific endeavor, and priests or monks who know deep down that the dogmatic and mythological component of their religion has become untenable (or merely allegorical) but see no other solution than maintaining it because they believe that to be a prerequisite of a truly religious stance (including morals, a contemplative life, and striving toward self-transformation).
Overcoming the failure and moving beyond nihilism is possible only if we identify a new higher-order operator articulating modern science, an alternative philosophy of science, and a nondogmatic soteriology, thus fitting globally with the essential aspects of contemporary human life. The multiple analogies that have been discussed previously can be seen as a few partial steps toward such a higher-order operator. But, as I have already pointed out, most of them are definitely clumsy because they rely on the very (static and representationalist) assumptions about doctrines and knowledge they purport to challenge. So our task now is to show in some detail how the many-leveled articulation can be secured: (i) by relying on the dynamic potentialities of doctrines and theories rather than on their canonical text, (ii) by fully recognizing their functional-operational status, and (iii) by disentangling, in the available unself-conscious presentations of scientific theories and philosophical doctrines, components coming from various layers of a half-forgotten but still efficient past higher-order operator.
The difficulties that hindered the attempts at establishing relations between modern physics, Kant’s philosophy, and the Madhyamaka can be thus overcome. Let us take them in the same order as in section 2.
First, the obvious discrepancy between Kant’s original a priori forms and some prominent aspects of modern physics does not mean that the very idea of a transcendental reading of science has failed. To see this one has only to come down to the central idea of the transcendental philosophy (below the particular shape that was given to it by Kant) and take into account its aptitudes to development as they have been displayed by the neoKantian philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
What is then the central idea of the transcendental philosophy? It is to construe each object of science as the focus of a synthesis of phenomena rather than as a thing in itself. And it is to accept accordingly that the very possibility of such objects depends on the connecting structures provided in advance by the procedures used in our research activities. Thus something is objective if it results from a universal and necessary mode of connection of phenomena. In other terms, something is objective if it holds true for any (human) active subject, not if it concerns intrinsic properties of autonomous entities.
Here science is not supposed to reveal anything of a preexistent underlying absolute reality, nor is it a more or less random aggregate of efficient recipes. Science is rather the stabilized byproduct of a dynamic reciprocal relation between reality as a whole and a special fraction of it.[Note 38]Note 38. NOTETEXT-38 Defining this special fraction of reality qua subject is the reverse side of its actively extracting objectlike invariant clusters of phenomena.
Somebody who shares this philosophical attitude is metaphysically as agnostic as empiricists, but as convinced as realists that the structure of scientific theories is highly significant. For, from a transcendental standpoint, the structure of a scientific theory is nothing less than the frame of procedural rationalities that underpin a certain research practice (and that, conversely, were constrained by the resistances arising from the enaction of this practice).
A conception of science based on this central idea is perfectly capable of developing nowadays, provided it drops the residual static and foundationalist aspects of Kant’s system. Instead of accepting Kant’s uniqueness and invariability claim about his forms of intuition and thought, one should acknowledge, as Hermann Cohen[Note 39]Note 39. NOTETEXT-39 and Ernst Cassirer[Note 40]Note 40. NOTETEXT-40 did, the possibility of change of the so-called a priori forms and their plurality as well. Recent flexible and pluralist conceptions of transcendental philosophy include Putnam’s and Hintikka’s transcendental pragmatism. According to Hilary Putnam, for instance, each a priori form has to be considered as purely functional (he also calls it a quasi a priori). Each quasi a priori is relative to a certain mode of activity, it consists of the basic presuppositions of this mode of activity, and it has therefore to be changed as soon as the activity is abandoned or redefined.[Note 41]Note 41. NOTETEXT-41 As for Jaakko Hintikka, he characterizes the transcendental philosophy, in a neopragmatist style, as a process of redirecting attention from the objects to our game of seeking and finding.[Note 42]Note 42. NOTETEXT-42 We shall see in section 8 that a neotranscendental philosophy of science developed along these lines is able to account for quantum mechanics to a much larger extent than either scientific realism or empiricism.
Second, the gap that separates science and the Madhyamaka, due to ob vious differences of methods and scope, could be filled in only by a third intermediate term. This is the bridging function I ascribe to a neotranscendental philosophy of science (see my third point below).
But even before any precise assessment of this threefold articulation is attempted one should identify the level at which an articulation, be it indirect, between a scientific theory and a dialectical-soteriological system is acceptable at all. To begin with, one must avoid the temptation of drawing from modern science a sort of monolithic official mythology, in order to display its superficial analogies with a popular Eastern mythology. Instead, one should insist on the manifest underdetermination of scientific theories and models by experiment, and on the fact that, in the history of science, this underdetermination was de facto removed by additional, extra-empirical, constraints. These additional constraints were provided by a demand of coherence between new theories and an older philosophical background[Note 43]Note 43. NOTETEXT-43 whose roots are profoundly embedded in the (partly religious) Western forms of life.
The problem is that these traditional (philosophical) constraints, which have been so easy to cope with in classical physics, have begun to introduce tensions, difficulties, and paradoxes in modern (relativistic and quantum) physics. The traditional conception of a world made of separate material bodies bearing intrinsic properties has not been completely relinquished, but, in order to survive, it has assumed several hardly recognizable forms. The nonlocal hidden variable theories, whose archetype is Bohm’s 1952 theory, is the most explicit one. But even the physicists who are most committed to the so-called Copenhagen interpetation still use remnants of the old mechanistic outlook together with fragments of a new nonmechanistic outlook. They use a versatile and flexible language that enables them to speak sometimes as if the particles were individual entities and sometimes as if they were nonindividual quanta of field excitation, sometimes as if objects had monadic properties and sometimes as if one had to think that they are only relational observables, sometimes as if it were possible to ascribe a state to a “physical system” made of a set of particles and sometimes as if the particles themselves reduced to states of the vacuum, and so on (see section 6 for more details).
The quicker solution to eliminate these difficulties and lack of conceptual unity (without resorting to a nonempirical world of hidden processes) would be to jettison both the mechanistic conception of the world and the dualistic epistemology. Unfortunately, there are deep-seated resistances to this seemingly extreme solution. Even our cultural familiarity with the most recent and radical varieties of transcendental philosophy of science (which, as we have seen, are pragmatic, dynamical, relationist, and nondualist) is not strong enough to make us take this step collectively.
But aren’t these resistances related to our elementary creeds and forms of life? Aren’t they due to our distress about losing ground, if we are left without a belief in a pregiven and prestructured reality? Would we not be deprived of our strongest motivation for making science if we did not have the regulative aim of disclosing a preexistent reality lying, so to speak, in front of us? At this point the Madhyamaka comes in. The Madhyamaka construed not as the purveyor of one more mythology, one more representation of the world, or one more philosophical doctrine but (i) as a patient dialectical deconstruction of the class of substantialist views and dualist epistemologies that we find so difficult to abandon and (ii) as a soteriology, namely, an introduction to a form of life in which losing ground is not a tragedy (it can even promote enlightenment … ) and in which an alternative (say, pragmatic, integrative, and altruist) strong motivation can be given to science.
To summarize, the meeting point of science and the Madhyamaka is not a common view of the world. It is rather a tension between traditional views of the world and the recent advances of science, which can be formally avoided by transcendental philosophy and relaxed at the deepest level by the Madhyamaka dialectic and soteriology.
Third, some of the discrepancies that were pointed out between Kant’s philosophy and the Madhyamaka are not as insurmountable as they appear to be. In order to overcome them one has only to be sensitive to the evolution of Kantian and neo-Kantian thought.
Let us consider for instance the difference between Kant and the Madhyamaka on the status of the ultimate. As we know, Kant’s position on this point apparently involves a remnant of substantial dualism (between the thing in itself and the affected subject). As a consequence, a kind of transcendence seems to be ascribed to the thing in itself. By contrast, Nāgārjuna does not consider any other form of epistemological duality than a purely functional-relational one. The duality of subject and object, of perceiving and perception, is not denied, but it is shown to be empty, that is, to arise from a symmetric relation of mutual dependence. Nāgārjuna’s critical analysis is thus maintained on a strict level of immanence throughout.
However, Kant’s position on this point is much less elementary than what can be inferred from a selective reading of certain texts (such as the Transcendental Aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason). At the end of the Transcendental Analytic one finds that the concept of noumenon is only a limitative concept, that it only points obliquely toward the finitude of our sensibility, and that its use is therefore only negative.[Note 44]Note 44. NOTETEXT-44 Some commentators then explain that Kant’s thing in itself is nothing beyond the representation, nothing other than the brute fact of this representation (of its givenness, of its not being arbitrarily produced by a deliberate act of our will).[Note 45]Note 45. NOTETEXT-45 And thus the last shadow of dualism disappears.
Later the Marburg school[Note 46]Note 46. NOTETEXT-46 of neo-Kantian philosophy developed an even more explicitly immanentist position. Against substantial dualism, Cassirer recommended that one not construe subject and object as a pair of ontologically closed entities. He rather insisted on a purely methodological distinction between a function of subjectivation and a function of objectivation in the process of cognition.[Note 47]Note 47. NOTETEXT-47 He then stated, after Cohen, the idea of a “reciprocal cobelonging” of the concepts of subject and object. Against transcendence, Paul Natorp also argued that there is no external standpoint from which a relation of causality can be established between a thing in itself and our senses. We can thus see how, in the course of its development, transcendental philosophy has come closer and closer to a crucial feature of the Madhyamaka.
Of course, there remains a momentous difference of scope between them. As we know, neo-Kantian philosophies aim at securing the validity of objective scientific knowledge in its specific domain. But the Madhyamaka has another priority. This priority is to locate science as an integral part of conventional truth and to free us from the temptation of taking any part of conventional truth for an absolute truth. Such a difference clearly invalidates simple analogies or straightforward identifications, but it cannot prevent us from establishing both a relation of complementarity and an operational articulation between the two systems.
Saying, as the Madhyamaka does, that scientific knowledge has only a conventional validity is not tantamount to denying it any validity whatsoever.[Note 48]Note 48. NOTETEXT-48 Exploring the extent and limits of this (admittedly conventional) validity, as transcendental philosophy purports to do, is thus worthy of the effort in a Madhyamaka context. Has not Nāgārjuna pointed out that “without a foundation in the conventional truth, the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught”?[Note 49]Note 49. NOTETEXT-49 In that respect the Madhyamaka system and transcendental philosophy are complementary.
Operational articulation
In exquisite detail transcendental philosophy shows that the credibility of scientific knowledge is in no way based on its correspondence with some immutable absolute reality, but rather on the consistent mutual relation between the processes of defining invariants (objectivation) and setting apart the noninvariant residue (subjectivation). This may well contribute to the effort made by the Mādhyamika masters to dispel reifying illusions; for, in our culture, science is the most powerful source of these illusions. Challenging reification in the domain of science is likely to lower the triggering threshold of the sought after disabusing chain reaction.
Conversely, in the frame of life and thought that is likely to emerge from a self-transformation performed in the direction indicated by the Madhyamaka, an antifoundationalist, immanentist, relationist philosophy of science, such as the neo-Kantian, would be immediately acceptable. The very existential roots of the widespread resistance of those scientists who are afraid to lose their landmarks and their motivation by adopting it would indeed be cut.
In this respect the Madhyamaka system and transcendental philosophy are potentially synergetic, and they are therefore predisposed to operational articulation.
5. Ontological illusions in modern physics
To sum up, whereas neo-Kantian philosophy is concerned with revealing the detailed mechanism of reifying illusions in science, the project of the Madhyamaka Buddhist community is to dispel them from the outset. As we shall see in this section, the purely intellectual stance of neo-Kantianism may have been superficially sufficient in the context of classical physics, but, in the context of quantum physics, the need for a synergetic association with the existential stance of the Madhyamaka becomes manifest.
Let us return to the essential mechanism of the reifying illusions. It consists in projecting upon nature the commitment of human beings to the practices that enable them to relate to their environment and to live in it. The man in the street is committed to the objects of his action and discourse, and this commitment gives rise to what Arthur Fine[Note 50]Note 50. NOTETEXT-50 called the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). As for the scientist, she is committed to the postulated objects of her experimental practice as well as to the heuristic guides of this practice. The latter commitment is not independent of the former one, for it often extrapolates its basic features. It gives rise to a scientific version of the NOA that is so deeply entrenched it tends to resist at any cost. The scientific version of the NOA especially resists the rising tide of tensions and paradoxes induced by its being stubbornly imposed onto modern physics.
Can we do something to overcome this sort of illusion? Kant and his followers did not think so. They believed that nothing can be done beyond mere intellectual recognition of the transcendental illusion. According to them, we can know intellectually that certain subjective rules are mistaken for objective determinations of the things in themselves, but we cannot help seeing the world as if it inherently possessed these determinations[Note 51]Note 51. NOTETEXT-51 – exactly in the same way as an astronomer cannot help seeing the moon bigger when it is close to the horizon than when it is at its zenith, although she knows intellectually the optical mechanism of this illusion.
This rather pessimistic view is clearly expressed in the last part of the Critique of Pure Reason. But it is already latent in the first chapters of the Critique, where the “constitution” of valid objective knowledge by means of the forms of our sensibility and understanding is at stake. One can see this in the way Kant minimizes the implications of his philosophy for men in the street and scientists. On the one hand, in the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant states that space is not a concept abstracted from our outer experiences but rather the a priori form of all intuitions of the bodily objects that we take as external to us. It is only if this subjective status of space is accepted, he writes, that one can understand how it is possible to acquire knowledge of the necessary propositions of geometry. For an a priori knowledge of necessary truths can only be about something we ourselves produce. But, on the other hand, Kant also explains that, with respect to any possible human experience, everything remains exactly as if (als ob) space were an intrinsic feature of the world.[Note 52]Note 52. NOTETEXT-52 The critical attitude thus stems from the meta-standpoint of the philosopher, and it proves mostly irrelevant from the ordinary standpoint of the man in the street or of the scientist. The philosopher is aware of the as if clause, whereas the man in the street and the scientist just make use of it unself-consciously.
This dual, not to say schizophrenic, analysis may have been acceptable as long as the as if procedures worked without too many discrepancies (e.g., in classical physics). Indeed, the internal coherence of the ontological-like discourse of classical physicists made it quite easy for them to forget the as if clause. But, in quantum physics, discrepancies have become so glaring that in order to save something of the Natural Ontological Attitude, especially something of the favorite ontology of material bodies, one needs tortuous (and thus too visible) strategies.
As I have suggested in section 4, these strategies include: (i) flexible use of the substantives and predicates in particle physics, (ii) implementation of new logic or new (quasi) set theories, (iii) call for future theories endowed in advance with the aptitude of solving the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, or (iv) hidden variables theories that carry on some basic features of the classical mechanics of material points.
Let us explore briefly two of these available strategies. One concerns predication, and the other reference. The first one is quantum logic and the other one is the particle label approach. Both of them reveal a strong philosophical and cultural bias in a situation where underdetermination of theories by experiments prevails.
Predication was already perceived as a problem during the period of emergence of quantum mechanics. At first, the formulation of this problem was quite clumsy. In 1927 Heisenberg and Bohr insisted on the fact that, due to the indivisibility of the quantum of action, no phenomenon may be observed without disturbing it appreciably.[Note 53]Note 53. NOTETEXT-53 Therefore, saying that a phenomenon merely reflects a predicate possessed by the (micro-)object is quite dubious. But a few years later (especially from 1935 on, after the celebrated Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper), Bohr became increasingly suspicious about the concept of disturbance. As he noticed in 1954, “one sometimes speaks of ‘disturbance of phenomena by observation,’ or ‘creation of physical attributes to atomic objects by measurement.’ Such phrases, however, are apt to cause confusion.”[Note 54]Note 54. NOTETEXT-54
Bohr was especially aware of the lack of coherence of the most widespread way of using this concept of disturbance. Indeed, speaking of a disturbance presupposes that something like a property of the micro-object exists in nature, ready to be “disturbed” by the observing agent; it is thus difficult to invoke disturbances in order to prohibit (as some members of the Copenhagen group did) any reference to intrinsic properties of objects. Even worse, supposing that properties preexist but that they cannot be known because of disturbances is tantamount to accepting that our knowledge of the hypothetical properties is incomplete and encouraging some physicists in their search for hidden variables. Bohr therefore insisted less and less on the crypto-dualist picture of disturbed (or created) properties and more and more on a holistic definition of the phenomenon in which the hypothetical contribution of the object cannot be dissociated from the contribution of the structure and irreversible functioning of the measuring apparatus.[Note 55]Note 55. NOTETEXT-55
From the very beginning quantum logic was aimed at restoring realism in quantum physics against Bohr’s views. Rather than sticking to “phenomena” or “observation” as Bohr did, quantum logic enabled one to recover the possibility of speaking of “physical qualities,”[Note 56]Note 56. NOTETEXT-56 or of properties of systems, at the cost of changing the algebra (namely, the combination by conjunction and disjunction) of these properties. Instead of a Boolean algebra,[Note 57]Note 57. NOTETEXT-57 one merely had to accept a non-Boolean “orthocomplemented non-distributive lattice.”[Note 58]Note 58. NOTETEXT-58 So much so that the whole historical perspective was reversed by later quantum logicians. While history indicates that nonBoolean logic is the realist reply to Bohr’s criticism of the ideal of a complete separation between an object and an observing agent, some quantum logicians asserted that “the rejection of the ‘ideal of the detached observer’ is the Copenhagen response to non-Booleanity.”[Note 59]Note 59. NOTETEXT-59 Thus, according to these authors, the world is inherently non-Boolean, and Bohr’s holism is a spurious epistemological interpretation of this ontological feature.
Unfortunately for them, however, there is much to be said in favor of Bohr’s original standpoint. I personally tend to promote the following argument of simplicity. From the elementary supposition that phenomena are relative to their (sometimes incompatible) experimental contexts of appearance, it is easy to derive: (i) the full non-Boolean structure of quantum logic,[Note 60]Note 60. NOTETEXT-60 (ii) the quantization itself (through the commutation relations between conjugate variables), (iii) the wavelike aspect of certain distributions of discrete phenomena,[Note 61]Note 61. NOTETEXT-61 and (iv) features that concern the hypothetical bearers of properties, beyond the properties themselves.[Note 62]Note 62. NOTETEXT-62 This derivation does not require any well-defined assumption about the structure of the world (with the exception of the nonzero value of the Planck constant).
By contrast, starting from a detailed non-Boolean structure of the algebra of properties of the systems that constitute the world introduces a high amount of arbitrariness in the premises. The derivation of consequences from this kind of premise thus have little explanatory power.[Note 63]Note 63. NOTETEXT-63
To recapitulate, even though the two starting points, namely, holism-relationism and inherent non-Booleanity, cannot be settled by experiments, there are many good reasons (especially economy, unity and explanatory power) to choose the first one. The only reason that may make the second one more attractive is that a realist interpretation of physical theories seems to be so unquestionably desirable in the framework of our Western view of the world that the best ampliative[Note 64]Note 64. NOTETEXT-64 arguments in favor of another interpretation lose weight. Everything, in the philosophical debate about modern physics, goes as if the following maxim were enforced: “Whenever a realist interpretation of a physical theory is available, you must adopt it, come what may.”[Note 65]Note 65. NOTETEXT-65
Another important case of underdetermination with philosophical bias concerns two views on the traditional bearers of predicates, the particles. According to the first view, the world is made of labeled quasi-individual particles whose momentum exchange mimics the empirical effects of fields, whereas according to the second view the world is made of fields whose nonindividual quanta of excitation mimic the empirical effects of particles. The two views can be made empirically equivalent in virtually every respect,[Note 66]Note 66. NOTETEXT-66 but, here again, they cannot fulfill to the same extent the standards of economy, unity, and explanatory power. Let me state some important differences of this kind between them.
1. In order to account for the quantum (Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac) statistics, the quasi-individual particle view imposes a set of state-accessibility conditions: the restriction of states to their labeled symmetric and antisymmetric forms. But the quantum field view needs neither labels nor imposed restriction of the set of accessible states (only a generalized version of the algebra of commutators that underpins quantum theories). As P. Teller points out, the quasi-individual particle view has the defect of carrying a “surplus formal structure” (the labels) and of accepting a certain arbitrariness (in the choice of the accessible states).[Note 67]Note 67. NOTETEXT-67 Economy thus favors the quantum field view.
2. What the particle view calls “creation” or “annihilation,” thus evoking ontological quantum jumps, is construed by the quantum field view as a continuous change of state that reveals itself discontinuously only in experiments.[Note 68]Note 68. NOTETEXT-68 The quantum field conception is thus clearly more in the line of the general rules of quantum theoretical treatment than the particle conception. Conceptual and formal homogeneity thus favors the quantum field view.
3. Both views must accommodate an indetermination in the number of micro-objects. However, they are not explanatorily equivalent. In the particle view this indetermination is imposed, but in the field view it arises quite naturally from the principle of superposition that holds for any quantum state. Furthermore, in the particle view one must cope with the baroque picture of individual objects whose number (and therefore whose being) is not definite, but the quantum field superposition of states may easily be understood as describing a propensity for the manifestation of various numbers of discrete relational events in a given experimental context.[Note 69]Note 69. NOTETEXT-69 Coherence of representations and, here again, economy of thought, thus favor the quantum field view.
4. The explanatory gap between the particle view and the quantum field view becomes even more striking when the problem of the so-called Rindler particles (or quanta) is at stake. The Rindler particles (or quanta) are observed by means of an accelerated detector, in situations (called the “vacuum state”) wherein no particle at all is observed with nonaccelerated detectors. It is quite difficult to understand this phenomenon in the frame of the absolutist particle view, for a particle is supposed to exist (or to be devoid of existence) irrespective of the state of motion of the detector. But the Rindler phenomenon raises no problem in the frame of quantum field theory as read by Teller,[Note 70]Note 70. NOTETEXT-70 because each event of detection is here assumed to express a dynamic relation between the environment and the (accelerated or inertial) detector. The quantum field view is thus able to make us dispense with ontological questions, which become almost intractable in certain situations.
Why then should one keep on with the contrived particle view instead of adopting the much more natural relational-propensionist[Note 71]Note 71. NOTETEXT-71 reading of quantum field theory Teller proposes?
Most arguments in favor of the particle view rely on a demand of historical continuity of representations and concepts: historical continuity with classical physics, but also with the Natural Ontological Attitude of everyday life. M. Born already insisted, in his discussions with E. Schrödinger, on the importance of historical continuity between the concept of particle and the concept of material body.[Note 72]Note 72. NOTETEXT-72 As for Bohm’s original hidden variable theory of 1952, which develops and transforms the mechanistic picture of a world made of a plurality of material points, it was explicitly motivated by an ideal of historical continuity, not only methodological but also conceptual, between the new theory and classical physics.[Note 73]Note 73. NOTETEXT-73
True, the majority of realist philosophers of science currently accept that there cannot be an exact ontological similitude between two stages of the development of science. However, they still make a tacit use of what R. Harré[Note 74]Note 74. NOTETEXT-74 calls an ontological type hierarchy. It is usually this choice of developing a single ontological type hierarchy over history, which removes the empirical underdetermination of representations and replaces it by an effective determination. Let me give an example. Elementary particles are not mistaken for material bodies in microphysics, but the historical constitution of their concept, and the standard grammar of the expressions used about them by physicists, show that they belong to a well-characterized type hierarchy whose archetype is the material body of everyday life. The residual affinity of the concept of particle with the material body manifests itself most clearly in popular science, where precautions are dropped and familiar representations dominate again.
The difference between classical physics and quantum physics becomes easily perceptible at this point. In classical physics the type-hierarchical continuity between systems of interacting material points and the “things” of everyday life did not raise any difficulty. As we have seen earlier, awareness of Kant’s as if clause was therefore confined to a little circle of philosophers and philosophically minded physicists. The ordinary physicist and the (Western) layman could stick quietly to their reifying and materialist picture of the world. But in quantum physics the distortions imposed by upholding the type hierarchy of material bodies are manifest; the conventional, or normative, aspect of this preservation can hardly be ignored by anyone, and the as if status of the substantive (particle)/predicate (state) mode of expression in the microworld then becomes all the more plausible. Moreover, adopting a radically different conception of physical theories, such as the relational-propensionist reading of quantum field theory, is an increasingly attractive option.
This being granted, the usual attitude, which consists in asserting that the world is made of inherently existent particles yet recognizing that this is not a satisfactory picture and adding lots of qualifications, clearly appears “nihilistic” in Varela’s sense. A way out of this sort of nihilism is sorely needed. Now, in view of the previous analysis, the condition for taking (individually and collectively) the way out is nothing less than cutting the favorite ontological type hierarchy at its archetypal root, namely, the material body, recognizing (in the full existential strength of this verb) that the privileged status enjoyed by material bodies in our lives is due only to pragmatical conventional reasons, seeing or living the all-pervasiveness of the as if clause in our material environment. This condition is difficult to fulfill in a Western context (except, perhaps, for a few phenomenologists able to practice the Husserlian “bracketing” of the Natural Attitude), but it becomes almost trivial in a Mahāyāna Buddhist context. Hasn’t the Buddha himself “rejected the belief in matter”?[Note 75]Note 75. NOTETEXT-75
6. A dialectic of determinism and indeterminism
From the standpoint of Western culture both Kant’s dialectical critique of metaphysics and Nāgārjuna’s symmetric rejection of “views” (dr s ti) sound negative. They are felt as a renunciation of the grand project of Episteme inherited from the ancient Greeks. In this section I will try to show, on the contrary, that a dialectical reasoning may convey an important positive teaching and may lead one onto the edge of a renewed conception of knowledge.
My example of dialectical reasoning bears on determinism.
It is commonly accepted that the birth of quantum mechanics marks the triumph of indeterminism. But this word, indeterminism, is so ambiguous it has generated many misunderstandings about the status of quantummechanical laws. It is true that, in quantum mechanics, there is in general no strict predictability of phenomena, that predictions are usually only probabilistic. It is also true that the quantum rules of combination of probabilities[Note 76]Note 76. NOTETEXT-76 are not compatible with the idea that each phenomenon is strictly determined by other phenomena that we just happen to ignore. In other words, the “ignorance interpretation” of quantum probabilities is precluded as long as one holds on to the plane of phenomena. However, this says nothing about the hypothetical “ultimate laws of nature” below the level of phenomena, this says nothing about whether quantum indeterminism is only epistemological or ontological as well. As Bohm pointed out, “The mere uncontrollability and unpredictability of quantum phenomena does not necessarily imply that there can be no quantum world, which would in itself be determinate.”[Note 77]Note 77. NOTETEXT-77 Indeed, we now know that there exists a class of processes undergoing chaotic motions, which is both ruled by deterministic laws and remains unpredictable. Microphysics thus does not point toward strict, intrinsic, indeterminism; it rather illustrates the undecidability of ontological propositions by science, be they about the determinist or indeterminist status of the “ultimate laws of nature.” As indicated by Jacques Harthong, this type of undecidability can easily be expressed in a form that mimics Kant’s dialectic of pure reason. The antinomy of probabilistic predictions develops thus:
Thesis: “The ultimate law of the world is chance, and any partial determinism that could be found in it results from the law of large numbers.”
Antithesis: “The ultimate law of the world is entirely deterministic, and any random phenomenon that could be observed results from deterministic chaos.”[Note 78]Note 78. NOTETEXT-78
This being granted, the strongest argument that can be given in favor of indeterminism in microphysics is that any search for deterministic laws would be sterile, that applying the Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason at any cost would be fruitless, that no experimentally testable consequence would arise from this research.[Note 79]Note 79. NOTETEXT-79 But, as we have seen, this argument is not compelling. Moreover, it does not prevent one from inquiring philosophically into the possible reasons for unpredictability at the level of microphysical phenomena.
What is fascinating at this point is that many results in the literature on the interpretation of quantum mechanics tend to converge toward one explanation of such an indetermination.
Karl Popper,[Note 80]Note 80. NOTETEXT-80 to begin with, noticed that, even in a world ruled by underlying deterministic laws, an observer could not predict a phenomenon if she were herself entangled with the process of its production. Unpredictability here results from a logical limitation in self-prediction. In short, as soon as the observer has predicted what she will do, the very content of the prediction can influence her future behavior. This spurious effect of predicting on the predicted behavior may make the prediction wrong. Then, due to the entanglement of the predictor and the phenomena that have to be predicted, the logical limitation of self-prediction results in a limitation of prediction of phenomena.
Much earlier, G. Hermann,[Note 81]Note 81. NOTETEXT-81 a young philosopher of science who worked with Heisenberg, explained with some detail that one is not bound to assume that quantum phenomena have no cause, only that the causes are not defined in the absolute but rather relative to the very circumstances of the production of the phenomena.
Even more precisely, P. Destouches-Février demonstrated that any predictive theory bearing on phenomena defined relative to possibly incompatible experimental contexts is “essentially indeterminist.”[Note 82]Note 82. NOTETEXT-82 Indetermination in the sense of unpredictability is here a direct consequence of the relativity (or context-dependence) of phenomena.
To summarize, a plausible positive teaching of the dialectic of determinism and indeterminism is that microphysical knowledge is contextual, relational, or participatory at the deepest level. At any rate, this is the teaching one is likely to draw from this dialectic if both an absolutist defense of one thesis and a nihilistic reaction to the lack of proof of any thesis are to be avoided.[Note 83]Note 83. NOTETEXT-83
7. Relational knowledge
It is not precise enough to say that the Madhyamaka and the neo-Kantian philosophies of science are similar in their focus on relations or on relational knowledge. They are also similarly specific about relations. Both of them put relations before (or on the same footing as) the relata, both of them share a nonpolar conception of relations, and for all that they do not reify relations.
When Nāgārjuna equates mutual dependence with emptiness,[Note 84]Note 84. NOTETEXT-84 or lack of inherent existence, this clearly shows that he has not the slightest temptation to think that the relata precede the relation. He even insists something that is “due to a cause and which does not exist in lack of such” is like a “reflection”[Note 85]Note 85. NOTETEXT-85 or like “foam, bubbles, illusion.”[Note 86]Note 86. NOTETEXT-86 The relation is what makes the relata emerge (as noninherently existing phenomena), just as much as the other way round. Yet, no ontology of relations is asserted: “Neither connection, nor connected nor connector exist.”[Note 87]Note 87. NOTETEXT-87 Indeed, asserting the existence of relations to the detriment of that of the relata would involve the use of an opposition (relation-relata) and the solidification of one of its terms, whereas the two terms of this opposition also arise in dependence.
As for the neo-Kantian philosophers, they are very careful to put function before substance (to paraphrase the title of a book by Cassirer) and relations before their relata. According to Natorp, Plato’s most important discovery in the Sophist, at the end of his lifelong discussion about being and not being, is that they somehow mutually ground each other.[Note 88]Note 88. NOTETEXT-88 The applications of this discovery came much later, especially in Kant’s conception of the synthetic power of thought. But as soon as it was clearly understood it underwent radical developments.
The most prominent neo-Kantian philosophers pointed out that the basic shortcoming of metaphysics consists in “separating correlative standpoints within the field of knowledge itself, and thus transforming what is logically correlative into an opposition of things.”[Note 89]Note 89. NOTETEXT-89 They then quickly reinterpreted Kant in this spirit, by showing that his basic method of transcen dental deduction[Note 90]Note 90. NOTETEXT-90 was precisely aimed at avoiding such an unwarranted transformation. Thus, notwithstanding Kant’s original formulations, Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp claimed that transcendental deduction should not be interpreted as an attempt to return to some absolute foundation of knowledge. According to them, there can be no static relation between an epistemic ground (the forms of thought) and something grounded (objective knowledge), where a dynamical process of mutual accommodation is involved.[Note 91]Note 91. NOTETEXT-91 What is expressed by each special instance of transcendental deduction is only a “constraining reciprocity, in which there is neither prius nor posterius.”[Note 92]Note 92. NOTETEXT-92 In other words, what a transcendental deduction reveals is a perfectly symmetrical relation of coproduction. Yet, here again, no well-rounded ontology of relations emerges: only a tireless study of ever-developing relational cognitive acts.
As previously noted, the special feature of neo-Kantian philosophies, when compared to the Madhyamaka, is that they are explicitly aimed at the justification of science, especially physics. They tend to apply their basic relational insights to the clarification of the nature of scientific knowledge, and they therefore complement the Madhyamaka, where these insights are predominantly used to promote existential disabuse.[Note 93]Note 93. NOTETEXT-93
If applied, say, to the deduction of Newtonian mechanics by Kant (in his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science), the neo-Kantian construal of transcendental deduction yields an important epistemological teaching. The very fact that part of this physical theory can be transcendentally deduced shows that it must not be interpreted as a reflection of some inherent feature of external reality but rather as an expression of the mutual constraints between the two codependent terms of the cognitive relation.[Note 94]Note 94. NOTETEXT-94 More specifically, the extensive use of differential calculus by classical mechanics shows, according to most neo-Kantian thinkers, that only (infinitesimal) relations are accessible and that no monadic foundation of these relations, no absolutized relata, can ever be grasped by physics.[Note 95]Note 95. NOTETEXT-95
In quantum mechanics the relational structure of knowledge is only enhanced.
(Quantum mechanics) exaggerates the relative character of the description of nature. It abandons the representation according to which the structures of relations are univocally determined by certain connections of things in space and time, and shows their being dependent on the way an observer takes cognizance of the system.[Note 96]Note 96. NOTETEXT-96
Using the vocabulary of section 3 (point 4), this sentence is to be understood as follows. In quantum mechanics we can no longer content ourselves with describing “lateral” relations between spatiotemporal objects, thus behaving as if the “transversal” cognitive relations did not exist or were irrelevant; we have somehow to take into account the multiple cognitive relations between the microphysical domain and the measuring apparatuses. Indeed, due to complementarity (or to the commutation relations), the multiple microdomain-apparatus relations cannot be reduced to one and then pushed away in the background. This remark recurs in current neo-Kantian interpretations of quantum mechanics and in some other interpretations as well.[Note 97]Note 97. NOTETEXT-97
Moreover, Jean Petitot insisted that the transversal cognitive relation is represented by the formalism of quantum mechanics in such a way that its “subjective” pole (and also, in all likelihood, its “objective” pole) is not made explicit.[Note 98]Note 98. NOTETEXT-98 Just as in Kant’s interpretation of Newtonian mechanics the spatiotemporal structure implicitly conveyed the relational nature of macrophysical knowledge, in a neo-Kantian reading of quantum mechanics the Hilbert space structure implicitly conveys the relational nature of microphysical knowledge while involving no description of the two relata. From this standpoint the (nonlocal) hidden variable theories are to be understood as desperate attempts at pointing toward an inaccessible world of relata behind the relational network of standard quantum mechanics.
This feature of quantum mechanics gave rise to interesting developments about the notion of nonsupervenient relations, namely, relations that do not depend on hypothetical monadic properties of the relata.[Note 99]Note 99. NOTETEXT-99 But it was already latent in many earlier discussions on the measurement problem and on the entanglement of state vectors. If one recognizes the purely relational status of the state vector, that is, its being an expression of the propensity for phenomena under activation conditions, the measurement problem reduces to a problem of transition from relativities to monadic properties. It is a problem of breaking the chain of relations expressed by the entangled state vector of the system (object + apparatus), thus jumping to nonrelational determinations of both the apparatus and the object. Now a fascinating proposal for a solution to this problem has been given in the framework of Everett’s original “relative state” interpretation.[Note 100]Note 100. NOTETEXT-100 The solution consists in remarking that, if the experimenter herself partakes of the network of relations, things may appear to her as if well-defined nonrelational determinations arose from the measuring interaction. In short, a state relative to her appears from her standpoint as a well-determined feature of something substantial. This is a good summary of how reifying (or “absolutizing”) illusions may arise.
In addition, it can easily be shown that taking into account this deeply relational character of microphysical processes is nearly enough to derive the basic structure of quantum mechanics.[Note 101]Note 101. NOTETEXT-101 In other words, it can be shown that one may formulate a kind of “transcendental deduction” of quantum mechanics. Of course, the type of transcendental deduction that has to be used to derive the overall structure of quantum mechanics is much more general than Kant’s. In this general sense a transcendental deduction is not a regression from objective knowledge to its conditions of possibility, as in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is a regression from a set of minimal requirements about the scientific process of anticipation of phenomena to a strong anticipative structure as the condition of possibility for these requirements to be satisfied. Now, taking into account two requirements, namely, (i) that the anticipation must bear on contextual phenomena and (ii) that the predictive tool must be unified under the concept of a preparation, the basic anticipative structure of quantum mechanics arises. As Jean-Louis Destouches and Paulette Destouches-Février[Note 102]Note 102. NOTETEXT-102 argued convincingly, the formalism of vectors in a Hilbert space, together with Born’s correspondence rule, is the simplest predictive formalism among those that obey the constraint of unicity in a situation where decontextualization cannot be carried out. Even the general form of the (Schrödinger or Dirac) equations of evolution can be obtained this way, by a series of direct or bridging transcendental arguments.[Note 103]Note 103. NOTETEXT-103
This being granted, typical features of microphysical phenomena such as wavelike distributions and quantization, which are predicted by the quantum theory, no longer appear to be contingent aspects of nature. In view of the previous derivation, they rather appear as necessary features of any activity of production of contextual and mutually incompatible phenomena whose level of reproducibility is sufficient for its outcomes to be embedded in a unified system of probabilistic anticipation. Of course, this does not mean that quantum mechanics could have been obtained by mere armchair philosophizing, only that the structure of quantum mechanics has retrospectively revealed its deeply relational nature to the philosophical inquiry. As was the case for Kant’s deduction of Newtonian mechanics, the very possibility of a transcendental deduction of quantum mechanics teaches us something important about the status of this theory. It suggests that quantum mechanics should not be construed as a reflection of some (exhaustive or nonexhaustive) aspect of a pregiven nature, but as the structural expression of the coemergence of a new type of experimental activity and the “factual” elements that constrain it.[Note 104]Note 104. NOTETEXT-104
Here, again, these results and reflections are easily available in the literature. They were strongly promoted by the neo-Kantian trend in philosophy of science. But, in order to become widely accepted, in order to be articulated into a new coherent participatory conception of the world, they will need to overcome the Western urge for foundations, and for reification of the pragmatic categories of everyday life. This can occur only through their integration within a higher-order axiological and existential operator (not to say within an alternative form of life) of which the Madhyamaka dialectic and soteriology is likely to be the central element.
What is the use of this essay, beyond its philosophical content? It does not pretend to be a substitute for the best spiritual writings of the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, nor even to add the slightest contribution to them. Even less can it alone induce the self-transformation of other human beings. But it may weaken the intellectual ground of those who still (roughly one century after the alleged fading of scientism) take science as the modern equivalent of late religious dogma. It may also, more important, help those who are already engaged in a process of self-transformation not let themselves be impressed, at an intellectual level, by the substantialist tales of the majority of physicists. It may, above all, give them a hint as to how to integrate the many strata of their life and thought in our modern culture. These effects having, hopefully, been obtained, the present article is to be thrown away as any other step in the Wittgensteinian ladder toward what really matters.
1. A soteriology is a doctrine of salvation (soteria means salvation in ancient Greek).
2. S. Körner, Introduction to E. Cassirer, Kant’s Life and Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), p. xi.
3. The mesoscopic scale is intermediate between the true (cosmological) macroscopic scale and the (atomic and subatomic) microscopic scale.
4. B. A. Wallace, Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996).
5. T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955); M. Sprung, “The Madhyamaka Doctrine of Two Realities As a Metaphysic,” in M. Sprung, ed., The Problem of Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedanta (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1973). An early parallel between Kant and Dharmakīrti’s logic (with some references to the Madhyamaka) can also be found in T. Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic (Leningrad: Office of the Academy of Science of the USSR, 1927; repr. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994).
6. J. May, “Kant et le Madhyamaka, A propos d’un livre récent,” Indo-Iranian Journal 3(1959): 102–111.
7. E.g., J. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 305–306, n. 119.
8. See K. Bhattacharya, The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998), a translation and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyavartani.
9. See G. Bugault, “Logique et dialectique chez Aristote et chez Nāgārjuna,” in G. Bugault, L’Inde pense-t-elle? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994), p. 260.
10. Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, XXVII, 21, in Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 350; or see D. J. Kalupahana, Mūlamadhyamakakārikāof Nāgārjuna (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986), p. 387.
11. I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A479–B507.
12. Comments on Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, XXVII, 22, Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 350–351.
13. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A379–380, A539–B567.
14. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 167. 15. Ibid., p. 251.
16. T. R. V. Murti, “Sam vr ti and Paramārtha in Madhyamaka and Advaita Vedānta,” in Sprung, The Problem of Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedanta.
17. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 229.
18. Literally, saṃvṛti means “covering,” or “concealing.” Saṃvṛti-satya is, so to speak, the surface truth.
19. Ibid., p. 294
20. Referring to this type of relation, Kant writes that “the absolute must be thought of as external to the empirical world, and the latter only consists of the relation with our senses.” I. Kant, Reflections 5968, Kants Nachlass, AK XVIII.
21. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B321, B341.
22. Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, IX, 5, Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 184–185.
23. Nāgārjuna, Lokātitastava 6, 7, 10 (Hymn to the Buddha transcending the world), in C. Lindtner, Nagarjuniana (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), p. 131, 133. “[An object of knowledge is] no object of knowledge unless it is being known… Therefore you have said that knowledge and the object of knowledge do not exist by own-being.”
24. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 185.
25. Bugault, L’Inde pense-t-elle? p. 186, 292.
26. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 198.
27. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself As Science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971), 52c.
28. T. J. F. Tillemans, “La logique bouddhique est-elle une logique non-classique ou déviante? Remarques sur le tetralemme,” Les cahiers de philosophie (Lille), no. 14 (1992): 183–198.
29. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 295.
30. One can also distinguish these two cases by saying that free will holds from the standpoint of the actor, whereas universal application of the laws of nature holds from the standpoint of the spectator. L. W. Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).
31. “Apophatic” derives from the Greek apophasis, which means “denial.” Here, the features are denied rather than asserted of Being.
32. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 273–274.
33. Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, XXV, 19, Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 331.
34. Ibid., p. 332.
35. L. Laudan, Science and Values (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); G. Boniolo, Metodo e rappresentazioni del mondo (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 1999).
36. A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
37. F. Varela, E. Thomson, and E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), chapter 6.
38. This sounds very similar to F. Varela’s theory of cognition. Actually, his autopoietic theory of cognition can easily be interpreted as a naturalized version of the neo-Kantian theory of knowledge. See M. Bitbol, “Physique quantique et cognition,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie (2000), pp. 212, 299–328.
39. Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) is the founder of the Marburg school of neoKantian philosophy. See note 46.
40. Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) is the most prominent philosopher of the Marburg school. His publications include Substance and Function (1910) and the three volumes of the Philosophy of symbolic forms (published in the 1920s).
41. H. Putnam, Pragmatism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).
42. J. Hintikka and I. Kulas, The Game of Language (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983), p. 33.
43. Boniolo, Metodo e rappresentazioni del mondo, p. 123.
44. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A255/B311.
45. See, e.g., L. Ferry, in the preface to Kant, Critique de la raison pure (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1987), p. xix.
46. Marburg is a little town in western Germany (land, or province, of Hesse). An important Protestant university was created there in the sixteenth century. H. Cohen taught in this university until 1912, and he had remarkable students, among them E. Cassirer and P. Natorp. The most renowned school of neo-Kantian philosophy in Germany, composed of H. Cohen’s followers, was thus referred to as the Marburg school.
47. E. Cassirer, H. Cohen, and P. Natorp, L’école de Marbourg (Paris: Cerf, 1998), p. 247.
48. Undoubtedly, this word conventional, commonly used to translate saṃvṛti, has spurious connotations. A convention is an overt agreement between persons. But the saṃvṛti-satya does not arise from an explicit discussion between the members of human societies. Every (human) being is so to speak bound to it by the very fact he/she partakes of a form of life that involves efficient practices including the use of language. I thank Christiane Schmitz for having raised this question, and for so many other valuable remarks.
49. Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, XXIV, 10, J. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 298. Candrakīrti comments that one must accept (and presumably analyze) the surface truth at first, for it is an instrument to reach nirvāṇa. Candrakīrti, Prasannapadā Madhyamakavr tti, trans. [French] J. May (Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1959).
50. A. Fine, The Shaky Game (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
51. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A298–B354.
52. Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, 13.
53. See, e.g., N. Bohr, Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, 2 vols. (Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow, 1987), 1:53.
54. N. Bohr, Essays 1933–1957 on Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, 2 vols. (Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow, 1987), 2:73.
55. This being accepted, complementarity does not appear any longer as a trick to accommodate contradictory properties. It only expresses (i) the indissociability of object and experimental device in a phenomenon, and (ii) the mutual incompatibility of the devices in the context of which certain classes of phenomena occur.
56. G. Birkhoff and J. Von Neumann, “The Logic of Quantum Mechanics,” Annals of Mathematics 37(1936): 823–843.
57. This algebra, invented by G. Boole (1815–1864), underpins classical logic. It involves the following rules of combination of propositions (or properties) by conjunction and disjunction: commutativity, associativity, distributivity, and complementation.
58. R. I. G. Hughes, The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 188.
59. J. Bub, Interpreting the Quantum World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 12.
60. P. Heelan, “Complementarity, Context-Dependence, and Quantum Logic,” Foundations of Physics 1(1970): 95–110; P. Heelan, “Quantum and Classical Logic: Their Classical Role,” Synthese 21(1970): 2–33; see also S. Watanabe, “The Algebra of Observation,” Supplement to Progress of Theoretical Physics 37 and 38:350–367, 1966.
61. J. L. Destouches, Corpuscules et systèmes de corpuscules (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1941); P. Destouches-Février, La structure des théories physiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951); P. Destouches, L’interprétation physique de la mécanique ondulatoire et des théories quantiques (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1956). See section 8 of this paper, and, for more details, M. Bitbol, “Some Steps Towards a Transcendental Deduction of Quantum Mechanics,” Philosophia Naturalis 35(1998): 253–280; M. Bitbol, Mécanique quantique, une introduction philosophique (Paris: Flammarion, 1996), chapter 2.
62. See the end of this section.
63. A satisfactory explanation is usually a derivation of a great number of complex and apparently arbitrary observed consequences from a small number of simple and less arbitrary assumptions.
64. According to L. Laudan’s definition, ampliative arguments are rational but extra-empirical motives for adopting a scientific theory. They consist in an amplification of the purely empirical arguments.
65. It is only if (as it was the case in the period 1927–1952) any such realist interpretation seems out of reach that most scientists allow consideration of an alternative. But they then revert to a purely instrumentalist attitude they feel to be a renunciation, and they are thus usually delighted when realist interpretations become acceptable again, even if these interpretations sound extremely artificial. See Wallace, Choosing Reality, for a critique of the couple realism-instrumentalism.
66. W. De Muynck, “Distinguishable and Indistinguishable-Particle Descriptions of Systems of Identical Particles,” International Journal of Theoretical Physics 14(1975): 327–346. Doubts concerning this empirical equivalence are expressed in J. Butterfield, “Interpretation and Identity in Quantum Theory,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 24(1993): 443–476.
67. P. Teller, An Interpretive Introduction to Quantum Field Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 25.
68. Ibid., p. 138.
69. Ibid., p. 105. The superstring theories bring little change in that respect. But in order to understand this one has to revert to Feynman path-integral formalism. In standard quantum field theory the propensity structure is described by an integral over (an infinity of) linear paths. Now, the cross-section of one path is a point. Hence the usual talk of point-particles. The problem is that taking seriously this mode of expression is unwarranted since one cannot reduce “what there is” to one cross-section of one of the multiple paths whose complete sum is required to calculate the probability of a final experimental event. In superstring theories the cross-section of each one of the tubes that have to be added to give a probability is a string. But, here again, and for the same reason as in standard quantum field theory, taking seriously (i.e., ontologically) the usual talk of string-particles is unwarranted.
70. Ibid., p. 110.
71. Propensions, according to K. Popper, are tendencies to realize a certain state of affairs. A relational-propensionist view refers to tendencies of a given relation (say between an apparatus and the rest of the world) to produce certain phenomena.
72. M. Born, “Physical Reality,” Philosophical Quarterly 3(1953): 139–149; M. Born, “The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 4(1953): 95–106. Both articles are reprinted in M. Born, Physics in My Generation (Oxford: Pergamon, 1956. See M. Bitbol, Schrödinger’s Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996).
73. D. Bohm and B. Hiley, The Undivided Universe (New York: Routlege and Kegan Paul, 1993), pp. 4, 160.
74. R. Harré, Varieties of Realism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); A. A. Derksen, The Scientific Realism of Rom Harré (Tilburg: Tilburg University Press, 1994), pp. 7–8.
75. Nāgārjuna, Lokātitastava, Lindtner, Nagarjuniana, p. 131.
76. These rules essentially consist in adding the complex amplitudes and then squaring the sum.
77. Bohm and Hiley, The Undivided Universe, p. 25. These ideas about determinism are developed in chapter 8 of M. Bitbol, L’aveuglante proximité du réel (Paris: Flammarion, 1998).
78. J. Harthong, quoted in A. Dahan-Dalmedico, J.-L. Chabert, and K. Chemla, Chaos et indéterminisme (Paris: Seuil, 1992); see also J. Harthong, Probabilités et statistiques (Paris: Diderot, 1996).
79. This is the case, admittedly, in Bohm’s hidden variable theory.
80. K. Popper, The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery, vol. 2: The Open Universe (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 22.
81. G. Hermann, “Die naturphilosophischen Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik,” Abhandlungen der Fries’schen Schule, new series, vol. 6, 2 (1935). French translation and extensive comment in G. Hermann, Les fondements philosophiques de la mécanique quantique, ed. L. Soler, trans. A. Schnell and L. Soler (Paris: Vrin, 1996).
82. P. Destouches-Février, La structure des théories physiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951), p. 260–280.
83. The idea of a participatory universe, presented by J. A. Wheeler, is defended in a Buddhist context by B. A. Wallace, Choosing Reality, op. cit. chapters 14, 15. See also M. Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus (New York: Crown, 2001).
84. Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, XXIV, 18, Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 304.
85. Nāgārjuna, Lokātitastava, Lindtner, Nagarjuniana, op. cit. p. 129.
86. Nāgārjuna, Acintyastava, ibid., p. 147.
87. Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, XIV, 8, Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 219.
88. Cassirer, Cohen, and Natorp, L’école de Marbourg, p. 220.
89. E. Cassirer, Substance and Function (New York: Dover, 1953), p. 271; my emphasis.
90. According to C. Taylor’s simple definition, a transcendental deduction is “a regression from an unquestionable feature” of our knowledge to “a stronger thesis as the condition of its possibility.” C. Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
91. See C. Schmitz, “Objectivité et temporalité,” in M. Bitbol and S. Laugier, eds., Physique et réalité, un débat avec Bernard d’Espagnat (Paris: Frontières, 1997), p. 273.
92. Cassirer, Cohen, and Natorp, L’école de Marbourg, p. 55.
93. Moreover, the neo-Kantian philosophers mostly owe their insights to a free play of ideas, rather than to direct stabilized experience of a disabused outlook.
94. Of course, the cognitive relation can change, and its terms as well, in the course of the development of experimental research. This is enough to explain that science is liable to revolutions, notwithstanding the possibility of transcendentally deducing its structure at a given stage of its development. Here, the spurious eternalist connotations of Kant’s a priori should not be allowed to impose on us a foundationalist reading of his transcendental deduction of Newtonian mechanics. Once this is recognized, nothing can prevent us from looking for a (similarly nonfoundationalist) transcendental deduction of quantum mechanics. A sketch of this deduction is provided below.
95. Hermann, Les fondements philosophiques de la mécanique quantique, p. 116; see also H. Cohen, Le principe de la méthode infinitésimale et son histoire, trans. M. de Launay (Paris: Vrin, 1999).
96. Hermann, Les fondements philosophiques de la mécanique quantique p. 119. see also E. Cassirer, Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), p. 131, 182.
97. V. Fock, quoted in M. Jammer, The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics (New York: Wiley, 1974), p. 202; M. Davis, “Relativity Principle in Quantum Mechanics,” International Journal of Theoretical Physics 16(1977): 867–874; M. Mugur-Schächter, “Space-Time Quantum Probabilities II: Relativized Descriptions and Popperian Propensities,” Foundations of Physics 22(1992): 235–312.
98. J. Petitot, “Objectivité faible et philosophie transcendantale,” in Bitbol and Laugier, Physique et réalité, p. 207–208.
99. P. Teller, “Relational Holism and Quantum Mechanics,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 37(1986): 71–81.
100. H. Everett, “ ‘Relative State’ Formulation of Quantum Mechanics,” in B. S. De Witt and N. Graham, The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973). Here it is especially important not to mix up Everett’s original relative state formulation and its later reading in terms of many-worlds. See, e.g., Y. Ben-Dov, “Everett’s Theory and the ‘Many-Worlds’ Interpretation,” American Journal of Physics 58(1990): 829–832.
101. Bitbol, “Some Steps Towards a Transcendental Deduction”; see section 5 of the present paper.
102. J. L. Destouches, Corpuscules et systèmes de corpuscules (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1941); P. Destouches, L’interprétation physique de la mécanique ondulatoire et des théories quantiques (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1956).
103. A bridging transcendental argument establishes a bridge between the specific form of transcendental deduction that was used by Kant within the direct spaciotemporal environment of mankind and the generalized sort of transcendental deduction needed in domains of scientific investigation that may go beyond the human Umwelt. An example is Bohr’s correspondence principle, which ensures a connection between the basic thinglike organization of everyday life and classical mechanics, and the contextual organization of quantum mechanics. See Bitbol, “Some Steps Towards a Transcendental Deduction.”
104. See Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind, for similar remarks in the general framework of the cognitive sciences.