It was nice to see someone recognize the importance of the “philosophical” issue of the object-subject relationship given the state of scientific progress and attempt to point in a few directions of investigation which may lead to a fruitful restructuring of the conceptual foundations of science. My instincts tell me that this issue will be central to the next great conceptual advancement in fundamental science, and will involve an abandonment of the Cartesian view. (Accordingly, I will take more time to review this paper than I normally would.) As with all such advances, the initial steps towards it will probably be messy, confused, chaotic etc. It may take us hundreds of years to get there. But, while we cannot help but blunder on our way there, I think that we should do what we can to reduce the amount by which we might muddy the waters and confuse ourselves and others as we proceed. That said, it seems that there are quite a few “muddying” elements in this paper, some of which I thought would be better to address than not.
The author claims that prior to Descartes, human beings “had no concept of a private, internal, first-person mind.” This is totally unbelievable. The idea that people have their own private thoughts is probably as old as humans themselves. Similarly, the idea that one is different from and other than the things in the world around oneself originates not with Descartes, but probably in the first instance in which a human ever used the word “I”, (or the development of first and third person grammar to be conservative about it). In other words, the subject-object divide predates Descartes by probably tens of thousands of years.
The author claims that: “the value of h is the sole difference between classical and quantum physics”. But this is not true. Newtonian mechanics (classical physics), as a general framework, can accommodate energy quantization. Quantum mechanics is a completely different general framework -- a completely different mechanics-- the theories couched within which predict different empirical results than the theories couched within Newtonian mechanics-- even those which might involve energy quantization. It happens that the theories of quantum mechanics correspond to experimental results better than those of classical mechanics.
The author claims that: “The question of whether energy is infinitely divisible…or not … is enough to determine the nature of the subject-object relation. That’s because a measurement (or any physical interaction) involves an exchange of energy. If we want to say something about an object in itself, we have to subtract out the energy imparted by the interaction. When energy is infinitely divisible, we can do this with infinite precision-- subject and object can be neatly separated and we can talk about one independent of the other.” It seems to me that this is all very confused. First of all, not all physical interactions involve energy transfer (electrons going through a magnetic field for example). Second, we do not necessarily “have to subtract out the energy imparted by the interaction” in order to “say something about an object”. In determining the position of an electron, for instance, we can make as precise of a measurement as we wish, and we need not “subtract out the energy imparted” (whatever that might mean). Energy quantization has no bearing on the ability to precisely determine a chosen property of an object. It does not even necessarily (from a strictly logical perspective) have a bearing on the ability to precisely determine two “conjugate” properties of an object (like position and momentum for example). True, under the assumption of the quantum theoretical postulate of the De Broglie relation (p = h/lambda), it can be shown that the product of the uncertainties of position and momentum of a given object is indeed set by the value of h if we try to determine both properties by illuminating the object with a photon of light. But, while this relationship between h and the product of the uncertainties is necessarily inherent to this particular measurement scheme, it is not necessarily the case in all measurement schemes-- we might be able to find some other way to determine both the position and momentum at the same time (this is what Einstein tried to do even though he granted energy quantization). The mathematical structure of quantum mechanics demands that the product of the uncertainties of any two conjugate variables must be greater than a given value (their commutator squared, which always involves h I think). Therefore, quantum theory is incompatible with the idea that there is any way, in principle, to determine the two values with greater certainty-- if another way were to be found, quantum theory would collapse. In short, energy quantization does not necessarily prevent us from precisely determining any given property of an object; and energy quantization does not necessarily prevent us from simultaneously determining the values of two conjugate variables unless we grant that quantum mechanics is true. In either case, mere energy quantization per se has no necessary relation to property uncertainty as the author suggests. Finally, as far as I can discern, the idea of inherent uncertainties respecting the values of variables in a physical system has no necessary connection to the subject-object relation. One can claim that despite these uncertainties, physical objects still have these properties, it is just that we cannot know them (as in some interpretations of QM). Or, one might claim that, though certain classical concepts (like position and momentum) cannot be simultaneously attributed to the objects of reality with precision, the objects of reality still have independent existence from any particular subject that might go out and measure them. And so on. In summary, contrary to the assertions of the author, the existence of energy quanta per se has no necessary connection to the object-subject question, and no necessary connection to inherent uncertainty (which, in turn, has no necessary connection to the subject-object question either).
The author says: “But the discreteness, as Bohr emphasized, is not in the object; it’s in the subject-object relation, the connective tissue The same goes for uncertainty. Quantum uncertainty is not uncertainty about a thing-in-theworld; it’s uncertainty about which part belongs to the world and which part belongs to the observer. ” I choose this quote as representative of many in the essay in which the author attempts to attribute specific ideas to great scientists like Bohr in an attempt to lend support to the author’s own views, despite that the attribution of those ideas to those scientists is rather dubious. In fact, to offer a strong criticism, the idea which the author is here trying to attribute to Bohr is frankly bizarre: The uncertainties involved in quantum theory are uncertainties in whether a thing is oneself (the subject) or not oneself (an object). What could this possibly even mean? I am quite confident that Bohr and Heisenberg would have strongly objected to having such an (ostensible) idea attributed to them. These men were deep and subtle thinkers, and it seems improbable that they adhered to an idea so simplistic as “because there is uncertainty in a system, the Cartesian subject-object theory is false”, as the author’s various cherry picked quotes of them seem intended to suggest.
The author says: If the disembodied, first-person mind and the mechanistic third-person world were two sides of a coin… then the upheaval of classical physics ought to have revolutionized not only our understanding of the world, but our understanding of the mind”. They are not two sides of the same coin. There can be plenty of mutually contradictory theoretical systems which nonetheless assume dualism. For instance, one can think of the world as animistic as opposed to mechanistic while still assuming that the individual subject is categorically distinct from the other things in the world around it. It seems to me that we need to distinguish between substance dualism and subject-object dualism. Cartesian dualism is generally taken as a combination of substance dualism (specifically, the dualism of mind and matter) and subject-object dualism.The ambiguity as to which dualism the author intends to discuss makes a number of claims in the paper hard to evaluate. For instance, the author claims that idealism is “founded” on the “cartesian split”. But, it is not clear which “split” the author is here claiming idealism is “founded” on-- mind-matter or subject-object (although the assertion is false either way as far as I can see.)
As for the striking of a “middle ground” between realism and idealism (which purportedly transcends Cartesian dualism) discussed in the “Science Without the Split" section, some of the perspectives offered seemed more like wordplay than real philosophical innovation-- attempts to somehow arrange words in such a way as to appear as to present a view which eliminates subject-object dualism without eliminating the very possibility of individual conscious experience along with it in the manner discussed in certain buddhist or hindu philosophies. For instance, take the following passage: “In pragmatism… the notion of “pure experience” is introduced as a kind of unity of existence without the subject-object split; the pragmatists’ “experience” is not inside the subject nor out in the world, but in the interplay between the two. Unlike a “thing” or a “thought,” John Dewey wrote, pure experience “is “double-barreled” in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzed totality” ” I don’t mean to be dismissive, but my honest reaction to this is “Well, sounds nice, but does it actually get us anywhere?” If we are to move past the cartesian system, we need to keep in mind that the system we develop to replace it must have important, concrete pragmatic/scientific ramifications-- otherwise it will be just another intellectual curiosity. Perhaps some of the thinkers referenced in this section have ideas which can contribute to a legitimate advance on this front. Hopefully I get a chance to look into them more closely sometime soon.
Anyway, thanks for taking up this question!