Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1999. Pp. xv + 365. cloth: ISBN 0-226-04181-6
By: Ravi V. Gomatam, Bhaktivedanta Institute, Mumbai (firstname.lastname@example.org) www.bvinst.edu
Appeared in Philosophy
in Review, volume XX, No. 6, December 2000, 390-2;
In this book, Mara Beller, a historian and philosopher of science, undertakes to examine why and how the elusive Copenhagen interpretation came to acquire the status it has. The book appears under the series ‘Science and Its Conceptual Foundations’. The first part traces in seven chapters the early major developmental phases of QT such as matrix theory, Born’s probabilistic interpretation, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s complementarity framework. Although the historical and scientific details are authentic, the author’s presentation in this part is clearly motivated toward making the reader accept the premises that she intends to argue for in the second part over eight chapters.
Beller’s thesis is this: The fact that the ideas developed initially by Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Born and others came to be known and accepted as the ‘standard interpretation’ is more due to the success of their ‘ad hoc strategies’ and ‘ingenious and misleading improvisations’ aimed at ‘the legitimization of their stand’ (12), rather than any intrinsic merit of their interpretive ideas. The ‘Copenhagen-Gottingen group,’ as she calls them, proclaimed their interpretation as the only one possible. To support this claim, Beller alleges, they ‘exaggerated the difficulties of the opposition stand while ignoring their own’, as well as ‘trivialized and often deliberately caricatured opposition stand’ (277). Bell They presented Bohr as a hero who cannot be wrong, and demanded we change our ideas to understand how Bohr is right (275).
‘Dialogical creativity’ is a term that Beller introduces to refer to the scientific exchanges that members of both camps had while making their own contributions to quantum theory. But almost all of her conclusions seem to rest on a speculative analysis of the correspondence between members of both camps during this early developmental period. As a result, there is nothing convincing in Beller’s arguments -- historically, philosophically, scientifically, or sociologically--to warrant the charge that the members of the so-called Copenhagen orthodoxy mainly engaged in ‘discrediting the opposition stand and caricaturing the opposition’s criticisms of their own stand’ (10). Nor does she substantiate her claim that the content of Bohr’s interpretation ‘cannot be fully comprehended without taking into account such psycho-physical factors as ambition, professional interest, group dynamics.’ (144)
Some examples will indicate the specious trend of argumentation adopted in the book to present such charges. In chapter two, Beller quotes Born’s latter-day recollection that his opposition to the realistic construal of the Schrödinger wave equation preceded his early papers on the statistical interpretation. She then points out that this is contradictory to the historical fact that Born initially embraced Schrödinger’s wave formalism over Heisenberg's, by treating the wave formalism realistically. Beller sees in this evidence for Born’s desire to manipulate history to preserve the claim of ‘inevitability’ of the Copenhagen position. Once thus introduced, the idea of ‘manipulation’ is repeatedly invoked to explain almost every other point. For example, she gives the following explanation as to why Schrödinger’s interpretation of his own wave formalism did not get any attention from other physicists: ‘Bohr and Born headed the most prestigious schools of theoretical physics. Young physicists, who streamed into these centers from all over the world, were exposed automatically to the new philosophy…most of them simply adopted the official interpretation without deep deliberation’(39). She sees Heisenberg conceding as much in a 1930 statement: ‘the physicist more often has a kind of faith in the correctness of the new principles than a clear understanding of them.’ More likely, Heisenberg was pointing out what is true even today, that the acceptance of QT as a successful theory has preceded its full comprehension.
Elsewhere, Beller quotes Einstein : ‘To the discoverer in this field the products of his imagination appear so necessary and natural that he regards them ... not as creations of thought but as given realities.’  She reads in this a warning from Einstein to not rely on the recollections of the participants in the development of physics [in this case, the early development of quantum theory]. She thus regards the cited passage as supporting her own thesis that the members of the Copenhagen school manipulated history. Einstein wrote these quoted lines, however, as part of an explanation of his own view of scientific realism.
Beller also cites, as an example of the orthodoxy’s willingness to trivialize the opposition’s ideas, Heisenberg’s assertion that ‘Bohm’s “strange” arguments for hidden variables are identical to the hope that 2 x 2=5’ (196). But Einstein too referred to Bohm’s efforts ‘as too cheap a way out,’ and Einstein was no supporter of the Copenhagen orthodoxy!
Because Beller thinks that Bohr actually had no interpretation--only a set of inconsistent ideas that he used to browbeat the opponents--her readings of Bohr’s interpretive ideas are also seriously flawed. For example, she repeatedly refers to Bohr’s stress on the necessity of experimental arrangements to define quantum mechanical properties as merely an ‘operational viewpoint.’ But Bohr’s perspective here, as argued by Feyerabend and Jammer, is relationalism, not operationalism. QT does not describe the positions and momenta of particles in terms of their trajectories in free space. Once we specify the experimental arrangements, say a two-slit experiment, the ‘position’ attribute, for example, gets defined as which of the two slits on the screen the particle will take. All contradictions are avoided with mechanics of point particles, as Pauli put it, by predicting only probabilities for the possible values of position. Bohr handled this idea of relationalism epistemologically, while it remains possible to treat it ontologically (see Gomatam, R., 1999, J. of Consciousness Studies, 6, 11:12, 173-90).
Dr. Beller may well be correct to imply that the architects and supporters of the Copenhagen orthodoxy were wrong to present their epistemological interpretation as the only possible one. However, she appears to have equally erred in dismissing the ideas of such thoughtful physicists as Bohr as having no rigorous interpretive content.