Cover image for Quantum philosophy : understanding and interpreting contemporary science
Quantum philosophy : understanding and interpreting contemporary science
Omnès, Roland.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Philosophie de la science contemporaine. English
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xxiii, 296 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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QC6 .O55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In this magisterial work, Roland Omnès takes us from the academies of ancient Greece to the laboratories of modern science as he seeks to do no less than rebuild the foundations of the philosophy of knowledge. One of the world's leading quantum physicists, Omnès reviews the history and recent development of mathematics, logic, and the physical sciences to show that current work in quantum theory offers new answers to questions that have puzzled philosophers for centuries: Is the world ultimately intelligible? Are all events caused? Do objects have definitive locations? Omnès addresses these profound questions with vigorous arguments and clear, colorful writing, aiming not just to advance scholarship but to enlighten readers with no background in science or philosophy.

The book opens with an insightful and sweeping account of the main developments in science and the philosophy of knowledge from the pre-Socratic era to the nineteenth century. Omnès then traces the emergence in modern thought of a fracture between our intuitive, commonsense views of the world and the abstract and--for most people--incomprehensible world portrayed by advanced physics, math, and logic. He argues that the fracture appeared because the insights of Einstein and Bohr, the logical advances of Frege, Russell, and Gödel, and the necessary mathematics of infinity of Cantor and Hilbert cannot be fully expressed by words or images only. Quantum mechanics played an important role in this development, as it seemed to undermine intuitive notions of intelligibility, locality, and causality. However, Omnès argues that common sense and quantum mechanics are not as incompatible as many have thought. In fact, he makes the provocative argument that the "consistent-histories" approach to quantum mechanics, developed over the past fifteen years, places common sense (slightly reappraised and circumscribed) on a firm scientific and philosophical footing for the first time. In doing so, it provides what philosophers have sought through the ages: a sure foundation for human knowledge.

Quantum Philosophy is a profound work of contemporary science and philosophy and an eloquent history of the long struggle to understand the nature of the world and of knowledge itself.

Author Notes

Roland Omnès is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Paris-Sud. His books include Understanding Quantum Mechanics and The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (both Princeton), L'Univers et ses Metamorphoses, and Introduction to Particle Physics.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Einstein and Aristotle meet and shake hands in this illuminating exposition of the unexpected return of common sense to modern science. A companion volume to Omnes' earlier Understanding Quantum Mechanics (1999), this book recounts--with mercifully little mathematical detail--how this century's pioneering researchers severed the ties that for millennia had anchored science within the bounds of clear and intuitive perceptions of the world. As an abstruse mathematical formalism replaced the visual imagination, scientists jettisoned normal understandings of cause and effect, of coherence and continuity, setting science adrift from philosophical conceptions going back as far as Democritus. But when theorists recently began to weigh the "consistent histories" of various quantum events, the furthest frontiers of science became strangely familiar, as rigorous logic revalidated much of classical physics and many of the perceptions of common sense. With a contagious sense of wonder, Omnes invites his readers, who need no expertise beyond an active curiosity, to share in the exhilarating denouement of humanity's 2,500-year quest to fathom the natural order. And in a tantalizing conclusion, he beckons readers toward the mystery that still shrouds the origins of formulas that physicists love for their beauty even before testing them for their truth. An essential acquisition for public library science collections. --Bryce Christensen

Library Journal Review

From the speculations of ancient Greek philosophers to theories in modern science, OmnŠs (physics, Univ. of Paris XI) critically surveys the evolution of epistemology in terms of major developments in logic, mathematics, and the physical sciences. He focuses on the emergent fracture between commonsense viewpoints and reality itself on the microcosmic level. Special attention is given to counterintuitive discoveries in both quantum physics and the formal sciences, e.g., the insights of Bohr, Godel, and Cantor. OmnŠs argues that it is not necessary to abandon common sense in contemporary science and philosophy: "The two most important ideas to remember are first, that logic has its source in the laws of nature; secondly, that this logic of things cannot be dissociated from the existence of probabilities and, ultimately, from the necessary presence of chance." Yet his own position is essentially grounded in a metaphysical stance wherein Logos is independent of reality. For large science and philosophy collections only.ÄH. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

A quote from the beginning of Omn`es's book provides an insight into why he wrote this essay on science: "There appears to be a gap, a chasm, between the world of thought, the theoretical world, and physical reality. It is as though the power of logic and mathematics, after accounting for the minutest details of this reality, were unable to penetrate the essence." A background in physics and some familiarity with quantum mechanics helps in reading this book, but an excellent glossary and glossary words marked in the text make it possible to follow even with a minimal background in the physical sciences. Omn`es moves from a consideration of ancient Greek philosophy to the development of formalism in logic, mathematics, and the physical sciences, covering such subjects as Schrodinger's cat, Bohr's complementary rule, the "scientific method," and the question of the limits of common sense in understanding quantum concepts with great clarity. The book takes study, and is an excellent reference for students of science or philosophy and professionals in these fields, but it is not impossible to understand for the well-informed lay person who has a real interest in science. All levels. P. R. Douville; emeritus, Central Connecticut State University

Table of Contents

Pt.1 The Legacyp. 1
Ch I Classical Logicp. 6
Ch II Classical Physicsp. 23
Ch III Classical Mathematicsp. 47
Ch IV Classical Philosophy of Knowledgep. 62
Pt. 2 The Fracturep. 79
Ch V Formal Mathematicsp. 84
Ch VI The Philosophy of Mathematicsp. 108
Ch VII Formal Physicsp. 124
Ch VIII The Epistemology of Physicsp. 147
Pt. 3 From Formal Back to Visual: The Quantum Casep. 159
Ch IX Between Logic and Physicsp. 163
Ch X Rediscovering Common Sensep. 184
Ch XI From the Measurable to the Unmeasurablep. 196
Ch XII On Realismp. 216
Pt. 4 State of the Question and Perspectivesp. 235
Ch XIII A New Beginningp. 237
Ch XIV What Is Science?p. 246
Ch XV Methodp. 255
Ch XVI Vanishing Perspectivesp. 269
Glossaryp. 283
Name Indexp. 291
Subject Indexp. 295