Mach, Bogdanov, Nagarjuna and Rovelli

When I mentioned Carlo Rovelli’s latest here, I suggested why other priorities might get in the way of my actually needing to read it. I did my usual, opened it Saturday morning intending to skim the front and end materials and cover blurbs to check the scope was as expected, but in fact I started to read it. Carlo’s writing is like that. I didn’t even look at the chapter headings, but covered the first 50 pages in yellow highlights.

Sure “Helgoland” is a summary of what I generally short-hand as “Copenhagen” – Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Einstein, Schrödinger, Jordan, Dirac, Pauli et al followed by attempted interpretations of the likes of Wheeler, Bohm, Bell, Everett and more. Carlo does not disappoint with his own emphases on an otherwise familiar story.

Given my readings of his earlier works, I was expecting we would be getting into loop quantum gravity and his “information-relational” take on fundamental physics in the remaining 120 pages.

This from a couple of weeks ago, I had already noted a Whiteheadian metaphysical convergence in enlightened fundamental physics in recent years:

The dynamic relational aspects are indeed telegraphed in the early sections. Anyway, suffice to say, in a second sitting last night:

The Darwin / Shannon / Wiener aspects are well trod in this space – not least by Dennett. A “systems engineering” (ie cybernetic) take on information patterns being fundamental to the processes of evolution, independent of specific biological or even physical embodiment.

There’s no mention? of Whitehead. There’s one mention of Russell a couple for Wittgenstein and still more on the relationship to the logical positivists – The Vienna Circle – the Ernst Mach Society. In fact, Carlo majors on Mach’s influence on Einstein and everyone else. Good to see Mach properly acknowledged so emphatically in a popular science work.

“Mach is not a systematic philosopher … [and] yet I believe that the extent and depth of his influence on contemporary culture has been undervalued.”

There’s also a lot more of “nothing new under the sun” in ideas already expressed by assorted Greeks, Anaximander, Empedocles and Democritus as well as Plato and Aristotle. Carlo has excellent end-note references to follow-up.

So far so good, but what that did not prepare me for are the other two: Nagarjuna an established alternative here to “Western” thinking, but Bogdanov is new to me in any context.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovic Malinovskiy (aka Bogdanov) is an enlightened advocate for Mach’s perspective in correspondence against the more dogmatic and absolutist Lenin. Oh, how the Soviet leader would have fit in with the Vienna Circle(!). Fascinating in itself, but Bogdanov was a lot more besides. He will need to be the subject of further research for me. (Reading never reduces the backlog of reading.)

Concluding his acknowledgements, Carlo emphasises:

“Thanks, above all, to Werner and Aleksandr.”

Heisenberg, the start of Carlo’s “Holy Island” pilgrimage.
Bogdanov, the final word.

Unlike Bogdanov, Nagarjuna – and all things Zen – are not new here on Psybertron, but it was a complete surprise to find a whole 12 pages on his thinking. Not a conjunction I was expecting:

It’s important for Carlo, as it is for me, that we’re advocating this Buddhist thinking as an alternative to the persistent Western idea that the fundaments of nature are “entities” in and of themselves. Bohr (and Schrödinger) was already there of course:

“The unambiguous description of ANY phenomenon requires the inclusion of all of the objects involved in the interaction in which the phenomenon manifests itself.” (Bohr)

Quite separate from the measurement problem(s) this “participation” has nothing to do with experimental interactions when investigating a phenomenon – but simply about all relevant relations between it and any other object (including ourselves) in the universe.

As he and others before him have said

“[Zen Buddhist thinking] is not metaphysical extravagance: it is sobriety … [it] resonates with the best of much Western philosophy, both classical and recent. [eg Hume and Wittgenstein].”

(But conspicuously, not Whitehead …)

Like all serious scientists and science-friendly philosophers who sail close to Zen enlightenment (Hofstadter springs to mind, as well as the more obvious Pirsig), Carlo is at pains to distance himself from hippy quantum / cosmic / holistic / aura / resonance explanations for anything mental or phenomenal, whilst at the same time admitting:

“For heaven’s sake, I’m all in favour of ‘good vibrations’. I too once had long hair tied with a red bandanna, and sat cross-legged next to Allen Ginsberg chanting ‘Om’.”

I should probably elaborate to fit my own research on Carlo’s actual thesis, his relevant relative information take on the relations (correlations) between things in the real world. That will have to wait for another day.

[Lots of other good stuff in Helgoland. Like me, an initial rejection of things “metaphysical” but a realisation that metaphysics is really implicit in the taken for granted – even axiomatic – assumptions in anyone’s physical model. Recognising the “tetralemma” examples and arguments from Nagarjuna. Nagel being “obsessively” mistaken (not just me then?) The subjective aspects of consciousness being no different to the physical with this relevant relative information view. Quantum physics itself as an information view in the true Shannon sense and the “organisation” aspect of systems architecture in constructing the whole edifice.]

Signing off for now, I already mentioned the John Banville quote “Physics has found its poet [in Rovelli].” Carlo is possibly conflicted on whether poetry is essential to physical understanding, yet makes extensive use of Shakespeare (as well as Dante).

I hadn’t noticed until this very moment that two other cover blurbs are from Neil Gaiman and Antony Gormley (!). A very important book.

16 thoughts on “Mach, Bogdanov, Nagarjuna and Rovelli”

  1. I’m inspired to wonder whether we might make a distinction between “weak” and “strong” forms of process theory, where the weak form does not view processes as agents, while the strong form does. This could explain why references to Whitehead are not always found in books about the new process physics.

    Introducing agency is one way to approach the classic mind-matter conundrum, but in my view, it also promises to encourage holistic respect for the world we live in.

  2. Yes. Good point.
    Rovelli does emphasise the “dynamic” in these relations, more than I mention in my post, but he doesn’t focus on the process of events being more central than the relations themselves.

    In fact that quote in the first tweet above is Rovelli using the word “event” for these interactive relations.

  3. “Reading never reduces the backlog [of] reading.” Too bloody true. My to-read pile is now one book bigger, and resembles something out of Borges.

  4. Correction: the editorial is not by Rovelli, but about his book Helgoland.

    (I also posted this to a different page by accident — too many tabs open)

  5. (Not seen SlashDot for decades)
    Ah, OK. It’s a standard meme “no-one understands quantum mechanics”.
    It’s still true, but it doesn’t mean much more than QM is still “wrong” – no “ontological commitment” to reality, just convenient formulae.

  6. When I first learned of this book (from your blog) I put myself on the waiting list at the local library. Finally I’m reading it. I’m not ready to comment on it yet.

    Obviously I’m interested in the relational model, and I too wonder why Whitehead doesn’t get a nod. Could it be because he likes to talk about God, and for hard-nosed scientists this is a bridge too far?

    Anyway, what’s started to bother me about these superposition experiments is the role of the prisms. When a photon hits a prism and bounces away, is that not an interaction? Yet apparently the wave function doesn’t collapse (to choose that terminology) for this particular interaction; just when the photon is “detected,” which is therefore somehow different from pure interaction. Maybe detection involves energy exchange and reflection doesn’t, but then how reflection manages to be energy-neutral while drastically altering the photon’s momentum is opaque to me (pardon the pun). Then again, I’m not a physicist (obviously).

    Moreover, some photons are reflected by the prism, and some go through. Does anybody know why this happens?

    These are probably dumb questions. Maybe the answers are so obvious that nobody bothers to mention them. But for an innocent like me, the possibility remains that they’re interesting, but nobody has bothered to look.

  7. Coincidentally, I’m reading Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”.
    Blogged an early review here:
    (Reading it quite slowly because it’s very good and in a quite different “voice” to most popular science I’ve read.)

    He has a whole chapter (21) on “interpreting quantum mechanics” of which I will probably quote a large part in my follow-up review:

    It starts:
    “What bothers us … is that the word ‘observer’ appears in the in theory at all. What counts as an observer or an observation anyway? A microscope or does a conscious human have to be using it? what about a squirrel with a video camera? Together these issues are known as the measurement problem

    It ends (after discussing the collapse of Schrodinger’s wave-function every which way … anti-realism, hidden-variables and Everett’s many-worlds and ontological commitment to reality generally):
    “It’s just the quantum wave function (for the whole real world). Everything else is a convenient way of talking.”

  8. I’ve finished Helgoland. It’s an important book, a clear statement of Rovelli’s philosophical position, and before commenting extensively I plan to read it again, this time taking notes.

    The title is unfortunate, because the book is not especially about Helgoland or Heisenberg, That subject serves only as an introduction to the well-known story of quantum physics (for anyone who has read other books about it), which in turn is only an introduction to Rovelli’s thoughts about “relevant relative information.” This way of looking at the physical world is inspired by quantum physics, but looking back, I’m not sure Rovelli uses it to explains any of the quantum conundrums. That’s one reason I want to read it again.

    Rovelli’s position on consciousness seems close to Dennett’s, or what I imagine Dennett’s must be. It attempts to dissolve the problem, making it almost into a denial of the phenomenon, or at any rate its significance.

    As with Zen Buddhist metaphysics, the relevant relative information theory is at pains not to collapse into solipsism. Does either succeed in avoiding this black hole? “Mu.”

    When I write the review, I’ll post it to my blog, but I’ll let you know.

  9. The “unfortunate title” and the “well-known story” – agreed.
    In a crowded market he had to pick a new angle on what I reduce to “Copenhagen”.
    Though he tells it well, yeah?

    Not explaining “quantum conundrums”. I agree. In many ways that’s the point. As currently framed they cannot be explained. It shows that physics itself needs to take a step back to different metaphysical assumptions – based on “relevant relative information“. (The conundrums won’t then need explaining because they won’t exist in the new “Way of Talking”.

    I don’t think Rovelli is anywhere as advanced as Dennett when it comes to consciousness. But both are banking on it being far less mysterious once “information” is seen as the root of (evolution of) the whole “natural world”. The very opposite of denial and dismissal. As with the quantum conundrums – the dualist / hard-problem conundrums will no longer need explaining, because they don’t really exist – they dissolve – in the “new way of talking”.

    I agree “mu” is really all the Nagarjuna digression brings to the story – but it does show that these parallel ways of talking do appeal to even the most celebrated “physicists” seeking ways out of their conundrums. (My living archetype is Nobel prize winning Brian Josephson.)

    Mach and Bogdanov – also interesting angles?

    (“Way of Talking” – I’m still reading Carroll 2016)

    Look forward to your review.

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