quantum weirdness, the universe

Is “Materialism” a Misnomer?

Copyediting a forthcoming book on quantum physics (Spooky Action at a Distance by the excellent science writer George Musser, forthcoming from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I understand for the first time that what critics of “scientism” decry as “materialism”—the belief that every real phenomenon in the universe has a material basis—is actually a belief in locality. Locality means that bodies or their intermediaries must come into contact—collide—to affect each other. Nonlocality allows for the possibility that nature includes fields and forces by which bodies can exert influence at a spatial distance, without smacking into each other. Such phenomena range from gravity and magnetism to quantum entanglement. Whether those seemingly different kinds of effects-at-a-distance are in fact different or have the same ultimate basis is (I think?) the question at the heart of the quest for a “theory of everything.”

An example from developmental biology: are differentiating embryos organized into their proper forms only by the orchestrated expression of growth factors and other such regulatory and signaling molecules that work their way physically from cell to cell? In other words, is form determined only by contact “on the ground,” by the timed release of molecules that lock onto receptors and trigger cascades and gradients of other molecules? Or is development guided by “morphogenetic fields,” in the term of the renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake, which pattern and channel those movements of cells and molecules the way a magnetic field patterns iron filings?

Local vs. nonlocal is a huge and much truer difference than “material” vs. “immaterial” (especially now that we know matter and energy are interconvertible), because it does not imply a potential division or distinction between nature (material) and a supernatural (immaterial). It is a question about the nature of nature, about where information lives and what it consists of—a question that can be asked with equal pertinence about the form of organisms and the form of ideas. We accept that gravity and magnetism are facts of nature even though they don’t operate by direct contact or through an intermediary medium, and we can measure but not explain them; we really don’t know what they are. Musser points out that science was born in the seventeenth century of two parents, mechanics and magic, each of which admits something observable about nature and corrects the other’s inadequacies and flaws.

It turns out that a voluminous amount has been written about these evolving ideas of force and space at the intersection of physics, the history of science, and philosophy. Those quoted in this book include a brilliant theoretical physicist named Fotini Markopoulou (yes, she’s a girl) who suspects that space may not be real. I’m not going to understand any of this, yet anyone’s intuition can play with it, in ways that could equally well be outrageously wrong or uncannily on track. For example, I’ve been wondering whether quantum entanglement is anything like gravitational lensing—whether a pair of entangled photons are really two images of the same photon, which would indeed make them depend on the position of the observer. And this in turn somehow seems related to the question, which may be a serious question: Is the universe a hologram?


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