Should philosophers take lessons from quantum theory?

Inquiry 42 (3 & 4):311 – 342 (1999)
This essay examines some of the arguments in David Deutsch's book The Fabric of Reality , chief among them its case for the so-called many-universe interpretation of quantum mechanics (QM), presented as the only physically and logically consistent solution to the QM paradoxes of wave/particle dualism, remote simultaneous interaction, the observer-induced 'collapse of the wave-packet', etc. The hypothesis assumes that all possible outcomes are realized in every such momentary 'collapse', since the observer splits off into so many parallel, coexisting, but epistemically non-interaccessible 'worlds' whose subsequent branchings constitute the lifeline-or experiential world-series- for each of those proliferating centres of consciousness. Although Deutsch concedes that his 'multiverse' theory is counter-intuitive, he none the less takes it to be borne out beyond question by the sheer observational/predictive success of QM and the conceptual dilemmas that supposedly arise with alternative (single-universe) accounts. Moreover, he claims the theory resolves a range of longstanding philosophical problems, notably those of mind/body dualism, the various traditional paradoxes of time, and the freewill/determinism issue. The essay suggests on the contrary, that Deutsch unwittingly transposes into the framework of presentday quantum debate speculative themes from the history of rationalist metaphysics, often with bizarre or philosophically dubious results, and that he rules out at least one promising rival account, namely Bohm's 'hidden variables' theory. It goes on to consider reasons for resistance to that theory among proponents of the 'orthodox' (Copenhagen) doctrine, and for the strong anti-realist, at times even irrationalist bias that has characterized much of this discussion since Bohr's debates with Einstein about quantum non-locality, observer-intervention, and the limits of precise measurement. Finally, the contrast is pointed out between Deutsch's ontologically extravagant use of the many-worlds hypothesis (akin to certain ideas advanced by speculative metaphysicians from Leibniz down) and those realist modes of counterfactual reasoning- e.g. in Kripke and the early Putnam- which deploy similar arguments to very different causal-explanatory ends.
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DOI 10.1080/002017499321435
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