Carlo Rovelli

‘Perhaps there is no need to make anything up about what lies behind quantum theory. Perhaps it really does reveal to us the deep structure of reality, where a property is no more than something that affects something else. Perhaps this is precisely what “properties” are: the effects of interactions. A good scientific theory, then, should not be about how things “are”, or what they “do”: it should be about how they affect one another.

The idea seems radical. It pushes us to rethink reality in terms of relations instead of objects, entities or substances. The possibility that this could be what quantum physics is telling us about nature was first suggested a quarter of a century ago. For a while it remained largely unnoticed, then several major philosophers picked it up and began to discuss it. Nowadays interest in the idea, called the Relational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, is steadily growing. It is a possible solution to the puzzle of quantum theory: what quantum phenomena are is evidence that all properties are relational.

There is a strikingly similar definition of existence at the root of the western philosophical tradition. Plato’s The Sophist contains the following phrase: “Anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply action. [δύναμιςδύναμις]” And in the eastern tradition, the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna’s central notion of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) tells us that nothing has independent existence: anything that exists, exists thanks to, as a function of, or according to the perspective of, something else.

So maybe this is not such a radical idea after all. We all know that a chemical substance is defined by how it reacts, a biological species is defined according to the niche it occupies in the biosphere, and what defines us as human beings is our relationships. Think of a simple object such as a blue teacup. Its being blue is not a property of the cup alone: colours happen in our brain as a result of the structure of the receptors in the retina of our eyes and as a consequence of the interactions between daylight and the cup’s surface. Its being “a teacup” refers to its potential function as a drinking vessel: for an alien who doesn’t know about drinking tea, the very notion of a teacup is meaningless. What is more, its stability as an object depends on the timescale in which we consider it: take a longer view and it is just a fleeting aggregation of atoms. And are these atoms themselves independent elements of reality? No they are not, as quantum theory shows: they are defined by their physical interactions with the rest of the world.

So quantum physics may just be the realisation that this ubiquitous relational structure of reality continues all the way down to the elementary physical level. Reality is not a collection of things, it’s a network of processes.’ (from the Guardian)

Those of you who have been reading here for a long time will prehaps remember that I have a soft spot for quantum physics, and a firm belief that Buddha had a good sense of it. This article was lovely to read yesterday (insofar as my slightly foggy brain allowed), and it went on to propose that relationship is everything. Which I think we all know.


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