Atomic Reality and the Crisis of Realism

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Introduction and Overview

It is commonplace for people to assert that quantum theory indicates a lack of objectivity or reality, when all it indicates is the failure of the classical conception of reality. In the classical conception, when you cut an apple, you get smaller pieces of apple.

In this article, I will argue that the quantum conception of cutting an apple involves separating its taste from smell, from sight, from touch, etc. I will then discuss how this new type of cutting resolves quantum problems.

Finally, I will discuss how this conception of atoms arrived at by cutting an object relates to the notion of atoms in Sāñkhya philosophy which are described as the atomic units of sensations.

The Debate About Concepts

We are all accustomed to using conceptual objects. These include concepts such as ‘table’ and ‘chair’. Now, there has been a huge debate about what we mean by such concepts, beginning with the ideal forms in Platonic philosophy since Greek times. The earliest idea about such concepts was that there is an ideal shape by which we call things tables and chairs. The problem was that lots of things that don’t have such ideal shapes are also called tables and chairs. So, it was hard to give a definition to concepts that was both linguistically meaningful and practically useful in an everyday sense.

This problem came to a head in the early part of 20th century, when philosophers started arguing that all problems of philosophy originated in the idea of universals, and that this was a bogus idea. There is no such thing as perfect beauty or even a perfect red, let alone a perfect chair or table. If we get rid of these universals, and replace them with something else, we could solve the problems of philosophy.

There emerged a broad consensus that we had to replace these concepts with something practical and empirical and, beginning with Ludwig Wittgenstein, it came to be believed that concepts are simply functions. That is, a chair or a table is not a universal concept, but how things are used. If you sit on a block of wood, you are using it as a chair, and therefore instead of talking about the shape of an ideal chair we should talk about how things are being used. Now, this use is empirical and practical, and doesn’t rely on an ideal shape and therefore we don’t need an ideal world of concepts.

There arose several schools of philosophy called pragmatism, operationalism, and functionalism, which expressed this basic insight in different ways. 20th century philosophy broke away from classical and medieval philosophy in rejecting the existence of meaning as something that existed beyond the observable world. This then led to the decline of the idea of mind as a different kind of substance than matter, giving way to materialism and pragmatism in all areas of thinking. For example, it is fashionable nowadays to say that the ‘mind’ is a special function of the brain; this function arises due to a special relation between parts, by which a part becomes the mind. This approach allows us to treat the mind materially as chemicals, and yet explain the unique functionality called the mind.

The Trouble in Functionalism

Functionalism brings a new problem, namely that if something is not being used in a certain way then it cannot be designated by that concept. For example, if nobody is sitting on the chair right now, the object cannot be called a chair. Therefore, if you see a chair in a furniture shop, and nobody is sitting on it, you could not say that it is a chair. A fallout of this issue is that I cannot make claims about the world as it exists prior to my observation and use. A thing is known only by how I use that thing.

This is a grave problem because it entails a complete collapse of objective reality. I cannot say that the world exists if I’m sleeping because I cannot observe the world while I’m sleeping, therefore the world is not a chair, not a table, not red, not black, not anything. The world simply doesn’t exist. Only when I’m interacting with the world, can I claim that the world exists as those types of functions.

Furthermore, since I can use the world in different ways, what I call the world depends on my use. For example, a block of wood could be used as a table and a chair, and if my definition of objectivity is how I use, then that objectivity is observer dependent. I cannot say that there is a reality independent of my observation. However, if there is no reality independent of my observation, then everyone’s version of reality—based on their observation—must be equally real. How could we give a privileged position to one version of reality—e.g. given by science—over another that is formulated by a non-scientist? This constitutes the crisis of realism in philosophy, and it is important to understand this crisis before we get into the crisis of realism in atomic theory, because these two are intimately connected.

Two Notions About Concepts

A potential solution to this crisis is that we need two notions of objects—one that they are ideas and the other that they are functions. As an idea, I should be able to say that there is something that exists without my observation. And as a function, I should be able to say that I’m using that thing in a certain way.

Furthermore, to accommodate these two apparently contradictory notions about objects, I must say that the reality that exists prior to my observation only exists as a possibility. For example, a block of wood can be used as a table or as a chair, which are possibilities about how it can be used. One person might use it as a chair and another one can use it as a table, so both possibilities are real in the sense that they exist and yet unless we use them in a certain way, they are not truly realized.

It follows that the world as it exists prior to being observed and used is the collection of all the possibilities of observation and use. This leads to another problem, because this collection of different possibilities is not one thing. It is a collection. To truly speak about reality as that one thing, I must be able to call something a block of wood, that can be used as a table or a chair. But even that block of wood is an observation, and hence one of the many possibilities of observation.

The Crisis of Realism in Atomic Theory

This is the problem of modern atomic theory. We can say that something is a collection of possible observations and uses—based on different types of interactions with observers—but we cannot say that it is one thing that exists prior to that observation. Since it is not one thing but a collection of possibilities, a choice must select from this collection to produce one observable reality. However, if this choice is not acting—i.e. I’m not observing the world—then the world simply doesn’t exist.

In classical physics, an object was an idea that existed even when I did not observe the world. Thus, there were indeed tables and chairs even when we did not observe them. In quantum physics, an object is a function which is created only when I observe the world. We are not able to reconcile these two notions about objects, which is called the problem of measurement in atomic theory.

To truly solve the problem, we must say that there is indeed one thing, but it can be used in many ways. The idea notion of the object must refer to that one thing, and diverse functional uses to the collection. In classical physics, each thing behaved in only one way, so observation and reality were identical. In quantum physics, each thing can behave in many ways, so observation is different from reality. We can never truly understand reality by any observation, because each observation reveals a complementary aspect of reality. We must now understand reality in a new way—thus far unknown.

The Role of the Mind

This problem is not new; we encounter it every day. For example, something that looks like an apple isn’t necessarily an apple. It must also smell like an apple, taste like an apple, digest like an apple, and produce the benefits of an apple. There are many things that can separately smell like an apple, taste like an apple, or look like an apple, but they are not necessarily apples. Then, what is an apple? It is a specific combination of something with a certain type of taste, smell, touch, color, shape, etc.

Each of the senses—e.g. eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue—only produces a specific kind of sensation. The senses don’t produce the knowledge of something being an apple, because the apple is the combination of the observations produced by all the five senses. To obtain the apple, therefore, we must combine each of these sensations into a single object and then cognize it as an apple. If our senses were analogues of the different measuring instruments that produce one type of sensation, then the problem of atomic theory would be that we have the diverse sensations of an apple, but we don’t have the counterpart of the mind that combines these individual sensations into an apple.

We can now say that the reality which exists prior to observation is the apple, but that apple is only a concept. It is none of the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight, which are produced only when we observe the apple by our senses. Therefore, the reality is conceptual whereas the observations are perceptual. That reality can only be known by the mind, not by the senses because it is the apple as opposed to the taste, touch, smell, sound, form, and color of the apple. Individually, the apple can be tasted, smelt, touched, or seen, by different senses, which are different measurements we can perform on the apple. But the apple itself is different from each of these measurements.

The Problem of Complementarity

The new problem—entailed by quantum theory—is that we cannot measure all the properties simultaneously. Niels Bohr called this the new paradigm of complementarity in which only one type of measurement can be performed at one time. Remember that, in classical physics, all the properties of an object—e.g. the position and momentum—could be measured simultaneously, even though they were being measured by different instruments. This is no longer possible with quantum objects.

The problem of complementarity could be demystified if we said that the mind only pays attention to one sense (e.g. the eye or the nose) at any given moment in time. So, the mind might attend to the smell of the apple, followed by the size, followed by the color, followed by the taste, etc. Each of these are complementary properties of the object, but they are measured one by one. If you carefully analyze your observation, when you look at something, you notice one part of that thing before others. You might even say that you hadn’t noticed something at first sight. That’s not because that thing you did not notice was absent; it is primarily because your mind did not pay attention to it earlier.

Therefore, the mind becomes necessary to do science because only by the mind can we explain why all the sense measurements cannot be performed simultaneously but must arrive in an order. A certain type of mind might attend more to the taste than to the smell, while another mind attends to smell more than the color. We attribute the relative preponderance of one type of measurement to quantum probabilities, but we are unable to explain the order of measurements. And we can never complete the explanation unless we postulate a mind that does various measurements one by one.

The Evolution of Probabilities

At the point of measurement, the possibility of the observation becomes one, and every other possibility becomes zero. After an observation, however, the probability wave spreads according to the Schrodinger’s equation. The greater the time elapsed, the greater is the spread of possibilities.

This means that if you make observations in quick succession, your mind will be narrowly focused on the possibilities close to each other. However, if you withdraw the mind, the next thing you observe could be very far from the original observation. Thus, a mind that is actively engaged with the senses remains engrossed on a very narrow set of possibilities. But if the mind is disengaged for a while and then engaged again, you can suddenly see something new that you never saw before. There are everyday counterparts of this idea, such as the fact that if you are unable to solve a problem by continual focus, you can withdraw and relook at the problem after a while and you will find something new that you did not previously see. Withdrawal can reveal a radically different reality.

The Problem of Entanglement

The most perplexing problem in quantum theory—one that drove Einstein nuts about quantum theory—is the idea of non-locality. The problem arises because of two different ways in which we think of dividing a big object into smaller objects—according to classical and to quantum physics.

When you cut an apple according to classical physics, you are cutting it into smaller physical parts, each of which will continue to have some taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight, although in a smaller quantity. After cutting, each part would become an independent object. If these objects are far apart, then any communication between them will take some time—constrained by the speed of light. Measurement on one piece can have no effect on the outcome of measurement on the other pieces.

However, when you cut an apple according to quantum physics, you are separating the smell of the apple from its color, taste, shape, etc. The apple in the quantum conception is the combination of sense-data (e.g. taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound) and cutting the apple is taking apart these individual properties. No matter how far you take them apart, they will remain the same sense datum—i.e. they will not lose the fact of being the quanta of taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight. Hence, when you perform a measurement, the quantum of smell will produce the observation of smell, the quantum of taste will produce the observation of taste, and so on, for every particle.

Now, this fact perplexes people because of a classical conception about quantum theory in which each quantum is like a piece of apple that has all the properties (taste, smell, touch, etc.) but when you perform a measurement only one of these properties will be revealed randomly. This idea is called superposition of all the properties, followed by the detection of a single property. The problem is that if you take different pieces of apple far apart, one of them gives taste, another one gives smell, yet another one gives color, yet another one gives form, etc. Since each measurement reveals a different property, and these properties never overlap across measurements, it seems that these particles are somehow coordinating the measurement outcome, so they must have communicated instantly. This instant communication violates the speed of light and is hence called non-locality.

This entire problem is fictitious, and it arises because we think of quanta as pieces of an apple. It is as if an apple was cut into smaller pieces, and each piece then started behaving like a dice that would randomly turn up a different face when a measurement is performed. Einstein struggled with this idea, and then (correctly) concluded that each quantum must have a fixed property (to avoid the problem of a dice turning up a different property) but we don’t know which particle will produce which property. The quantum problem was therefore our ignorance, rather than an objective superposition.

Einstein was however still a classicist; atomism for him was smaller pieces of apple rather than the separation of taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch of the apple. Therefore, he could not make the bigger leap that the quantum particles are mathematically orthogonal because they require different instruments (like the different senses of observation) that can’t be employed simultaneously. The reason they cannot be employed simultaneously is that the mind flits its attention.

With a new conception of atomism, in which there is an object called apple which is only mentally perceived, and there are many properties (taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch) measured by the different senses, we can integrate the mind and the senses. The mind perceives the apple, and the senses perceive the properties of the apple. The quanta of atomic theory are the property units, but the idea of an apple combines these properties. This idea is not a Platonic entity, but projects different properties (through the senses) one by one revealing its presence, but never fully.

Like you can see different facets of a person at different times and occasions, and you form a mental picture of that person’s personality through a prolonged observation of their behavior, similarly, it is possible to form a mental picture of the object through the different observations.

The Relation to Sāñkhya Philosophy

Sāñkhya philosophy discusses the properties of matter, such as smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. These are then attributed to ‘elements’ such as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. We also speak about ‘atoms’ of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether, which are units of properties. Just like we speak about unit of mass and charge—e.g. a unit of mass is 1 kilogram and a unit of charge is 1 coulomb—similarly, we can speak about the unit of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. This is a property atomism.

These atoms cannot be detected simultaneously because each property requires a different measuring instrument—e.g. a sense. They are measured one by one because measuring each property requires shifting from one measuring instrument to another measuring instrument. The mind is responsible for this shifting, which is why we can say that the mind is involved in observation. The senses are not independent of the mind because the mind decides which sense is to be used at a given moment. The mind is therefore flitting from one sense to another creating an order of measurement. In real life, this happens so fast that we think we are observing the world simultaneously by all the senses.

I have simplified the above discussion by just using five properties, namely, taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. But this has been an oversimplification. A closer inspection reveals that are infinite number of properties. For example, sight can be divided into color, shape, and size. Color can then be divided into hue, saturation, and luminosity. Hue can then be divided into shades like red, blue, and green, and each of these can then be further divided. Sāñkhya describes how everything is the combination of three modes of nature so by successive combination there are infinite such properties in matter.

These properties form an tree—from root to leaves. From the perspective of a leaf, a twig is a property while the leaf is the value of the property. From the perspective of the branch, a twig is value, whereas the branch is the property. So, the same thing is a property and a value of some other property. In fact, if you consider three levels, then the same thing is an object, a property, and a value. Since it is an object, you can say that there is a quantum object. Since it is a property, you can say it is a unit of property. And since it is a value, you can say it is the value of some property. All three are true but they are true from different perspectives. The use of many perspectives just makes it harder.

If we understand the process of perception, then we can understand quantum theory, because we can see how there is a reality even when we don’t observe the world, that observation reveals a specific property of the world, that all properties are not measured simultaneously because observation requires diverting the attention to one kind of instrument, that attention can be withdrawn from the process of observation which expands the possibilities of observation, that properties are mutually entangled because they require orthogonal instruments, that the sense perceivable world is comprised of atomic properties rather than atomic objects, however, since the same thing is a property and an object, when you measure a property you can say you measured an atomic particle.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Atomic Reality and the Crisis of Realism," in Shabda Journal, March 15, 2019,