Zukunftskolleg Lecture with Senior Fellow Jeffrey Alan Barrett, June 10, 2013

by Sigrid Elmer

At first view physics and philosophy seem to be two disciplines with totally different focuses. Senior Fellow Jeffrey Alan Barrett, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California at Irvine, shows that this is not necessarily the case. He was awarded the Zukunftskolleg Lecture in summer term 2013. In his presentation on June 10, 2013 on “Quantum Mechanics and Wigner´s Mind-Body Dualism”, he analyzed the difficult relationship between mental and physical states in quantum mechanics. “The quantum measurement problem is perhaps the most difficult conceptual problem in the foundations of physics”, he explained at the beginning. “Attempts to solve it have led physicists and philosophers to speculate concerning the proper relationship between the mental states of observers and the physical states of the systems they observe.”

In 1961, summarizing a view that he took to be held by most of his colleagues, the physicist Eugene Wigner argued that “until not many years ago, the `existence’ of a mind or soul would have been passionately denied by most physical scientists. As soon as physical theorists began to focus on microscopic phenomena, through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again.” And he concluded with the remarkable claim that “it is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a consistent way without reference to consciousness." More specifically, Wigner believed that a consistent formulation of quantum mechanics requires one to endorse a strong variety of mind-body dualism.

The measurement problem arises from the fact that the standard theory's two dynamical laws are incompatible: one is linear and deterministic and the other nonlinear and random. Since they constitute contradictory descriptions of the time-evolution of physical states, they threaten to render the standard theory logically inconsistent if one is unable to specify strictly disjoint conditions for when each applies. The theory tells us that the linear dynamics is to be used in all situations except when a measurement is made in which case the nonlinear collapse dynamics is to be used; but since it does not tell us what constitutes a measurement, we do not know when to apply the linear dynamics and when to apply the collapse dynamics.

Wigner´s solution to the measurement problem was to have the theory stipulate that a collapse occurs whenever a conscious mind apprehends the state of the measured system. He said that this move was “required” for the consistency of the standard theory, and he considered it to be the “simplest way out” of the quantum measurement problem.

Jeff Barrett wondered if Wigner was right in thinking that a solution to the quantum measurement problem requires one to endorse a strong variety of mind-body dualism. His answer: It depends on the explanatory demands one places on quantum mechanics and on the background assumptions one finds plausible. “We have seen why Wigner thought he needed to endorse a strong version of mind-body dualism: it provides a principled criterion for when collapses occur on the standard theory.” Barrett argued further that “even if one opts for a no-collapse formulation of quantum mechanics, a strong variety of mind-body dualism may still be required on plausible-sounding background assumptions.” However, in the end the Senior Fellow summed up: “My own sense is that if a set of plausible-sounding assumptions commits one to a strong mind-body dualism, then one should sacrifice some of the plausible-sounding assumptions. The puzzle is what to sacrifice.”

Jeffrey Alan Barrett is Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California at Irvine since 2004. He received his PhD with Distinction in Philosophy from Columbia University in 1992 and has taught at the University of California at Irvine from 1992 to 2004. His interests are in philosophy of science and epistemology and logic generally, but most of his recent research has been in the Philosophy of Physics, in particular the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. Jeff is author of, among others, “The Quantum Mechanics of Minds and Worlds” (Oxford University Press 1999) as well as of 35 articles, including articles in the two leading journals for Philosophy of Science, “Philosophy of Science” and “The British Journal for Philosophy of Science”. From 2000 to 2013 he has been Head of Department, and since 2009 he is Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Philosophy of Science”.

More information about Jeffrey Alan Barrett: http://www.lps.uci.edu/lps_bios/jabarret


University Day in the Humanities for pupils dealt with Europe´s linguistic and cultural diversity

by Sigrid Elmer

On May 17, about 30 scholars of the Hegau-Bodensee-Seminar visited the University of Konstanz to find out more about research in the Humanities. The occasion was this year´s University Day in the Humanities for pupils, jointly organized by the Hegau-Bodensee-Seminar, the Zukunftskolleg and the Center of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration”. It was entitled “Europe´s linguistic and cultural diversity”.

At the beginning, Thomas Hinz, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, and Norina Procopan, Head of the Hegau-Bodensee-Seminar, welcomed the scholars in Y 311. Then Zukunftskolleg Fellow Margarita Stolarova gave an interactive plenary lecture on the meaning of multilingualism. She involved the audience in defining what multilingualism means by asking the pupils to build different clusters according to their family backgrounds and mother tongues.

After a coffee break the scholars were given the choice to participate in one of two workshops: one by Zukunftskolleg Fellow and linguist Tanja Rinker and her colleague Marifet Kaya on “Turkish language and migration in Germany”, and the other by Mariami Parsadanishvili, PhD student in Eastern European History and member of the Center of Excellence, on “Georgia´s diversity”.

Tanja Rinker and Marifet Kaya focused on the bilingual development of Turkish children born in Germany, as well as on the history and the reasons for Turkish migration to Germany. Mariami Parsadanishvili wanted her participants to analyze the pros and cons of Georgia´s potential membership in the European Union. In both workshops the pupils learned a lot about the cultures and languages of both countries, but also about their history, geography and their political and economic importance for Europe. The scholars worked on different topics in subgroups and presented the results in a plenary meeting at the end of the day. Finally, Norina Procopan looked ahead to the next University Day in 2014. 

More information about the Hegau-Bodensee-Seminar: http://www.avh-konstanz.de/schule/00071/