Thinkers Mislead

The two books under consideration here bring the paradox home, each in its own way. Adam Becker’s What Is Real? chronicles the tragic side of a crowning achievement of reason, quantum physics. The documentarian Errol Morris gives us The Ashtray, a semi-autobiographical tale of the supremely influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) by Thomas S. Kuhn. Both are spellbinding intellectual adventures into the limits, fragility, and infirmity of human reason. post

# Physics

Einstein and Bohr were polar opposites in their approach to physics. Einstein demanded a clear and comprehensible account of what is going on in the physical world—at all scales—in space and time. Bohr thought that the key to quantum mechanics was the realization that no such thing could be had.

Here Becker begins his exposé. He shows that every single detail of the standard account of the Solvay Conference is untrue. Einstein was not concerned with saving determinism. His example was not designed to refute the uncertainty relation. And most critically, Bohr did not win, he lost.

Thus begins the great debunking. None of this is news to historians and philosophers of physics. The true account has been worked out by many people whom Becker cites. But he has done prodigious research and created a powerful narrative.

# Science

We can ask three critical questions about scientific revolutions: how are they fought, why are they won (or lost), and what is the cumulative outcome of them. Kuhn’s answers to all of these questions could be read in an unsettling way.

Kuhn implicitly accepts the descriptive view. The meanings of theoretical terms such as “mass” are determined by the theories in which they are deployed. Mass as used by Newton means something different from mass as employed by Einstein because the theories they are embedded in are different.

As angry as Morris is about how Kuhn treated him personally, he is much more outraged at the widespread influence of Kuhn’s ideas. He must delve into philosophy to elucidate the refutation of Kuhn’s sophistry. For if, as Kuhn suggests, we all live in worlds of our own manufacture, worlds bent to conform to our beliefs rather than our beliefs being adjusted to conform to the world, then what becomes of truth? All of us living in this post-truth political culture must face that question.

# Truth

As appropriated and mangled by Bohr and Kuhn, Kant—despite his own embrace of science and reason—becomes the agent of the anti-Enlightenment, the post-truth Age of Spin and Branding we live in.

Both Becker and Morris, each in his own way, is fighting an uphill battle against these trends. Each wants to reestablish the authority of reason and evidence. But it is the most difficult of all tasks. How do you convince a whole culture that it is deluded? How do you shine light into conceptual blind spots? Each of these books, as different as they are in style, is an attempt to provoke an epiphany and a revolution.