Rovelli and Whitehead: Path Blocked, Interference Destroyed

Because of my interest in Alfred North Whitehead, I have read some of the popular science books of the celebrated author and theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli’s position is close to Whitehead’s, yet despite his widespread erudition he never mentions the celebrated philosopher and mathematician. This is particularly striking, because Whitehead was fully aware of early 20th century developments in physics and mathematics, including quantum mechanics, and he addressed them specifically within the context of a theory very similar to Rovelli’s. Both thinkers recognize the granularity of space and time. Both describe the substance of reality as a complex web of relations from which the world arises. Both are impatient with the simple materialism of particles and forces.

There are, however, differences in their outlooks. Many of these are recognizable in Rovelli’s latest popular work, Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution (2020). The citations that follow are from that book.

Rovelli, in the manner of a classical physicist, regards sensation as our primary means of information about the universe, while Whitehead argues that sensation is a comparatively late derivation of more primitive epistemological relations, which also account for moods and feelings. Rovelli holds modern science in high regard, while Whitehead insists that the scientific mode of thinking is one among many, and not always the best one for a given purpose. Rovelli is a theoretical physicist, a believer in interpreting observations without “metaphysical prejudice” (p. 137), while Whitehead is a philosopher of systematic metaphysics. (Adopting a false modesty reminiscent of the narrator in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rovelli says on page 157, “I am not a philosopher, I am a physicist: a simple mechanic.”)

Probably the most significant difference is this: Whitehead is a panpsychist, and Carlo Rovelli is not. When he brings the subject up, he gingerly avoids naming names: “Someone has suggested that there is something psychic in all things” (p. 164), he writes coyly. For an author like Rovelli, who is always ready with the name of a Greek philosopher or a poet or a Bolshevik, to pass up an erudite reference seems out of character. It’s almost as if he wants to ensure that that neither Whitehead, nor his predecessors, nor any of his modern counterparts will make it to the index.

There are two exceptions. Spinoza, “for whom ‘God’ was synonymous with ‘Nature” (p. 29), is mentioned in connection with Einstein’s famous quote about God playing dice; and Thomas Nagel, a philosopher associated with panpsychism, and the author of a famous paper, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” is referenced briefly. According to Rovelli, Nagel argued that “this question is meaningful but escapes natural science,” but his mistake was “to assume that physics is the description of things in the third person. On the contrary, the relational perspective shows that physics is always a first-person description of reality, from one perspective” (p. 182

“I don’t find. . . ‘pan-psychism’ persuasive in the slightest,” Rovelli writes on page 165. “It is like saying that since a bicycle is made of atoms, then each atom must be a proto-cyclist. Our mental life needs the existence of neurons, sensory organs, a body, the complex elaboration of information that occurs in brains; all the evidence suggests that without this we have no life.” Having thus dispatched panpsychism, he turns to his preferred alternative: “But there is no need to attribute proto-consciousness to elementary systems in order to get around a frozen ‘simple matter.’ It is enough to have observed how the world is better described by relative variables and their correlations.”

Sometimes I think that there must be two kinds of people in the world: those with inner experience, and those who have none, but seem in every respect as if they do. It is only when we philosophize on the subject of inner experience that we notice a difference; the latter just don’t seem to “get it.”

Nevertheless, I hope Rovelli can someday overcome his discomfort with panpsychism long enough to grapple with the insightful thought of Whitehead. His curt dismissal of the whole area calls to mind his own critique of Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, in a note on page 190: “On a careful reading, I find that it doesn’t offer any convincing argument to sustain its thesis, but rather declares ignorance, incomprehension, and especially explicit lack of interest. . .”

Rovelli concludes this sentence, “. . . in the natural sciences.” But his own lack of interest involves all things outside “natural science” as he traditionally conceives it, except in their capacity as erudite diversions. He seems determined to explain everything, including “the sorrow of the world” (p. 72) in terms of “physical reality,” where this does not mean the old physics of particles and forces, but does signify something that arises by chance, and through a combination of information theory and evolutionary theory somehow acquires inner life, an explanation that inspires him to invoke vague images of mirrors reflecting each other, and a Tibetan Buddhist emptiness which somehow interacts with itself. “Emptiness is empty,” he enlightens us, without irony (p. 154).

These are metaphysical assumptions, and Rovelli might consider his own position on intellectual progress, expressed frequently throughout the book:

“But this is what science is all about: exploring new ways of conceptualizing the world. Science is about exploring a particular conception of ‘the world.’ It is the capacity to constantly call our concepts into question. The visionary force of a rebellious, critical spirit, capable of modifying its own conceptual basis, capable of redesigning our world from scratch” (p. xvi).

“Not to fear rethinking the world is the power of science. . .” (p. 73).

On page 138 he says, “I believe we need to adapt our philosophy to our science, and not our science to our philosophy.” But as Whitehead recognized, scientific thinking is only one mode of thought among many. Rovelli’s belief in the primacy of science over a broader philosophy of reality limits his outlook.

None of this is to detract from his work as a theoretical physicist or his understanding of quantum mechanics. That said, his attempt to use quantum mechanics, and the methodology instrumental (no pun intended) to its discovery, as a justification of his “relational” theory causes him to offer a rather peculiar history of the subject, one that omits any mention of decoherence, gives inordinate weight to anthropocentric “observers” in contrast to “observations”, unhelpfully postpones until very late a discussion of the role of scale in superposition, and has Schrodinger’s cat falling asleep instead of dying, an ostensibly humane choice that later proves felicitous for his argument. “For you, the drug was delivered. . . As far as you are concerned, you are asleep or you are awake.” This pitch would not work if the stakes were death, as in Schrodinger’s original version. The result is a disservice to the reader, who is led along the garden path of Rovelli’s theory without a proper understanding of the alternatives and their implications.

Rovelli also says, provocatively, that “facts are relative” (p. 80). Don’t worry — he doesn’t mean it. What he means, it turns out, is that facts are local, in the relativistic sense. In an extensive discussion of superposition, meant for his purposes to establish that information is a “dance of three” between the relation of two entities and an observer, he assumes the most extreme case, that the superposed entities are in different localities, and talks of their correlation in relativistic terms, so that the events witnessed by Bob are not even real until they enter Alice’s locality. The strange matter of their actual correlation is sidestepped rather than explained, as becomes clearer if one considers the experiment set in an entirely local frame, where there can be no appeal to something not yet “real.”

I’m not a physicist, far less a quantum theorist. Maybe I have the wrong end of the stick completely in this review. But as someone who has read quite a few popular books about quantum physics, I found Helgoland unsatisfying, even disturbing in its rhetorical tactics and its unacknowledged metaphysical biases. Much as I respect Rovelli’s commitment to the granular, relational nature of the world, I find his optimism for the scientific worldview and its powers of manipulation almost jingoistic, and his apparent determination to explain all of reality, including “the sorrow of the world,” in terms of a physics amenable to mathematical analysis, deeply misplaced.

Related Topics

Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Rovelli: Language and Intelligibility
Rovelli on Panpsychism
Matter and Process
Evolution as Process
The Reality of Caring
Do Motorcycles Have Experiences?
The Rise of Monocularism

One thought on “Rovelli and Whitehead: Path Blocked, Interference Destroyed”

  1. “always ready with the name of a Greek philosopher or a poet or a Bolshevik, to pass up an erudite reference seems out of character. It’s almost as if he wants to ensure that that neither Whitehead, nor his predecessors, nor any of his modern counterparts will make it to the index.”

    You’re pulling no punches.

    “Rovelli’s belief in the primacy of science over a broader philosophy of reality limits his outlook.”

    I try to give Rovelli a “cup half full” perspective in that he is at least a scientist sympathetic to philosophy – and does write well on the science – but I agree he ultimately disappoints. I’m struggling with exactly the same in writing (or not writing) something similar about Sean Carroll having finished his “Bigger Picture”.

    Both feel like missed opportunities to let a little light in.


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