To Be or Not To Be an Apple

17 December 2019

Wolfgang Smith

A Brief Response to Dr. Alec MacAndrew

The title already of Dr. MacAndrew’s article — “When is an Apple Not an Apple?” — alludes to the precise point of contention in that it differentiates my  interpretation of physics from the current: where the contemporary consensus affirms one  “apple,” I affirm two.  Let me explain.

The contemporary and supposedly “scientific” worldview stipulates that what we actually perceive through our senses pertains to a private and subjective ontological domain, whereas the “real” world reduces to the physical:  to the universe as conceived by the physicist.  For my part — and in keeping with the sapiential traditions, from Plato and Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas — I flatly disagree. To claim, as one nowadays does almost automatically, that cosmic reality reduces thus to the categories of physics — to entities describable without residue  in mathematical  terms — that, in my opinion, is not only unproved and unprovable, but absurd. In addition to quantities or “quantitative attributes,” I maintain, cosmic reality comprises perforce qualitative  attributes as well, which in fact is precisely what renders that world perceptible. In a word, I place myself on pre-Cartesian, pre-Enlightenment ground in distinguishing what I term the corporeal  domain from the physical:  the world as “perceived” — or better said, as perceivable — from the world as conceived by the physicist.  Much as I respect and admire his expertise, I don’t regard his wisdom to be all-encompassing. On the contrary: I surmise that the efficacy of the physicist’s modus operandi  derives actually from the limitation of his purview, the very “slit” through which he peers out upon the universe.1As Goethe has put it: “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister.”

This brings us to the “two apples”:  there is the “red apple” I can perceive, hold in my hand, and bite into: the “corporeal apple” I call it. And there is in addition the “physical apple,” made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, or more generally, of “quantum stuff” howsoever conceived. These two entities — though they occupy the same locus in space and time — are obviously not  the same! Which brings us to the very point which differentiates my ontology from that of Dr. MacAndrew and the physics community at large: whereas they  believe apparently in “one apple” — assume, in other words, that the “corporeal”  reduces to the “physical” — I don’t. For my part, I maintain that the corporeal “apple” takes precedence over the physical, and that the relation between the two can in fact be stated in Aristotelian terms: that the physical, namely, stands to the corporeal as potency to act.2This idea goes back actually to Werner Heisenberg, who made it a point to observe that quantum particles are not in fact real entities, but something “midway between being and non-being” which as such “are reminiscent of Aristotelian potentiae.” Of all the great physicists, he appears to have had the deepest grasp of metaphysics, and came, I believe, within a hair’s breadth of rediscovering the corporeal domain. To Dr. MacAndrew, on the other hand, the corporeal appears to be “Not an Apple,” by which presumably he means that it does not exist. His message, I take it, is that there are in truth not two “apples,” but only one:  the physical, that is.

This, then, appears to be the fundamental point of contention, what Dr. MacAndrew — in company with the physics establishment at large — objects to primarily in my ontological interpretation of physics: what apparently stands at issue is whether the perceptible world  reduces to “quantum stuff” or not. And as the title of our forthcoming film — The End of Quantum Reality — has it, I maintain unequivocally that the objectively real world does not in truth reduce to the conceptions of the physicist.

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As if this contention were not in itself unpalatable enough to the physics community, I exacerbate their displeasure by claiming to prove that this very Ansatz resolves the famed “measuring problem” — which despite prestigious contentions to the contrary, has not  in truth been solved thus far: neither the tour de force  of Bohmian mechanics, nor “many-worlds” theory, nor “decoherence,” nor indeed any other of their proposals has yet succeeded in resolving that quandary. I am in fact persuaded that there is no resolution of the measuring problem  in the “one apple” ontology: given that the act of measurement entails a “collapse of the wave function” which the Schrödinger equation itself cannot yield, it follows that, in a “quantum world” governed by a “cosmic” Schrödinger equation, there can be no such collapse.  On the other hand, once we acknowledge that the measuring instrument is in fact corporeal — which in my view it has to be, on pain of being invisible — the difficulty disappears, and the resolution of the measuring problem stares us in the face.

*   *   *

Having clarified what apparently stands at issue in Dr. MacAndrew’s simile of the “Apple that is Not an Apple,” I would point out that he is likewise “on target” in concentrating his attack on the very treatise devoted exclusively to the explication of the offending thesis — i.e., The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key.  Let me therefore commence my response by setting forth the logical structure of my argument as presented in that monograph. I begin, in chapter 1, by documenting the claim that the contemporary understanding of physics is in truth based squarely on the philosophy of René Descartes, and thus on Dr. MacAndrew’s “one apple” ontology. It assumes namely that the “real world” — measuring instruments and all — reduces simply to the physical, and postulates thus a world that can in principle be described “without residue” in terms of physics alone. And that “description” is of course what particle physicists are currently laboring to perfect: their objective is to specify the complete inventory of “quantum particles” out of which, supposedly, everything in the universe is composed.3I will mention in passing that the project has not been going well, as I have noted in my article, “Lost in Math: The Particle Physics Quandary.”

What I wish to point out at this juncture is that the aforesaid clearly explains the difference between my  Weltanschauung and that of the physics establishment, which Dr. MacAndrew appears to make his own: in posing the question “When Is an Apple Not an Apple?” he wishes evidently to discredit my “two-Apple” ontology. I understand that. What I can’t understand, on the other hand, is how, in the course of his contra  “two-Apple” argument, he can say “it transpires that Smith’s entire critique of ‘the Cartesian assumption’ is uncalled for and misdirected” — when in truth my entire argument hinges in fact upon the denial of that very “Cartesian assumption”!  I can understand well enough that someone might disagree with my “critique of the Cartesian assumption” — but this is by no means what Dr. MacAndrew is saying. Here is the passage:

Smith never properly explains how accepting the idea of mind-body dualism (the Cartesian assumption as he calls it), either consciously or unconsciously, leads to all the errors of modern thinking that he claims to exorcise, and how abandoning it allows the scales to fall off from our eyes and all that is paradoxical in quantum mechanics to become clear. Smith’s inability or unwillingness to set out his case clearly against “the Cartesian assumption” is frustrating. We see that he is railing against something, but he identified neither the thing nor the rationale for his opposition, nor what benefits would accrue from giving it up.4Op. cit., p. 2.

Let me note parenthetically that if I do engage in “railing,” as Dr. MacAndrew avers, it is at least not ad hominem. What in truth I find “uncalled for and misdirected”  is the trading of insults, which to my mind has no place whatsoever in scholarly discourse: it may be a bit old-fashioned, but I don’t condone the use of invective and slander, even in response to such. I intend therefore not  to engage in ad hominem  slurs, nor respond in kind when Dr. MacAndrew alleges, for example, that “he reserves his strongest vitriol for Descartes.”  My criticism is directed — and I should hope, without any “vitriol” at all — not against René Descartes the man, but against his bifurcationist ontology, which in my view has befuddled Western civilization since the onset of the Enlightenment, and has seriously impacted our very humanity.

What I do wish to respond to is the charge that I don’t properly explain or justify my opposition to that bifurcationist ontology, what Dr. MacAndrew refers to as “the mind-body dualism (the Cartesian assumption as he calls it),” or explain what advantages accrue from its abandonment. Let me therefore answer both questions once and for all: the reason I argue against the Cartesian postulate is that I regard it to be false, and as to the benefits to be derived from this recognition, these range in my opinion from the resolution of the “measuring problem” in quantum mechanics all the way to the recovery of our integral humanity.  And by the way, let me also note that the so-called “mind-body dualism” is not by any means the same thing as “the Cartesian assumption”:  it suffices to note that the Thomistic ontology, for instance, affirms a “mind-body” dualism by distinguishing ontologically between corpus  and anima, whereas it categorically rejects the so-called “Cartesian assumption.” Every premodern sapiential tradition I know5I have not forgotten the case of Democritus, “the father of atomism,” whose celebrated fragment expresses in a nutshell the gist of Descartes’ bifurcationist philosophy. The point is that what has often been referred to as the “sapiential traditions” of the world, have — without exception — rejected that “atomism,” and therefore reject the Cartesian philosophy as well, which is after all but a revival of the Democritean axiom. If I have elected to combat the philosophy of René Descartes, I stand thus with Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas — to mention just three names. concurs in fact on both these points: the rejection namely of “Cartesian bifurcation” and the affirmation of a “mind-body” dualism. My “offense” seems to be that I stand with what some have termed sophia perennis  in diametric opposition to the post-Enlightenment wisdom: the Zeitgeist  of the present age which, as Carl Jung has so aptly put it, “will not let itself be trifled with.”6Modern Man in Search of a Soul  (Harcourt Brace, 1933), p. 175. To avoid a possible misunderstanding I should perhaps add that whereas I fully agree that “modern man” is — or at least ought to be — “in search of a soul,” an excellent start might be to jettison the Democritean-Cartesian axiom, which plunges us (as I have pointed out numerous times) into a chronic state of schizophrenia, characterized by recurrent episodes of utter inhumanity, during which we conceive our wife or child, for example, to be mere “quantum stuff”! As regards the Jungian approach, I have expressed my views and reservations at considerable length in Cosmos and Transcendence  (Angelico Press, 2008), ch. 6.

*   *   *

Out of the literally scores of objections Dr. MacAndrew has raised in opposition to my views, there is one which does in fact strike the mark: it relates to the aforesaid chapter 1 of The Quantum Enigma, in which I contend against Cartesian bifurcation by arguing for a realist view of visual perception. I did so as best I could at the time, and admittedly I did not succeed in achieving the stated objective of “Rediscovering the Corporeal World.” Here then is what Dr. MacAndrew has to say in that regard:

Having examined the “ghost in the machine” or the “Cartesian theater” doctrine of visual perception, the idea that there is a separated mind which observes an image in the brain produced by the visual neuro-system, and having rightly found that concept wanting, he concludes “the missing piece of the puzzle must be strange. Call it mind or spirit or what you will” thereby coming full circle and plumping for a solution that is indistinguishable from the mind-body substance dualism of a distinctly Cartesian kind.7Op. cit., p. 6.

To be sure, I was by no means “plumping for” anything even remotely affiliated with a “mind-body substance dualism of a distinctly Cartesian kind”:  I was rather in quest of a realist understanding of visual perception, which locates the redness of a rose, not in neurons nor in a “separated mind,” but in the rose itself, where according to common belief — in which we all share at least most of the day — it actually belongs. And this is where Dr. MacAndrew has in fact hit the mark:  I did  in truth fail to resolve the enigma of visual perception! I failed thus to deliver the very thing the chapter title itself proclaims: the “rediscovery,” namely, of what I would henceforth term the corporeal  world. Let me then respond to Dr. MacAndrew’s charge by shedding light on this issue.

I might mention, to begin with, that in view of my reverential regard for the sapiential traditions of mankind — from the Vedic to the Platonist and the Thomistic — I never seriously doubted that we do “look out upon the world”:8To those who might invoke advaita  Vedanta, say, to brand this realism “naïve,” let me note that what may indeed be “naïve” is not the assertion that we do perceive this world, but the assumption, rather, that this “perceptible world” itself constitutes the ultimate reality. The rejection of Cartesian bifurcation proves thus to be at least “a step in the ultimately right direction.” the problem was simply to comprehend, to the extent that we are able, how that prodigy is achieved. I realized, moreover, that there can be no “empirical” verification of the “bifurcationist” postulate: that the Cartesian premise itself renders the very possibility of such a verification inconceivable. It may be recalled that Descartes himself was obliged to ruminate for days, in the stillness of his garden retreat, to convince himself that an “external” world so much as exists. And let us not fail to recall as well that he was ultimately forced to invoke “the veracity of God” to convince himself of that fact!9I am reminded of the “theistic” evolutionists, who likewise invoke “God” to rescue their misconceived theory when it runs aground! In my case I had the advantage of “hindsight”:  I could see what some four centuries of “Cartesian bifurcation” have done to our civilization and to our humanity, and had in fact written an entire book on that subject.10Cosmos and Transcendence  (Angelico Press, 2008). I had come to realize that a new breed of humans has sprung up in comparatively recent times, what Philip Rieff terms “psychological man” in contrast to homo religiosus, and characterizes as “born to be pleased.”11The Triumph of the Therapeutic  (Harper, 1968), p. 13. Above all, however, I was loath to accept an unprovable dogma which no one on earth — not even those “born to be pleased” — can fully and consistently believe. So I wrote my first chapter in The Quantum Enigma — the one entitled “Rediscovering the Corporeal World” — as best I could; and Dr. MacAndrew is absolutely right: I did not succeed in proving my case, be it on scientific or philosophical ground.

Little did I know, however, that someone else had in fact succeeded in this very enterprise, and on scientific ground  no less! I am referring to James J. Gibson, a cognitive psychologist who began his career in the 1940’s at Cornell University on a government grant, missioned to discover how one can visually perceive a so-called “aiming point” (e.g., the deck of a distant aircraft carrier as viewed from an approaching plane). To his immense surprise, Gibson discovered that, based on the reigning “retinal image” paradigm for visual perception, such an aiming point cannot in fact be perceived at all:  the information contained in “retinal images” simply doesn’t suffice! At that point, this intrepid empiricist did the un-Kuhnian thing: he abandoned the “reigning paradigm”!12One can only hope he had tenure at the time! And thus began one of those rare and amazing “voyages of discovery” which would presumably have become world-renowned if it were not for the fact that it offends against that post-Enlightenment Weltanschauung “which will not let itself be trifled with”:  the hallowed dogma of “Cartesian bifurcation” no less! Following decades of painstaking — and, I would add, brilliant — experimentation, Gibson succeeded in formulating a new paradigm for visual perception, one which does apparently stand the test of empirical verification, and should de jure  replace the long discredited “visual image” model.13No one, to be sure, denies that the “visual image” paradigm does have its domain of application: e.g., that it works just fine for the prescription of spectacles.

What concerns us is the fact that the resultant theory of visual perception actually affirms “the unspeakable”:  namely that we do in truth perceive the “external world”  as just about everyone — from simple folk to the great philosophers — had thought all along! And that is why Gibson refers to it as “the ecological  theory of visual perception,” the point being that what we actually perceive is not “inside the head,” but outside:  it pertains in fact to what he terms “the environment,” which proves thus to be inherently what I term the corporeal  world.14I have dealt with the Gibsonian discovery in several publications, beginning with “The Enigma of Visual Perception,” Science and Myth: With a Response to Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design (Angelico Press, 2012). The fact is that Gibson succeeded where my own efforts had failed: and did so moreover — not on philosophical — but on empirical  ground.

*   *   *

I have not forgotten Dr. MacAndrew and his litany of accusations, nor have I digressed from the stated purpose of this article, which is to attest that I may not be quite as misinformed, scatterbrained and dull-witted — nor perhaps as “vitriol-spewing” — as my critic makes me out to be. The reason James Gibson enters the picture is that he has supplied the very “rediscovery of the corporeal world”  I had failed to deliver.

It is moreover to be noted that whereas Gibson arrived at this discovery on empirical grounds, it turns out — as I have shown elsewhere15Namely in the aforementioned article, “The Enigma of Visual Perception.” See also my recent article, “Do We Perceive the Corporeal World?”— that his finding accords with sapiential tradition: not only is the resultant theory of visual perception non-bifurcationist, but it proves in fact to be inherently Aristotelian. The point is that the “ecological theory” of visual perception is based, not on “images” — be they “retinal,” “neural,” or “mental” (whatever that might mean) — but on what Gibson terms “invariants in the ambient optic array.” And as that which connects the perceptible to the perceived — as something, therefore, which both the external object and its percipient can possess — these invariants are evidently tantamount to “forms”! I venture to opine that, in the final count, there may be  no solution to the problem of perception other than the hylomorphic.

Getting back to Dr. MacAndrew’s criticism: enough has perhaps been said to show that the “corporeal apple” may prove to be real after all, and that he may have been a bit hasty in concluding that “Smith’s entire critique of ‘the Cartesian assumption’ is uncalled for and misdirected, leaving the reader with a powerful sense that the first two chapters of the book have gone awry.”  The fact is that my interpretation of physics is based squarely on the denial of that “Cartesian assumption”:  this absolutely unfounded hypothesis, I say, which has long befuddled the physics community, has now been unmasked.

The problem, however, is that this Ansatz  is so deeply ingrained in the contemporary scientific mind as to be more or less untouchable. I am reminded of something that happened a few years ago, after I had delivered a lecture at the University of Notre Dame exposing the muddle in the philosophy of physics resulting from that “slavish” addiction to the Cartesian hypothesis. Some weeks later I received a letter from a visiting professor I had met at the conference, informing me that he had attempted repeatedly to explain that “Cartesian hypothesis” to senior members of the Physics Department, and had finally given up: “I have become persuaded,” he writes, “that those who have worked in physics for a length of time are no longer capable of grasping the idea of bifurcation.”16I am referring to Prof. William A. Wallace, O. P. I seem to be having exactly the same experience.

To demonstrate as clearly as possible that the critique of what Dr. MacAndrew terms “the Cartesian assumption” is not in fact “uncalled for and misdirected,” let me explain what it is I claim to establish in The Quantum Enigma.  Having done so rather succinctly in Physics and Vertical Causation, I will quote the paragraph:

Given then that we do perceive the external world — that the grass is actually green and the red apple17This could be the source of Dr. MacAndrew’s “Apple Not an Apple” metaphor. in my hand is not after all a res cogitans — given this fundamental premise, I posed the question whether it is possible to interpret physics per se,  based on its inherent modus operandi,  in non-bifurcationist terms. And let it be noted at once that the non-bifurcationist interpretation of physics cannot be rejected on scientific grounds. Or to put it another way: if indeed it is possible to transact the business of physics on a non-bifurcationist basis, then — contrary to the prevailing belief — Cartesian bifurcation is bereft of scientific support. The contemporary Weltanschauung — which implicitly assumes bifurcation to be a scientific fact — has then been disproved.18Angelico Press, 2019; pp. 15-6.

What concerns us is the implication that the non-bifurcationist interpretation of physics cannot be rejected on scientific grounds — and no amount of denigration or calumny can alter this fact.

*   *   *

Finally, I wish to return to the measuring problem in quantum mechanics to show, perhaps more clearly, that the new Ansatz  leads directly to its resolution. And the reason is by no means far to seek: the problem arises evidently from the fact that the physicist habitually replaces the perceived  world — in which the grass is green — by a conceptual  one composed of so-called quantum particles, which is to say that he conceives the world in “bifurcationist” terms. Inasmuch, however, as measurement  cannot but terminate on the corporeal — as distinguished from the physical — plane, the a priori  denial of the corporeal renders the measuring problem manifestly insoluble: the matter is in truth as simple as that!

Two things, thus, are perforce involved in the measurement of a quantum system: the system itself as represented by a wave function, whose temporal evolution is described by the Schrödinger equation, plus a corporeal  measuring instrument. It hardly needs pointing out that the quantum system itself is not  perceptible, whereas the measuring instrument must be — failing which it could measure nothing at all. What ineluctably confronts us, in every act of measurement, is an interaction between a quantum system and a corporeal object. What stands at issue — to put it in metaphysical terms — is an interaction between two ontological  planes. And I will mention in passing that such an interaction cannot take place “gradually” — for the simple reason that we have here a dichotomy which admits no “in between.” The so-called wave function collapse turns out thus to be instantaneous.

I will note that this fact has major implications inasmuch as it entails a mode of causation radically different from the kind known to physics, a kind namely which operates in time  and can be described in terms of differential equations. It happens, moreover, that the newly discerned causation — what I term vertical  as opposed to horizontal  causality — proves in fact to account for various phenomena which have baffled physicists, beginning with nonlocality:  what Albert Einstein dubbed “spooky action at a distance.” What renders vertical causation “spooky” is simply the fact that it does not act “in time” nor “propagate” through space. Meanwhile, however, we have come to know, on the strength of William Dembski’s now famous 1998 theorem — subsequently associated with the epithet “intelligent design” — that it takes vertical causation to produce CSI or “complex specified information”:  this means, for example, that in writing this article, I have availed myself of VC.

Getting back to the measuring problem, from which I have digressed: the fact is that the Schrödinger equation breaks down — is “re-initialized” as the physicists say — at the very instant of measurement; and the great question is, “Why?” What is it about the measuring instrument that enables it to interrupt the Schrödinger evolution of the system? Everything hinges on this question: and if that measuring instrument were itself a physical system — if the “one apple” hypothesis were true — it would not  be capable of doing so. Not only, therefore, does the ontological distinction between a corporeal object and a quantum system resolve the measuring problem, but it happens that nothing else will:  there is  no other way out of the quandary. Instead of my entire critique of the so-called “Cartesian assumption” being “uncalled for and unnecessary,”  as Dr. MacAndrew charges, it turns out that nothing less than the categorical denial of that very assumption will resolve the quantum enigma.

*   *   *

Enough, I trust, has now been said to refute the central charges brought against me by Dr. MacAndrew. I deem it to be unnecessary, therefore — not to say a waste of everyone’s time — to respond to the thirty or so remaining accusations by enlarging this “brief” to a “full” response.


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1. As Goethe has put it: “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister.”
2. This idea goes back actually to Werner Heisenberg, who made it a point to observe that quantum particles are not in fact real entities, but something “midway between being and non-being” which as such “are reminiscent of Aristotelian potentiae.” Of all the great physicists, he appears to have had the deepest grasp of metaphysics, and came, I believe, within a hair’s breadth of rediscovering the corporeal domain.
3. I will mention in passing that the project has not been going well, as I have noted in my article, “Lost in Math: The Particle Physics Quandary.”
4. Op. cit., p. 2.
5. I have not forgotten the case of Democritus, “the father of atomism,” whose celebrated fragment expresses in a nutshell the gist of Descartes’ bifurcationist philosophy. The point is that what has often been referred to as the “sapiential traditions” of the world, have — without exception — rejected that “atomism,” and therefore reject the Cartesian philosophy as well, which is after all but a revival of the Democritean axiom. If I have elected to combat the philosophy of René Descartes, I stand thus with Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas — to mention just three names.
6. Modern Man in Search of a Soul  (Harcourt Brace, 1933), p. 175. To avoid a possible misunderstanding I should perhaps add that whereas I fully agree that “modern man” is — or at least ought to be — “in search of a soul,” an excellent start might be to jettison the Democritean-Cartesian axiom, which plunges us (as I have pointed out numerous times) into a chronic state of schizophrenia, characterized by recurrent episodes of utter inhumanity, during which we conceive our wife or child, for example, to be mere “quantum stuff”! As regards the Jungian approach, I have expressed my views and reservations at considerable length in Cosmos and Transcendence  (Angelico Press, 2008), ch. 6.
7. Op. cit., p. 6.
8. To those who might invoke advaita  Vedanta, say, to brand this realism “naïve,” let me note that what may indeed be “naïve” is not the assertion that we do perceive this world, but the assumption, rather, that this “perceptible world” itself constitutes the ultimate reality. The rejection of Cartesian bifurcation proves thus to be at least “a step in the ultimately right direction.”
9. I am reminded of the “theistic” evolutionists, who likewise invoke “God” to rescue their misconceived theory when it runs aground!
10. Cosmos and Transcendence  (Angelico Press, 2008).
11. The Triumph of the Therapeutic  (Harper, 1968), p. 13.
12. One can only hope he had tenure at the time!
13. No one, to be sure, denies that the “visual image” paradigm does have its domain of application: e.g., that it works just fine for the prescription of spectacles.
14. I have dealt with the Gibsonian discovery in several publications, beginning with “The Enigma of Visual Perception,” Science and Myth: With a Response to Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design (Angelico Press, 2012).
15. Namely in the aforementioned article, “The Enigma of Visual Perception.” See also my recent article, “Do We Perceive the Corporeal World?”
16. I am referring to Prof. William A. Wallace, O. P.
17. This could be the source of Dr. MacAndrew’s “Apple Not an Apple” metaphor.
18. Angelico Press, 2019; pp. 15-6.