Paul D. Raskin

Founder and Director of Tellus Institute-- for a Great Transition

Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA)

Feyerabend: My Fateful Encounter

2 September 2021

I am deeply indebted to Paul Feyerabend for wrecking my physics career. The demolition occurred in the spring of 1964 on a Berkeley campus crackling with political and cultural ferment. There at the epicenter of the churning 60s, all things establishment—capitalism, the megaversity, Jim Crow, parental mores—seemed to be crumbling at their rotting foundations. At least physics, the bedrock of the edifice of knowledge, would stand firm against the winds of change.

Or so I thought until the philosopher-provocateur opened my eyes and torqued my lifeline. At the time of my Feyerabend encounter, I was in the final term of my senior year, an ardent activist and devoted student more likely to be found in the stacks than the street. Indeed, I harbored the ambition of decamping in the fall to graduate school and then moving on to a life in theoretical physics at some ivied sanctum.

But first I had to complete my undergraduate studies with a double major in philosophy and physics. To a callow young man in search of truth, this simultaneous dive into the respective mysteries of material and ideational spheres seemed the right path (and so cool!). But my understanding of the division of epistemological labor—physics would ground objective reality and philosophy would illuminate the subjective realm—was proving to be simplistic, even inverted.

In philosophy I could not get enough of another Berkeley professor, the enthralling John Searle, who persuasively made the case for “naïve realism.” With relentless logic, he argued that a knowable world existed independent of what we humans think or say about it. Alternative schools of thought fell by the wayside under assault from his lacerating wit. Like all aspiring scientists, I was a naïve realist without knowing it. The existence of an objective, fathomable world was self-evident. Who knew it needed a name?

Astonishingly, the splendid defense of realism emanating from the philosophy department was subverted in, of all places, the physics department. The professors there preached with Searle-like certitude an antithetical ontology—or more precisely, no ontology at all. According to the canonical “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, conjectures about a mind-independent world were utterly meaningless. Modern physics consigned realism, naïve or otherwise, to the dustbin of intellectual history (although apparently the memo had not reached the philosophy department).

In the quantum world, human consciousness was inextricably entangled in observations. The act of observing a phenomenon collapses an admixture of its pre-observational potentialities to a single ping on a measuring instrument. This is the notorious “collapse of the wave function” famously illustrated by Schrödinger’s cat that is both dead and alive until we look and render the poor thing one or the other.

If according to quantum orthodoxy, speculation about a real world was metaphysical claptrap, what were philosophically inclined physicists to do? Some were drawn to positivism; others, taking the primacy of consciousness (aka “the soul”) literally, turned to shades of idealism. But almost all practicing scientists just hunkered down, applying the powerful quantum machinery in studied obliviousness to inconsistencies and paradoxes riddling he theory’s creaky foundations. Indeed, indoctrinating acolytes into unquestioning adherence to the Church of Copenhagen was (and is) central to the professionalization process. The message has been aptly captured by the dictum “shut-up-and-calculate.”

My own shut-up-and-calculate moment had come in my first quantum electrodynamics class. The eminent professor was describing the strange properties of electron spin. At the chalk board, he drew a magnetic field pointing along the z-axis and with a beam of incoming electrons along the x-axis. According to quantum theory, the incoming electron spin is in an indeterminate state until it reaches the magnetic field and is observed. Then, the spin instantaneously jumps into a specific state, randomly pointing either up or down with nothing in between. The role of physics is reduced to accounting for measurements (the probabilities of spin up or spin down), which abandons hope of understanding reality-in-itself (the condition of the incoming electron).

We students were expected to make peace with the microscopic weirdness that reduced physics to predicting outcomes. I could almost buy it, but prodded by a Searlean homunculus stirring within me, I raised a tremulous hand. “How should we picture the electron,” I asked, “when we turn off the magnetic field and the electron has no preferred direction for aligning its spin?” The professor walked portentously toward me and sneered, “That’s a naïve question,” and proceeded to recite the gospel according to Copenhagen. The experience left me chastened, embarrassed, and confused—but unconvinced.

At that time, graduating physics majors were expected to write a “senior thesis” under the supervision of a physics professor. These normally focused on some standard topic, but I was not ready to shut up or calculate. So in seeking a supervisor, I was drawn to the epistemological radical, Paul Feyerabend, a renowned philosopher of science with the bone fides of a background in physics. Feyerabend was a mythic figure on campus. Rumors swirled of his colorful and paradoxical background: he was Karl Popper’s protégé, heir apparent, and then chief heretic; he was a friend of the student movement who was once a Nazi with a war-wound that left him gimpy and impotent (yet an inveterate womanizer); he was an opera singer, a bon vivant, and thrower of philosophical bombs. (Years later, his memoir, Killing Time, revealed these rumors to be essentially true.)

Feyerabend agreed to meet with me to explore the possibilities for my senior thesis, exuding informal warmth from the get-go that dissolved my initial intimidation. His playful intelligence, iconoclastic insights, and meandering anecdotes mesmerized me. At the same time, he elicited my story with empathetic attentiveness, signaling that this would be a collaborative journey through epistemological mists to the shaky foundations of modern physics. Regarding the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, his bemused incredulity was comforting and infectious. I could almost feel the gravitational pull of mainstream physics loosening.

The first session ended on exactly the right note. After hearing about my withering shut-up-and-calculate episode, he said, head shaking and eyes twinkling, “You are in excellent company.” Schrodinger himself, along with other founder—Einstein, no less— had the same “naïve question.” Einstein and the others had acknowledged quantum theory’s astonishing success as a computational recipe for accounting for experimental results. Still, they believed the standard interpretation to be inconsistent, incoherent, and incomplete. Not least, the “collapse of the wave function” is an exogenous rule tacked on to the framework, not part of the theory itself, the source of the standard interpretation’s nagging “measurement problem” in which consciousness assumes an inextricable role in all phenomena. Deep enigmas and paradoxes ensue, personified by that strange cat of Schrödinger.

In the months to come, Feyerabend guided my research on the never resolved early debates on the meaning of the Schrödinger equation, on von Neumann’s fallacious “proof” of the impossibility of alternative “hidden variable” theories, and Bohm’s of just such a theory discovery in the 1950s. His contribution, which replicated all the successes of quantum theory, could have opened a new front for theoretical elaboration and experimental design. But with Copenhagen hegemonic in “normal” physics, it gained little traction. Naturally, Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism drew him to Bohmian physics—what richness might lie along all the paths not taken?

I treasured my weekly discussions with Feyerabend as my thesis on all these heady questions took shape, was submitted, and accepted by my dubious physics advisor. The last time I saw Feyerabend, I was engaged in a heated discussion with a fellow student about Feyerabend’s “epistemological anarchism.” As we walked under Sather Gate, my friend bellowed, “Feyerabend is full of it!” (in more colorful language). Just at that moment, the man himself appeared before us, paused, looked at me with a satisfied smile and hobbled on his merry way.

I went on to Columbia University where I shut-up-and-calculated my way to a doctorate degree in theoretical physics. In parallel, I discretely worked on alternative versions of quantum mechanics, eventually publishing a testable version of hidden variable theory (“the stochastic electron”), which I continue to refine. The theory yields Schrodinger’s Equation through a minimal tweak of classical physics, all within a realist picture that, contra my condescending old professor, describes the electron when no one is looking. I began offering courses in history and philosophy of science, became chair of an interdisciplinary undergraduate program, and left “normal physics” in the rearview mirror.

I occasionally corresponded with the ever supportive and provocative Feyerabend until 1976, when I left academia to found the Tellus Institute. The growing organization conducted thousands of projects around the world, all in the service of a just and ecological social transition, and continues to develop the scientific and political bases for a “great transition.” For this, I remain grateful to the radical spirit who long ago sabotaged normalcy and inspired reinvention.