Discussions with Einstein
on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics. Part 4

by Niels Bohr (1949)

From: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/dk/bohr.htm

In the quantum-mechanical description our freedom of constructing and handling the experimental arrangement finds its proper expression in the possibility of choosing the classically defined parameters entering in any proper application of the formalism. Indeed, in all such respects quantum mechanics exhibits a correspondence with the state of affairs familiar from classical physics, which is as close as possible when considering the individuality inherent in the quantum phenomena. Just in helping to bring out this point so clearly, Einstein's concern had therefore again been a most welcome incitement to explore the essential aspects of the situation.

The next Solvay meeting in 1933 was devoted to the problems of the structure and properties of atomic nuclei, in which field such great advances were made just in that period due to the experimental discoveries as well as to new fruitful applications of quantum mechanics. It need in this connection hardly be recalled that just the evidence obtained by the study of artificial nuclear transformations gave a most direct test of Einstein's fundamental law regarding the equivalence of mass and energy, which was to prove an evermore important guide for researches in nuclear physics. It may also be mentioned how Einstein's intuitive recognition of the intimate relationship between the law of radioactive transformations and the probability rules governing individual radiation effects was confirmed by the quantum-mechanical explanation of spontaneous nuclear disintegrations. In fact, we are here dealing with a typical example of the statistical mode of description, and the complementary relationship between energy-momentum conservation and time-space co-ordination is most strikingly exhibited in the well-known paradox of particle penetration through potential barriers.

Einstein himself did not attend this meeting, which took place at a time darkened by the tragic developments in the political world which were to influence his fate so deeply and add so greatly to his burdens in the service of humanity. A few months earlier, on a visit to Princeton where Einstein was then guest of the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study to which he soon after became permanently attached, I had, however, opportunity to talk with him again about the epistemological aspects of atomic physics, but the difference between our ways of approach and expression still presented obstacles to mutual understanding. While, so far, relatively few persons had taken part in the discussions reported in this article, Einstein's critical attitude towards the views on quantum theory adhered to by many physicists was soon after brought to public attention through a paper with the title Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?, published in 1935 by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen.

The argumentation in this paper is based on a criterion which the authors express in the following sentence: "If, without in any way disturbing a system, we can predict with certainty (i.e., with probability equal to unity) the value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element of physical reality corresponding to this physical quantity." By an elegant exposition of the consequences of the quantum-mechanical formalism as regards the representation of a state of a system, consisting of two parts which have been in interaction for a limited time interval, it is next shown that different quantities, the fixation of which cannot be combined in the representation of one of the partial systems, can nevertheless be predicted by measurements pertaining to the other partial system. According to their criterion, the authors therefore conclude that quantum mechanics does not "provide a complete description of the physical reality," and they express their belief that it should be possible to develop a more adequate account of the phenomena.

Due to the lucidity and apparently incontestable character of the argument, the paper of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen created a stir among physicists and has played a large role in general philosophical discussion. Certainly the issue is of a very subtle character and suited to emphasise how far, in quantum theory, we are beyond the reach of pictorial visualisation. It will be seen, however, that we are here dealing with problems of just the same kind as those raised by Einstein in previous discussions, and, in an article which appeared a few months later, I tried to show that from the point of view of complementarity the apparent inconsistencies were completely removed. The trend of the argumentation was in substance the same as that exposed in the foregoing pages, but the aim of recalling the way in which the situation was discussed at that time may be an apology for citing certain passages from my article.

Thus, after referring to the conclusions derived by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen on the basis of their criterion, I wrote:

Such an argumentation, how ever, would hardly seem suited to affect the soundness of quantum-mechanical description, which is based on a coherent mathematical formalism covering automatically any procedure of measurement like that indicated. The apparent contradiction in fact discloses only an essential inadequacy of the customary viewpoint of natural philosophy for a rational account of physical phenomena of the type with which we are concerned in quantum mechanics. Indeed the finite interaction between object and measuring agencies conditioned by the very existence of the quantum of action entails - because of the impossibility of controlling the reaction of the object on the measuring instruments, if these are to serve their purpose - the necessity of a final renunciation of the classical ideal of causality and a radical revision of our attitude towards the problem of physical reality. In fact, as we shall see, a criterion of reality like that proposed by the named authors contains - however cautious its formulation may appear - an essential ambiguity when it is applied to the actual problems with which we are here concerned.

As regards the special problem treated by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, it was next shown that the consequences of the formalism as regards the representation of the state of a system consisting of two interacting atomic objects correspond to the simple arguments mentioned in the preceding in connection with the discussion of the experimental arrangements suited for the study of complementary phenomena. In fact, although any pair q and p, of conjugate space and momentum variables obeys the rule of non-commutative multiplication expressed by (2), and can thus only be fixed with reciprocal latitudes given by (3), the difference q1 - q2 between two space-co-ordinates referring to the constituents of the system will commute with the sum p1 + p2 of the corresponding momentum components, as follows directly from the commutability of q1 with p2 and q2 with p1. Both q1 - q2 and p1 + p2 can, therefore, be accurately fixed in a state of the complex system and, consequently, we can predict the values of either q1 or p1 if either q2 or p2 respectively, are determined by direct measurements. If, for the two parts of the system, we take a particle and a diaphragm, like that sketched in Fig. 5, we see that the possibilities of specifying the state of the particle by measurements on the diaphragm just correspond to the situation described above, where it was mentioned that, after the particle has passed through the diaphragm, we have in principle the choice of measuring either the position of the diaphragm or its momentum and, in each case, to make predictions as to subsequent observations pertaining to the particle. As repeatedly stressed, the principal point is here that such measurements demand mutually exclusive experimental arrangements.

The argumentation of the article was summarised. in the following passage:

From our point of new we now see that the wording of the above-mentioned criterion of physical reality proposed by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen contains an ambiguity as regards the meaning of the expression ' without in any way disturbing a system.' Of course there is in a case like that just considered no question of a mechanical disturbance of the system under investigation during the last critical stage of the measuring procedure. But even at this stage there is essentially the question of an influence on the very conditions which define the possible types of predictions regarding the future behaviour of the system. Since these conditions constitute an inherent element of the description of any phenomenon to which the term "physical reality" can be properly attached, we see that the argumentation of the mentioned authors does not justify their conclusion that quantum-mechanical description is essentially incomplete. On the contrary, this description, as appears from the preceding discussion, may be characterised as a rational utilisation of all possibilities of unambiguous interpretation of measurements, compatible with the finite and uncontrollable interaction between the objects and the measuring instruments in the field of quantum theory. In fact, it is only the mutual exclusion of any two experimental procedures, permitting the unambiguous definition of complementary physical quantities, which provides room for new physical laws, the coexistence of which might at first sight appear irreconcilable with the basic principles of science. It is just this entirely new situation as regards the description of physical phenomena that the notion of complementarity aims at characterising.

Rereading these passages, I am deeply aware of the inefficiency of expression which must have made it very difficult to appreciate the trend of the argumentation aiming to bring out the essential ambiguity involved in a reference to physical attributes of objects when dealing with phenomena where no sharp distinction can be made between the behaviour of the objects themselves and their interaction with the measuring instruments. I hope, however, that the present account of the discussions with Einstein in the foregoing years, which contributed so greatly to make us familiar with the situation in quantum physics, may give a clearer impression of the necessity of a radical revision of basic principles for physical explanation in order to restore logical order in this field of experience.

Einstein's own views at that time are presented in an article Physics and Reality, published in 1936 in the Journal of the Franklin Institute. Starting from a most illuminating exposition of the gradual development of the fundamental principles in the theories of classical physics and their relation to the problem of physical reality, Einstein here argues that the quantum-mechanical description is to be considered merely as a means of accounting for the average behaviour of a large number of atomic systems and his attitude to the belief that it should offer an exhaustive description of the individual phenomena is expressed in the following words: "To believe this is logically possible without contradiction; but it is so very contrary to my scientific instinct that I cannot forego the search for a more complete conception."

Even if such an attitude might seem well-balanced in itself, it nevertheless implies a rejection of the whole argumentation exposed in the preceding, aiming to show that, in quantum mechanics, we are not dealing with an arbitrary renunciation of a more detailed analysis of atomic phenomena, but with a recognition that such an analysis is in principle excluded. The peculiar individuality of the quantum effects presents us, as regards the comprehension of well-defined evidence, with a novel situation unforeseen in classical physics and irreconcilable with conventional ideas suited for our orientation and adjustment to ordinary experience. It is in this respect that quantum theory has called for a renewed revision of the foundation for the unambiguous use of elementary concepts, as a further step in the development which, since the advent of relativity theory, has been so characteristic of modern science.

In the following years, the more philosophical aspects of the situation in atomic physics aroused the interest of even larger circles and were, in particular, discussed at the Second International Congress for the Unity of Science in Copenhagen in July 1936. In a lecture on this occasion, I tried especially to stress the analogy in epistemological respects between the limitation imposed on the causal description in atomic physics and situations met with in other fields of knowledge. A principal purpose of such parallels was to call attention to the necessity in many domains of general human interest to face problems of a similar kind as those which had arisen in quantum theory and thereby to give a more familiar background for the apparently extravagant way of expression which physicists have developed to cope with their acute difficulties.

Besides the complementary features conspicuous in psychology and already touched upon, examples of such relationships can also be traced in biology, especially as regards the comparison between mechanistic and vitalistic viewpoints. Just with respect to the observational problem, this last question had previously been the subject of an address to the International Congress on Light Therapy held in Copenhagen in 1932, where it was incidentally pointed out that even the psycho-physical parallelism as envisaged by Leibniz and Spinoza has obtained a wider scope through the development of atomic physics, which forces us to an attitude towards the problem of explanation recalling ancient wisdom, that when searching for harmony in life one must never forget that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both actors and spectators.

Utterances of this kind would naturally in many minds evoke the impression of an underlying mysticism foreign to the spirit of science at the above mentioned Congress in 1936 I therefore tried to clear up such misunderstandings and to explain that the only question was an endeavour to clarify the conditions, in each field of knowledge, for the analysis and synthesis of experience. Yet, I am afraid that I had in this respect only little success in convincing my listeners, for whom the dissent among the physicists themselves was naturally a cause of scepticism as to the necessity of going so far in renouncing customary demands as regards the explanation of natural phenomena. Not least through a new discussion with Einstein in Princeton in 1937, where we did not get beyond a humorous contest concerning which side Spinoza would have taken if he had lived to see the development of our days, I was strongly reminded of the importance of utmost caution in all questions of terminology and dialectics.

These aspects of the situation were especially discussed at a meeting in Warsaw in 1938, arranged by the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. The preceding years had seen great progress in quantum physics due to a number of fundamental discoveries regarding the constitution and properties of atomic nuclei as well as due to important developments of the mathematical formalism taking the requirements of relativity theory into account. In the last respect, Dirac's ingenious quantum theory of the electron offered a most striking illustration of the power and fertility of the general quantum-mechanical way of description. In the phenomena of creation and annihilation of electron pairs we have in fact to do with new fundamental features of atomicity, which are intimately connected with the non-classical aspects of quantum statistics expressed in the exclusion principle, and which have demanded a still more far-reaching renunciation of explanation in terms of a pictorial representation.

Meanwhile, the discussion of the epistemological problems in atomic physics attracted as much attention as ever and, in commenting on Einstein's views as regards the incompleteness of the quantum-mechanical mode of description, I entered more directly on questions of terminology. In this connection I warned especially against phrases, often found in the physical literature, such as "disturbing of phenomena by observation" or "creating physical attributes to atomic objects by measurements." Such phrases, which may serve to remind of the apparent paradoxes in quantum theory, are at the same time apt to cause confusion, since words like "phenomena" and "observations," just as "attributes" and "measurements," are used in a way hardly compatible with common language and practical definition.

As a more appropriate way of expression, I advocated the application of the word phenomenon exclusively to refer to the observations obtained under specified circumstances, including an account of the whole experimental arrangement. In such terminology, the observational problem is free of any special intricacy since, in actual experiments, all observations are expressed by unambiguous statements referring, for instance, to the registration of the point at which an electron arrives at a photographic plate. Moreover, speaking in such a way is just suited to emphasise that the appropriate physical interpretation of the symbolic quantum-mechanical formalism amounts only to predictions, of determinate or statistical character, pertaining to individual phenomena appearing under conditions defined by classical physical concepts.

Notwithstanding all differences between the physical problems which have given rise to the development of relativity theory and quantum theory, respectively, a comparison of purely logical aspects of relativistic and complementary argumentation reveals striking similarities as regards the renunciation of the absolute significance of conventional physical attributes of objects. Also, the neglect of the atomic constitution of the measuring instruments themselves, in the account of actual experience, is equally characteristic of the applications of relativity and quantum theory. Thus, the smallness of the quantum of action compared with the actions involved in usual experience, including the arranging and handling of physical apparatus, is as essential in atomic physics as is the enormous number of atoms composing the world in the general theory of relativity which, as often pointed out, demands that dimensions of apparatus for measuring angles can be made small compared with the radius of curvature of space.

In the Warsaw lecture, I commented upon the use of not directly visualisable symbolism in relativity and quantum theory in the following way:

Even the formalisms, which in both theories within their scope offer adequate means of comprehending all conceivable experience, exhibit deep-going analogies. In fact, the astounding simplicity of the generalisation of classical physical theories, which are obtained by the use of multidimensional geometry and non-commutative algebra, respectively, rests in both cases essentially on the introduction of the conventional symbol sqrt(-1). The abstract character of the formalisms concerned is indeed, on closer examination, as typical of relativity theory as it is of quantum mechanics, and it is in this-respect purely a matter of tradition if the former theory is considered as a completion of classical physics rather than as a first fundamental step in the thoroughgoing revision of our conceptual means of comparing observations, which the modern development of physics has forced upon us.

It is, of course, true that in atomic physics we are confronted with a number of unsolved fundamental problems, especially as regards the intimate relationship between the elementary unit of electric charge and the universal quantum of action; but these problems are no more connected with the epistemological points here discussed than is the adequacy of relativistic argumentation with the issue of thus far unsolved problems of cosmology. Both in relativity and in quantum theory we are concerned with new aspects of scientific analysis and synthesis and, in this connection, it is interesting to note that, even in the great epoch of critical philosophy in the former century, there was only question to what extent a priori arguments could be given for the adequacy of space-time co-ordination and causal connection of experience, but never question of rational generalisations or inherent limitations of such categories of human thinking.

Although in more recent years I have had several occasions of meeting Einstein, the continued discussions, from which I always have received new impulses, have so far not led to a common view about the epistemological problems in atomic physics, and our opposing views are perhaps most clearly stated in a recent issue of Dialectica bringing a general discussion of these problems. Realising, however, the many obstacles for mutual understanding as regards a matter where approach and background must influence everyone's attitude, I have welcomed this opportunity of a broader exposition of the development by which, to my mind, a veritable crisis in physical science has been overcome. The lesson we have hereby received would seem to have brought us a decisive step further in the never-ending struggle for harmony between content and form, and taught us once again that no content can be grasped without a formal frame and that any form, however useful it has hitherto proved, may be found to be too narrow to comprehend new experience.

Surely, in a situation like this, where it has been difficult to reach mutual understanding not only between philosophers and physicists but even between physicists of different schools, the difficulties have their root not seldom in the preference for a certain use of language suggesting itself from the different lines of approach. In the Institute in Copenhagen, where through those years a number of young physicists from various countries came together for discussions, we used, when in trouble, often to comfort ourselves with jokes, among them the old saying of the two kinds of truth. To the one kind belong statements so simple and clear that the opposite assertion obviously could not be defended. The other kind, the so-called "deep truths," are statements in which the opposite also contains deep truth. Now, the development in a new field will usually pass through stages in which chaos becomes gradually replaced by order; but it is not least in the intermediate stage where deep truth prevails that the work is really exciting and inspires the imagination to search for a firmer hold. For such endeavours of seeking the proper balance between seriousness and humour, Einstein's own personality stands as a great example and, when expressing my belief that through a singularly fruitful co-operation of a whole generation of physicists we are nearing the goal where logical order to a large extent allows us to avoid deep truth, I hope that it will be taken in his spirit and may serve as an apology for several utterances in the preceding pages.

The discussions with Einstein which have formed the theme of this article have extended over many years which have witnessed great progress in the field of atomic physics. Whether our actual meetings have been of short or long duration, they have always left a deep and lasting impression on my mind, and when writing this report I have, so-to-say, been arguing with Einstein all the time even when entering on topics apparently far removed from the special problems under debate at our meetings. As regards the account of the conversations I am, of course, aware that I am relying only on my own memory, just as I am prepared for the possibility that many features of the development of quantum theory, in which Einstein has played so large a part, may appear to himself in a different light. I trust, however, that I have not failed in conveying a proper impression of how much it has meant to me to be able to benefit from the inspiration which we all derive from every contact with Einstein.

Source: From Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist (1949), publ. Cambridge University Press, 1949. Neils Bohr's report of conversations with Einstein and Einstein's reply.