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The Observable

Heisenberg’s Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics


Patrick Aidan Heelan

Edited By Babette Babich

Patrick Aidan Heelan’s The Observable offers the reader a completely articulated development of his 1965 philosophy of quantum physics, Quantum Mechanics and Objectivity. In this previously unpublished study dating back more than a half a century, Heelan brings his background as both a physicist and a philosopher to his reflections on Werner Heisenberg’s physical philosophy. Including considerably broader connections to the contributions of Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Albert Einstein, this study also reflects Heelan’s experience in Eugene Wigner’s laboratory at Princeton along with his reflections on working with Erwin Schrödinger dating from Heelan’s years at the Institute for Advanced Cosmology in Dublin.
A contribution to continental philosophy of science, the phenomenological and hermeneutic resources applied in this book to the physical and ontological paradoxes of quantum physics, especially in connection with laboratory science and measurement, theory and model making, will enrich students of the history of science as well as those interested in different approaches to the historiography of science. University courses in the philosophy of physics will find this book indispensable as a resource and invaluable for courses in the history of science.
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Chapter Seven: The Philosophical Differences Between Heisenberg and Bohr


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The Philosophical Differences Between Heisenberg and Bohr

The terms “reality,” “descriptive concept,” and “observability” had different meanings at this time for Bohr than they had for Heisenberg, indicative of deep philosophical differences.1 Bohr was of the type of a Faraday grounded in imaginatively intuitive common sense. Heisenberg was more of the type of a Maxwell or an Einstein, exploiting mathematical structures that were imaginatively unintuitive [unanschaulich] to common sense in order to uncover new and hitherto unsuspected structures in nature. Bohr and Heisenberg were by basic temperament, and at this time explicitly, moved by incompatible philosophical values.2

For Heisenberg, at the start of his career in 1925, the mathematical formalism entered essentially into the definition of a physical concept. A physical concept for him was defined by implicit definition through the interpretation of those ← 53 | 54 → mathematical relations which the theory established between its own primitive terms. The domain of the physically observable, and consequently of the physically and descriptively real was then outlined by and through the interpretation of a mathematical theory. Here Heisenberg was reflecting his interest in Hilbert’s axiomatization of geometry.3 The notion of implicit definition was also used by Einstein and Weyl in their treatment of the kinematical concepts of relativity mechanics and the notion must have been well-known at Göttingen when Heisenberg was there. Following Einstein, Heisenberg held that implicit definition played the determining role in specifying what could or could...

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