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Can We Philosophize the Quantum Leap?


The quantum leap: that the electron instantaneously moves between energy levels in the atomic cloud – is this not an example of Aufhebung in nature?[1]

If we read the works of Hegel, Aufhebung, or sublation, describes the sudden change between one logical determination and the next. As Hegel writes in the “Preface” to The Phenomenology of Spirit, at a certain point, the dawn breaks.[2] This is Aufhebung: that a qualitative shift occurs. A new identity is born. The night sky necessarily leaps into this new identity of dawn – incremental transition fails to describe what occurs. Likewise, the electron changes position in the cloud, not in an incremental way, it leaps. It jumps.

Can we draw a parallel between Aufhebung in logic and the quantum leap in nature? In a radical way, the quantum leap is Aufhebung, resulting specifically from our observation of nature.

If we look at an age-old paradox, Achilles will eventually overtake the tortoise – not in a rational incremental way, as Zeno points out, but in a leap. What this highlights for us is that there are incremental striations of nature, but likewise smooth leaps.

Much like a standard film is displayed in 24 frames per second, the eye smooths over these broken points. This is the dialectic between discreteness and continuity, which can be found both in logic and in nature. We may incrementalize the frames in a film or the distance between Achilles and the tortoise, but at a certain point, we leap ahead. We smooth over the finite edges.

If leaps occur in both logic and nature, under what conditions can we call this the same leap?

Following Slavoj Žižek, who has taken seriously the work of quantum physicists for the last three decades, quantum physics presents a novel opportunity to rejoin science and philosophy, precisely because it uniquely demonstrates that the observer is entangled with what is observed.[3]

As Karen Barad articulates in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway, quantum physics examines the ontological co-constitution between subject and object.[4] As the old Hegelian adage goes, “not just as substance but just as much as subject,” substance and subject co-determine.[5]

The quantum leap is an observed phenomenon that necessarily arises because we have inserted ourselves as observers. Before observation, the electron is said to be in the electron cloud – not in a state of movement, but in a state of indeterminacy.[6] After we observe the electron, we force it into a position. Our determination is entangled with its actual ontological character.

Contrary to a Kantian interpretation, it is not that the electron exists at a particular point in the cloud, and we just can’t locate it. In a stronger, Hegelian reading, the electron is ontologically indeterminate until we determine it. That’s not to say there is nothing before we observe it, but rather, that the ontological character of the electron is indeterminate prior to observation.[7]

In a manner that defies classical physics, we observe that the electron jumps between energy levels. It does not move piecemeal; it instantaneously changes rungs.

There are two dialectical movements at play. First, there is both the pinpointed position of the observed electron, andthe indeterminacy of the electron cloud. Both are ontological states of the electron.

Second, once we have determined where the electron is and incrementalized the atom into energy levels, these increments themselves reach a limit. This is one demonstration of Planck’s scale. We cannot keep subdividing, like with Achilles and the tortoise, because at a certain point, we leap ahead.

What we learn from interpreting the quantum leap as Aufhebung is that, much like when we read Hegel and we move from determination to determination, we move incrementally until we suddenly leap ahead. It is not simply that the quantum leap is both a naturalistic and logical phenomenon. It is that determination as such, both in nature and in logic, operates vis a vis incremental steps and sudden leaps.

And so, in a way, when we reach a conclusion, we are always jumping to it.

[1] Rovelli, Carlo (2014) Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. Republished by Riverhead Books in 2017. p. 170.
[2] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1807) The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by Terry Pinkard. Republished in 2018 by Cambridge University Press. p. 9.
[3] To cite all works in which Žižek has discussed quantum physics would be lengthy, so here I direct you to one example: Žižek, Slavoj (2023) “From Quantum Mechanics to Quantum Reality.” Filozofia. Vol 78: 6. p. 409-428.
[4] Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press. p. 56.
[5] The Phenomenology of Spirit. p. 12.
[6] Meeting the Universe Halfway. p. 115.
[7] Ibid.