When it comes to looking at reality from the subatomic perspective of quantum theory, many physicists are nearly as much in the dark as the average person on the street.
"Even great physicists will tell you that nobody understands quantum mechanics, although we use it every day," said Stanford philosophy Professor Thomas Ryckman.
Devices from airplanes to laptops rely on the mathematical calculations of quantum mechanics. But Ryckman, whose research centers on the philosophy of physics, calls this fundamental science a kind of "black box."
"You put in information, turn the crank, and get information out that matches what you can observe or test in the lab," he said. "But what's in that black box? Even our best minds are not exactly sure."
The fact that there are many interpretations of quantum mechanics – each of them with severe problems, said Ryckman – means that the most empirically successful theory in all of science is not fully understood. For that reason, he contends, examining the topic through a philosophical lens may be important.
"Technically trained and historically informed philosophers can help physicists think through and even extend the field of possibilities for resolving these problems," he said.
Ryckman's teaching and research show that in the history of physics certain interpretive options were sidetracked or forgotten. "Some of them need to be brought back out of the closet," he asserts, because a thorough consideration of them may well lead to new breakthroughs and discoveries.
One of them, the philosopher maintains, is Albert Einstein's unorthodox critique that quantum theory was incomplete and that a larger mathematical description of reality was possible. "Because his views went against the prevailing wisdom of his time, most physicists took Einstein's hostility to quantum mechanics to be a sign of senility," Ryckman said.