Camillieri, Kristian: Constructing the Myth of the Copenhagen Interpretation

Constructing the Myth of the Copenhagen Interpretation

The emergence of the so-called ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics has been the subject of much interest, both historical and philosophical. According to the familiar historical account, what we now refer to as the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ had its origins in discussions between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the latter part of 1926 and early 1927, and was defended by Bohr in his classic debate with Einstein culminating with the EPR paper in 1935. Bohr’s ‘victory’ over Einstein is commonly regarded as signifying the triumph of the ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation. Yet recent scholarship has shown Bohr’s views were never widely accepted, let alone properly understood, by his contemporaries, many of whom actually held divergent views of the orthodoxy in quantum theory. Despite the vast literature which discusses the Copenhagen or orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics, there remains no agreement on what it is.
The difficulties which inevitably emerge from the attempts to make sense of the Copenhagen interpretation stem from the fundamental disagreements which were never settled among the founders of quantum mechanics in the 1930s. This has led to the view, which finds its clearest expression in the work of Mara Beller, that we should deny “the very possibility of presenting the Copenhagen interpretation as a coherent philosophical framework”. However, challenging the utility of the Copenhagen Interpretation as a historiographical concept raises a number of important questions, which to my knowledge have not as yet received any systematic treatment: How are we to account for the appearance (or should we say illusion) of consensus achieved in the absence of any genuine agreement between key protagonists? How did so many different philosophical viewpoints come under the banner of the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’? And, what purpose or what philosophical or ideological agendas did the construction of the myth of the “Copenhagen interpretation” serve?
This paper takes up the task of addressing these questions in the hope of gaining a better understanding of what Don Howard has appropriately called the ‘myth of the Copenhagen interpretation’. Here I pursue the idea, which is to be found in the writings of Chevalley and Howard, that while the theory of quantum mechanics is a product of the 1920s, the Copenhagen interpretation, contrary to the standard view, is a construction of the 1950s and 1960s. My contention is that the idea of a unitary interpretation only emerges in the 1950s in the context of the challenge of Soviet Marxist critique of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s announcement of the unified ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ in 1955, and Wigner’s subjectivist interpretation of the measurement problem in the early 1960s. By tracing the way the image of the Copenhagen interpretation was constructed, we can arrive at a better understanding of the way in which the hidden disagreements within the ‘Copenhagen school’ were concealed, and the strategies which helped to form the impression of consensus.

Camilleri (Presentation)
Talk Camilleri (*.mp3 audio file)