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Bohr meets Rovelli: a dispositionalist account of the quantum limits of knowledge


I begin by examining the question of the quantum limits of knowledge by briefly presenting the constraints of the theory that derive from its mathematical structure (in particular the no-go theorems formulated by von Neumann and Kochen and Specker). I then argue that these theorems reflect on a formal level those practical and experimental settings that are needed to come to know the properties of physical systems. In particular, I discuss some aspects of this relationist and contextualist conception of reality by comparing, in their apparent diversity, Bohr’s holistic, and Rovelli’s relationist interpretation of the formalism, that deep down share a unifying metaphysics of dispositions and propensities. Both interpretations are based on the widely shared fact that quantum mechanics does not describe previously definite quantities. In the final part, I show that, as a consequence of a relationist and perspectival approach to quantum mechanics, the quantum state of the universe regarded as an isolated system cannot be known in principle, so that the universe must be described “from within” by dividing it into two arbitrary parts. This is in fact the only way in which the two systems can exchange information by being physically correlated.

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  1. 1.

    We do not know, we will never know.

  2. 2.

    “We must know, we will know” is the motto written on Hilbert’s tomb.

  3. 3.

    We should keep in mind that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation has been authoritatively regarded as an historical myth (Howard [25]).

  4. 4.

    Ghirardi’s [20], Isham’s [27], Hughes’[26], and Held’s 2000 are non-technical introduction to the theorem.

  5. 5.

    There are subtleties about the difference between relational and extrinsic properties that need detail us (see Marshall and Weatherson [36])

  6. 6.

    For this reading see Redhead [39], 49–51, and Beller and Fine [3].

  7. 7.

    The hypothesis that Bohr defended the disturbance view according to which the quantum system has a previous definite value which is unknowable, because its state is disturbed by the measurement has been attacked by Bohm (1951), Folse (1985), Faye [16], Whitaker (2004).

  8. 8.

    For an attentive reconstruction of the important episode in the history of quantum mechanics, see Bacciagaluppi and Valentini [2] and Laudisa [31, 32].

  9. 9.

    Dorato [12] discusses this difficulty in more details.

  10. 10.

    For a defense of a propensity interpretation of probability, see Popper [38] and Gillies [21].

  11. 11.

    It is more controversial whether in general relativity all kind of motion is relative: Malament [35] proved a theorem in which rotation has to be considered an intrinsic property of the rotating object.

  12. 12.

    Nevertheless, philosophers also talk about irreducible elements that provide identity to objects (haecceitates) independently of their properties.

  13. 13.

    For an overview of the rich literature on ontic structural realism, see French [19].

  14. 14.

    Interestingly, in Rovelli’ interpretation, this non-extendibility is forbidden not just for relativistic reasons. Stress on the discontinuous character of Rovelli’s ontology is defended in Laudisa and Rovelli [29].

  15. 15.

    This difficulty is discussed by Laudisa [31, 32]. In this context, there is no space to discuss it.

  16. 16.

    For this view, see Smolin [42].


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Dorato, M. Bohr meets Rovelli: a dispositionalist account of the quantum limits of knowledge. Quantum Stud.: Math. Found. (2020).

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  • Limits of knowledge
  • Dispositionalism
  • Bohr
  • Rovelli
  • Everett