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Is Nature Supernatural? A Philosophical Exploration of Science and Nature Hardcover – March 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Reading Is Nature Supernatural? is like taking a prep course for a cocktail party hosted by nerds. Weighing in with well over 600 pages of daunting subject matter, Simon Altmann's book grapples with big questions like "causality," "how to handle space and time," and "quantum states." Sound like fun? Surprisingly, the book is lucid, interesting, and even humorous. Altmann, an Oxford mathematical physicist, is such a gifted expositor and teacher that attentive readers will be rewarded with comprehensible explanations of the central problems in logic, mathematics, and physics, including quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg principle, and general relativity.

Altmann's central argument is that mathematical truths are empirical. That is, they emerge from our experiences, not from some purely conceptual realm or Platonic heaven. While Altmann's main thrust holds little interest for nonspecialists, he is such an engaging and funny writer that many of the chapters can stand alone. In particular, the chapters on probability, paradoxes like Zeno's Achilles and the Tortoise, and his early chapters on logical principles and causation are good reading on their own. --Eric de Place

Review

"...provides the best explanation of the Schrodinger's cat quandary you are every likely to find." -- San Jose Mercury News

"Pervaded with insights and fresh ideas, refreshingly original and always interesting, a treat to read." -- Paul Horwich, Professor of Philosophy Graduate Center, City University of New York

"This book is very well written, witty, and in the by-now famous Simon Altmann language." -- Peter Weinberger, European editor of Philosophical Magazine

"This unique book is magnificently written with wit and penetrating insights..." -- Choice

Chosen as one of the twelve most intriguing science-religion books of 2002. -- Science & Spirit Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2002
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 680 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (March 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573929166
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573929165
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.9 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,519,230 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By T. K. Horton on August 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Before I read this, I understood that nobody really understands quantum physics. Now I understand this even better. Altman's ideas come at you so fast that most passages require two readings for basic comprehension. In a 600-page book, that's a lot of reading. And while his style is witty, his sentence structures can be complex to the point of distraction. Apparently he is not a feline fan, as he feels it is necessary to remove the cat from his discussion of Schroedinger and substitute Italian adulterers. Frankly, I understood the cat much better.
Still, I can comprehend and admire the way he deftly punches holes in common myths such as those concerning causality, and reduction of the wave function. And I can't say when it happened, but my attitude towards quantum physics shifted somewhere during this read. The microworld now seems kind of normal and classical mechanics seems a bit weird. That's what wavicles will do to you.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By THOMAS J.C. WALSH on May 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
To all appearances this book is its septuagenarian author's intellectual swan song. That would explain why Dr. Altmann feels compelled to share his very considerable knowledge of JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING in the process of expatiating on his philosophy of mathematics and natural science. Unfortunately, the virtues of Dr. Altmann's insights are all but obscured by a self-indulgent, often digressive, and unnecessarily dense exposition.
Dr. Altmann writes from the perspective of a nuanced naturalism which rejects mind-body dualism and which denies that reality has a non-contingent component: a transcendental ("Platonic" or "supernatural") dimension. By demonstrating how our intuitions are based on (and limited by) macrocosmic experience, Dr. Altmann does much to demystify our counterintuitive experiences on the frontier of the macrocosmic with the microcosmic, the domain of quantum mechanics. This is the book's great virtue. Alas, the price which Dr. Altmann exacts of the reader for this illumination will be too much for many to bear.
The prolix richness of Dr. Altmann's book is its great weakness. Here, more is definitely less. The conscientious reader will be self-sentenced to hours of hard labor mining the occasional gem of insight into the nature of Nature (and of Nature's study) from dense veins of didactic, mostly Teutonic, and often soporific prose. After a close reading of Dr. Altmann's magnum opus, constant reader can only sympathize with the schoolgirl who once wrote: "This book is all about penguins. In fact, it told me more about penguins than I ever really wanted to know!"
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Format: Hardcover
Is Nature Supernatural? A philosophical exploration of science and nature, by Simon L. Altmann, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2002, 680 ff.

This is a very challenging book and it is not an easy read. Though the sentences in the text are easily accessible in themselves, the ideas and meaning they convey require considerable thought on the part of the reader. Paraphrasing the author's own words, he is attempting to reach out from the middle ground to scientists, especially quantum physicists, whose subject takes them into what is essentially metaphysics (that is, philosophy); and to philosophers who usually have a non-experimental and theoretical view of what science is all about.

Not only does Altmann tackle the philosophical debate about causality as represented by David Hume and Karl Popper, he also debates Roger Penrose's claim to monism while holding Platonist views on the dualism of the material and the world of Forms or Ideas of which mathematics is a part. He discusses the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen `thought experiment' intended to show that the non-locality of subatomic particles (they couldn't be in two places at the same time) undermined quantum theory. But, as Altmann says, the experiments of Alain Aspect and the mathematics of John Bell showed in fact that the EPR experiment gave results entirely consistent with quantum physics.

He tackles Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems, which are little known outside the rarefied world of higher mathematics but which I suspect may still not be understood by any readers other than those with degrees in mathematics!
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