Good resources for philosophers to learn more about quantum mechanics?



It is easy to find high-level descriptions of the implications of quantum mechanics, but they always seem a bit handwavy to me, or at least it is hard to know whether those interpretations are really justified without understanding quantum mechanics more deeply. So what are good resources to learn the basics of quantum mechanics, for the purpose of doing philosophy? Specifically:

(1) What are good resources for someone with a strong math background who wants to spend less time than going through a traditional physics sequence of courses? What is lost with this approach, relative to the traditional physics sequence?

(2) What are good resources that do not require a strong math background (but are still rigorous)? What is lost with this approach, relative to (1)?

Please note that I am not so much asking for resources describing philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics (that's for later), as I am asking for relatively interpretation-free resources for gaining a rigorous basic background in quantum mechanics.


Posted 2018-08-05T23:42:04.860

Reputation: 2 267


"What are good resources for someone with a strong math background who wants to spend less time than going through a traditional physics sequence of courses? What is lost with this approach, relative to the traditional physics sequence?" Have I got a great article for you! Scott Aaronson explains quantum theory without having to know any physics! You just have to know what a complex number is.

– user4894 – 2018-08-06T03:41:03.920


If you like the link from user4894, I recommend this article on Octonions. Where Scott Aaronson argues that complex numbers are the "natural" way to go about things, reading about some of the theories people have explored in extending such models points out that it may not be so much that complex numbers are the bee's knees, but rather that we find them to be one of four systems which are convenient for depicting the universe.

– Cort Ammon – 2018-08-06T05:05:00.967

Octonions are great and all, for looking at supersymmetry and unifying the fundamental fields. That is, not mainstream accepted physics, but fringe ideas expected to yield fruit. @present QM is a big subject. It would help to have more of a picture of your motivations, and where you want to go. – CriglCragl – 2018-08-07T09:13:35.593

1If you really want to know whether quantum mechanics interpretations are justified, it seems to me you're going to need more than a good series of physics courses. You're going to be taking things on faith either way. – David Thornley – 2018-08-07T15:49:48.550

@user4894: thank you, yes, that is the kind of resource I was looking for in terms of focusing on the main technical aspects. It is still pretty short though and seems to serve primarily as setup for getting into quantum computing. I imagine one could do something like this in a much more expanded way -- more implications, more exercises, etc. – present – 2018-08-11T14:22:41.760

I'm very confused by what it is you are looking for. It seems like you have asked for resources to learn quantum mechanics with the intent to focus on philosophical issues (which means almost exclusively interpretations of the wave function etc.), but you don't want to go about it through a traditional physics sequence of courses, but you want it to give you "a rigorous basic background in quantum mechanics." that doesn't focus on interpretations. Putting aside "a rigorous basic-" being self contradicting, I have no idea what it is that you want out of a resource. – Not_Here – 2018-09-05T19:12:52.803

It sounds like you want a textbook or something that rigorously proves the formalism of quantum mechanics (i.e. linear algebra, Hilbert space, group theory etc.) without going much into the applied aspects and never talks about interpretations? Is that what you want? That has nothing to do with philosophy and is probably better asked on a different SE site. If you want to specifically learn quantum mechanics to learn about it’s philosophical aspects, why are you avoidant towards talk of interpretations and the relevant physics, only focusing on the rigorous mathematical formalism? – Not_Here – 2018-09-05T19:13:46.827

A good resource for a philosopher to learn about quantum mechanics is a resource that talks about the philosophical aspects of quantum mechanics. And I can understand the thought of "I don't want to learn classic mechanics and then electromagnetism just to get to the quantum mechanics I want to learn" but there's a reason that the first undergrad physics class you take isn't intro to quantum mechanics. If you want to genuinely understand the subject, and not just the math, you need to understand how modern physics works which requires learning classical mechanics. – Not_Here – 2018-09-05T19:15:48.753

1Then you learn the philosophy. The number 1 recommendtation I have for philosophers who want to learn quantum mechanics but don't want to go full on with the physics is David Albert's Quantum Mechanics and Experience. The first few chapters are entirely about the phenomena, then the mathematical formalism. The rest of the book is about interpretations and the philosophy, which again a philosopher who wants to learn the subject needs to know. It is the best book of it's kind. – Not_Here – 2018-09-05T19:16:01.560

If you do actually only want the mathematical formalism, Shankar's Principles of Quantum Mechanics is the 700 page dry mathematical treatise you're looking for. – Not_Here – 2018-09-05T19:23:06.337

The Youtube series "Quantum Mechanics" on the channel "viascience" is quite good. It is somewhat math-based (you should at least understand the idea of a Lagrangian) but you don't have to actually solve any problems yourself. – guest1806 – 2018-11-05T04:49:27.810



There is a fascinating book by Ulrich Mohrhoff called The World According to Quantum Mechanics: Why the Laws of Physics Make Sense After All. Most of it is mathematics (as a text-book it even has exercises for students) but there's some talk of philosophy and how QM may be explained by reference to the Perennial philosophy.

There a book by Michael Redhead called 'From Physics to Metaphysics that may be good. I wouldn't know since I couldn't understand a word of it. He has another book called Incompleteness, Nonlocality and Realism: A Prolegomenon to the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics. I couldn't make much sense of this one either but perhaps you might.

There is not much of this kind of literature. Philosophy in the department has not yet abandoned the Newtonian universe and even today many physicists are materialists.

If you're starting from scratch I'd recommend The Mind of God by Paul Davies. It's a rare attempt by a physicist to properly get to grips with metaphysics.

If you find something really good please come back and tell us about it.

EDIT: I just noticed that I misread the question. I'll leave this up but see now it's not what you're after. There are dozens of good 'popular' introductions to QM.


Posted 2018-08-05T23:42:04.860



This post on a list of books for understanding the non-relativistic QM points out that QM is vast, and that it takes a prolonged, sustained effort to learn it. There are many resources you could use for learning QM, like wikipedia, SEP, modern physics books, (quantum) chemistry books, real (introductory) quantum physics books, solid state physics books, original articles, or expositions for a general audience by famous physicists. No matter how you approach it, using more than a single resource and finding resources which suit you personally to the point that you are willing to spend an extended period of time with them will be important.

However, at least for me, there was also another problem:

Let me be honest myself how much I really understand the consistent histories approach. In 1998, I had to endure a QM 1 course at university, and I didn’t manage to connect at all to QM. (I did get those spherical harmonics and Laguerre polynomials, operators acting on functions, commutativity, Hermitian vs. self-adjoint, and other mathematical techniques, but I couldn’t create a picture or film in my head of how to use this to describe nature. My favourite defence was to ask others to explain the Compton effect to me in terms of that stuff – or any other simple interaction between electrons and light which can be observed.) Occasional attempts to read material discussing interpretation of QM failed quite early, I couldn’t penetrate into the material and words at all. Around 2005, I read (or rather browsed) “Understanding Quantum Mechanics” by Roland Omnès, and it was the first time that I felt that the material was presented in a way that I would understand it, if I invested the time to work through it. It felt like “let me calculate and explain” as opposed to “don’t ask questions, nobody understands QM anyway”.

The first time I had some real idea about how QM could make sense was after spending time with

  • Max Born, Emil Wolf: Principles of Optics

especially the part about statistical optics and partial coherence. Concepts like the coherency matrix and Stokes parameters or rather similar continuous concepts clarified for me how the instrumentalistic approach works in practice, and why it can be preferable even in cases where an ontological approach is (still) possible. However, since spending time on statistical optical would probably be too wasteful, reading the Nobel lecture of Max Born and learning a bit about the density matrix (especially how it allows to describe subsystems) will hopefully be just as illuminating.

Since we are talking about reading texts from the founding fathers of QM: Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, and Richard Feynman all write very clear. The books

are easy to read and teach a lot about QM. The Hanbury Brown and Twiss effect described in passing at the end of chapter 2 in Feynman's QED book made me accept that my convenient instrumentalistic picture of statistical optics misses some effects that the less convenient ontological picture predicts correctly. Those books didn't require much math. More math is required for learning the basics of quantum mechanics.

are timeless books, but many other real (introductory) quantum physics will teach the basics too. Just keep on trying until you find books which suit you personally, and don't shy away from books in your native language. You can still read those timeless books after you understood the basics. Then you may also better appreciate the answers those books give to fundamental questions which your other books didn't bother to mention. Many very readable original articles, including the "cat" paper and the "Are There Quantum Jumps?" paper can be found at the end of the

With this, let me leave the founding fathers of QM behind, and return to my personal experiences. Bob Doyle's site contain ton's of original material and relevant excerpts clarifying the positions of many different philosophers and scientists regarding QM and other topics. One unknown book which helped me is

... much of the interpretive work Teller undertakes is to understand the relationship and possible differences between quantum field-theory — i.e., QFT as quantization of classical fields - and quantum-field theory — i.e., a field theory of ‘quanta’ which lack radical individuation, or as Teller says, “primitive thisness.”

I’m not a physicist. My degree is in mathematics, I am an amateur logician, and I do read philosophical articles and books. I am an instrumentalist with respect to non-cosmological (quantum) physics, but not the caricature version that people unhappy with Copenhagen evoke. I prefer "let me calculate and explain" interpretations of quantum mechanics over "let me convince you that the whole universe is described by a single wavefunction" interpretations of quantum field theory.

Thomas Klimpel

Posted 2018-08-05T23:42:04.860

Reputation: 3 832


I'm afraid some basic mathematical knowledge is absolutely required. One must understand how a quantum state is modified by measurements, how constructive and destructive interference work, what is a complex phase, etc. Without such vocabulary, you'll be unable to speak precisely about quantum mechanics.

That said, the following resources require the bare minimum of mathematics:

  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has some good, relevant, entries. For example on the Many Worlds Interpretation.

  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has limited material on the subject, but the references therein are worth checking out.

  • Quantum Paradoxes: Quantum Theory for the Perplexed, by Yakir Aharonov and Daniel Rohrlich. I took the course with Yakir. Highly recommended.

  • Additional resources can be found in this Quora thread.

Shai Machnes

Posted 2018-08-05T23:42:04.860

Reputation: 1

I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. That you picked the many worlds article in SEP makes me think you are partial to that interpretation. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-08-06T18:20:38.260

Thank you for your answer, but these are precisely about philosophical interpretations (except perhaps the paradoxes book?), whereas what I was asking for was more about getting a basic background first... – present – 2018-08-15T15:30:39.583