Abner Shimony (1928-2015)

Shimony-BUFacultyAbner Shimony, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and of Physics at Boston University, died on August 8, 2015. His research transcended disciplinary boundaries and even literary genres. He made lasting contributions to inductive logic, the philosophy of C.S. Peirce, a naturalistic ‘integral’ epistemology, the quantum measurement problem, and the first experimental test of Bell’s theorem, to name just a few. He was an activist who campaigned for peace and was an inspiration to his students and colleagues.

Shimony was born March 10, 1928 in Columbus Ohio and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. He began his undergraduate studies at Yale at age sixteen and obtained a joint degree in philosophy and mathematics in 1948. He went to the University of Chicago to study with Rudolf Carnap and completed a Masters in philosophy on Whitehead’s Theory of Linguistic Symbolism. He returned to Yale to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. There he met Annemarie Anrod, a graduate student in anthropology, and they were married in 1951. He completed his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1953 with a dissertation titled A Theory of Confirmation, directed by John Myhill.

After two years in the army at Fort Monmouth, he returned to school for a second doctorate, this time in physics from Princeton University. His dissertation advisor was the soon-to-be Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner. While Shimony was there, Wigner drafted his famous philosophical essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics,” with Shimony commenting and encouraging Wigner to read Peirce.

Before completing his dissertation, Shimony left Princeton to take up his first teaching position in the Humanities Department at MIT in 1959 (with Annemarie’s position at Mount Holyoke College they had the infamous “two-body problem”). Shimony completed his Ph.D. in physics in 1962 with a dissertation on Regression and Response in Thermodynamic Systems. He taught philosophy at MIT until 1968, influencing many students, such as Paul Teller. Boston University was able to attract Shimony largely through the efforts of Bob Cohen, who co-founded the BU Center for Philosophy and History of Science less than a decade before and offered Shimony a joint appointment in the Physics and Philosophy Departments. Shimony actively participated in the Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science and edited volumes of Boston Studies, such as Naturalistic Epistemology: A Symposium of Two Decades (co-edited with Debra Nails), which contains an extended defense of Shimony’s own “integral epistemology.”

One year after arriving at BU, Shimony published arguably the most important physics article of his career. With his BU graduate student, Michael Horne, and two other graduate students (John Clauser at Columbia and Richard Holt at Harvard) he derived a new form of Bell’s inequality, now known as the CHSH inequality, amenable to experimental test. The question was whether there could be a theory that reproduces the predictions of quantum mechanics but without the “spooky action-at-a-distance” that Einstein despised. Along with subsequent experiments, this paper shows the answer appears to be no. Thanks to this early work of Shimony’s, mainstream physics came to appreciate nonlocality and entanglement as genuine physical effects with practical importance.

Some of Shimony’s most important contributions involved coming up with an appropriate conceptual language for clarifying a confused issue. For example, following the work of Bell and Jon Jarrett, Shimony introduced the terms ‘parameter independence’ and ‘outcome independence’ to distinguish two different senses of (non-)locality that had been conflated. He showed that while a violation of parameter independence is controllable, and hence leads to a conflict with special relativity, a violation of outcome independence is uncontrollable, and hence allows what Shimony termed a ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the theories. He concluded that quantum nonlocality (resulting from violations of outcome independence) is best described not as action-at-a-distance,
but rather as “passion at-a-distance.”

Another important expression of Shimony’s was “experimental metaphysics,” meaning the use of scientific experiments to investigate metaphysical questions. Shimony saw no sharp divide between physics and metaphysics. Like most of the great philosophers (such as Aristotle, Avicenna, Descartes, Hume, and Kant) Shimony was deeply engaged in the science of his day, contributing both to its content and to a deeper understanding of its methodology. Also like many of the greatest physicists (such as Galileo, Maxwell, Heisenberg, and Einstein) he was well-versed in philosophy and deeply philosophical in his scientific reasoning. As Shimony’s life work reminds us, both fields benefit from a close connection.

Upon Shimony’s retirement from BU in 1994, a session of the Boston Colloquium was organized in his honor, which resulted in two impressive volumes: Experimental Metaphysics and Potentiality, Entanglement, and Passion-at-a-Distance. Shimony supervised many Ph.D. students during his time at BU, including, Don Howard, the late Fr. Ron Anderson, and Wayne Myrvold (in philosophy), and Mike Horne, Andre Mirabelli, Joy Christian, Sandu Popescu (as a postdoc), Penha Dias, and Gregg Jaeger (in physics).

It was a tremendous loss when Shimony’s first wife, Annemarie, died in 1995, but he reunited with a high-school companion Helen-Claire (Pierce) Walker, to whom he was married from 1997 until her death in 2001. In 2005 he married his last love, Manana Sikic, who brought him great joy and contentment in the final decade of his life. Shimony had two wonderful sons, Jonathan and Ethan, who inspired his forays into writing children’s literature, such as his enchanting Tibaldo and the Hole in the Calendar, illustrated by Jonathan, and his poem “Babar et les Variables Cachées.”

Shimony was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society. He served as President of the Philosophy of Science Association in 1995-96. His two-volume collection of essays, Search for a Naturalistic World View, received the prestigious Lakatos Prize in 1996. But for all his achievements and honors, Shimony was never self-aggrandizing. When praised, he was apt to respond in his humble and humorous way with a saying such as, “Even the blind chicken finds a kernel of corn.” His profound mind and generous spirit will be greatly missed.

Alisa Bokulich and Don Howard


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There is no more fitting way to conclude this memorial remembrance of Abner than with one of his poems “Meditation on Time” (published in Conceptual Problems in Quantum Gravity edited by Abhay Ashtekar and John Stachel):

Meditation on Time

by Abner Shimony

Great clock,
Which does not turn,
And does not beat,
And does not toll,
And does not lag,
And does not cease,
From you I neither
Can nor would escape,
Because my essence
(To all else entrained)
Is your remote
And still I harbor
One dark wish:
To gaze upon you
From without,
As heretofore
And now,
And always,
From within.





I was a new graduate student at Harvard in physics, but my undergraduate degree had included some philosophy and I was curious to learn more. So my first term I registered for graduate seminars by Nelson Goodman and Hilary Putnam on top of my physics courses. It quickly became clear that I was unprepared and unsuited to the atmosphere of those graduate seminars, but I sought out Putnam to ask his advice. He suggested I read his paper on quantum mechanics, “Is logic empirical?” and come back and discuss it with him. I found his paper unsatisfactory and so was our converssation. But, he gave me a gift, nonetheless, As I was leaving his office, Putnam told me, if I was really interested in quantum theory I should go talk with someone called Abner Shimony at BU, who knew more about it than anybody.

I called and Abner very graciously invited me to meet him. The next term I made weekly pilgrimages to BU to attend his graduate seminar on quantum foundations. The year after I continued as a student in Abner’s graduate seminar, when the subject was the foundations of statistical physics. At his invitation I also attended the Boston Colloquium.

Abner’s two courses made a lasting impression on me. The one on quantum theory followed a simple organization. Abner would introduce a proposed interpretation of quantum theory, assigning us the papers from the primary literature. In class he would, with stunning clarity, make ta strong case for that interpretation. Then in the next class, with equal clarity, he would demolish it, explaining why it couldn’t possibly be true. By the end of the course we had been taught the strengths of the major interpretations-and we had also been convinced that each had a fatal weakness. The truth was somewhere out there, but it clearly remained to be discovered.

The clarity of Abner’s expositions of such difficult and confusing material was a lesson I never forgot, and it was delivered without a trace of the personal. Abney was very direct in his communication of his passion and curiosity, but he never told us which interpretation he favoured, nor did he highlight his own contributions.

Abner impressed me profoundly as someone who had done important physics while being deeply immersed in the tradition and language of philosophy. When he spoke, for example, of potentiality becoming actuality, he reflected with a few simple sentences a move with centuries of careful thought behind it. He intimidated me in a different way than the high energy hot shots, for what he spoke from, that I lacked, could not be made up by thinking fast on my feet, it was the mastery of a tradition that would take a life’s education sitting with books to appreciate.

Abner became my role model. I could appreciate that my teachers at Harvard were the important physicists of our time, and I gained much from having the privilege of studying with them. Steven Weinberg, Shelly Glashow and Gerard ’t Hooft had done more than anyone to make the standard model. My advisor Sidney Coleman understood quantum field theory better than anyone else. Stanley Deser, also my advisor, had done more than anyone to pioneer quantum gravity. They were formidable scientists and the atmosphere around them was impatient and intimidating. But they did not speak to my heart, as they had no interest in the foundational questions that had drawn me into science. Abner was rooted in those questions and the rigour and clarity of his classes taught me what foundational physics could be at its best. More than that, his passion and integrity were evident and there was not a hint of arrogance or competitiveness.

I had been inspired to go into physics by reading the great revolutionaries of the early 20th Century, Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger and the rest. They were simultaneously great physicists and good philosophers, and each was also a remarkable human being. They did science out of a deep attachment to humanism and the philosophical tradition. I had been encouraged in my foundational interests by my undergraduate teachers, especially Herbert Bernstein.

Abner was a living connection to the human beings who made modern physics and he continued, and advanced their struggles with the meaning of quantum mechanics. He communicated a love of science, as a quest, which was inseparable from a love of the humanity of the searchers. This was a gift Abner passed on to those of us fortunate enough to study with him. These encounters with Abner changed my life, they connected me with a tradition of science I could aspire to join, and gave me a perspective that made it possible for me to stay in science.

While I write this, I am listening to a video of a conversation between Abner and myself that was recorded at a conference at PI in 2006 that we dedicated to Abner, http://pirsa.org/06070049/. I see that I am still asking my teacher to explain what he means by actuality emerging from potentiality.


You can watch a video of Abner’s final lecture in the Boston Colloquium, titled “Reminiscences”, given on the occasion of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Center here: http://www.bu.edu/cphs/colloquium/2010–2011/#anchor2

American Institute of Physics Oral History Interview of Shimony:

Abner Shimony Papers, Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System: