Excerpt from an interview with Yours Truly

Jime Sayaka has interviewed me at his blog Subversive Thinking. Excerpts:

As a trained physicist, do you think that quantum mechanics provides a theoretical framework to understand phenomena like psi (e.g, telepathy, psychokinesis, etc.) or the nature and origin of consciousness?

No, I don’t think so. The idea that quantum mechanics provides such a framework is based on what philosopher David Chalmers has called the “law of minimization of mystery.” The quantum-mechanical correlations (between measurement outcomes) are mysterious. Nobody knows anything about the mechanism or process by which measurement outcomes influence the probabilities of measurement outcomes. The observed psi correlations are mysterious. The correlations between neural firing patterns in a brain and the subjective, first-person content of consciousness are mysterious. So it’s economical (but also chimerical) to assume that the three mysteries can be reduced to a single mystery.

Some materialist scientists argue that the notion of a causally efficacious consciousness and phenomena like psychokinesis is physically impossible because it violates the law of energy conservation. For example, in psychokinesis, physical energy would be actually created by a non-physical consciousness in order to affect a purely physical world, and the principle of energy conservation precludes such creation of energy. What do you think of this scientific objection against the causal efficacy of consciousness?

A tautology. Energy is only conserved within a closed physical system. To assume the universal validity of the law of energy conservation is to assume that the physical universe is causally closed. If one assumes that the physical universe is causally closed, then nothing nonphysical can influence the goings-on in the physical universe. This begs the question of whether the physical universe is causally closed. I have discussed this in detail in a paper titled “The physics of interactionism,” which appeared in Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (Nos. 8–9, pp. 165–184) and The Volitional Brain (Imprint Academic, 1999).

However, I am in full agreement with those – not only neuropsychologists but also phenomenologists, mystics, and yogis – who reject the folk psychology of free will. The mystic or yogi discovers behind our ordinary consciousness a subliminal consciousness, whose initial attitude is that of a detached witness. It experiences thoughts, feelings, intentions, actions impersonally and undistorted by any sense of ownership, authorship, or responsibility. Those who go further become increasingly aware of the true origins and determinants of their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and actions. And once they are sufficiently aware of these subliminal controlling influences, they are in a position to accept or reject them, to choose, and for the first time to exercise a genuine free will.

You have argued that, contrary to the common opinions on the matter, there is no such thing as a collapse of the state vector (or wave function). Can you expand on this idea?

Quantum states (state vectors, wave functions, density operators, etc.) are mathematical tools by which we calculate the probabilities of the possible outcomes of a measurement on the basis of the actual outcomes of other measurements. Accordingly, the time t on which a quantum state functionally depends is the time of the measurement to the possible outcomes of which it serves to assign probabilities.

The common mistake is to misconstrue the time dependence of a quantum state as the continuous time dependence of an evolving state. An algorithm for assigning probabilities to possible measurement outcomes on the basis of actual outcomes has two perfectly normal dependences. It depends continuously on the time of measurement: if this changes by a small amount, the assigned probabilities change by small amounts. And it depends discontinuously on the outcomes that constitute the assignment basis: if this changes by the inclusion of an outcome not previously taken into account, so do the assigned probabilities. But think of a quantum state’s dependence on time as the time-dependence of an evolving state, and you have two modes of evolution for the price of one: continuous and predictable between measurements, discontinuous and unpredictable at the time of a measurement (the so-called collapse). Hence the mother of all quantum-theoretical pseudo-questions: what causes the (non-existent) collapse?

You have said that many writers who comment about quantum mechanics (and its putative metaphysical implications) are misguided, because they transmogrify the mathematical tools of a probability calculus into descriptions of actual physical states, events, or processes. What do you mean exactly by it? Does not quantum mechanics tell us something about the ontologically objective reality out there and its actual metaphysical properties?

Let me begin by quoting David Mermin, one of the most level-headed physicists I know. In his May 2009 column in Physics Today he wrote:

When I was an undergraduate learning classical electromagnetism, I was enchanted by the revelation that electromagnetic fields were real. Far from being a clever calculational device for how some charged particles push around other charged particles, they were just as real as the particles themselves, most dramatically in the form of electromagnetic waves, which have energy and momentum of their own and can propagate long after the source that gave rise to them has vanished. That lovely vision of the reality of the classical electromagnetic field ended when I learned as a graduate student that what Maxwell’s equations actually describe are fields of operators on Hilbert space. Those operators are quantum fields, which most people agree are not real but merely spectacularly successful calculational devices. So real classical electromagnetic fields are nothing more (or less) than a simplification in a particular asymptotic regime (the classical limit) of a clever calculational device. In other words, classical electromagnetic fields are another clever calculational device.

“Most people” are the silent majority, who unfortunately are rarely heard by science journalists and quantum physics popularizers. The latter are more likely to listen to a vocal minority, who, instead of having learned from quantum physics that even the reification of some of the calculational tools of classical physics was never more than a sleight-of-hand, are desperately trying to apply the same sleight-of-hand to quantum physics. It beats me how, even in the old days of classical physics, people could pass off calculational tools as physical entities or natural processes. Perhaps it was their hubristic desire to feel potentially omniscient — capable in principle of knowing the furniture of the universe and the laws by which this is governed. Or was it the prestige provided by the carefully cultivated image of physicists as being potentially omniscient?

To answer the second part of your question: Yes, quantum mechanics can be interpreted as telling us something about “the ontologically objective reality out there,” but the reification of calculational tools is definitely not the way to find out what quantum mechanics is trying to tell us about the nature of Nature. On the contrary, it’s the best way to make sure that nobody finds out.

Defenders of a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics have argued that the mathematical axiomatization of the quantum theory doesn’t contain any variables denoting mental/psychological properties or entities (like consciousness, thoughts, experiences or human observers); quantum theory therefore refers to an objectively existing real world. What do you think of this argument?

The axioms that encapsulate the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics are, every one of them, as clear and compelling as axioms ought to be – provided that they are treated as features of a probability calculus. The way the axioms are generally stated, they are anything but clear and compelling. Only one – the Born rule – then refers to probabilities, while the other axioms make it seem as if quantum states were evolving physical states of some kind. I agree that this probability calculus allows us to conceive of an “objectively existing real world” and to make inferences as to its nature. But I repeat that this cannot be done by reifying the probability algorithms we call “quantum states.”

Some contemporary atheist physicists have argued that physics provides empirical evidence that “something can come from nothing” or that the universe was created without any cause at all. For example, in the recent book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have argued that “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Do you think this conclusion is scientifically correct? Has QM provided an empirical counterexample to the principle “out of nothing nothing comes”?

My only reply to this is a statement by C.D. Broad: “the nonsense written by philosophers on scientific matters is exceeded only by the nonsense written by scientists on philosophy.”

Do you think the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of the universe suggest (or make more probable than not) the existence of a creator or cosmic intelligence?

I don’t think it makes sense to assign probabilities to these things. As to what they suggest – it depends on one’s prior beliefs. I don’t believe in an extracosmic creator, but I see a creative intelligence at work in many places, not just the big bang and fine tuning. I also believe that this intelligence is far superior to the human variety, so that any attempt by us to second guess it is sheer folly.

Materialists have argued that the existence of split-brain patients provide almost a knock-down argument against dualism and in favor of materialism. What do you think of the cases of split-brain patients and their relevance for the mind-body problem?

I’m not competent in this field, but I’m confident that you will find a most competent response in the book First Person Plural: Multiple Personality and the Philosophy of Mind by Stephen E. Braude.

As a trained scientist, do you think there is good scientific evidence for psi phenomena and survival of consciousness?

There is impressive evidence. I don’t care if it’s considered scientific. Evidence is evidence.

Which is your current philosophical position regarding the mind-body problem (e.g. dualism, panexperientialism, etc.)?

Matter and mind are mutually irreducible, but they have a common origin, which is neither material nor mental but a trans-categorial (“ineffable”) Reality, which relates to the world in (at least) two ways: as a substance that constitutes it, and as a consciousness that contains it. In other words, the world exists both by that Reality (this is the origin of matter as we know it) and for that Reality (this is the origin of consciousness as we know it). So dualism is isn’t the last word, but it seems to me to be a necessary stepping stone towards an adequate understanding of the problem and its solution. There is an excellent book on this subject: The Two Sides of Being: A Reassessment of Psychophysical Dualism by Uwe Meixner. (I’ve written a lengthy review of this book, whose two parts can be downloaded from the AntiMatters website.)

Do you think that intelligent design, both in biology or in cosmology, is a viable scientific hypothesis?

I think that intelligence is beyond the purview of science. There is an excellent book on this subject: Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science by John F. Haught (My review of this book is also available at the AntiMatters website.) I am sympathetic to those who see a higher intelligence at work, but not to the politico-religious movement associated with the phrase “intelligent design.”

As I said, I believe in an intelligence that is far superior to human intelligence. The latter first designs and then executes its designs, utilizing pre-existent materials and pre-existent laws. The former doesn’t work that way; it doesn’t first design and then execute, and the only material it uses is the substance (Reality) in which it inheres. It works more like a spontaneously self-realizing vision of what is to be.

You are sympathetic to the epistemology known as “radical constructivism” developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld. Why do you think this epistemological view is superior to or better or preferable than other common epistemic doctrines like epistemological realism?

Everybody has his own views on all but the most trivial subjects. Often we stick to our views and defend them with a tenacity that makes us construct epicycles upon epicycles, but sometimes we reconstruct our working model of reality to incorporate new evidence. It would be ludicrous in the extreme to pretend that one’s present working model is adequate to all the evidence one may yet obtain. The great advantage of radical constructivism is that it takes this into account. (Note that von Glasersfeld doesn’t claim that radical constructivism is right but only that it is part of such a working model.) I believe that only the superior intelligence mentioned before can have an adequate knowledge of reality. (I also believe that evolution will eventually produce a species embodying that superior intelligence.) Our own intelligence can at best grasp limited aspects of this knowledge. The human being, to quote Sri Aurobindo,

is not intended to grasp the whole truth of his being at once, but to move towards it through a succession of experiences and a constant, though not by any means a perfectly continuous self-enlargement. The first business of reason then is to justify and enlighten to him his various experiences and to give him faith and conviction in holding on to his self-enlargings. It justifies to him now this, now that, the experience of the moment, the receding light of the past, the half-seen vision of the future. Its inconstancy, its divisibility against itself, its power of sustaining opposite views are the whole secret of its value. It would not do indeed for it to support too conflicting views in the same individual, except at moments of awakening and transition, but in the collective body of men and in the successions of Time that is its whole business. For so man moves towards the infinity of the Truth by the experience of its variety; so his reason helps him to build, change, destroy what he has built and prepare a new construction, in a word, to progress, grow, enlarge himself in his self-knowledge and world-knowledge and their works.

Mark this in bold red: “Its inconstancy, its divisibility against itself, its power of sustaining opposite views are the whole secret of its value.”

A common objection against radical constructivism is that it leads to skepticism regarding the real, objective world (if it exists) and destroys the traditional philosophical concepts of “truth” and “knowledge.” What do you think of this objection?

I wouldn’t call it an objection. Skepticism is healthy (as long as it also remains skeptical of itself). The correspondence theory of truth is our naïve, lazy, default position. It is not even wrong, to use Wolfgang Pauli’s felicitous phrase, inasmuch as there is no way to prove it either right or wrong.

What books on philosophy, quantum physics, consciousness and related topics would you like to recommend to the readers?

The major works of Sri Aurobindo, all of which can be downloaded here. Also the magnum opus of Jean Gebser: The Ever-Present Origin. Part 1 of this volume (“Foundations of the Aperspectival World”) is subtitled “A contribution to the history of the awakening of consciousness.” Part 2 (“Manifestations of the Aperspectival World”) is subtitled “An attempt at the concretion of the spiritual.” (See also my article “Evolution of consciousness according to Jean Gebser” in AntiMatters.) Then the works of Stephen E. Braude, whom I have already mentioned. Nobody writes with greater competence about paranormal phenomena. Also my own textbook The World According To Quantum Mechanics: Why The Laws Of Physics Make Perfect Sense After All (warning: pricey and intended mainly for students and teachers of quantum mechanics). A non-mathematical overview is available at this site.

Would you like to add something else to end the interview?

I have said that quantum mechanics can be interpreted as telling us something about the nature of Nature, albeit not via the reification of calculational tools. So what does it tell us, and how? My physical interpretation of the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics distinguishes itself from others in that it does not invoke untestable metaphysical assumptions – such as what happens between measurements – but proceeds directly from the testable calculational rules of quantum mechanics. By analyzing the probabilities that quantum mechanics assigns in various experimental situations, I arrive at the following conclusions:

  • Considered by themselves, out of relation to anything else, the so-called ultimate constituents of matter are identical in the strong sense of numerical identity. They are, each of them, that trans-categorial Reality I mentioned before.
  • By entering into spatial relations with itself, this Reality creates both matter and space, for space is the totality of existing spatial relations, while matter is the corresponding apparent multitude of relata – “apparent” because the relations are self-relations.
  • The world is structured from the top down, by a self-differentiation of this Reality that does not bottom out: if we conceptually partition the world into smaller and smaller regions, we reach a point where the distinctions we make between regions no longer correspond to anything in the physical world.

Note that the belief that quantum states are evolving (and hence instantaneous) states, is incompatible with the last conclusion, for while this implies that the world’s spatial differentiation is incomplete (it does not “go all the way down”), the interpretation of quantum states as evolving (and hence instantaneous) states implies that the world’s temporal differentiation – and thus (via the special theory of relativity) its spatial differentiation – is complete.

Another conclusion:

  • Measurements do not reveal pre-existent values – values that the measured quantities would have possessed even if they had not been measured. Instead, they create their outcomes. Physical quantities have values only if (and only when) they are actually measured.

But if no value exists unless it is measured, then the value-indicating property of a measuring device also needs to be measured in order to have a value, and a vicious regress ensues. To avoid such a regress, some properties must be different. Solving this problem requires (i) a rigorous definition of the elusive term “macroscopic” and (ii) showing that the positions of macroscopic objects form a self-contained system to which independent reality can consistently be attributed. The elusiveness of defining “macroscopic” has often been remarked upon. It is worth pointing out that it was the incomplete spatial differentiation of the physical world that enabled me to rigorously define this word, which in turn made it possible to terminate that regress.

Another thing I said is that nothing is known about the mechanism or process by which measurement outcomes influence the probabilities of measurement outcomes. Let me add this: every conceivable measurement outcome has a probability greater than zero unless it violates a conservation law. Consequently, physics never needs to explain “how Nature does it.” It only needs to explain – via conservation laws – why certain things won’t happen. This is exactly what one would expect if the force at work in the world were an infinite (unlimited) force operating under self-imposed constraints. We therefore have no reason to be surprised by the impossibility of explaining the quantum-mechanical correlations laws, except in terms of final causes. It would be self-contradictory to invoke a mechanism or process to explain the working of an infinite force. What needs explaining is why this force works under the particular constraints that it does, and this I have explained in my book (as well as several papers, which can be downloaded via this page).

Why people do string theory

I just possibly found the answer in an interview with Lynn Margulis in the April 2011 issue of Discover Magazine:

Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it — changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.