Quantum Mechanics and Experience

My paper “Quantum Mechanics and Experience” has been uploaded to the arXiv [abstract, PDF]. It’s a substantially revised / largely rewritten version of “First-Person Plural Quantum Mechanics,” which was uploaded in October 2014. Here is the abstract:

Whether we want to make sense of the presence of consciousness in a seemingly material world or understand the role (if any) that consciousness plays in the fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics, it is imperative that we distinguish between two concepts of reality: an epistemically inaccessible transcendental reality and an empirical reality experienced and objectified by us. After a summary of Bohr’s views and their relation to Kant’s theory of science, two fruitless lines of attack on the measurement problem are discussed: the way of the ψ-ontologist and the way of the QBist. In the remainder of the paper the following results are obtained. (i) Because the testable correlations between outcomes of measurements of macroscopic positions are consistent with both the classical and the quantum laws, there is no conflict between the superposition principle and the existence of measurement outcomes. (ii) Intrinsically, each fundamental particle is numerically identical with every other fundamental particle. What presents itself here and now with these properties and what presents itself there and then with those properties is one and the same entity, herein called “Being.” (iii)  The distinction between a classical domain and a quantum domain is essentially a distinction between the manifested world and its manifestation. By entering into reflexive spatial relations, Being gives rise to (a) what looks like a multiplicity of relata if the reflexive quality of the relations is ignored, and (b) what looks like a substantial expanse if the spatial quality of the relations is reified. (iv) The reason why quantum mechanics is a calculus of correlations between measurement outcomes is that it concerns the progressive realization of distinguishable objects and distinguishable regions of space. (v) The key to the relation between quantum mechanics and experience is that Being does not simply manifest the world; Being manifests the world to itself. It is at once the single substance by which the world exists and the ultimate self or subject for which it exists. The question how we are related to this ultimate self or subject is discussed.

Quantum mechanics in a new light

My paper “Quantum mechanics in a new light” has been published online in Foundations of Science (DOI 10.1007/s10699-016-9487-6 ). The final publication is available from Springer. The manuscript can be downloaded here.

Abstract: Although the present paper looks upon the formal apparatus of quantum mechanics as a calculus of correlations, it goes beyond a purely operationalist interpretation. Having established the consistency of the correlations with the existence of their correlata (measurement outcomes), and having justified the distinction between a domain in which outcome-indicating events occur and a domain whose properties only exist if their existence is indicated by such events, it explains the difference between the two domains as essentially the difference between the manifested world and its manifestation. A single, intrinsically undifferentiated Being manifests the macroworld by entering into reflexive spatial relations. This atemporal process implies a new kind of causality and sheds new light on the mysterious nonlocality of quantum mechanics. Unlike other realist interpretations, which proceed from an evolving-states formulation, the present interpretation proceeds from Feynman’s formulation of the theory, and it introduces a new interpretive principle, replacing the collapse postulate and the eigenvalue–eigenstate link of evolving-states formulations. Applied to alternatives involving distinctions between regions of space, this principle implies that the spatiotemporal differentiation of the physical world is incomplete. Applied to alternatives involving distinctions between things, it warrants the claim that, intrinsically, all fundamental particles are identical in the strong sense of numerical identical. They are the aforementioned intrinsically undifferentiated Being, which manifests the macroworld by entering into reflexive spatial relations.

Quantum mechanics and the manifestation of the world

My paper “Quantum mechanics and the manifestation of the world” has been published in Quantum Studies: Mathematics and Foundations 1 (3–4), pages 195–202, DOI 10.1007/s40509-014-0017-3. You can download it from Springer (for free) via this link.

An interesting new journal. In the preface to the second issue of Quantum Studies: Mathematics and Foundations the editors wrote:

After a very successful recent launch of this journal with the first issue, we continue to hope that this journal provides a home for those who think there are new worlds to be discovered by looking deeply into quantum mechanics. Our advice is: “Think, reconsider, explore, create deep questions, use paradoxes as a tool for understanding, and finally: publish in this journal!”

The reviewer of my paper wrote that it “describes a unique and refreshingly different view of quantum theory” — something one doesn’t get to hear very often. The paper is based on an invited talk at the Berge Fest, a conference celebrating the 60th birthday of Berge Englert (Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore, 22–25 April 2014).

Conference venue
The Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium at the National University of Singapore, where the conference was held.

The talk in turn was based on my paper “Manifesting the Quantum World”, which was published in Foundations of Physics 44 (6), 641–677, DOI 10.1007/s10701-014-9803-3. You can get the preprint here.

Quantum physics meets the philosophy of mind

Book cover

Today I received my copy of the proceedings of this international conference, which was held at the Catholic University of Milan in June 2013. It contains my paper “Consciousness in the quantum world: An Indian perspective”.

Download a pre-print of the paper.

Download the book flyer.

At the European Congress of the Theosophical Society in Paris

Participants at the 37th European Congress of the Theosophical Society
Quantum physics: a tale of two world views — click to watch or download
Evolution of Consciousness: an Indian Perspective — click to watch or download

You can also download the PDFs: First Second

Notes on an Important Book — Another 5-Star Review

Posted by Pete J at Amazon.com on (remember remember) the 5th of November:

For anyone interested in how mysticism can be connected up with physics in a practical way, to the benefit of physics, and without any beating around the bush, this book may be a godsend.

The mathematics of quantum mechanics is well beyond the comprehension of most people and for the most part it goes straight over my head. This text book, which seems to be a thorough introduction to this mathematics, complete with challenging exercises, is therefore unlikely to become a popular best-seller. It is also expensive, having the worst word-to-price ratio of any book I’ve ever bought. However, I’m glad I bought it. It is possible even for the non-mathematician to see at least how the various mathematical approaches fit together and why they are needed, while the real heart of the book is the interpretation it places on the mathematics and this is explained economically and in plain English.

Quantum theory is astonishingly successful despite the utter lunacy of its mathematics, but it rules out any hope of our ever being able to conceive of what it describes by the use of everyday ‘classical’ concepts. We don’t have any other kind of concepts, so we cannot conceive of what it describes. Whatever it describes would have to be vastly more weird and wonderful than anything we observe in our everyday world. So what are we to do? Must we accept that the way have to describe Nature must always remain incomprehensible to us?

While explaining why interpretations of quantum mechanics that try to accommodate classical intuitions are impossible, rendering futile any hope of creating a picture in our heads of what lies behind the mathematics, Mohrhoff quotes Dennis Diecks, Professor of the Foundations and Philosophy of the Natural Sciences at Utrecht University.

“However, this is a negative result that only provides a starting-point for what really has to be done: something conceptually new has to be found, different from what we are familiar with. It is clear that this constructive task is a particularly difficult one, in which huge barriers (partly of a psychological nature) have to be overcome.”

Mohrhoff continues, ‘Something conceptually new has been found, and it is presented in this book.’ What is presented is a big idea. ‘What quantum mechanics is trying to tell us’, says Mohrhoff, ‘is that reality is structured from the top down.’ As something to think about this is probably worth the price of the book. It seems possible that as stated this is a one-sided view and that there are two equal and opposite ways of looking at this structure, as might seem more typical for the world-view of the Upanishads, but it hardly matters. What matters is that we can see from The World According to Quantum Mechanics that the ancient psychological, metaphysical and cosmological doctrine endorsed by Sri Aurobindo and his group would dove-tail perfectly with the mathematics of quantum mechanics and allow physics to be reconciled with metaphysics and mysticism.

The book is a vindication of Erwin Schrodinger, who concluded early on that the new physics he was helping to invent implied the truth of the advaita doctrine. With its publication it may not be unreasonable to think that for theoretical physics a paradigm shift may be approaching of even greater magnitude than quantum mechanics.

No need to make the world stranger than it is

Another review at Amazon.com, by Adrian Icazuriaga:

For those who have been following Mohrhoff’s revealing ideas during the last decade (the so called “Pondicherry Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”), this book adds a few very important points to what is already one of the most comprehensive and consistent interpretations of the fundamental laws of physics that anyone has put forward up to the present date.

He obviously didn’t start this journey one fortunate Monday morning. He is following the steps of people like Bohr, Peres, Mermin and many other physicists who have contributed greatly to one and the same philosophical project: the de-reification of quantum-mechanical correlation laws, and the enormous implications that this carries for our understanding of physical reality.

This book is probably the best synthesis of that long-standing project. Its merit not only lies in taking a few isolated ideas about QM’s probability algorithms and integrate them into an overall consistent view, which would be a huge achievement in itself, but first and foremost, to explain classical mechanics and classical conservation laws as part of (in the limit of) that same fuzzy state of affairs.

In this way, he very cleverly differentiates between what an equation of continuity says and what a local conservation law is, basically “a feature of our calculational tools”. Key concepts like energy and momentum are introduced as underpinning the homogeneity of time and space respectively, instead of being just symbols in an abstract equation. On the other hand, the deceptive idea of force, deeply entrenched in our perception of a physical world, is redefined in a way that permits us to make sense of the Lorentz force law and the gravitational force as not being a mediating agent between causes and effects.

This is a profound, exhaustive and very well organized textbook, which should be of interest to anyone with a previous background in physics or, even better, to anyone who has not yet been contaminated by the mainstream habits and tricks of philosophy of science and crash undergraduate courses in QM. You won’t find here any of the fancy stuff that philosophers like to talk about (backwards causation, many minds, many worlds and many papers), but it will give you enough substance and plenty of material to think about for the next ten or twenty years. At the very least, it will give you the basic tools to approach any other interpretational strategy with the necessary dose of scepticism and awareness. As the author correctly stresses, there is “no need to make the world stranger than it is”.

The style is not as incisive and confrontational as most of Mohrhoff’s shorter works, which is a bit of a disappointment, but understandable giving that this book is aimed at the general public. In years to come, “The World According to Quantum Mechanics” will be taken for what it is: a serious and courageous challenge to our fundamental ideas about the fabric of space and matter.

How I came to meet Lady Marley, Ulrich Mohrhoff and other extraordinary people

A blog post by a theoretical physicist who (for the time being at least) wishes to remain unnamed.

This is the story of how I got to the philosophy department at […] University in the UK and how I came to meet and know about some very clever people.

I had an interest in science since a very young age. I used to build incredibly complicated and highly useless electrical devices, the idea was to create something complex that happened to have a function, the functionality was secondary, my main concern was to have as much stuff as possible without making the whole structure fall apart.

For example, there was a kind of “robot” which incorporated a weather station, a fan, a lamp and a cassette rewinder, among other things. The weather station only detected if it was raining or not, the problem was that instead of looking at this damn thing to see if the “raining” indicator was on, it was always easier to pull back the curtains and see it for yourself. The cassette rewinder allowed you to save on batteries, but on the other hand, you had to extract the cassette from the walkman, cycle back home, put the cassette in the rewinder till you thought you have reached the song you wanted to listen to, put it back in the walkman to check it, and so fort, so the whole business was utterly pointless. That’s how realism ruins an otherwise brilliant idea.

I had a respectable collection of live spiders and lizards, and I enjoyed building temperature controlled environments for my beloved reptiles. I was creating one of those comfy homes when I got seriously electrocuted and almost died. I was very surprised to find out years later that Richard Feynman had the same type of hobbies when he was a kid. The only difference is that he was brilliant and I almost killed myself, so that must mean something.

I decided to study physics for the same reason as everyone else: nature, the ultimate knowledge and all that stuff. To get there you first have to do some sacrifices, overcome obstacles, prove yourself, travel a long way, etc. So I did all that, and finally here comes the big day. First day of class at this multimillion investment building opening for the first time, sitting in the brand new auditorium, fully packed with 180 first-year students of physics, the biggest generation in the history of the faculty. Mauricio, who was the Dean at that time, had the honour of giving the welcoming speech. Using an impressive minimalist surround audio system he starts by saying, in perfectly clear Spanish:

“You have not come here to dedicate your life to the study of nature and the laws of physics, a 2% of you may follow that road; the rest of you have come here to become something quite different. In a few years time you will be working in the IT industry or in Wall Street. Nowadays there are physicists working in banks all around the world, developing dynamical models, understanding complex economic systems, programming software…”

With hindsight, now I understand that had I had a minimum of criteria or integrity I should have walked away at that point and never looked back. But for one reason or another I decided to stay there and after five difficult years I was among the handful of guys that came through the exit door with a degree in theoretical physics… ready for the IT market!

It may be because of that that I was not at all surprised when ten years later I read that a group of mathematicians and physicists working with derivatives in Wall Street had been made partially responsible for the worst economic crisis in the last century, ruining the lives of a few million people. It was the same as with those monstrous devices I used to build when I was a boy, it didn’t fit the purpose. Putting those guys to do that job was a risky move, too complex and artificial to be considered safe.

Coming back to my senses, I realized that the profession of physics had become too narrow and specialized, I was missing the big picture, so I decided to study philosophy. After paying a considerable amount of money (which is what you, or somebody else, has to do if you want to get into philosophy) I ended up studying Philosophy of Science at […]. Finally I had the chance to leave behind those narrow minded, boring physicists and meet some wonderfully smart people, people capable of saying at least two meaningful words in any social environment.

The main incentive for me was that I was going to be able to learn, first-hand, from one of the top-notch professors in the area of philosophy of physics and quantum mechanics, which was my main interest at the time. Her name was Lady Marley and there was a lot of fuss in the department whenever she moved around. When she asked a question in the middle of a talk, the background murmur would die away all of a sudden. When she entered a room, people would turn around and start inadvertently clapping with their ears. So I had to figure out what was all this admiration about. It turned out that it had something to do with her “genius”, of which her extensive work and knowledge of the subject was an inextricable part.

She had big smelly feet, which a Lady is not supposed to have, I know, but unfortunately that was the case here. So when you would get into the half-light of her office, hardly being able to walk between piles of books that reached to the ceiling, she would lay down in a sofa and take off her shoes, resting her big smelly feet in a heap of dispersed books and listening to you very carefully, not saying much, just to be able to measure the scope of your stupidity.

I was very close to getting into that same flattery mood when by sheer luck I came to read about this guy, one of those German physicists that happen to be born from time to time, his name was Ulrich Mohrhoff. No one knew anything about him or had the least idea of the issues he was trying to highlight in quantum mechanics. To me, everything he said seemed TREMENDOUSLY important, so I studied his work quite a lot, I read everything he wrote about physics and the few critical notes on his work that were published at the time. It was something groundbreaking and exciting. Exciting is the right word, here is a guy who is saying something really new and meaningful about a very old problem, and he publishes it in Foundation of Physics, so he’s not a nut case. What can be more important?

I was wrong, food is more important.

Lady Marley was very conscious about the nature of her job, she would ring up the BBC to defend the argument that government cuts in areas like philosophy of science could damage future discoveries in unrelated fields. While some crazy guy on the other side of the line would say just the opposite, that the world is made of things (extensive things) and we should try to live with what we can afford.

So after listening very carefully to Lady Marley’s lectures, I came to her first seminar, knowing, after studying Mohrhoff, Mermin and others, that there were at least a few very worrying issues on what she had presented as objective “facts” of the microscopic world. She started talking again about the wave function and I took the first opportunity that presented to ask her where was she extracting the physical content of that function from, whether it was just a mathematical apparatus to calculate probabilities or an element of the real world. She looked at me in the same way as Hudig looked at Willems* the day he fired the bastard from his post, and added with a pitiful laugh: “oh, you are an anti-realist!”

That was the beginning and the end of it. From then onwards there was no chance to discuss anything other than the usual waffle and fancy stuff, which is a mixture of science fiction and wishful thinking, all the standard tricks and transpired formalities of main stream philosophy of science. The rest of the people there were as lively as the reflection of the light in the totem permitted them to be. They shared some of that warmth and lived by it.

I didn’t find the openness or the opportunities I was expecting to find, but I did meet a very nice fellow with a strange Japanese surname which did philosophy of biology. He was unaffected and lovable. Sadly, I already had a bad experience with the natural world and didn’t want to get electrocuted twice.

* Two characters in Joseph Conrad’s “An Outcast of the Islands”

Quantum fuzziness and the stability of matter

In what follows I elaborate on a couple of arguments I made in The World According To Quantum Mechanics.

Why does a typical material object occupy as much space as it does? Part of the answer is that it is “made” of atoms (as well as molecules), and that an atom occupies a space roughly a tenth of a nanometer across. So why does an atom occupy that much space, despite the fact that it is composed of a very few objects, which either (like an electron) occupy no space at all or (like a nucleus) occupy a space roughly ten femtometers across — four orders of magnitude less than the atom?

To keep the problem as simple as possible, let us consider an atom of hydrogen in its ground state. Before we can profitably do so, however, we need to clarify what it means for a quantum-physical system to be “in” a state. After all, a quantum state is a probability algorithm, and it does not make much sense to say that a quantum system is in a probability algorithm.

We may think of the ground state of a hydrogen atom as an actual state of affairs if we allow that this state of affairs is adequately described in terms of the probability distributions it defines. Specifically, we may think of the position probability distribution defined by the ground state as describing a fuzzy position, and we may think of this fuzzy position as an aspect of that state of affairs. But we need to be clear about (i) when that state of affairs obtains and (ii) how we know that it obtains.

The ground state of atomic hydrogen (qua probability algorithm) is determined by a single outcome: the lowest possible outcome of a measurement of the atom’s energy. Strictly speaking, however, the possession by the atom of a specific energy cannot be observed. What can be observed is transitions between (approximately) stationary states, including transitions to the ground state. We can observe the transition of a hydrogen atom to its ground state, and we can prevent any subsequent transition to an excited state, at least for a limited period. If we do so, we know that the ground state (qua actual state of affairs) obtains, and we know when it obtains: not at any instant of time, but during an undifferentiated time span beginning with the atom’s transition to the ground state.

So why does a hydrogen atom in its ground state occupy as much space as it does? Primarily because the electron’s position relative to the proton is fuzzy. Merely being fuzzy is not enough, though. The relative position between the two particles must also stay fuzzy. For this, the electrostatic attraction between the two particles, which (by itself) would cause their relative position to get sharper (less fuzzy), must be offset by something which (by itself) would cause their relative position to grow more fuzzy. This something is the fuzziness of their relative momentum. A mere equilibrium between these two tendencies, however, also is not enough. The equilibrium has to be stable, and for this Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation is needed. This ensures that a decrease in the fuzziness of a relative position (beyond a certain limit) causes an increase in the fuzziness of the corresponding relative momentum, and vice versa. It thereby ensures that a decrease (or increase) in one tendency causes a decrease (or increase) in the other.

The word “uncertainty”, however, is misleading. Although Heisenberg’s original term Unschärfe carries the statistical sense of this word as well as the sense of “fuzziness”, the latter is appropriate here; for what “fluffs out” atoms is not our subjective uncertainty about the values of the relative positions and momenta of the constituents of atoms but an objective fuzziness of those values.