Humbling experience

The following is a Review by Henning Dekant (Real Name) at Amazon.com (June 29, 2011).

Richard Feynman famously stated “I think it is safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics.”

This book is changing that. Although so far I have only read up to chapter 5, it looks like this unexpected treatise lives up to its preposterous subtitle.

The way Ulrich Mohrhoff introduces QM everything flows from the basic rules of calculating with probabilities and the uncertainty relation. The latter in turn is a logical requirement for stable matter and quite a misnomer in English (surprisingly the original German term “Unschaerferelation” captures its meaning significantly better).

Reading chapter 5 has been a most humbling experience. I studied physics and have always been captivated by the particle wave dualism that the classical two slit experiment embodies so beautifully. Feynman observed that this “experiment has in it the heart of quantum mechanics”. Well, I feel like eating my heart out.

The way this book covers the two slit experiment everything falls into place and makes perfect sense. There is no wave particle dualism, just the naked necessity of a probabilistic regime. It is so simple. Painfully obvious. Easy to grasp with just a minimum of mathematical rigor. It boggles the mind that QM has not been understood this way from the get go. This feels like 20/20 hindsight writ large.

To add insult to injury, this is written as a text book that’ll be easily accessible for an enterprising high school student, because it briefly introduces all necessary mathematical tools along the way. I.e. a physicist can easily skip these parts as they are cleanly separated from the chapters in which the author executes his QM program.

If you’ve been trying to make sense of QM you will hate this book. It’ll make you feel stupid for not having been able to see this all along. Time to eat some humble pie.

I’ll report back once I read the rest.

Why are hidden variables hidden?

On March 31, 2011 Carl Hindman commented:

Joy Christian claims that nonlocality, nonrealism and entanglement are illusory…. I am not conversant enough with algebraic geometry to appraise these claims but if there is anything to them it would be interesting to see how it interacts with the PIQM.

PIQM = Pondicherry interpretation of quantum mechanics; this used to be my name for my own (evolving) interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Thanks for your comment, Carl. Christian does not claim that Nonlocality and Co. are illusory. He merely shows by counterexample that claims to the contrary (e.g., the illlusoriness of locality) are unfounded. Here are my two cents on the subject:

Science presupposes a metaphysical framework in at least two ways. A prior ontology is involved

  • in posing the questions science investigates
  • in interpreting the answers science obtains.

The ontological embedding of a scientific theory is itself not testable by the methods of science.

As a mathematical theorem, Bell’s theorem has indeed no metaphysical relevance. To quote Christian, “Bell’s theorem cannot be disproved, since its conclusions follow from well defined premises in a mathematically impeccable manner…. It simply says that a certain type of commuting functions cannot reproduce a certain type of correlations, which are known to be produced by non-commuting functions.”

In spite of this, Bell’s theorem has come to be seen as implying that “no physical theory which is realistic as well as local in a specified sense can reproduce all of the statistical predictions of quantum mechanics” (Joy Christian paraphrasing Abner Shimony).

Surely this cannot be right. How can a mathematical theorem rule out in advance every possible ontological embedding that is “realistic as well as local in a specified sense”? It can’t, and I agree with Christian when he goes on to say that “this claim — with its whole package of mathematics, physics, and metaphysics — is certainly subject to a refutation, say by means of a counterexample, no less than the theorem of von Neumann was, until thrown on the wayside by Bohm’s theory.”

This does not mean that I share Christian’s belief that the “aim of local realism is not to reject the achievements of quantum mechanics but to assimilate them in constructing a better map of the world”.

A better map of the world?

What counts as “better” in this context is purely a matter of taste. Cryptodeterministic interpretations are rather offensive to my own tastebuds. To the question, “Why are hidden variables hidden?”, my answer would be: because they do not exist.

That’s just the way it is

qutools quED entanglement demonstrator

George Musser reports (Mar 17, 2011):

Tucked away in a booth in the exhibit tent at the German Physical Society conference, Munich-based start-up company qutools showed off the world’s cheapest kit for seeing quantum entanglement: spooky action at a distance. Though still out of reach of a DIYer (20,000 euros, or $28,000), the kit is cheap enough to become standard equipment in Physics 101 courses, and when you consider what physicists had to go through in the 1970s to see spooky action for the first time, it’s a marvel of miniaturization.

One of the first ever to see spooky action for himself was Alain Aspect of the Institut d’Optique on the outskirts of Paris. His experiments filled entire basement labs, and he had to do them against a backdrop of skepticism or even outright hostility among most of his colleagues.

Quantum pioneer Nicolas Gisin of the University of Geneva thinks understanding will come as physicists gain familiarity with the phenomenon. He says he already notices that his students feel more comfortable with entanglement than his generation does. “Young guys find it fascinating, but are not totally amazed,” he says. “The kids here say, that’s just the way it is.” So kits such as qutools’s hasten the day when we finally figure out what the theory really means, and the crazy becomes the quotidian.

In other words, familiarity breeds the illusion of understanding things.

Quantum mechanics and consciousness

Dave’s question: you seem to mention consciousness only at the very end. Is that right, or do you
weave it into the text throughout, or intermittently?

Response: Consciousness appears only at the end, though definitely as more than just a note. The spiritual implications of quantum physics, on the other hand, appear much earlier, starting with Chapter 18.

Let me try to explain, however briefly and inadequately.

The formalism of quantum physics, like that of classical physics, provides us with calculational tools.

While some of the mathematical expressions of classical physics allow themselves to be reified, this sleight-of-hand (the transmogrification of calculational devices into physical entities, mechanisms, or processes) no longer works in quantum physics.

If one nevertheless tries to do this, one ends up asking a number of pseudo-questions, and one makes it strictly impossible to perceive the ontological implications of the only testable aspect of quantum physics. One attempt to provide (gratuitous) answers to those pseudo-questions is to drag in consciousness (much like the deus ex machina of old).

The formalism of quantum physics is a probability calculus. On the basis of the outcomes of actual measurements, it allows us to calculate the probabilities of the possible outcomes of measurements that may be (or might have been) made. In other words, it correlates measurement outcomes statistically.

If one analyzes the way quantum mechanics assigns probabilities, and if one doesn’t throw up a smokescreen by dragging in consciousness or trying to reify a probability algorithm, one arrives 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 one and the same thing. I call it Ulti­mate Reality and abbre­viate it to UR (mindful of the fact that the prefix “ur-” car­ries the sense of “orig­inal”).
  • By entering into spa­tial rela­tions with itself, UR 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.
  • Reality is struc­tured from the top down, by a self-differentiation of UR 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, and if we go on dividing mate­rial objects, they cease to be distinct.

What (in the context of physics) I call a materialistic framework of thought is one that models reality from the bottom up. What (in the same context) I call a spiritual framework is one that models reality from the top down.

This has nothing to do with consciousness BUT it makes it possible to anchor not only consciousness but also quality and value in the very heart of reality, as aspects of UR.

Within a bottom-up framework of thought, what ultimately exists is a multitude of entities (atoms, fundamental particles, spacetime points, you name them) without intrinsic quality or value. In many traditions this multiplicity is fittingly referred to as “dust.” In such a framework it is obviously hard to give a non-reductive account of quality and value.

In a top-down framework, on the other hand, we can invoke the Vedantic formula UR = Sachchidananda, according to which UR relates to the world (its manifestation) as the substance (sat) that constitutes it, as the consciousness (chit) that contains it, and as an infinite quality/delight that expresses and experiences itself in it.

There is much more that begins to make sense. For one thing, the process by which UR enters into spa­tial rela­tions with itself can now be understood as the transition from the primary poise (vijnana) to the secondary poise (prajnana) of the supermind, to use Sri Aurobindo’s terminology. For another, the laws of physics can be seen as preconditions of the possibility of an evolutionary manifestation of Sachchidananda. If UR wants to go through a cycle of involution and evolution, they have to be precisely what they are.