QBism, Bohr, and the quantum omelette tossed by de Ronde

New paper posted [download PDF]

Abstract: In his recent paper “QBism, FAPP and the Quantum Omelette” [1608.00548v1] de Ronde makes a variety of questionable claims concerning QBism, Bohr, and the present author’s critical appraisal of QBism [1409.3312v1]. These claims are examined. Subsequently an outline is presented of what one might see if one looks into the quantum domain through the window provided by the quantum-mechanical correlations between outcome-indicating events in the classical domain.

Pigliucci and Albert slamming Krauss, Yours Truly slamming Albert and (by implication) Krauss

In yesterday’s post at Philosophy & Theory in Biology, Massimo Pigliucci writes:

I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch, with the likes of Einstein and Bohr doing not only brilliant scientific research, but also interested, respectful of, and conversant in other branches of knowledge, particularly philosophy. These days it is much more likely to encounter physicists like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking, who merrily go about dismissing philosophy for the wrong reasons, and quite obviously out of a combination of profound ignorance and hubris (the two often go together, as I’m sure Plato would happily point out). The latest such bore is Lawrence Krauss, of Arizona State University.

I have been ignoring Krauss’ nonsense about philosophy for a while, even though it had occasionally appeared on my Twitter or G+ radars. But the other day I read this interview Krauss just did with The Atlantic, and now I feel obliged to comment, for the little good that it may do….

Krauss’s volume [titled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing”] … has been slammed by David Albert in the New York Times:

“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields… they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”

Now it’s my turn to slam Albert, though certainly not to defend Krauss.

Good heavens! Do these philosophy-of-science types really still believe in an “eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world”? Relativistic quantum fields are calculational devices. Particle physicists study scattering events. A scattering event is characterized by (i) a set of incoming particles with their energies and momenta and (ii) a set of outgoing particles with their energies and momenta. Relativistic quantum fields are algorithms that allow one to calculate for any given (i) the probability of obtaining any given (ii). They have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of the elementary physical stuff of the world — whether there is such a thing and if so what it might be. Period. Case closed. End of story.

(For a more realistic counterpoint to Albert’s brand of realism (read: reification of calculational tools) recall this quote by N. David Mermin.)

Responding in kind to Krauss’s armchair psychology, Pigliucci puts forth the hypothesis that the reason physicists such as Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss keep bashing philosophy is because they suffer from an intellectual version of the Oedipus Complex (you know, philosophy was the mother of science and all that… you can work out the details of the inherent sexual frustrations from there).

Pigliucci gives kudos to Ross Andersen, who conducted the interview, for pressing Krauss on several of his non sequiturs…. Andersen…: “certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?” And here Krauss is forced to reveal his anti-intellectualism, and even — if you allow me gentle reader — his intellectual dishonesty: “Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people’s attention.” Oh really? This from someone who later on in the same interview claims that “if you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you.” Indeed people are going to believe you, Prof. Krauss, and that’s a shame, at least when you talk about philosophy….

Andersen…: “it sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?” Maybe it was just me, but at this point in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”

But, insists Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responds: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. … If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.”

In all seriousness, Prof. Krauss, you ought (moral) to take your own advice and be honest with your readers. Claim what you wish to claim, not what you think is going to sell more copies of your book, essentially playing a bait and switch with your readers, and then bitterly complain when “moronic” philosophers dare to point that out.

Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprit is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)

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”