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.

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.

The Quantum Mechanics of Being and Its Manifestation

My article “The Quantum Mechanics of Being and Its Manifestation” has been published at Cosmology.com (Volume 24, April 2nd, 2016). Here is the link to the article, and here is the abstract:

How can quantum mechanics be (i) the fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics and (ii) a probability calculus that presupposes the events to which, and on the basis of which, it assigns probabilities? The question is answered without invoking knowledge or observers, by interpreting the necessary distinction between two kinds of physical quantities – unconditionally definite quantities and quantities that have values only if they are measured – as a distinction between the manifested world and its manifestation.

There also is an extended version containing an Appendix which the published version lacks. While the published paper touches on various ways in which quantum mechanics does not have to do with consciousness, this Appendix concerns what quantum mechanics has to do with consciousness. The extended version is available here.

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.

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.

Quantum mechanics, scientists, and New Age mystics

Brian Cox — co-author with Jeff Forshaw of The Quantum Universe (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does) (Da Capo Press, 2012) — has posted an article titled Why Quantum Theory Is So Misunderstood in the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog. There he defends his claim that according to quantum mechanics “everything is connected to everything else”, and that “this is literally true if quantum theory as currently understood is not augmented by new physics,” which for the moment (and probably for a long time to come) it isn’t. “This means that the subatomic constituents of your body are constantly shifting, albeit absolutely imperceptibly, in response to events happening an arbitrarily large distance away…”

That this statement received some well-deserved criticism in scientific circles wasn’t, according to Cox, because it is wrong but because “it sounds like woo woo, and quantum theory attracts woo-woo merde-merchants like the pronouncements of New Age mystics attract flies.”

Cox goes on to inform us (“for the record”) that “the subtle interconnectedness in quantum theory cannot be used to transmit information.” Wait a minute. Haven’t we just been told that the subatomic constituents of our bodies are constantly shifting in response to events happening an arbitrarily large distance away? If this were true, the response would depend on what happened a large distance away — otherwise we couldn’t say that it was a response to what happened there. But if what happens here depends on what happens there, then what happens here contains information about what happens there.

I am not saying that the “subtle interconnectedness in quantum theory” can be used to transmit information. It cannot. What I am saying (in agreement with the critics) is that blather about subatomic constituents constantly shifting in response to arbitrarily distant events is not the right way to illustrate the subtle interconnectedness that exists in quantum theory. Rather, it is precisely the kind of thoughtless talk that fires up the wooly masters of the New Age. Nor does saying that the constant shifting takes place “absolutely imperceptibly” explain why it cannot be used to transmit information. This qualifier is nothing but the second of two wrongs that pretend to make a right.

Cox accepts partial responsibility for the “cataclysmic tosh” purveyed by writers who cannot “possibly have the faintest idea how to use quantum theory to calculate the energy levels in a hydrogen atom” but tries to defend the use of his shifty metaphor, with scant success. Along the way he cites scientific questions — Is the climate warming and, if so, what is the cause? Is it safe to vaccinate children against disease? — whose answers “are independent of the opinion, faith or political persuasion of the individual.” I wish the tosh purveyed by those who know how to calculate the energy levels in a hydrogen atom were equally independent of their faiths or opinions. (Political persuasion may not be a factor here.)

The fact of the matter is that the mathematical formalism of quantum physics is a probability calculus. It serves to assign probabilities to the possible outcomes of measurements yet to be made, on the basis of measurement outcomes already obtained. This calculus, moreover, is the only testable part of the theory. It is all that experimental physicists need to know and most of them care to know. How, if not by way of faith or opinion, does one get from here to balderdash like the following?

“Quantum theory tells us that the universe we experience emerges from a bewildering, counterintuitive maelstrom of interactions between an infinity of recalcitrant sub-atomic particles. To understand something as simple as a rainbow, we have to allow each single particle of light to explore the entire universe on its journey through the rain.”

For a significantly more insightful discussion of quantum mechanics and its popularization I strongly recommend an article by philosopher of science Dennis Dieks, which appeared in the first issue of AntiMatters.

How the Hippies Saved Physics

From a review by George Johnson of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). Titled What Physics Owes the Counterculture, it was published on June 17, 2011 in the NYT Sunday Book Review.

How the Hippies Saved Physics

“What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a spaced-out concoction of quasi physics and neuroscience that appeared several years ago, promised moviegoers that they could hop between parallel universes and leap back and forth in time — if only they cast off their mental filters and experienced reality full blast. Interviews of scientists were crosscut with those of self-proclaimed mystics, and swooping in to explain the physics was Dr. Quantum, a cartoon superhero who joyfully demonstrated concepts like wave-particle duality, extra dimensions and quantum entanglement. Wiggling his eyebrows, the good doctor ominously asked, “Are we far enough down the rabbit hole yet?”…

Dr. Quantum was a cartoon rendition of Fred Alan Wolf, who resigned from the physics faculty at San Diego State College in the mid-1970s to become a New Age vaudevillian, combining motivational speaking, quantum weirdness and magic tricks in an act that opened several times for Timothy Leary. By then Wolf was running with the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a Bay Area collective driven by the notion that quantum mechanics, maybe with the help of a little LSD, could be harnessed to convey psychic powers. Concentrate hard enough and perhaps you really could levitate the Pentagon.

In “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival,” David Kaiser, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turns to those wild days in the waning years of the Vietnam War when anything seemed possible: communal marriage, living off the land, bringing down the military with flower power Why not faster-than-light communication, in which a message arrives before it is sent, overthrowing the tyranny of that pig, Father Time?

The hippies who save physics
Members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, circa 1975; clockwise from left: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert and Fred Alan Wolf

That was the obsession of Jack Sarfatti, another member of the group. Sarfatti was Wolf’s colleague and roommate in San Diego, and in a pivotal moment in Kaiser’s tale they find themselves in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris talking to Werner Erhard, the creepy human potential movement guru, who decided to invest in their quantum ventures. Sarfatti was at least as good a salesman as he was a physicist, wooing wealthy eccentrics from his den at Caffe Trieste in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

Other, overlapping efforts like the Consciousness Theory Group and the Physics/Consciousness Research Group were part of the scene, and before long Sarfatti, Wolf and their cohort were conducting annual physics and consciousness workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

Fritjof Capra, who made his fortune with the countercultural classic “The Tao of Physics” (1975) was part of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, as was Nick Herbert, another dropout from the establishment who dabbled in superluminal communication and wrote his own popular book, “Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics” (1985). Gary Zukav, a roommate of Sarfatti’s, cashed in with “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” (1979). I’d known about the quantum zeitgeist and read some of the books, but I was surprised to learn from Kaiser how closely all these people were entangled in the same web […]