May 11, 2005

part 1 - thoughts on deep reality

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10

I was going to make a Jack Handy quip about the title but I'll control myself. We'll start out by giving the answer (or answers) to the quantum question. It's useful to keep these in mind as we go through the quantum story. We actually need to make a quick pitstop with Kant to lay out some terminology that will assist us. Kant become interested in laying out the power and also the limits of the scientific method after learning about Newton's advances. He came up with 3 separate concepts of knowledge - theory, appearance, and reality.

  1. Appearance is our sensory perception of phenomena
  2. Reality is "the thing itself" - what lies behind the perception
  3. Theory is our attempt to mirror appearance and reality
Kant said that our participation in experiencing nature explains our ability to fit theories to it. In other words, our theories match the facts because we are involved with the construction of both.
As appearances, they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility, remains completely unknown to us. - Critique of Pure Reason
Kant believed there was no way to know what was truely outside our experience. The mechanical universe was a construct of our mind, not reality itself. Reality was beyond us. Quite a pessimistic view but useful in our discussion. As we go through quantum theory you may find yourself agreeing with Kant more and more.

So now let's get to the answer. Actually in order to avoid a Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy ending let's make sure we understand the question. It is this:
What implications does quantum theory have regarding deep reality?
When I say 'deep reality' I'm talking about Kant's definition of reality. That is, what is really going on underneath our perception of phenomena. What is the essence of reality regardless of our ability to describe or predict or build mathematical equations around it? If quantum theory is correct (or wildly predictive) can we obtain a greater understanding of deep reality from the theory? It's not clear we can. Kant said no. Feynman cautioned against this saying there is no real reason to believe equations have any bearing on reality. Einstein said this search for understanding is the ultimate goal of a scientist. It is what interests us in this 10 part discussion.

In quantum's case the implications of what is deep reality are both disturbing and preposterous. Much like Godel's Incompleteness theorem shook the foundations of many mathematicians' belief systems, the same is true with quantum theory. None was shaken moreso than Einstein. He will play the ironic role of both father and arch-nemesis for quantum throughout this story.

So with that in mind let's go through some of the different interpretations of what quantum theory tells us about deep reality.

Reality #1 - Copenhagen Interpretation Part A
There is no deep reality. Quite a way to start out huh? Read it again. It is saying that the whole concept is wrong. The question is meaningless. No deep reality exists in any way. The leading proponent here? Bohr. Understand what he is saying. He's not denying our experiences. What we see is real enough. What supports it underneath, however, is not of this world. It is not real. Surely he's just cautioning us against making too many claims with regard to what quantum theory means? Here are his own words:
There is no quantum world. Only abstract quantum description.
Our abstract description (quantum theory) is the best we have. As wild as this seems, this is probably the most widely adopted view.

Reality #2 - Copenhagen Interpretation Part B
Reality is created through observation. Not mutually exclusive from Reality #1. Many believe both are true. There's the world we observe and then there is the world when we are not observing it. In other words there is phenomenal reality. You create your own reality. Describing what 'observation' is, is a little harder. There are a few sub-camps. Suffice it to say that we understand what observation is generally. Again no quacks here - John Wheeler is a strong proponent.

Reality #3 - The Zen Interpretation
Reality is an undivided wholeness. Fritjof Capra is clearly in this camp (The Tao of Physics). Since we are made of 'quantum-stuff' we cannot really make independent observations. We are part of reality. This inability to extract ourselves from what we are trying to observe and measure leads to our inability to understand what is going on.

Reality #4 - The Many Worlds Hypothesis
Reality consists of an infinite and increasing number of parallel universes. Clearly the most 'out there' theory. All possible events occur in the multi-verse. Remember when you blew that test in high school? You actually aced it in some of the myriad of other parallel universes. You'll find Paul Davies backing this concept.

Reality #5 - Quantum Logic
The world obeys non-human reasoning. Much like Euclidean geometry was smashed by mathematicians who came up with whole new axioms in geometry, proponents of this interpretation believe we are just not thinking about quantum theory logically. We are a victim of our own prejudices about what logic is. This is probably the least supported approach. There are no well-known proponents that I know of.

Reality #6 - Realism
The world is made of ordinary objects. This group holds onto the dear old way of looking at reality before quantum theory came along. In other words the fault lies with the theory. While it may have awesome predictive capabilities, it is not capturing the entire story. Much like ideal gas theory treats groups of individually moving atoms as a probability distribution of velocities and directions (an ensemble), proponents here believe that quantum theory treats real, objective, ordinary objects as probability distributions. Underneath the theory real electrons are doing very ordinary things. Einstein, Plank, Schrodinger and de Broglie are in this camp. With the latter 3 moving from the other interpretations towards the ends of their lives.

Reality #7 - Conscious Reality
Consciousness creates reality. A more refined case of Reality #2. It takes a conscious being (humans) to create reality. Proponents here believe that a dead and live cat exists in the Schrodinger cat gedanken experiment. No one looking at the moon? Then it's not really there. von Neumann was the biggest proponent (remember him from Godel?).

Now before I stop let me make a few comments about these interpretations that should help elucidate why this question is so interesting.
  1. All of them are fully consistent with quantum theory
  2. All of them are preposterous on some level and completely unsatisfactory
  3. The 'correct' answer may not be in this list
  4. It may be impossible to ever determine what the correct answer is
Think about which one seems correct to you. I can guarantee at some point during this discussion you will change your mind and think some or all of the interpretations are correct. At the end I can also guarantee you won't have strong feelings that one of them is correct. Myself? I don't think the answer is here. I have a tough time formulating what I believe but I'll try and lay it out at the end.

Next up - how we got from classical physics to quantum physics.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10

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