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Quantum mechanics: A theory with no view of the world?

Posted on February 7, 2013 at 6:29 PM Comments comments (104)

The view of the world that fits quantum mechanics has paradoxes which are hard to accept. 

In the classical view science was considered to be a mirror of nature. This conception comes in two varieties. Western science has sought a faithful representation of reality as it is in itself (realism). Empiricists would say that a good theory is a faithful summary of observed phenomena. The idealistic view (Kant) was that our sensibility and understanding shapes phenomena into objects. 

The third possibility is that a scientific theory is neither a mirror of nature nor a projection of our minds, but the expression of a fruitful interplay between nature and us. Francisco Varela developed this view under the name of "enaction" (Embodied mind). According to him our view of the world is dependent arising on the knower and the known. Science gives us methods to relate to the world in an efficient and powerful way. It is an instrument that helps us orientate in the world and nothing more.

What is a scientific theory? 
In the history of western thought there are four major conceptions:
Aritotle (330 BC) - A statement of "first causes" and meant to find the "essential properties" of things.
Descartes (1637) - A mechanical explanation of the motion of bodies in terms of contact and collision
Newton (1687) - A mathematical description of phenomena in space and time: motion of celestial or terrestrial bodies
Bohr (1929) - A mathematical predictive tool able to predict in terms of probabilities the outcome of experiments.

We see a progressive decrease in the scope of theories coupled with a progressive increase in precision. The more efficient they become, the less they pretend to make us understand the world as it is. 

What is the difference between a theory and its interpretation?
A physical theory is a mathematical framework (Bohr and Newton) to describe or predict phenomena. It is made of laws that connect variables (e.g. position and velocity). Classical mechanics is of this type. 

Interpretations are views of what the world is made of. A physical theory can be consistent with different views of the world. The seventeenth century view was that the world is made of material bodies, which have position and velocity and attract each other (Newton). The nineteenth century view was that the world is made of pure energy and that the appearance of bodies is given by local concentrations of energy (Oswald, Duhem)

What is quantum theory?
Quantum theory is a mathematical scheme to predict the probability of a particle being found 'here' or 'there'. What view of the world fits with quantum theory? There are three different possible answers. 1. All reality is a wavelike (Schrodinger) 2. Only particles exist 3. Dual reality: part wave - part particle. Particles use waves to guide themselves through the world (Bohm)

There is a fourth possibility, which is very challenging. Quantum reveals nothing of the intrinsic nature of reality, it is just a tool that helps us orientate by probabilities through the phenomena that we meet in the world.  Quantum theory may be powerful on a statistical level but weak on a descriptive level. An insurance company uses statistics to predict how many accidents there will be in a year and deduce what to charge its customers, and yet would not be able to describe us the nature of accidents. This position is supported by Werner Heisenberg and Anton Zeilinger. According to Heisenberg one cannot say what 'happens' in the world independently of one's intervention, experimentation or observation. According to Anton Zeilinger quantum mechanics is a theory of the limits of available experimental information.

Maybe quantum theory has revealed that nature has no intrinsic nature. This is a great challenge for western thought. Most physicists believe that quantum physics has "betrayed the ideal of science" (Isabel Stengers). Rene Thom a French mathematician referred to quantum theory as "the scandal of our century".

Should we persist with the ideal of science which brings with it many paradoxes or should we drop the ideal of science and regain some clarity? The ideal was so dear to so many scientists, it cannot be easily be suspended. It may be that quantum physics is so efficient and universal precisely because it does not aim to disclose the intrinsic nature of anything. It covers many events in many domains. It can even be applied to human sciences (i.e. linguistics and semantics). The common point between microphysics and semantics is that in both we have relational phenomena.

From a buddhist stance it is enough to appreciate what is given and just describe what is given but not try to imagine what is behind the veil of appearance. Maybe there is no veil at all, nothing hidden behind phenomena (Dogen) 

Limits to the quantum uncertainty and assessments for psychotherapy

Posted on January 15, 2013 at 7:24 PM Comments comments (3)
New experiments with weak measurement techniques challenge the predictions of Heisenberg's Indeterminacy or uncertainty principle (1927). 
This principle states that in our attempts to measure small particles like photons we cannot but disturb the reality we are observing. 

Heisenberg famously said "The "path" [of a particle] only comes into existence when we observe it." My understanding is that this is because all observation at the smallest level of reality (quantum level) normally require a direct interaction with the quantum particles, they require a small scale "collision", which changes the path and the momentum of the particle. At quantum level, where any presence is extremely influential, to measure something is to change the course of what you are observing. The observing "device" becomes part of the reality being observed. 

These two articles are based on original research paper by Lee Rozema, Ardavan Darabi, Dylan Mahler, Alex Hayat, Yasaman Soudagar, Aephraim Steinberg. Violation of Heisenberg’s Measurement-Disturbance Relationship by Weak MeasurementsPhysical Review Letters, 2012; 109 (10) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.109.100404

Why does quantum physics matter to psychotherapists?

Quantum physics and the uncertainty principle have been hugely influential in the way we think about our attempts to understand reality through observation. 

The question of validity of observation was raised for me during the one year I spent as an assessor for the Metanoia Counselling and Psychotherapy Clinic. During that time I assessed one hundred individuals who had been referred or self-referred to the clinic for counselling and psychotherapy. 

My role as far as I could tell was that of a gate-keeper and match-maker. I had to make sure that the clients who were offered therapy were also likely to benefit from treatment. As an assessor I needed to learn enough about the nature of the client's symptoms, their relational patterns and history, their availability for dialogue and motivation for change. Based on this information which I would gather in fifty minutes, I would make a decision about whether a short to medium term humanistic therapy with a trainee therapist may be helpful. I had to enlist the client's cooperation in this process - their willingness to answer a somewhat structured interview, covering presenting issues, current situation, history, previous therapy and diagnosis (if available), medication, was essential. 

But my assessment was never made based on the information volunteered by the client. I also payed attention to my observations of their behaviour in the room, as well as my internal responses (countertransference). I began to wonder how much of what I was observing was linked to the context in which we were meeting and to my presence in the role of the assessor. 

An assessment is a stress inducing situation for both therapist and client. The client finds themselves in an unfamiliar environment, with a person they haven't met before. The schedule is pretty tight, and the time we can spend on warm-up niceties is reduced to a minimum. There are unfamiliar forms to fill-out asking very personal questions such as: "Do you sometimes think of harming yourself or others?" 

Although the therapist is familiar with the environment, they do not know who is going to walk through the door. There is no filter. To me every assessment felt like going on a blind date. The client may be distressed, psychotic, extremely unwilling to participate in the task or violent. This only happened with five out of one hundred clients (so an incidence of 5%) but it is impossible to predict whether the next encounter will be a difficult one or not. 

So the client who is stressed is interacting with a possibly stressed therapist. The client will unconsciously pick up on this and this will affect their behaviour. By and large I have found this to be diagnostic in that the client's ability to deal with the stress-inducing situation and the vulnerability of the therapist is a great predictor of their ability to tolerate the stress of engaging with another in therapy. 

There are times however when the clients seek to over-adapt in order to fulfil the criteria for being accepted for therapy and because of their need and my power to deny them access to what they think they need, they may decide to withhold information, give false information, exaggerate, downplay and act. I have to take the client's words at face value, and may not know if I am being lied to. 

What I rely on, is the felt sense I get from being with the client. Whether I feel calm, friendly, scared or angry - these are all clues about the client's internal experience and the roles they take or make others take in relationships. 

Although the existence of the DSM is an attempt to inject certainty and precision in assessment and diagnosis, fundamentally we cannot always be certain. People don't always fit neatly into diagnostic categories, their realities and personalities cannot be neatly put in a box.

Intuition and categorisation

I think that assessment is a very delicate process, that starts with the therapist's curiosity and their intuition. Intuition is a very different process from categorising. These are two functions which are lateralised in our brain. Intuition involves the right hemisphere which is adept at reading between the lines as well as welcoming information from the body about feeling states present in the presence of the client. Intuition about danger is neuroceptive, not perceptive. "Neuroception" is a term invented  by Stephen Porges to describe a cognitive process that is bodily based and may not involve conscious thought. Berne speaks about "primal image" and "primal judgement". It may be a gut feeling or an image that says something about the client - we may not fully understand what. 

Diagnosis is a process of synthesising intuitive knowledge with data from the client's narrative and other measures to create a 3D model and to place the client's presentation into a category of functioning. Categorising is a function of the left hemisphere. 

Ultimately the written assessment is the therapist's narrative, not the client's. We can see how at every step we encounter uncertainty and the possibility of error. This is not exact science and it may not always be a faithful description of the client's reality. The diagnosis and decision to take the client on for therapy is hardly foolproof. 

Because he takes on the role of a gatekeeper the assessor may nevertheless be seen to "know" and "be right", particularly by trainee practitioners who may be less experienced. I felt I had to challenge this perception. By doing this I wanted to invite the clinicians to be their own authority, to always take the assessment report as a provisional story about the client, but no more than that. They need to conduct their own assessment of whether they can work with a client. They need to trust their own judgement.