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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) 


A new way of thinking about the nature of reality

Posted on February 6, 2013 at 7:15 PM Comments comments (101)

The clock is an archetype of the old classical physics. What we have in the quantum mechanics is something that is not at all like that. A new way of thinking is required. 

Relativity theory
Einstein was at the crosswords between the old world and the new one. He said: "Behind the tireless efforts of the investigator there lurks a stronger, more mysterious drive: it is existence and reality that one wishes to comprehend." (Einstein, 1934) We all wish to comprehend reality, but what is our expectation about how that reality will show up?

Intrinsic properties have been defined as unique enduring properties that identify an object. Galileo made a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. He wrote" I think that tastes, odours, colours and so on are no more than mere names and they reside only in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated." Secondary qualities are colour, smell, taste, sound, warmth.  Primary qualities are size, shape, location, movement, contact, mass.

The failure of classical realism
The mystery is from the point of view of quantum physics: are these primary qualities truly primary? Is there a world of intrinsic objects or is the world intrinsically subjective - is it the world of experience?

Two great theories of modern physics
Relativity, which is a revolution in our understanding of space and time and simultaneity becomes significant only at high velocity. Quantum mechanics, which has revolutionised our understanding of light and matter becomes relevant only at small scales such as atoms.

Thought experiment. A relativistic challenge. To fit a 25cm pole in a 20cm long barn. Classically it is impossible because the pole is too long to fit in the barn. However at 75% the speed of light, the pole shrinks when seen from the barn to 18cm. If the barn is observed moving at 75% the speed of light towards the pole, the barn will shrink to 14 cm. Any object that moves becomes shorter in the direction of moving. Viewed from the barn the pole fits inside. Viewed from the pole, the pole is too long. These two views are classically inconsistent, but consistent from a relativistic point of view both are true, but with respect to two different observers, two different frames of reference.  

What you are looking for is always in a context, a relationship. When you are asking what is the single true state of affairs you are presuming there can be a view from nowhere - no person just a situation with its own truth. When we forget the context we come into great difficulties. Difference reference frames create different contexts and lead to different understandings. The vantage point is absolutely important to even something like size. Every primary property is affected by relativity. From a standpoint of physics we have to keep into account the frame of reference of the observer. There is no privileged reference frame. Each observer has the same claim to truth. 

Length shortening, time slowing and the relativity of simultaneity make analysis in terms of objects inappropriate and this becomes the new framework for understanding the new physics. David Bohm: "The analysis of the world into constituent objects has been replaced by its analysis in terms of events and processes" (Special theory of relativity) We so much want the world to be made up of objects - cells, neurons, atoms but this is a wrong view. We have phenomena and processes arise in time and they give the appearance of objects of enduring nature, but what is primary is the process. 

Implications
It is a wrong view to look for a single objective state of affairs that everyone will see in a consistent way.There is a fundamental observer dependence (real or imagine). There is always a vantage point. To forget the observer is a fallacy. We find that primary atributes are relative. Properties are relational - they depend on the relationships that we experience. We are always looking for the objective reality beyond experience, we are looking for something other than experience to support experience, but this, on the basis of Einstein's theory is not a good choice. When you look ever more deeply you find context dependent relationships that give rise to phenomena that may be more and more subtle. What one has context dependent experience and there is no need for any foundation other than that. We need to not be stuck in a vantage point. If you get stuck on a vantage point you see everything from your own side and you fight from that truth. 
A reality which you circle - you actually learn to take the point of view and position of others. Engaging with something different gives a fresh view on reality.