Thursday, February 6, 2014

On The Philosophical Implications of Quantum Mechanics

Some of my New Age brothers and sisters tend to blow the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics way out of proportion. They will say things like "quantum mechanics shows that the observer is important to determining reality, and so there is no one truth, we each create our own reality." I've known New Agers who think that QM proves that positive thinking ensures positive results, or that our attitude is the cause of our situation or the reality in which we dwell... basically this all comes down to the proposition that we can create our own universe through the power of thought. This is, of course, ridiculous, and quantum mechanics implies no such thing.

The irony in all this is that what QM does say is so interesting, exciting and indeed probably philosophically significant that there is no reason to over blow it at all. The truth is amazing enough. Now first it is important to point out that no one is sure WHAT the philosophical implications of QM are exactly, though many (rightly I think) believe that the significance is there. It is also important to point out that QM is a scientific theory that is subject to revision, and in fact we know that a major revision is coming because we know that QM and relativity are inconsistent and that there is likely some greater theory that will find a way to reconcile the two, involving major revisions in both. Finally, we must keep in mind that quantum mechanics really only matters at the level of the very small. Micro-events follow the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics and macro-events follow the deterministic laws of relativity. At  least, that is how science operates anyways. It must be noted that some are beginning to question whether the micro/macro distinction is valid and there have been a few recent experiments where quantum mechanical laws have been artificially forced upon a macro event.

With all that in mind, lets look at what quantum mechanics really says. Quantum mechanics is, and this may be the most important aspect of it, not deterministic. Imagine you had an orange, and you put it in one cup. Then every once in a while, and seemingly for no reason, the orange appeared 'magically' in another cup a few feet away... like it teleported. Now quantum events, events at the level of single atoms or smaller, do things like this. Quantum mechanics, the math behind it anyways, is very good at predicting the percentage change the 'orange' will be in one cup or another. What it can't do is tell you if in any given instance the orange will move or not. So it may predict something will happen with a particle 33% of the time, and indeed after 100 tries you find that particle 'jumped' 33 times. But in any given case you cannot know for sure. And this uncertainty, this openness, is not just from a lack of knowledge. It is an inherent part of the universe.

Now only slightly less important is the fact that for quantum mechanics' math to work, it has to put the observer into the equation. So go back to the imaginary teleporting orange. Whether the orange is in its original cup or whether it has appeared in another cup is an open question in each case, and the location of the orange is not fixed UNTIL YOU LOOK INSIDE ONE OF THE CUPS. In fact, the math treats the orange as existing in both places at the same time, until someone looks inside the cup. Quantum particles, too, behave one way or another according to a probabilistic framework, but which way they behave isn't determined until someone looks at what they are doing. In other words, the observer is a part of the system that determines how the particle will behave. But this DOES not mean that the observer creates their own reality.

Think about the particle as making a decision. It decides to go this way or that. The "orange" "decides" whether to stay in its own cup or move to another. The decision is not the observer. The observe does not force the orange to be one place or another, the scientist does not force the particle to behave one way or another. What the observe does is forces the particle, the "orange" to make a decision one way or another. But reality is what it is on its own terms. You do not create the world around you, though you can have some small influence on making the world be SOMETHING. What that something is in in your own hands.

Now many of the positive philosophical implications of this...the reality of freedom, the line between the macro and micro, even the consequences for logic in a world where science seems to deal in the contradictory, these could be laid out in stark terms but it would take pages to do all of that, probably a book. My goal here is not to paint a picture of what this all MEANS for us. What I'm trying to show here is that even on the most interesting interpretations of the facts, quantum mechanics does NOT teach that we each create our own world, or truth, or reality or whatever. At its most interesting, and this is interesting enough, what it teaches us is that the observer has a role to play in the process of the world creating ITSELF. It is the world and the things in the world that are doing the deciding. What they choose is what they choose no matter what you think or want. All we do is force the world to make that decision one way or another. That is interesting enough.

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