Showing posts with label Quantum Mechanics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Quantum Mechanics. Show all posts

05 October 2018

Quantum Bullshit

I was appalled recently to see that a senior professor of Buddhism Studies—whose work on Chinese Buddhist texts I much admire—had fallen into the trap of trying to compare some concept from Buddhist philosophy to what he calls "quantum mechanics". Unfortunately, as seems almost inevitable in these cases, the account the Professor gives of quantum mechanics is a hippy version of the Copenhagen interpretation proposed by Werner Heisenberg back in the 1920s. In a further irony, this same Professor has been a vocal critic of the secularisation and commercialisation of Buddhist mindfulness practices. The same problems that he identifies in that case would seem to apply to his own misappropriation of quantum mechanics.

As I've said many times, whenever someone connected with Buddhism uses the word "quantum" we can safely substitute the word "bullshit". My use of the term "bullshit" is technical and based on the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt (image left). I use "bullshit" to refer to a particular rhetorical phenomenon. Here is the anonymous summary from Wikipedia, which I think sums up Frankfurt's arguments about bullshit precisely and concisely:
“Bullshit is rhetoric without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false; only whether or not their listener is persuaded.”
What I am suggesting is that Buddhists who refer to quantum mechanics are not, in fact, concerned with truth, at all. A liar knows the truth and deliberately misleads. The bullshitter may or may not know or tell the truth, but they don't care either way. Their assertions about quantum mechanics may even be true, but this is incidental. The idea is to persuade you of a proposition which may take several forms but roughly speaking it amounts to:
If you sit still and withdraw attention from your sensorium, another more real world is revealed to you.
Certain Buddhists argue that a specific man sitting under a specific tree ca 450 BCE, while ignoring his sensorium, saw such a reality (Though he neglected to mention this). And then this thesis is extended with the proposition:
The reality that one "sees" when one's eyes are closed is very like the descriptions (though not the mathematics) of quantum mechanics.
I imagine that these statements strike most scientists as obviously false. The first hint we had of a quantum world was in 1905 when Einstein formalised the observation that energy associated with atoms comes in discrete packets, which he called "quanta" (from the Latin with the sense "a portion"; though, literally, "how much?"). Even this nanoscale world, which we struggle to imagine, is established by observation, not by non-observation. Equally, there is no sign in early Buddhist texts that the authors had any interest in reality, let alone ultimate reality. They didn't even have a word that corresponds to "reality". They did talk a lot about the psychology of perception and about the cessation of perception in meditation, within the context of a lot of Iron Age mythology. Given that there is no prima facie resemblance between science and Buddhism whatever, we might well ask why the subject keeps coming up.

I think this desire to positively compare Buddhism to quantum mechanics is a form of "virtue signalling". By attempting to align Buddhist with science, the highest form of knowledge in the modern world, we hope to take a ride on the coat-tails of scientists. This is still the Victorian project of presenting the religion of Buddhism as a "rational" alternative to Christianity. Generally speaking, Buddhists are as irrational as any other religieux, it's just that one of the irrational things Buddhists believe is that they are super-rational.

Had it merely been another misguided Buddhism Studies professor, I might have let it go with some pointed comments on social media. Around the same time, I happened to watch a 2016 lecture by Sean Carroll on YouTube called, Extracting the Universe from the Wave Function. Then I watched a more recent version of the same lecture from 2018 delivered at the Ehrenfest Colloquium. The emphasis is different in the two forums and I found that watching both was useful. Both lectures address the philosophy of quantum mechanics, but in a more rigorous way than is popular amongst Buddhists. Sean thinks the Copenhagen interpretation is "terrible" and he convinced me that he is right about this. The value of the lectures is that one can get the outlines of an alternative philosophy of quantum mechanics and with it some decisive critiques of the Copenhagen interpretation. Sean is one of the leading science communicators of our time and does a very good job of explaining this complex subject at the philosophical level.


What is Quantum Mechanics?

It is perhaps easiest to contrast quantum mechanics with classical mechanics. Classical mechanics involves a state in phase space (described by the position and momentum of all the elements) and then some equations of motion, such as Newton's laws, which describe how the system evolves over time (in which the concept of causation plays no part). Phase space has 6n dimensions, where n is the number of elements in the state. Laplace pointed out that given perfect knowledge of such a state at a given time, one could apply the equations of motion to know the state of the system at any time (past or future).

Quantum mechanics also minimally involves two things. A state is described by a Hilbert Space, the set of all possible quantum states, i.e., the set of all wave functions, Ψ(x). It is not yet agreed whether the Hilbert Space for our universe has an infinite or merely a very large number of dimensions.

For the STEM people, there's a useful brief summary of Hilbert spaces here. If you want an image of what a Hilbert Space is like, then it might be compared to the library in the short story The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges. (Hat-tip to my friend Amṛtasukha for this comparison).

Mathematically, a Hilbert Space is a generalisation of vector spaces which satisfy certain conditions, so that they can be used to describe a geometry (more on this later). One thing to watch out for is that mathematicians describe Hilbert Spaces (plural). Physicists only ever deal with the quantum Hilbert Space of all possible wavefunctions and have slipped into the habit talking about "Hilbert Space" in the singular. Sean Carroll frequently reifies "Hilbert Space" in this way. Once we agree that we are talking about the space defined by all possible wave functions, then it is a useful shorthand. We don't have to consider any other Hilbert Spaces.

The second requirement is an equation that tells us how the wave functions in Hilbert Space evolve over time. And this is Schrödinger's wave equation. There are different ways of writing this equation. Here is one of the common ways:

The equation is a distillation of some much more complex formulas and concepts that take a few years of study to understand. Here, i is the imaginary unit (defined as i2 = -1), ħ is the reduced Planck constant (h/2π). The expression δ/δt represents change over time. Ψ represents the state of the system as a vector in Hilbert Space -- specifying a vector in a space with infinite dimensions presents some interesting problems. Ĥ is the all important Hamiltonian operator which represents the total energy of the system. And note that this is a non-relativistic formulation.

We owe this formalisation of quantum theory to the fact that John von Neumann studied mathematics with David Hilbert in the early 20th Century. Hilbert was, at the time, trying to provide physics with a more rigorous approach to mathematics. In 1915, he invited Einstein to lecture on Relativity at Göttingen University and the two of them, in parallel, recast gravity in terms of field equations (Hilbert credited Einstein so no dispute arose between them). In 1926, Von Neumann showed that the two most promising approaches to quantum mechanics—Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and Erwin Schrödinger's wave equation—could be better understood in relation to a Hilbert Space.

[I'm not sure, but this may the first time a Buddhist has ever given even an overview of the maths in an essay about Buddhism and quantum mechanics.]

By applying the Born Rule (i.e., finding the square of the Wave Function) we can find the probability that any given particle will be found in some location at any given time. A common solution to the wave equation is a map of probabilities. For example, the probability plot for an electron in a resting state hydrogen atom looks like this (where shading represents the range probability and the black in the middle is the nucleus). And btw this is a 2D representation of what in 3D is a hollow sphere.



If we give the electron more energy, the probably map changes in predictable ways. An electron bound to an atom behaves a bit like a harmonic oscillator. A good example of a harmonic oscillator is a guitar string. If you pluck a guitar string you get a complex waveform made from the fundamental mode plus harmonics. The fundamental mode gives a note its perceived pitch, while the particular mixture of harmonics is experienced as the timbre of the note. The fundamental mode has two fixed points at the ends where there is zero vibration, and a maximum in the centre. The next mode, the 2nd harmonic takes more energy to produce and the string vibrates with three minima and two maxima - the pitch is an octave above the fundamental.


Using the fleshy parts of the fingers placed at minima points, it is possible to dampen extraneous vibrations on a guitar string and pick out the harmonics. Such notes have a very different timbre to regular notes. An electron bound to an atom also has "harmonics", though the vibrational modes are three dimensional. One of the striking experimental confirmations of this comes if we split sunlight up into a rainbow, we observe dark patches corresponding to electrons absorbing photons of a precise energy and becoming "excited". One of the first confirmations of quantum mechanics was that Schrödinger was able to accurately predict the absorption lines for a hydrogen atom using it.



And on the other hand, after we excite electrons in, say, a sodium atom, they return to their resting state by emitting photons of a precise frequency (in the yellow part of the visible spectrum) giving sodium lamps their characteristic monochromatic quality. The colour of light absorbed or emitted by atoms allows us to use light to detect them in spectral analysis or spectroscopy. For example, infrared light is good for highlighting molecular bonds; while green-blue visible and ultraviolet light are good for identifying individual elements (and note there are more dark patches towards the blue end of the spectrum).

The wave function applied to the electron in an atom gives us a map of probabilities for finding the electron at some point. We don't know where the electron is at any time unless it undergoes some kind of physical interaction that conveys location information (some interactions won't convey any location information). This is one way of defining the so-called the Measurement Problem.
rugby ball

I have a new analogy for this. Imagine a black rugby ball on a black field, in the dark. You are walking around on the field, and you know where you are from a GPS app on your phone, but you cannot see anything. The only way to find the ball is to run around blindly until you kick it. At the moment you kick the ball the GPS app tells you precisely where the ball was at that moment. But kicking the ball also sends it careering off and you don't know where it ends up.

Now, Buddhists get hung up on the idea that somehow the observer has to be conscious, that somehow consciousness (whatever that word means!) is involved in determining how the world evolves in some real sense. As Sean Carroll, says in his recent book The Big Picture:
“...almost no modern physicists think that 'consciousness' has anything whatsoever to do with quantum mechanics. There are an iconoclastic few who do, but it's a tiny minority, unrepresentative of the mainstream” (p.166).
The likes of Fritjof Capra have misled some into thinking that the very vague notion of consciousness plays a role in the measurement problem. As far as the mainstream of quantum mechanics is concerned, consciousness plays no part whatsoever in quantum mechanics. And even those who think it does have provided no formalism for this. There is no mathematical expression for "consciousness", "observer", or "observation". All of these concepts are completely nebulous and out of place around the wave equation, which predicts the behaviour of electrons at a level of accuracy that exceeds the accuracy of our measurements. In practice, our experiments produce data that matches prediction to 10 decimal places or more. Quantum mechanics is the most accurate and precise theory ever produced. "Consciousness" is the least well-defined concept in the history of concepts. "Observation" is not even defined.

In the image of the black rugby ball on a black field in the dark, we don't know where the ball is until we kick it. However, a ball and a field are classical. In the maths of quantum mechanics, we have no information about the location of the ball until we physically interact with it. Indeed, it appears from the maths that it's not physically in one place until information about location is extracted from the system through a physical interaction. And by this we mean, not a conscious observer, but something like bouncing some radiation off the electron. It's as though every time you take a step there is a possibility of the ball being there and you kicking it, and at some point, it is there and you kick it. But until that moment, the ball is (somehow) smeared across the whole field all at once.

Put another way, every time we take a step there is some probability that the ball is there and we kick it, and there is some probability that the ball is not there and we do not kick it. But as we step around, we don't experience a probability, and we never experience a ball spread out over all locations. Whenever we interact with the system we experience the ball as being at our location or at some specific other location. Accounting for this is at the heart of different interpretations of quantum mechanics.


Copenhagen

What every undergraduate physics student learns is the Copenhagen Interpretation of the measurement problem. In this view, the ball is literally (i.e., in reality) everywhere at once and only adopts a location at the time of "measurement" (although measurement is never defined). This is called superposition - literally "one thing on top of another". Superposition is a natural outcome of the Wave Equation; there are huge problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of how mathematical superposition relates to reality.

Firstly, as Schrödinger pointed out with his famous gedanken (thought) experiment involving a cat, this leads to some very counterintuitive conclusions. In my analogy, just before we take a step, the rugby ball is both present and absent. In this view, somehow by stepping into the space, we make the ball "choose" to be present or absent.

Worse, the Copenhagen Interpretation assumes that the observer is somehow outside the system, then interacts with it, extracting information, and then at the end is once again separate from the system. In other words, the observer behaves like a classic object while the system being observed is quantum, then classical, then quantum. Hugh Everett pointed out that this assumption of Copenhagen is simply false.

In fact, when we pick up the cat to put it in the box, we cannot avoid becoming entangled with it. What does this mean? Using the ball analogy if we kick the ball and know its location at one point in time then we become linked to the ball, even though in my analogy we don't know where it is now. If someone else now kicks it, then we instantaneously know where the ball was when it was kicked a second time, wherever we happen to be on the field. It's as though we get a GPS reading from the other person sent directly to our phone. If there are two entangled electrons on either side of the universe and we measure one of them and find that it has spin "up", then we also know with 100% certainty that at that same moment in time, the other electron has spin "down". This effect has been experimentally demonstrated so we are forced to accept it until a better explanation comes along. Thus, in Schrödinger's gedanken experiment, we always know from instant to instant what state the cat is in (this is also counter-intuitive, but strictly in keeping with the metaphor as Schrödinger outlined it).

As you move about the world during your day, you become quantum entangled with every object you physically interact with. Or electrons in atoms that make up your body become entangled with electrons in the objects you see, taste, touch, etc. Although Copenhagen assumes a cut off (sometimes called Heisenberg's cut) between the quantum world and the classical world, Hugh Everett pointed out that this assumption is nonsense. There may well be a scale on which classical descriptions are more efficient ways of describing the world, but if one atom is quantum, and two atoms are, and three, then there is, in fact, no number of atoms that are not quantum, even if their bulk behaviour is different than their individual behaviour. In other words, the emergent behaviour of macro objects notwithstanding, all the individual atoms in our bodies are obeying quantum mechanics at all times. There is no, and can be no, ontological cut off between quantum and classical, even if there is an epistemological cutoff.

In terms of Copenhagen, the argument is that wave function describes a probability of the ball being somewhere on the field and that before it is kicked it is literally everywhere at once. At the time of kicking the ball (i.e., measurement) the wave function "collapses" and the ball manifests at a single definite location and you kick it. But the collapse of the wave function is a mathematical fudge. In fact, it says that before you look at an electron it is quantum, but when you look at it, it becomes classical. Then when you stop looking it becomes quantum again. This is nonsense.

In Schrödinger's cat-in-the-box analogy, as we put the cat in the box, we become entangled with the cat; the cat interacts with the box becoming entangled with it; and so on. How does an observer ever stand outside a system in ignorance and then interact with it to gain knowledge? The answer is that, where quantum mechanics applies, we cannot. The system is cat, box, and observer. There is no such thing as an observer outside the system. But it is even worse because we cannot stop at the observer. The observer interacts with their environment over a period of years before placing the cat in the box. And both cat and box have histories as well. So the system is the cat, the box, the observer, and the entire universe. And there is no way to get outside this system. It's not a matter of whether we (as macro objects) are quantum entangled, but to what degree we are quantum entangled.

This is a non-trivial objection because entanglement is ubiquitous. We can, in theory, speak of a single electron orbiting a single nucleus, but in reality all particles are interacting with all other particles. One can give a good approximation, and some interactions will be very weak and therefore can be neglected for most purposes but, in general, the parts of quantum systems are quantum entangled. Carroll argues that there are no such things as classical objects. There are scale thresholds above which classical descriptions start to be more efficient computationally than quantum descriptions, but the world itself is never classical; it is always quantum. There is no other option. We are made of atoms and atoms are not classical objects.

Carroll and his group have been working on trying to extract spacetime from the wave function. And this is based on an idea related to entanglement. Since 99.99% of spacetime is "empty" they ignore matter and energy for the moment. The apparently empty spacetime is, in fact, just the quantum fields in a resting state. There is never nothing. But let's call it empty spacetime. One can define a region of spacetime in terms of a subset of Hilbert Space. And if you take any region of empty spacetime, then it can be shown to experience some degree of entanglement with all the other regions nearby. In fact, the degree of entanglement is proportional to the distance. What Carroll has suggested is that we turn this on its head and define distance as a function of quantum entanglement between regions of spacetime. Spacetime would then be an emergent property of the wave function. They have not got a mathematical solution to the wave equation which achieves this, but it is an elegant philosophical overview and shows early promise. Indeed, in a much simplified theoretical universe (with its own specific Hilbert Space, but in which Schrödinger's wave equation applies), they managed to show that the degree of entanglement of a region of spacetime determined its geometry in a way that was consistent with general relativity. In other words, if the maths works out they have shown how to extract quantum gravity from just Hilbert Space and the wavefunction.

Other questions arise from this critique of Copenhagen. What is an "event"? What is an "observation"? The problem for Buddhists is that we assume that it has something to do with "consciousness" and that "consciousness" has something to do with Buddhism. The first is certainly not true, while the second is almost certainly not true depending on how we define consciousness. And defining consciousness is something that is even less consensual than interpreting the measurement problem. There are as many definitions as there are philosophers of mind. How can something so ill-defined be central to a science that is all about well-defined concepts?


More on Interpretations

In 2013, some researchers quizzed physicists at a conference about their preferred interpretation of the measurement problem. This gave rise to what Sean Carroll called The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics:


Sean Carroll comments:
 
I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that the results of this poll should be very embarrassing to physicists. Not, I hasten to add, because Copenhagen came in first, although that’s also a perspective I might want to defend (I think Copenhagen is completely ill-defined, and shouldn’t be the favorite anything of any thoughtful person). The embarrassing thing is that we don’t have agreement.

Just 42% of those surveyed preferred Copenhagen - the account of quantum mechanics they all learned as undergraduates. Mind you, Carroll's preferred interpretation, Everett, got even less at 18%. However, it may be more embarrassing than it looks, because there are multiple Everettian interpretations. And note that several existing interpretations had no supporters amongst those surveyed (the survey was not representative of the field).

In Carroll's account, Copenhagen has fatal flaws because it makes unsupportable assumptions. So what about the alternatives? I found Carroll's explanation of the Everett interpretation in this lecture quite interesting and compelling. It has the virtue of being parsimonious.

Just like other interpretations, Everett began with Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. But he stopped there. There are no special rules for observers as classical objects because there are no classical objects (just classical descriptions). In this view, the rugby ball still both exists and does not exist, but instead of the wave function collapsing, the interaction between the ball, the field, the observer, and the world cause "decoherence". If there are two possible outcomes — ball present at this location, ball somewhere else — then both happen, but decoherence means that we only ever see one of them . The other possibility also occurs, but it is as though the world has branched into two worlds: one in which the ball is present and we kick it, and one in which it is somewhere else and we do not kick it. And it turns out that having split in this way there is no way for the two worlds to interact ever again. The two outcomes are orthogonal in Hilbert Space.

While this sounds counterintuitive, Carroll argues that the many worlds are already present in the Hilbert Space and all the other interpretations have to introduce extra rules to make those other worlds disappear. And in the case of Copenhagen, the extra rules are incoherent. Everett sounds plausible enough in itself, but given the number of particles in the universe and how many interactions there are over time, the number of worlds must be vast beyond imagining. And that is deeply counter-intuitive. However, being counter-intuitive is not an argument against a theory of quantum mechanics. Physics at this scale is always going to be counterintuitive because it's not like the world on the scale we can sense. And at this point, it will be useful to review some of the problems associated with differences in scale.


Scale (again)

I've written about scale before. It is such an important idea and so many of our misconceptions about the world at scales beyond those our senses register are because we cannot imagine very small or very large scales.

We understand our world as classical. That's what we evolved for. Modern humans have been around for roughly between 400,000 and 200,000 years. But we discovered that there are scales much smaller than we can experience with our senses only about 400 years ago with the development of the microscope. As our understanding progressed we began to see evidence of the world on smaller and smaller scales. Each time we had to adjust our notions of the universe. At the same time telescopes revealed a very much larger universe than we had ever imagined.

Quantum mechanics developed from Einstein's articles in 1905 and was formalised mathematically in the 1920s. It has never been intuitive and it is so very far from our experience that is unlikely ever to be intuitive.

Humans with good eyesight can see objects at around 0.1 mm or 100 µm. A human hair is about 20-200 µm. A small human cell like a sperm might be 10 µm, and not visible; while a large fat cell might be 100 µm and be visible (just). A water molecule is about 0.0003 µm or 0.3 nanometres (nm = 10-9 m). But at this level, the physical dimensions of an object become problematic because the location in space is governed by quantum mechanics and is a probability. Indeed, the idea of the water molecule as an "object" is problematic. The classical description of the world breaks down at this scale. The average radius of a hydrogen atom at rest is calculated to be about 25 picometres or 25x10-12 m, but we've already seen that the location of the electron circling the hydrogen nucleus is a probability distribution. We define the radius in terms of an arbitrary cut off in probability. The estimated radius of an electron is less than 10−18 m (though estimates vary wildly). And we have to specify a resting state atom, because in a state of excitation the electron probability map is a different shape. It hardly makes sense to think of the electron as having a fixed radius or even as being an object at all. An electron might best be thought of as a perturbation in the electromagnetic field.

The thing is that, as we scale down, we still think of things in terms of classical descriptions and we don't understand when classical stops applying. We cannot help but think in terms of objects, when, in fact, below the micron scale this gradually makes less and less sense. Given that everything we experience is on the macro scale, nothing beyond this scale will ever be intuitive.

As Sean Carroll says, the many worlds are inherent in Hilbert Space. Other theories have to work out how to eliminate all of the others in order to leave the one that we observe. Copenhagen argues for something called "collapse of the wave function". Why would a wave function collapse when you looked at it? Why would looking at something cause it to behave differently? What happened in the universe before there were observers? Everett argued that this is an artefact of thinking of the world in classical terms. He argued that, in effect, there is no classical world, there is only a quantum world. Subatomic particles are just manifestations of Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. The world might appear to be classical on some scales, but this is just an appearance. The world is fundamentally quantum, all the time, and on all scales.

Thinking in these terms leads to new approaches to old problems. For example, most physicists are convinced that gravity must be quantised like other forces. Traditional approaches have followed the methods of Einstein. Einstein took the Newtonian formulation of physical laws and transformed them into relativity. Many physicists take a classical expression of gravity and attempt to reformulate it in quantum terms - leading to string theory and other problematic approaches. Carroll argues that this is unlikely to work because it is unlikely that nature begins with a classical world and then quantises it. Nature has to be quantum from the outset and thus Everett was on right track. And, if this is true, then the only approach that will succeed in describing quantum gravity will need to start with quantum theory and show how gravity emerges from it. As I say, Carroll and his team have an elegant philosophical framework for this and some promising preliminary results. The mathematics is still difficult, but they don't have the horrendous and possibly insurmountable problems of, say, string theory.

Note: for an interesting visualisation the range of scales, see The Scale of the Universe.


Conclusion

Quantum mechanics is a theory of how subatomic particles behave. It minimally involves a Hilbert Space of all possible wave functions and the Schrödinger wave equation describing how these evolve over time. Buddhism is a complex socio-religious phenomenon in which people behave in a wide variety of ways that have yet to be described with any accuracy. It's possible that there is a Hilbert Space of all possible social functions and an equation which describes how it evolves over time, but we don't have it yet!

Buddhists try to adopt quantum mechanics, or to talk about quantum mechanics, as a form of virtue signalling -- "we really are rational despite appearances", or legitimising. They either claim actual consistency between Buddhism and quantum mechanics; or they claim some kind of metaphorical similarity, usually based on the fallacy that the measurement problem requires a conscious observer. And this is patently false in both cases. It's not even that Buddhists have a superficial grasp of quantum mechanics, but that they have a wrong grasp of it or, in fact, that they have grasped something masquerading as quantum mechanics that is not quantum mechanics. None of the Buddhists I've seen talking or writing about quantum mechanics mention Hilbert Spaces, for example. I'm guessing that none of them could even begin to explain what a vector is let alone a Hilbert Space.

I've yet to see a Buddhist write about anything other than the Copenhagen interpretation. I presume because it is only the Copenhagen interpretation that is capable of being shoehorned into a narrative that suits our rhetorical purposes; I don't see any advantage to Buddhists in the Everett interpretation, for example. Buddhists read — in whacky books for whacky people — that the "observer" must be a conscious mind. Since this suits their rhetorical purposes they do not follow up and thus never discover that the idea is discredited. No one ever stops to wonder what the statement means, because if they did they'd see that it's meaningless.

Thus, Buddhists who use quantum mechanics to make Buddhism look more interesting are not concerned with the truth. They do not read widely on the subject, but simply adopt the minority view that chimes with their preconceptions and use this as a lever. For example, I cannot ever recall such rhetoric ever making clear that the cat-in-the-box thought experiment was proposed by Schrödinger to discredit the Copenhagen interpretation. It is presented as the opposite. Again, there is a lack of regard for the truth. Nor do Buddhists ever present criticisms of the Copenhagen interpretations such as those that emerge from Everett's interpretation. Other criticisms are available.

And this disregard for the truth combined with a concerted attempt to persuade an audience of some arbitrary argument is classic bullshit (as described by Harry Frankfurt). Buddhists who write about quantum mechanics are, on the whole, bullshitters. They are not concerned with the nature of reality, they are concerned with status, especially the kind of status derived from being a keeper of secret knowledge. It's past time to call out the bullshitters. They only hurt Buddhism by continuing to peddle bullshit. The irony is that the truth of Buddhism is far more interesting than the bullshit; it's just much harder to leverage for status or wealth.

~~oOo~~


Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

For those concerned about the flood of bullshit there is an online University of Washington course Calling Bullshit.

If you have a urge to learn some real physics (as opposed to the bullshit Buddhist physics) then see Leonard Susskind's lecture series The Theoretical Minimum. This aims to teach you only what you need to know to understand and even do physics (no extraneous mathematics or concepts).

18 July 2014

Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics

This essay is a follow up to one I wrote in 2010 called Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. It might be worth refreshing your memory of that one first. Plus I've continued to add notes since writing the original article.  The subject of Buddhism and quantum mechanics keeps coming up. Quantum mechanics seems to draw Buddhists like moths to a flame. Of particular interest seems to be the observer effect that Schrödinger used to critique the Copenhagen interpretation. Google "Buddhism Quantum Mechanics and the Observer Effect" and you'll get a raft of webpages talking about how observers interact with the physical world.  They say things like:
"Basically, what quantum theory says is that fundamental particles are empty of inherent existence and exist in an undefined state of potentialities. They have no inherent existence from their own side and do not become 'real' until a mind interacts with them and gives them meaning. Whenever and wherever there is no mind there is no meaning and no reality. This is a similar conclusion to the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on sunyata." Buddhism and Quantum Physics.
This is not quantum mechanics or Buddhism either. It's Idealism combined with the strong form of the anthropic principle. It's very misleading. Buddhism is talking about mental events and quantum mechanics about subatomic particles. At best the relationship is metaphorical, because subatomic particles don't behave like mental states and vice versa! In this blog post I will explore what the observer effect is and why it has very little or nothing to do with consciousness and also why it does not support Idealism.

I have to confess there is a great deal that I don't understand about quantum mechanics, not least of which is the maths involved. No one likes to admit they are ignorant, but I know that I don't understand this stuff to any great degree. I know that most of the Buddhists writing about it don't understand it either. I just wish they'd admit it.

Basics

Mass of the electron

0.00000000
00000000000
00000000000
0910938291
kg
In this essay I'll focus on the electron. Electrons have reasonably well defined properties and are all, so far as we can tell, identical. For example electrons have mass of approximately 9.10938291 × 10-31 kilograms. This is literally an unimaginably small number. As far as the human imagination is concerned this is zero. Protons have almost 2,000 times more mass than electrons and that's still an unimaginably small amount. Clearly there is some measurement uncertainty in this figure, we can only measure it as accurately as our experimental design and measurement device allow, but it's precise to an extremely fine degree. Similarly, electrons have an electric charge of approximately −1.602×10−19 coulombs, or a billionth of a billionth of the current that comes out of your wall socket.

Most relevant to our topic, an electron has an intrinsic angular momentum of either +½ or -½. Electrons seem to behave as though they spin on their axis, though in fact there is no classical phenomenon which the "spin" of an electron is exactly like. Seen from above the angular momentum of a clockwise spinning top points up, and for an anticlockwise spin it points down. So conventionally we speak of spin up and spin down.

Classical objects (roughly speaking, objects perceptible by our unaided senses) obey the classical laws of physics. A spinning top is a classical object. As it spins it has momentum: it will keep moving unless a force acts on it. Since it experiences friction as it spins it gradually and smoothly slows down, shedding kinetic energy as heat and sound. Even the solar system is gradually slowing down, the rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down. However, an electron just 'spins'. Always. Without ever slowing down. I presume that even at absolute zero, an electron has spin.  Additionally, though a spinning top tends to orient itself, the axis of spin need not be in any particular direction, and can even wobble around. So the 'spin' of an electron here is a metaphor for an incomprehensible underlying reality.

Curiously if you rotate an electron with spin ½ through 360° then you would expect that the angular momentum would be the same, but it is in fact -½. To get back to spin ½ we have to rotate the electron through a total of 720°. Again there is no physical analogy that can explain this, no real process to compare it to. And this is partly why the great genius Paul Dirac said: "The fundamental laws of nature control a substratum of which we cannot form a mental picture without introducing irrelevancies." (Principles of Quantum Mechanics. 4th Ed. 1958).

If a spinning top had an electrical charge it would generate a magnetic field. This is more or less how an electric engine or generator works. Moving electric charges produce magnetic fields and moving magnetic fields induce electric currents. Electrons, having an electric charge do produce a magnetic field as they 'spin'. However looking at the electron as a classical spinning object with electric charge causes some problems. It turns out that in order to generate the measured magnetic field an object the size of an electron, considered as a classical object, would have to spin so fast that a point on its surface would be going several times faster than the speed of light. And the answer to the problem in fact turns out to be that the electron does not seem to have a size. This is deeply counter-intuitive. To have mass but no size suggests infinite density. I'm not even sure how the physicists deal with this problem.

We're starting to see that a single electron does not obey the classical mechanics (aka the "laws of physics") and this is where quantum mechanics comes in. Quantum mechanics is a series of equations which describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, like the electron. They were the first physical laws to be derived theoretically rather than through observation, but on the whole they do describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles (though there are still competitors waiting in the wings - see article on bouncing oil drops at the end of the essay). 

In the quantum world there are restrictions on everything: every quantity is a multiple of some constant with no in-between values (hence quantum). Transitioning between quantum states is instantaneous and discontinuous. For an electron there are just two possible spin states (i.e. two states of angular momentum): spin up and spin down. An electron can be made to flip states, but the action is instantaneous with no transition and no in-between states. Something one never observes in the macro world. 

In my description of water I noted that electrons move around an atomic nucleus in well defined orbitals or shells. In hydrogen for example the single electron occupies the s shell which is spherical. Helium has two electrons in the s shell. Now Linus Pauli discovered that if two electrons are in the same orbital then they must have opposite spin (called the Pauli Exclusion Principle). The next shell, p, can accommodate 8 electrons, but they in fact occupy four separate orbits that each accommodate 2 electrons of opposite spin.


Schrödinger 

This quality of spin is an important one because it was this quality that Schrödinger was referring to in his famous thought experiment. A consequence, an unbelievable consequence from Schrödinger's point of view, of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was that an electron could be either spin up or spin down and we wouldn't know which until we measured its angular momentum. Niels Bohr argued that before being measured the spin state would effectively be a super-position of both states. Schrödinger's example of the cat was intended to show that the conclusion was untenable because the idea of an object being in two states at once was ridiculous. As it happens the Copenhagen Interpretation won the argument and now advocates use Schrödinger's complaint to illustrate the point about super-position.

It's the spookiness of this metaphor that seems to attract Buddhists. They latched onto this idea of the necessity for the "observer" to break the symmetry of superposition and force the electron to take up one spin state or the other, because it looked like the Idealist end of the Yogacāra spectrum of thought in which objects are brought into existence by an observing mind. That Yogacāra is inherently Idealistic is hotly disputed by scholars, but for many Buddhists what cittamātra means is that only mind exists and as one Idealist Buddhist put it to me recently:
"I agree with Schopenhauer - objects only exist for subjects. Without a subject who brings to the picture, a sense of relatedness, some proportion, a point of view, there are no objects whatever." (Dharmawheel.net)
Tying Buddhist Idealism into Western Idealism is a popular pastime amongst Western Buddhists and Schopenhauer is a favourite exponent of this kind of thing. But just because a 19th century philosopher thought this or that about the universe tells us nothing. The fatal flaw is that this kind of Idealistic ontology has no possible supporting epistemology - there's no way to gain this knowledge about the nature of objects from a Buddhist point of view. In this view we have no way to know what happens to objects when we stop observing them, because we are not observing them! It's simply a theological position. And as I said in the post on ineffability we can easily infer that it's not true simply by comparing notes. Those who fail to compare notes come to ridiculous conclusions that are hard to shift. One of the logical consequences of this anthropocentric Idealism, a variant of the Anthropic Principle, is the the entire universe goes out of existence and then comes back into existence when we blink our eyes. And if you believe that you'll believe anything.


There's rub...

Part of the problem with employing the words of science without understanding them is that one makes silly mistakes. So for example when we say the mind of the observer is involved in determining the physical state of the electron, this is simply a mistaken understanding of what is meant by "observer". No electron has ever been seen by a human being. We need to be very careful about what we mean by "observe" and "observer". As physicist Sean Carroll says re "the observer":
"It doesn't need to be a 'conscious' observer or anything else that might get Deepak Chopra excited; we just mean a macroscopic measuring apparatus. It could be a living person, but it could just as well be a video camera or even the air in a room." [Emphasis added]
Schrödinger's observer, like Schrödinger's cat, is a metaphor. Given that no one can actually see an electron and 'spin' is only a notional quality with no classical analogue, how would we go about measuring the spin-state of an electron, one way or the other? Remembering that a single electron takes up more or less no space and weighs as close to nothing as makes hardly any difference. Usually we deal with electrons in amounts like billions of trillions and in such numbers they collectively behave classically. It is possible to assemble a set up that will shoot out one electron in a known direction every so often, but they travel near the speed of light. If your detector is 1m away from the emitter then it takes about a billionth of a second to get there. And since they're all identical there's no way to find our electron afterwards. So good luck observing an electron with your senses and comprehending it in your mind!

Actually it is possible to trap individual electrons, but as I think will be clear, the interaction needed to so do, involving magnetic fields, make them useless for testing the observer effect. However, thankfully it's not very difficult to measure spin-states in practice. We just need to construct a macroscopic measuring apparatus known as the Stern-Gerlach experiment

In the Stern-Gerlach experiment a beam of electrons is passed between two magnets like those shown right (we'll ignore the shapes). The path of electrons with spin up is bent up as they pass through the magnets, electrons with spin down will bend down. So we then know the spin of the electron. We can measure the numbers that are bent each way by using an electron detector. And what we find is two very small spots - the up-spin electrons all hit the same upper spot, and the down-spin electrons all hit the same lower spot. There are never any in-between and any blur we see is due to fluctuations in the experimental set up itself, not in the electrons. At this level of sensitivity the tiny fluctuations caused by Brownian motion become noisy enough to drown out any signal. The amount by which the electron is deflected is related to it's mass and magnetic moment. 

Now assuming we can use this to measure the spin of individual electrons what is going on here? An electron leaves the emitter and travels for a billionth of a second in an indeterminate spin state before passing through the apparatus and hitting a detector. An electron detector might be a loop of wire with an ammeter on it. As the electron hits the wire a very small, but measurable current flows (this is more or less how an old-fashioned vacuum tube works). Or we use a device like a TV screen that emits light when hit by a fast-moving electron and a photo-detector to record the light. As an electron travels through the apparatus and interacts with the magnetic field, it takes one or the other spin-state and enters one or other detector. It's the interaction of the electron with the experiment, with the macroscopic measuring apparatus, that forces it to adopt one or other spin and it does so at random.

And where in all of this is the "mind of the observer"? In fact the "observer" here, the experimental apparatus, has no mind. Why do we think of a person observing things and influencing them? It's because we understand Schrödinger's metaphor (man watching box) but we have no idea what underlying reality is being described. But this is a dangerous illusion.

The mistake that almost every Buddhist makes is to assume that because they understand the metaphor of Schrödinger's cat, they understand the underlying reality. This problem pervades Buddhist thinking. In the case of quantum mechanics no one understand the underlying reality, not even the people who understand the fiendish maths that predict the behaviour of particles. The reality of the quantum world is literally unimaginable, even when the theories make accurate predictions.

In fact when scientists talk about "observing" a subatomic particle (something with unimaginably small vital statistics) they really mean causing it to interact with something in a way that can be amplified and signal to us humans, on a scale we can comprehend, that something or other has happened. So all this stuff about consciousness and the observer effect in quantum mechanics is bunk. It's based on a reified metaphor and a false analogy.

The false analogy is with the observer effect in anthropology. When an anthropologist studies a culture they cannot help but see through cultural lenses. And they also change the behaviour of the people they study by being there. Famously teenage Samoan girls told Margaret Mead a bunch of lies about their sexual habits which for them was a huge joke, but wrecked the anthropologist's reputation. (Her work was debunked by Derek Freeman after she died, though his book Margaret Mead and Samoa set off a heated debate in the field of anthropology). Another variation on this is seen in the Hawthorne Effect which describes how workers modify their behaviour in response to conditions, especially whether or not they are being observed by management.

Observing humans does
change their behaviour.

There is also some contamination from post-modern literary criticism which emphasised the role of the reader in the "creation" of the text and called into question the very possibility of objectivity. Amongst the influential (if indirect) contributions to this discourse was Edward Said's work on so-called Orientalism which sought to show that Western views of Asia were constructs that were often only loosely related to Asia itself and were more revealing of the prejudices of Western scholars than of Asian culture and custom. At the same time the very idea of objectivity was called into question in the sciences, though this critique consistently failed to take into account the collective nature of scientific enquiry. The metaphors of quantum mechanics were conflated with these other issues and for many poorly informed people came to represent the nature of the problem of objectivity and subjectivity.


Quantum Nonsense.

Buddhists who know a little about quantum mechanics and a little bit about litcrit or anthropology are apt to fall into error. The temptation is to think that because we understand one or two metaphors or allegories that we understand the whole field. Almost no one does. Richard Feynman, another genius, was more bold:
"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." (The Character of Physical Law, 1965). 
And if he didn't understand it, then probably no one could. The map is not the territory. And we Buddhists are not even using quality topographical maps. We're mostly using the cheesy, massively oversimplified, tourist maps that are given away for free in Hotel lobbies, all covered in advertising.

Too many Buddhists see in quantum mechanics a confirmation of their Idealism: the idea that there is no reality independent of the observer. I hope I've shown that such claims have misunderstood the word "observer" in Schrödinger's complaint. The conclusion drawn from quantum theory by many Buddhists, that the world only exists as and when we perceive it, is simply wrong. Indeed one of the consequences of quantum mechanics is that there must be an observer independent reality. (See Sheldon Goldstein, Department of Mathematics, Rutgers University: Quantum Theory Without Observers; and also links below).

This problem pervades Buddhist doctrine. It is full of empty metaphors. Karma is described almost entirely of such empty metaphors for example. However unlike in physics, Buddhist metaphors are not linked to mathematical models that make accurate predictions. Karma is linked to moral theories that are intended to ensure compliance with Buddhist behavioural norms. In other words Buddhist metaphors are set to prescriptive purposes, whereas physics metaphors attempt to be descriptive. This is a fundamental different between religion and science. 

I doubt quantum-nonsense will ever go away. Too many people are desperate to consume what purveyors of quantum-nonsense are selling and not equipped to make a good judgement, or unwise in whose judgements they rely on. If our teachers are also non-scientists hungry for some quantum-nonsense too, then we are in deep trouble. Buddhists have the unfortunate habit of seeking and finding confirmation of their views everywhere they look. The most trivial or banal coincidence of wording becomes a hidden "Dharma teaching". Buddhists Tweeters endlessly repeat platitudes as though they were profound. Buddhist bloggers give over inordinate amounts of space to celebrity Buddhists as though having someone famous adopt Buddhism makes the world a better place. It's all so tedious. Next thing you know we'll be knocking on doors asking people if they have accepted the Buddha into their lives.

The fact is that science is not proving what Buddhists have known all along. It is doing the opposite. Science is tearing apart the articles of faith of Buddhism;  leaving karma, rebirth, heaven & hell, and dependent arising as a Theory of Everything, in tatters. It's only blind faith and massive bias that prevents people from seeing this. We have a lot of work to do if Buddhism is going to survive this collision with modernity. Presuming of course that we do not fall back into another dark age, and looking at nominally Buddhist countries like Tibet, Korea, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand that possibility seems all too likely.

~~oOo~~



Some real Quantum Physics:



Extra Notes

21 June 2015
Nature has just published a new article with an argument about why large scale objects do not exhibit quantum indeterminacy, How Gravity Kills Schrödinger's Cat (Nature, 17 June 2015). Confirming my reading of the observer affect the author says "As soon as a quantum object interacts with a stray particle or a passing field, it picks just one state, collapsing into our classical, everyday view." The "observer" is in fact any physical interaction. And fields pervade the universe! Macro-scale objects interact with the gravitational field:
"Because of gravity’s effect on space-time, Pikovski’s team realised that variance in a molecule’s position will also influence its internal energy — the vibrations of particles within the molecule, which evolve over time. If a molecule were put in a quantum superposition of two places, the correlation between position and internal energy would soon cause the duality to 'decohere' to the molecule taking just one path, they suggest."


11 Oct 2017
I went to hear Professor Philip Moriarty last night and he made an interesting point about Schrödinger's cat and the "observer". He reiterated the point that I have tried to make here, which is that "the observer" is any physical interaction with matter. The cat interacts with the matter in the box, which collapses the wave function. Therefore the super-position collapses into a definite state long before we look into the box. In fact from our point of view, the cat is never really in a state of superposition, because there is no point at which it is not interacting with matter in such as way as to collapse the wave function. I understood Professor Moriarty to say that as an experimental physicists (he images single atoms and molecules in his day job) he believes that there is no empirical evidence that would make one interpretation of quantum mechanics more likely than the others. 

29 October 2010

Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat

Erwin Schrödinger
image: Erwin Schrödinger
"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman. "What is Science?"
The Physics Teacher
Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)

    "I think I can safely say that
    nobody understands quantum mechanics
    ."
    Richard Feynman. The Character of Physical Law (1965)

    ~~~~

    SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT is one of the most famous thought experiments in the history of science. Erwin Schrödinger (left) used it to try to argue against adopting one approach Quantum Mechanics. Most people seem unaware that he was trying to highlight a problem with what was, in 1935, a controversial theory, but which has become the orthodoxy: namely the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics . These days when we say Quantum Mechanics we usually mean the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (hereafter QM). Many people who know next to nothing about science, or about Schrödinger, have tried to co-opt Schrödinger's cat to show how there is a relationship between physics and Buddhism. Let me say at the beginning that I don't believe that there is any significant cross-over between physics and Buddhism, and that I hope to explain why in the rest of this post. Granted my degree is in chemistry and it was a long time ago; but I also studied physics, and I'm an ordained Buddhist, so I feel at least not-overly-unqualified to comment.

    To begin with we need to be clear on scale. An atom is between 32 picometres and 225 picometres in diameter. A picometer is 1×10−12 m, i.e. a trillionth of a metre, or 0.000000000001 m. By contrast a human hair is around 50 µm or 0.000005 m. So a single hair is about about 1.5 million helium atoms in diameter. Basically this scale is unimaginable, so let's put it another way: if the diameter an atom was the thickness of a single sheet of copier paper (0.08mm) then a human hair would be 120 metres in diameter. Amedeo Avogadro showed that 12g of carbon contains approximately 6 x 1023 atoms of carbon. That is 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (600 sextillion) atoms. If each carbon atom was 1 mm3 then the 12g of carbon would fill the Western Mediterranean Ocean (from Gibraltar to Sicily), with plenty to spare. In fact 12g of carbon (in the form of powdered soot) is about 2 teaspoons. In QM we're dealing with the subatomic world, with the protons, neutrons and elections, and the weirder particles which make up atoms. A proton is about 1/50th of the diameter of the smallest atom; while an electron is thought to be in the region of 10−22m, which is one 10-billionth the diameter of a proton. Don't be fooled by our ability to write these properties down in numbers: they are highly abstract, unimaginable, incomprehensible, and none of us can draw on experience to get a sense of them. If you are still confident that any of this is relevant to human existence then read on.

    Those with an interest in this subject will know that QM conceives of subatomic particles as waves (which can behave like particles under some conditions) that are described not in terms of physical properties, but in mathematical formulas. QM is the first theory of science to not be based on observations of physical properties, but to emerge from abstract mathematical speculation. [ 1 ] Though of course QM makes testable predictions about the behaviour of matter on the picometer scale. This description of sub-atomic particles as waves has some interesting consequences. One is that the particle is not a point in space, but is smeared out over space. Another is that all we can know about the particles in atoms are the odds of the particle being in any one place in space at any given time. What's more, as Heisenberg showed, if we know precisely where a particle is, then we can't simultaneously know how fast it is going - this is called the Uncertainty Principle.

    Schrödinger's thought experiment related to a curious prediction arising out of the mathematics of waves (subsequently experimentally confirmed). Under certain circumstances two wavy particles can become 'entangled' which means that their waves combine into a single system, though they retain their identities. (Don't worry if you don't quite understand how this works - Feynman was not being ironic when he said that no one understands QM.) Schrödinger's problem was that this meant that observing some of the properties of one of the particles, meant having certain knowledge about the other particle because the two must be in opposition. The main property we are concerned with is called 'spin' - which relates to the magnetic properties of charged particles.

    The two entangled particles can be in one of two spin states, but cannot both occupy the same state. With regard to the spin state of any single particle we can only talk about the probability that they will be in a given state at any time until we observe it. However, observing the spin of one entangled particle, determines which state the other will be in with 100% certainty without observing it, no matter where it is in the universe. This appears to contradict the limit introduced by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (1905) that nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light. But also, and even more weirdly, before an observation we can only think about spin states in terms of probabilities and the the maths tells us that the combined probabilities of the two particles being in any given state always equals one. The Copenhagen Interpretation says that this effectively means that the two entangled particles are both in both states simultaneously - the two states are superimposed as the jargon goes.

    This is quite counter-intuitive, but it has been a boon for science-fiction because the spin states of the entangled particles are linked no matter how far apart they are - "spooky action at a distance" as Einstein facetiously referred to it - which if you aren't too fussy about details gives you an excellent medium for instantaneous communications across the vastness of space.

    However, it begs the question: how can something be in two states at once until observed? It was in order to highlight these paradoxical aspects of QM that Schrödinger put his imaginary cat in the imaginary box. With it he placed a mechanism which would release cyanide gas, with a switch triggered by the decay of an atom of Uranium, the timing of which we cannot predict from theory. Close the lid of the box, prime the switch and think: is the cat alive at this moment, or is it dead? If the atom has not decayed the cat will be alive, and if it has decayed the cat will be dead. We can't know until we open the box and observe. Schrödinger invited us to think of the cat as a metaphor for the infinitesimal sub-atomic particle, whose wave was metaphorically entangled with the Uranium atom. If the cat truly was like a sub-atomic particle, then it was both alive and dead until the box was opened, and it was observed to be one or the other. He was trying to show that this is a ridiculous conclusion, and that therefore the Copenhagen Interpretation must be flawed. He lost that particular argument.

    A lot of people jump from the picometre scale to the metre scale without any thought for the consequences of a trillion-fold change in scale - even though we know, for example, that our bath water doesn't really behave like an ocean! Or though we know that those pre-CGI movie special effects with models are totally unconvincing. The problem is that in a real cat there are several thousand sextillions of atoms, made up of many particles. Although each infinitesimal particle is a wave and subject to QM effects, these are averaged out over some tens or hundreds of thousands of sextillions of particles. The behaviour of any one particle, or even any million or billion particles, is not going to change the average properties of the cat. Unlike sub-atomic particles, cats simply do not wink in and out of existence; they are not smeared out over space (except perhaps when run over); and we can in fact know quite precisely (compared to the size of the cat) where a cat is and how fast it is moving at the same time. The Uncertainty Principle doesn't apply on the macro level. QM has almost no relevance to the macro world, to a world where objects are made up of septillions of atoms because of the averaging effect of so many particles - if weird stuff was happening we'd never know because a human hair is millions of atoms in diameter. And this is partly why Schrödinger was unable to undermine the Copenhagen Interpretation with this thought experiment, and why it has been co-opted by the targets of his critique, not to mention Buddhists! Actually sub-atomic particles are not alive and it is not ridiculous to argue that they can be in two superimposed states at once, even though it is ridiculous to argue it for a cat. In effect, Schrödinger's Cat proved nothing.

    One of the unfinished tasks of modern physics is finding some way to marry QM with Relativity (E=mc2 yadda yadda again we don't really understand this). This has proved elusive, though work is going on at both the empirical and the theoretical ends of the problem. So far no one has unequivocal evidence for, say, quantum gravity; and no one has been able to make the maths add up. It may in fact turn out that the two theories are not adequate to the task and that both will be subsumed into some larger construct (some people claim that String Theory will do it, if anyone can ever solve the equations; Stephen Hawking barracks for M-Theory if anyone can both figure out what equations are and how to solve them). Certainly dark matter and dark energy are causing a scramble to rework the Standard Model of Cosmology to account for the observations that gave rise to those terms. Often theories don't survive being scaled up by a dozen orders of magnitude, and this is the case for QM (so far).

    It's pretty clear that QM, a mathematical abstraction, doesn't apply to our macro world. However it does have indirect consequences for us as QM issues have to be taken into account in designing new micro-processors which pack millions of transistors into square millimetres; and in nascent nano-technology. But in terms of our daily lives none of the observations of sub-atomic particles apply. None. The similarity of vocabulary is superficial and coincidental, just as the similarity of ethical jargon in various religions is largely superficial and coincidental! well, perhaps not entirely coincidental because like Schopenhauer, both Schrödinger and Niels Bohr were interested in so-called 'Eastern philosophy' and built some of it into the narrative.

    Some weeks ago now, in the comments to my post on Rebirth and the Scientific Method Elisa and Krishna were asking: "why do Buddhists feel the need to justify their beliefs by appealing to science?" Part of my answer related to the way the scientific paradigm has dominated our lives for roughly 150 years. Science is incredibly successful in describing the physical world, and predicting new observations and properties of matter. Just look at the recent crop of Nobel Prizes to see the contribution that science makes. In a way it's obvious that we'd want to participate in that. It is a bit ironic that so few Buddhists are educated in the sciences, and tend to approach science with a mixture of abhorrence for perceived materialism, and credulous wonder at its success and authoritativeness.

    I don't see much advantage in invoking the talisman of science in defence of religion, especially when on the whole we religieux are so ignorant of science (one of my teachers recently mentioned the way "larger bodies attract smaller ones" in a public talk. He's not an idiot, nor spiritually shallow, but he is clearly, painfully ignorant of science!). It so happens that Buddhists avoid some of the pitfalls of the modern world view (we don't have creation stories for instance), but though monotheism more obviously runs foul of science, I don't think we can sustain our traditional eschatologies, nor claims of ESP powers, nor to know the nature of 'reality', if we are working in a scientific paradigm. It's a minefield.

    I don't think Buddhism on its own terms needs any scientific apologetic. Buddhism is originally the product of Iron Age India, and has adapted to many different cultural environments and world-views because, in my opinion, it is not so concerned with the realm of physics, it is concerned with the realm of the mind. Physics provides us with a far superior description of the physical world; but equally in the domain of the mind, and especially the problem of suffering, that Buddhism is far superior descriptively and practically (in terms of practices for working on the mind). This superiority in its own field is not a consequence of levels of technology or an understanding of physics. It's to do with observing our own minds. We don't need a Large Hadron Collider for this. We just need to sit quietly and observe our minds. It is a kind of empiricism, but we don't need to get caught up in making a 'science' out of it.

    ~~ oOo ~~

    Notes
    1. This feature of QM not deriving from observations of physical properties was recently the subject of an article in the New Scientist: Webb, Richard. 'Reality Gap' 21 August 2010, p.32-6. NS apparently subscribes to another uncertainty principle as the article title is quite changeable: (return to article)

    (Note: Though I gather that Schrödinger loved women and a good party, I confess I'm not really sure whether he owned a cat. Some people claim that Schrödinger was a cat lover, and some that he was a cat hater, but I thought my title was catchy and ran with it. I hope my readers will allow me some poetic licence.)

    image: Erwin Schrödinger (internet endemic, i.e. copied so many times that there is no longer a discernible source).

    Feynman quotes from Wikiquote.

    If you want to learn about Quantum Theory from one of the men who helped to develop it, then I can recommend these three lectures by Hans Bethe: Quantum Physics Made Relatively Simple. As the site says, the Prof is 93 years old and lecturing to the other residents at his retirement home.


    Updates to this post