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A Few Reflections On Quantum Mechanics

July 25, 2010

For the past year or so I’ve been studying quantum mechanics.  It’s definitely not an easy subject to understand.  In fact, I’m inclined to think, epistemologically speaking, that it may well be impossible to understand with the brain evolution has given us.  But what’s irritating to me is how quantum mechanics is interpreted by so many people to justify their intuitions and wishful thinking, instead of a much truer interpretation which is the limitations on what we can and cannot know.

To faith healers, the uncertainties found within quantum theory opens a window for mind over matter.  Self-improvement groups and new age philosophers have run off with the subject taking things like entanglement to mean that you can draw whatever reality you dream up in your head to you just by believing in it resolutely.

I was watching a film made by Richard Dawkins called Enemies Of Reason, and in it you find this clip:

Reading through the video’s YouTube comments, its just very frustrating to me.  I can guarantee you that hardly anyone commenting on this video has ever studied true quantum mechanics – the type of physics studied by physicists.  It requires very complex mathematics and years of preparation and study before you’re even prepared to begin studying it.

I’m not really in the mood to write a long essay on all of this today.  Suffice it to say that I think a deeper understanding of quantum mechanics leads to the exact opposite conclusion.  It leads to a philosophy where the bedrock of reality, the very atoms and principles which govern them, operate on rules which are unintuitive and on a very fundamental level in-deterministic and blurry.  It leads to unpredictability, not intuitive certainties.  It places a fundamental limit on the extent and scope of mankind’s knowledge.

What’s unknown is unknown.  What we know is “out there”, not inside of you.  Truth and knowledge is a sort of complex process by which information is brought into your brain and then sorts itself into a sort of coherence with the state of affairs in the universe outside your body.  It allows you to predict what will happen based on the actions you choose to do.  Its a sort of accurate prediction on what you will experience in the future.  It also applies to things not present before your senses at the moment.  Quantum physics says that knowledge of this sort will always be limited and constrained within the confines of the uncertainty principle.

Those commenting on the video assault Dawkins like he’s arrogant and praise Chopra for smiling and not getting angry.  They think Dawkins is the bad guy.  It’s the complete opposite.  Chopra is the one clearly in the wrong here. Chopra is the guy promoting quantum jargon, exploiting people and celebrities for money, feeding them superstition, and keeping them in ignorance.  Then Chopra claims physicists have hijacked his word?  Physicists don’t have right to exclusively use the word in the proper context they themselves invented for it?

It irks me.  I think Richard Dawkins is right for being angry.  I too get tired of people like Chopra undermining reason and science.  The problem is, people think maturity is keeping a smile on your face at all times, even while people like Chopra are undermining physics and a deep understanding of the universe.  Peoples’ problem is they do not respect the truth.

Below I’m going to provide a video by a mathematician and eminent scientist who understands quantum mechanics.  He comes at it from the proper angle: the limits of mankind’s knowledge and the search for certainty.

I like how he begins this program.  He talks about different wavelengths of radiation, its interaction with matter and how precise an image can be built based on the different wavelengths of radiation.  Its a shame the program is so old because he doesn’t have access to a lot of computer-effects and high quality infra-red cameras, which are readily available today.

You see, our brain works by first receiving impressions from the eyes, which receive their impressions from the light flying through space.  Those light photons vary in wavelength, and depending on the wavelength of the photon, our eyes will interact and see colors.  Other wavelengths are invisible to us.  They’re not part of the visible spectrum.

Since light has wave-like dynamics, you get diffraction and interference effects, which create a sort of maximum “zoom” and level of detail you can build into say a microscope for example.  Telescopes can face similar sorts of problems.  Radio telescopes have to have huge base spans, many of them spanning huge rows of multiple dishes, because a small dish doesn’t work well due to the long wavelengths of radio waves.  Our eyes are basically small telescopes which focus the light waves of the visible spectrum onto the back sides of our eyes.  They have the same sorts of limitations.

When you really examine how those photons behave as they “fly across” space, how they can exist in multiple paths at once, and so on, you come to strange conclusions.  The atoms of our world behave strangely as well.  You can’t know both their position and momentum at the same time.  Atoms are a very blurry sort of thing where it seems at the most fundamental level, knowing everything about them is impossible.

I was actually listening to a lecture by a quantum physicist just recently.  The professor was Dr. Benjamin Schumacher, who is an eminent physicist in the field of quantum information theory.  He was talking about entropy and most discussions related to the subject talk about the disorder of a system.  Entropy is a measurement of disorder.  That definition has always been a bit puzzling to me, but then in his lecture on Maxwell’s demon he described the entropy of a system as the amount of information that we lack about its detailed microscopic state.  In other words, the more orderly a system is, the less information we lack.  If its ordered, we understand its microscopic structure and motions more.  Disordered systems with random chaotic motions are not as much understood, and if we go to understand them we by necessity modify the system with our measurements.  To try to measure the motion of something as small as a subatomic particle we’re forced to modify its trajectory so much with the measurement that we can’t get the information that we need.  To lock down the particle’s position and know it with a high degree of certainty, we have to destroy the information related to its momentum.  Likewise, measurements related to momentum necessarily leave uncertainties in the position.

You can know one or the other, but not both together with full precision.  To know some of both leaves you with a sort of blurred smudge through space.  You know it’s moving somewhere between this and that velocity and its location is generally somewhere in there.

What quantum mechanics really says is that we can’t fully know what’s going on at the atomic level with absolute certainty.  We’re forced to approximate our knowledge within certain limits, but those limits are very precisely and mathematically defined.

I think other conceptions of quantum mechanics are dangerous, and really quite ridiculous when you think about it.  If people could change their world just by hopeful thinking, the pre-scientific world certainly wouldn’t have been filled with so much suffering and toil.  Mankind would’ve thought all kinds of things and drew to themselves a better life.  The fact is, they thought up every sort of god and philosophy to cope with this very difficult world.  None of it worked.  Science on the other hand, with its deep root in observation, logic, and mutually verifiable evidence, led to a slow climb in our knowledge and control of nature.

When you turn back to philosophies like that of Deepak Chopra, religion, or new age gurus, you’re going back to  pre-scientific mindsets and those things simply don’t work.

Mankind has faced so many problems in the past because people have felt they could believe in their intuitions dogmatically.  Truth was not based on observation and evidence, but instead was based upon what they felt was the truth.  Its quite fascinating that Dr. Bronowski ends his program talking not so much about the great achievements of science but about how dangerous it is when people believe they know things when they really do not.

Quoting him:

“Its said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false. Tragically false.  Look for yourself.  This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was not done by gas.  It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.  Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known.  We always feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.  In the end the words were said by Olvier Cromwell, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”  I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Lezand. I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness.  We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.  We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.  We have to touch people.”

– Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent Of Man

This world doesn’t operate off wishful thinking.  I wish it did.  Instead we find ourselves in a rather harsh and dangerous world.  We have to stay on our toes.

The study of quantum physics will definitely leave you in awe.  We live in a mysterious universe.  The thing is, you can’t immediately run with those uncertainties and jump back into wishful thinking.  Men have always wanted those sorts of ideas to be true.  They’ve always hoped that things like prayer can change reality.  Today people no longer put their faith in God, but instead put faith in the weird aspects of quantum physics.  Neither will answer your prayers, unfortunately.

People have always searched for the secrets of mind over matter.  The thing is, you won’t learn anything about this reality by creating a self-referential loop with your imagination.  You’ll have to keep probing the universe for answers searching out there, not inside yourself.  The answers are waiting for you out there.

Your imagination was given to you by evolution to help you envision possible scenarios that haven’t happened yet.  It’s a form of imperfect planning.  It allows you to picture outcomes in your head before they happen, and hopefully accurately predict what will happen in the future.   When you attempt to understand reality using this system, you only create a loop back to yourself and can’t possibly learn anything about the world as it really is.  You’re forced to churn over your past experiences and link them up in new and arbitrary ways.  Religions and conspiracy theories are so crazy, mostly due to this very reason.

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