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Problems Related To The Observer In Quantum Mechanics

October 23, 2010

I’ve mentioned on here that I’ve been trying to study the workings of our brains in hopes of  shedding some light on the weirdness of various philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics.  I’d like to talk a little bit about the “observer” problem.

As all of you physicist readers are aware, in philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics, you deal either with the collapse of the wave function (such as the Copenhagen interpretation), or something like Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation, where wave function collapse is considered unnecessary.  Throughout the quantum world, we have this problematic “observer” lingering about, which we’d all love to get rid of.

I have a feeling that studying autism might shed some light on the observer problem.  My research is not far enough along to say, but I know this concept of attributing a “mind” with purposes and intentions to others is something our brains just do automatically.

What’s particularly interesting about autistic individuals is their inability to conceive of other people as “observers”.  To them, other people are just complex moving objects, without thoughts, feelings, desires or intentions.  They will climb on you like you’re a piece of furniture, or play with your hand like it’s just any other object at their disposal.  Understanding why this is could lead to some helpful insights into what we mean by an “observer”, I think.  My guess is that our “other minds” module is what’s responsible for the “observer” idea, and leads us to some of these weird paradoxes.

Let’s take a look at a few passages from Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (1997) as he talks about autism.  I’m going to bold some main points to help them stand out.

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, Harvard

And now we come to the mind’s way of knowing other minds. We are all psychologists. We analyze minds not just to follow soap-opera connivings but to understand the simplest human actions.

The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen makes the point with a story. Mary walked into the bedroom, walked around, and walked out. How do you explain it? Maybe you’d say that Mary was looking for something she wanted to find and thought it was in the bedroom. Maybe you’d say Mary heard something in the bedroom and wanted to know what made the noise. Or maybe you’d say that Mary forgot where she was going; maybe she really intended to go downstairs. But you certainly would not say that Mary just does this every day at this time: she just walks into the bedroom, walks around, and walks out again. It would be unnatural to explain human behavior in the physicist’s language of time, distance, and mass, and it would also be wrong; if you came back tomorrow to test the hypothesis, it would surely fail. Our minds explain other people’s behavior by their beliefs and desires because other people’s behavior is in fact caused by their beliefs and desires. The behaviorists were wrong, and everyone intuitively knows it.

Mental states are invisible and weightless. Philosophers define them as “a relation between a person and a proposition.” The relation is an attitude like believes-that, desires-that, hopes-that, pretends-that. The proposition is the content of the belief, something very roughly like the meaning of a sentence—for example, Mary finds the keys, or the keys are in the bedroom. The content of a belief lives in a different realm from the facts of the world. There are unicorns grazing in Cambridge Common is false, but John thinks there are unicorns grazing in Cambridge Common could very well be true.  To ascribe a belief to someone, we can’t just think a thought in the ordinary way, or we wouldn’t be able to learn that John believes in unicorns without believing in them ourselves. We have to take a thought, set it aside in mental quotation marks, and think, “That is what John thinks” (or wants, or hopes for, or guesses). Moreover, anything we can think is also something we can think that someone else thinks (Mary knows that John thinks that there are unicorns . . .). These onionlike thoughts-inside-thoughts need a special computational architecture (see Chapter 2) and, when we communicate them to others, the recursive grammar proposed by Chomsky and explained in The Language Instinct.

We mortals can’t read other people’s minds directly. But we make good guesses from what they say, what we read between the lines, what they show in their face and eyes, and what best explains their behavior. It is our species’ most remarkable talent. After reading the chapter on vision you might be amazed that people can recognize a dog.  Now think about what it takes to recognize the dog in a pantomime of walking one.

But somehow children do it. The skills behind mind reading are first exercised in the crib. Two-month-olds stare at eyes; six-month-olds know when they’re staring back; one-year-olds look at what a parent is staring at, and check a parent’s eyes when they are uncertain why the parent is doing something. Between eighteen and twenty-four months, children begin to separate the contents of other people’s minds from their own beliefs. They show that ability off in a deceptively simple feat: pretending. When a toddler plays along with his mother who tells him the phone is ringing and hands him a banana, he is separating the contents of their pretense (the banana is a telephone) from the contents of his own belief (the banana is a banana). Two-year-olds use mental verbs like see and want, and three-year-olds use verbs like think, know, and remember. They know that a looker generally wants what he is looking at. And they grasp the idea of “idea.” For example, they know that you can’t eat the memory of an apple and that a person can tell what’s in a box only by looking into it.

By four, children pass a very stringent test of knowledge about other minds: they can attribute to others beliefs they themselves know to be false. In a typical experiment, children open a Smarties box and are surprised to find pencils inside. (Smarties, the British psychologists explain to American audiences, are like M&M’s, only better.) Then the children are asked what a person coming into the room expects to find. Though the children know that the box contains pencils, they sequester the knowledge, put themselves in the newcomer’s shoes, and say, “Smarties.” Three-year-olds have more trouble keeping their knowledge out of the picture; they insist that the newcomer will expect to find pencils in the candy box. But it’s unlikely that they lack the very idea of other minds; when the wrong answer is made less alluring or the children are induced to think a bit harder, they attribute false beliefs to others, too. The results come out the same in every country in which children have been tested.

Now before we move on, there’s three main things I want you to take away from the preceding information:

1) Attributing minds to other people is something our brains are automatically programmed to do.  They do so by watching facial expressions, paying close attention to where others’ attention is focused (such as where someone’s eyes are directed), body language, etc.
2) Pretending and imagination are required for someone to be able to infer a “mind” in someone or something else.  (It should also be noted that minds can be attributed to inanimate objects, such as stone idols).
3) The mind which is assumed to exist within the external object is really a loopback onto your own mind’s thinking and emotional processes.  If the object is vastly different from yourself, such as a different species, or even a person whose life is nothing like your own, the assumed “mind” within the other person/animal is not going to be accurate.  (Example:  A young child picks up a beetle from the leaf litter and asks it, “Little bug, do you ever feel lonely?”  The boy is assuming the bug has emotional and thought processes similar to its own, but this is not the case).

Thinking of other minds comes so naturally that it almost seems like part and parcel of intelligence itself. Can we even imagine what it would be like not to think of other people as having minds? The psychologist Alison Gopnik imagines it would be like this:

At the top of my field of vision is a blurry edge of nose, in front are waving hands . . . Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth; they shift and protrude in unexpected ways. . . . Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath the spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. . . . The noisy skin-bags suddenly [move] toward you, and their noises [grow] loud, and you [have] no idea why. . . .

Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie, and Uta Frith have proposed that there really are people who think like this. They are the people we call autistic.

Autism affects about one in a thousand children. They are said to “draw into a shell and live within themselves.” When taken into a room, they disregard people and go for the objects. When someone offers a hand, they play with it like a mechanical toy. Cuddly dolls and stuffed animals hold little interest. They pay little attention to their parents and don’t respond when called. In public, they touch, smell, and walk over people as if they were furniture. They don’t play with other children. But the intellectual and perceptual abilities of some autistic children are legendary (especially after Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man). Some of them learn multiplication tables, put together jigsaw puzzles (even upside down), disassemble and reassemble appliances, read distant license plates, or instantly calculate the day of the week on which any given date in the past or future falls.

Like many psychology undergraduates, I learned about autism from a famous Scientific American reprint, “Joey: A Mechanical Boy,” by the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim explained that Joey’s autism was caused by emotionally distant parents (“icebox mother” became the favored term) and early, rigid toilet training. He wrote, “It is unlikely that Joey’s calamity could befall a child in any time and culture but our own.” According to Bettelheim, postwar parents had such an easy time providing their children with creature comforts that they took no pleasure in it, and the children did not develop a feeling of worth from having their basic needs satisfied. Bettelheim claimed to have cured Joey, at first by letting him use a wastebasket instead of the toilet. (He allowed that the therapy “entailed some hardship for his counselors.”)

Today we know that autism occurs in every country and social class, lasts a lifetime (though sometimes with improvement), and cannot be blamed on mothers. It almost certainly has neurological and genetic causes, though they have not been pinpointed. Baron-Cohen, Frith, and Leslie suggest that autistic children are mind-blind: their module for attributing minds to others is damaged. Autistic children almost never pretend, can’t explain the difference between an apple and a memory of an apple, don’t distinguish between someone’s looking into a box and someone’s touching it, know where a cartoon face is looking but do not guess that it wants what it is looking at, and fail the Smarties (false-belief) task. Remarkably, they pass a test that is logically the same as the false-belief task but not about minds. The experimenter lifts Rubber Ducky out of the bathtub and puts it on the bed, takes a Polaroid snapshot, and then puts it back in the bathtub. Normal three-year-olds believe that the photo will somehow show the duck in the tub. Autistic children know it does not.

Mind-blindness is not caused by real blindness, nor by mental retardation such as Down’s syndrome. It is a vivid reminder that the contents of the world are not just there for the knowing but have to be grasped with suitable mental machinery. In a sense, autistic children are right: the universe is nothing but matter in motion. My “normal” mental equipment leaves me chronically dumbfounded at the fact that a microdot and a spoonful of semen can bring about a site of thinking and feeling and that a blood clot or a metal slug can end it. It gives me the delusion that London and chairs and vegetables are on the inventory of the world’s objects. Even the objects themselves are a kind of delusion. Buckminster Fuller once wrote: “Everything you’ve learned . . . as ‘obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.”

In another sense, of course, the world does have surfaces and chairs and rabbits and minds. They are knots and patterns and vortices of matter and energy that obey their own laws and ripple through the sector of space-time in which we spend our days. They are not social constructions, nor the bits of undigested beef that Scrooge blamed for his vision of Marley’s ghost. But to a mind unequipped to find them, they might as well not exist at all. As the psychologist George Miller has put it, “The crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world. . . . All the fundamental aspects of the real world of our experience are adaptive interpretations of the really real world of physics.”

I really love that ending quote by George Miller; it embodies my main areas of research and interest.

Ok, so what does all this mean?  I think the areas of the brain which are damaged in autistic people are the same areas of the brain which give us our ideas of the “observer” within others.  This “other mind” module within our brain is a crude mental process intended to predict the actions of other human beings and give us insights into their motivations.  The problem is, the mind we’re attributing to another person is really our own mind looping back on itself.  We never know the mind of someone else, or even if they have a mind.  They may well be zombie robots for all we know.  Also, if the person you’re trying to understand is a lot different from yourself, with very different life experiences, this system will fail to accurately predict and understand other people.

We all have these mental processes churning in our brains, processing the actions and motions of other people’s bodies, listening to what they say, and so forth, and a small part of those operations are available to conscious thought.  Somehow that links up to our language system, and so here we are talking about “observers”.  It’s the same process by which people think we (and others) have “spirits” or “souls”.

The word “observer” in and of itself doesn’t even remotely capture what an “observer” is.  Imagine if you were designing a robot and you had to program it to infer a mind in certain types of objects it saw, and predict the actions of those objects using its own “human mind” software logic built into its memory.  That’s what an “observer” would be.  All the logic and code involved in performing that operation would be very complicated.

When I listen to spiritual gurus, the “observer” is some sort of life force which can bring about change in the universe through spiritual energy.  It’s all vague and ethereal.  The real shame is that these conceptions demean the observer, making it into a simplistic haze, instead of a very complicated, and rather wonderful, mental process we use to understand one another.

Autistic individuals lack this and view you as a mindless, complex moving object; otherwise, their minds are highly if not fully functional.  They don’t have that loopback mechanism which can look at an external object and say, “Oh, that object is like me.”

For example, if you’re trying to communicate to a severely autistic child, you can point to something with your finger, trying to say, “Hey, look at this, it’s interesting.”  But they’ll just stare at you and your hand with a glazed look in their eyes.  They don’t attribute a living “person” to you.  You’re an object like any other object.  Since you’re just an object, why should they expect you to communicate something meaningful?

This is also why autistic children have a very hard time developing emotional bonds and friendships.  What’s sad about it is they have the mental systems in place to feel emotion, and I’m sure they feel very lonely, but they don’t have the mental mechanisms to have social interactions to relieve that loneliness.   Also, 4 out of 5 marriages who have autistic children end in divorce.  The autistic person’s tantrums and selfishness drives them insane.  To make it worse, you can’t communicate with the autistic child properly, and many of them can’t properly communicate back to you how they’re feeling, or what’s making them sad, or angry, or what’s bothering them.

Unusual social development becomes apparent early in childhood. Autistic infants show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often, and respond less to their own name. Autistic toddlers differ more strikingly from social norms; for example, they have less eye contact and turn taking, and are more likely to communicate by manipulating another person’s hand. Three- to five-year-old autistic children are less likely to exhibit social understanding, approach others spontaneously, imitate and respond to emotions, communicate nonverbally, and take turns with others. However, they do form attachments to their primary caregivers. Most autistic children display moderately less attachment security than non-autistic children, although this difference disappears in children with higher mental development or less severe ASD. Older children and adults with ASD perform worse on tests of face and emotion recognition.


In “normal” individuals, we use our own mental faculties to attribute thoughts and feelings to  external objects we perceive.  We imagine ourselves in the same situation as the object, and as we do so, we have trace experiences similar to what the other person/thing MAY be feeling.  It’s a complex system involving perceiving an object, attributing certain properties to it, feeding its situation into our imagination, which then imagines yourself in that situation, and then emotionally interprets that event using your own brain systems, just as if you had experienced it yourself. You have the proper feelings and experiences, but because it’s imagined, it’s not near as intense of an experience.

Morality really isn’t possible without this system.  Autistic children are selfish and abuse their parents.  They don’t do so consciously or intentionally, but they do so nonetheless.

After a normal person’s mind runs through this long chain of, “What if I was in that situation?”, they can feel things like guilt, and say, “I need to stop this.  I’m hurting this other person.”  We  couldn’t even have our society without our “other minds” / “observer” mental module.  As crude as it is, it does work well enough for basic social relationships.

The core moral precept which most people live by is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Others?  What if there are no others?  It becomes a problem similar to living on a deserted island.  Are there morals if there’s nobody who can be injured and the only person to whom pain can be inflicted is yourself?

For one final note, the object to whom we’re attributing a mind may not even be alive at all.  It could be a rock or a tree.  This can be so because it’s all our own mind’s imagination anyway.

Have you ever stared at a painting on the wall and for a split second felt that maybe it was looking back at you?  I remember spending the night with my grandparents as a young child.  They had a painting on the wall of a woman and I had to get up to use the bathroom late at night.  As I made my way through the hallway, I saw that painting and my imagination ran wild.  At first I was scared to make eye contact.  Then I mustered up enough courage to look into “her” eyes and of course, I imagined her looking back at me.  I sprinted through the hallway and locked the bathroom door as fast as I could.  After I finished, I was scared to open the door again, almost like the lady in the painting would be waiting for me.

My older brother used to torment me as well.  He told me that if I looked into the bathroom mirror late at night and said, “Bloody Mary I have your baby” three times, my face would morph into a hideous woman who would them step out of the mirror and stab me to death.  I was like seven.  I was terrified to look into the mirror.

David Hume

“There is a very remarkable inclination in human nature to bestow on external objects the same emotions which it observes in itself, and to find every where those ideas which are most present to it.”

I have a hunch that this mental process of pretending/imagination is behind the many-worlds interpretation.  I’m so unsure about it though that I won’t comment on the matter further.

I have a whole lot to think about.  I’m not an expert on autism, and I have a lot of psychology and neuroscience studies left to do.  I’m also not an expert in string theory.  I have a lot of physics to study too.  But anyways, that’s just what I’ve been studying lately.

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