Monday, November 28, 2011

Pondering Quantum Consciousness

A facebook friend (an interesting person whom I don't actually know in real life) recently sent me a link to a movie called "What the Bleep do We Know." She told me that it showed there's a lot more to life than meets the eyes, and the ideas behind the film are supported by modern science. Well, as I obviously do believe there's more to life than meets the eyes, and I'm all for science, I thought I'd look into the movie. The first problem is that it makes its claims on the basis of quantum mechanics. Now, I was an engineering major in college, not a physics major. I did study quantum mechanics a bit, but it had been far too many years. So I undertook a refresher on QM.

Thus armed, I started watching "What the Bleep." (My impressions below are based on an imperfect understanding of QM; I would gladly be corrected on the science involved.) What I saw was interesting, but I very quickly ran into a difficulty. It turns out that all scientists agree on the fact of QM: that it works, that it represents reality in some way, that superposition is real, and so forth. What they do not agree upon is (as usual in science), the interpretation of those facts. There are, in fact, many interpretations of what QM really means. There is one common interpretation called the Copenhagen interpretation (named after the location of the laboratory of Neils Bohr, an early quantum researcher); it's difficult to tell, but it seems that the movie might follow this interpretation. But this is far from the only interpretation. Many quantum physicists follow the many-worlds interpretation, many-minds, etc., as discussed on the appropriate wikipedia page.

Compounding the problem of interpretation is that, from what I know, Copenhagen does not support their conclusions. It may be true that when we measure a quantum system, the wave function really does collapse as a result of this measurement in reality, and that's all there is to it. I read an article whose author was proposing the Copenhagen interpretation rules out the idea of the Christian God. This seems to be the viewpoint of the film's makers. However, I am not sure why this should be so. My understanding is that there's no agreement on what mechanism actually would cause the collapse proposed by Copenhagen. And unless we know what the mechanism is, how can we be sure that a "measurement" by God would trigger it? And do we even know that God would need to make such a measurement? Couldn't He know the quantum state of every particle in the universe, not because He measured them, but perhaps because He created them with something like entanglement with Himself? (As I said, I welcome correction by somebody who really knows quantum physics. This is purely a negative conjecture, by the way, not a statement that I think this is the reality. Like the movie makers, I really don't have the right - the quantum mechanical chops, so to speak - to opine on such things.)

So, despite that difficulty, I started watching the movie. One of the early examples given in the movie was a Native American tribe who saw Columbus' ships coming over the horizon but did not respond to them. According to the movie, since they were unfamiliar with the ships, they simply did not see the ships - that is, until a local shaman noticed a disturbance in the water and told them what they were seeing. First, even if the story were as described, this would not be an example of not seeing, it would be an example of not perceiving; there are many different reasons why they would not perceive the ships even if they actually were in plain sight. Second, the evidence (as noted in the wikipedia article above) seems to be that they did see the ships: they just ignored them because they didn't perceive imminent danger.

But let's use logic for a second. First, we don't have direct access to any of these Native Americans. Therefore, we can't know what they really saw or perceived: only through reports, primarily in their language, would we know. And their language may well have been insufficient to describe Spanish Galleons: they may have seen the ships but not known what to call them. But even more, let's use common sense. This tribe was living on the water. It may have been true that they had never seen a Spanish Galleon, but surely they had smaller boats. Surely somebody from that tribe would have discovered the useful fact that things can float on the water? And unless they were really ignorant they surely would have recognized the Galleons as just a larger and more complicated version of the boats they already had.

The next interesting bit in the movie was about superposition: the star (Marlee Matlin) walked up to a young man playing basketball, who explained to her the secret of quantum superposition using basketballs. Superposition is certainly true, and one of the many things that makes QM weird to our classical sensibilities. It is also true that, upon observation, the superposition collapses into a single particle with a specific position. Unfortunately, the way the movie presents it is not supported by QM. The movie implies that it's the observer who is choosing how the superposition collapses, but this is not true: it collapses probabilistically, and according to the Born Rule, the probability of observing the particle in any one place is proportional to the amplitude of the original wave. Therefore, when you make your observation, you get a single reading that is random based on the probabilities involved. If the superposition was very simple (such as s|A> + s|B>, where s=sqrt(1/2)), 50% of the time you'd get A and 50% of the time you'd get B. There is no concept in QM of choosing your own reality. The movie makes it look like the will of the conscious observer is what chooses the final state.

This is as far in the movie as I have gotten; I will write more as I watch more. But already it's become clear that the movie is an attempt to make its audience feel better about being independent of God. We all know that we are small, imperfect, sinful creatures; we all know there's much more to reality, not only than we can see, but than we have ever imagined. The question is, where do we take that knowledge? It seems to me that the makers of this movie use their knowledge of QM as an excuse to remove themselves from under God's hand; just use QM rightly and “you will be like God.” An example of this is the state-choosing representation of collapsing a particle in superposition state. If all your futures are just superpositions - including the future where you end up in heaven or hell - then, according to this teaching you can choose your own destination. Sadly, neither the Bible nor QM teaches this.

On the other hand, I am all the more in awe of God. He cannot be put into any classical box. Some day, no doubt QM will be shown to be incomplete; the history of science shows us this cycle repeatedly. I have no doubt that God will continue to be the God of the latest science every bit as much He is God of everything else.

Finally, I should note that it is true that you can choose your future; but not in the way the makers of this movie imply. If any one of us repents of our sins and turns to God through faith in Jesus, then we will have chosen our future. That's what John 3:16 says: God loved the world in this way, that He sent His only Son, so that every person who believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. That's the choice we must make, not choice of one superposition state or another; and I pray that every person reading this makes it.


A Future Metaphysician said...

Well! I was out jogging this morning, praying and wishing there was SOMEBODY in my Heavenly Father's world who was even remotely interested in the kinds of things that keep me awake at night, and BOOM! I get on Facebook and find a link to here. More comments will follow after a prolonged bout of praising God from whom all blessings flow...

Anonymous said...

pondering continues, let me say thank you Gary for putting your thoughts together in a well written note here, i do not confess to be a good writer, so let me ponder this one:-)