Quantum Physics and the Abuse of Reason

(Update: listen to my interview with Oxford professor Dr. Simon Saunders on this subject.)

Patriotism has been called the “last refuge of a scoundrel,” and for good reason. But over the last few years, I’m afraid that phrase has become outdated. Patriotism is now the second-to-last refuge. Quantum physics has become the last refuge of a scoundrel.

I’ve noticed a fashionable worldview which embraces a very particular way of thinking: the idea that reality is not concrete, that our rational faculties are fundamentally flawed, and that language is a wholly inadequate tool for discovering truths about the world. They often take this idea to its extreme, arguing that outright logical contradictions aren’t as big a deal as philosophers make them out to be. They think contradictions and paradoxes are actually a fundamental part of reality. So, we shouldn’t be shocked or concerned when we find a contradiction in our worldview. In fact, a kind of spiritual enlightenment occurs when one finally makes peace with a paradoxical world. This is perhaps best summarized by the popular Walt Whitman quote:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”

Naturally, such theories are profound if true. I’ve spoken with many people in substantial detail about these ideas, and – almost universally – a fundamental justification for their beliefs comes back to quantum physics. They say, “Yes, binary logic is practical for human beings, but it’s fundamentally imprecise. When you get down to “quantum” level (the micro-microscopic level) of reality, binary logic doesn’t hold. Things can be true and false at the same time, and experimentally, this has been demonstrated for 80 years. The universe does not play by logical rules, which are merely constructed by human minds.”

They often add – especially the more spiritually-inclined ones – “Reality itself is mind-dependent. We can empirically demonstrate that the state of the universe depends on our observation of it. And, if the universe goes unobserved, then it remains in an indeterminate state.”

Before diving into the explanation of this argument, I’ll give you my evaluation up front: I believe these ideas are catastrophically flawed. Interpreting quantum physics in this particular way is nothing short of an abuse of Reason – an embarrassment to critical thinking. I don’t say that glibly. It’s akin to writing the equation “2 + 2 = 5” and thinking that you’ve demonstrated mathematics is flawed, and when somebody challenges your conclusion, you simply point back to your formula. You show an empirical “test” with your fingers – you add two fingers to two fingers, but mistakenly end up extending all five fingers, then walk around showing your open hand to people as proof of the paradoxical nature of mathematics.

The Proof

Alright, so let’s get into the meat of their argument. What exactly is the data which seems to show reality contradicting itself? And what’s the proof that the universe is mind-dependent? I won’t go into super technical detail, but it can all be illustrated by one famous example. It’s called the “double-slit experiment.”

It begins with a question: is light a particle or a wave? According to the standard model of physics, it’s impossible for something to be both a particle and wave at the same time – those concepts are mutually exclusive. But in different circumstances, light appears to act like both. Take a light source, shine it through a single slit in a plate, and examine the resulting pattern left on a screen behind the plate. You’ll find evidence that light is a particle (see image below). The light which travels through the slit will leave a corresponding “blob” of light on the screen – no different than pouring sand through a small hole and seeing the particles land in one particular place. But, open up a second slit right next to the first, and we get a very different result. Instead of getting two corresponding blobs, we get an interference pattern (shown below). The light which travels through both slits creates waves which interfere with one another. Some waves cancel each other out; others blend together to create a stronger wave, creating a predictable pattern. So, by simply opening and closing a slit, light appears to behave as both a particle and a wave.


It gets weirder. Instead of having a constant light source in our experiment, what if we send one “piece” of light (one photon) through the slits at a time, and keep track of the results? Oddly enough, we still get an interference pattern. But what could one photon be interfering with? Itself? Indeed, that’s what the experiment seems to show. One photon acts like a wave and a particle at the same time, seems to go through both slits at the same time, and it follows the same interference pattern.

But there’s yet another problem: every time we actually measure which slit the photon travels through with detectors, it only travels through one slit at a time, not both. The “wave-function” completely disappears, along with the corresponding interference. When we remove the detectors, the wave-function seems to spring back into existence, along with the interference pattern. Here’s a quote from a physicist explaining their predicament:

“It seems that light passes through one slit or the other in the form of photons if we set up an experiment to detect which slit the photon passes, but passes through both slits in the form of a wave if we perform an interference experiment.”

Puzzling indeed. Another question: is it possible to predict beforehand which slit our single photon will pass through? For example, we can easily predict the motion of billiard balls being struck on a pool table, but can we apply the same principle to phenomena on the quantum level? Apparently not. Physicists do their best to control every possible variable in these experiments, and by repeating the same test over and over, they have never found a way to “predict” which slit the photon will travel through. They can, with a great degree of accuracy, predict their results only in the aggregate – the probability that any particular photon will travel through a particular slit.

Think about flipping a coin a hundred times. You’re going to end up with about fifty heads and fifty tails. But for each particular flip, you won’t be able to predict beforehand heads or tails. The same is true for the double-slit experiment. There’s a 50% chance that the photon will pass through the slit on the right or the left, but we can’t know beforehand which one.

The Interpretations

OK, so that’s the rough overview of the double-slit experiment. Now, for the interpretations of the data. Here’s where things start getting funky. What many scoundrels won’t tell you is this: there are several different, mutually exclusive theories regarding quantum phenomena. The most popular one happens to be the most preposterous. It’s called the “Copenhagen interpretation” (CI). Virtually all of my objections about quantum-tomfoolery are related to the Copenhagen interpretation, and I am far from alone in my criticism.

At first glance, these odd quantum phenomena seem to posit a fundamental problem. On the one hand, modern physics is built on top of so-called “classical mechanics,” which successfully explains the motion of particles through space. This is especially true for macroscopic objects – classical mechanics gives a practically full explanation (and prediction) for all motion, and it’s based on a central premise: future states of reality (or future positions of particles) are based off of previous states of reality. In other words, a particle’s momentum, trajectory, charge, etc., determines its future position. Boiled down to four words: effects have distinct causes.

However, the predictions of classical mechanics do not seem to apply to quantum mechanics. Given the exact same inputs (momentum, charge, etc.), we cannot accurately predict the outputs. Shooting one photon at a time through the double-slit experiment shows unpredictable results, and we’re left describing the quantum world in terms of probability, rather than certainty. If this is an accurate reflection of reality, it implies that quantum phenomena are fundamentally indetermined – their behavior is not “caused” by anything and the final position of individual particles is ultimately left to chance.

So, we’re left with two mutually exclusive theories. On the one hand, you have a classically-determined universe, where motion is caused by concrete inputs. And on the other hand, you have the world of quantum indeterminacy, where motion is probabilistic and fundamentally random at the smallest levels. How do we resolve this conflict? We have several options.

First, we might examine our theories. Let’s say theory X and theory Y are both useful in their current forms, but they contradict each other in some way. Obviously, something needs to be amended – either theory X, theory Y, or both. In terms of Physics, that means either classical mechanics or quantum mechanics needs to be tweaked. We could say, “Quantum phenomena are more fundamental than classical phenomena, and therefore the principle of indeterminacy is ultimately true. Macroscopic-level motion only appears to be determined, but in reality, it’s probabilistic.”

Or, we might say, “Classical mechanics more accurately describes reality, and the odd results of quantum experiments are due to a lack of sophisticated-enough equipment. We’re simply missing a variable in our experiments which causes the particles to behave in seemingly-unpredictable ways. Once we learn more and can measure more accurately, the missing variable will be found, and we will be able to correctly predict the motion of quantum particles.”

Another option might be to say both theories are inaccurate, and we need to come up with an altogether new theory to explain both macro and micro-level phenomena with consistency (e.g. matter is fundamentally a new type of thing – akin to waves and particles together, at the same time, in a non-mutually-exclusive way).

These approaches seem sensible and logical. Let me introduce you to a final option, closely associated (though not necessarily so) with the Copenhagen interpretation. It’s called the “principle of complementarity,” and it states that “wave-ness” and “particle-ness” are present at the same time, but they are impossible to measure at the same time. To the extent you’re measuring the wave-ness of something, the particle-ness disappears. And to the extent you measure the particle-ness, the wave-ness disappears. This is not a quirk of the experiment, but rather a fundamental principle of the universe.

In other words, the theories of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics are mutually exclusive and true at the same time. It all depends on your perspective. Classical mechanics is true when you observe macro-scale phenomena, and quantum mechanics is true when you observe micro-scale phenomena. Depending on how you look at it, either interpretation is true, and yet, both theories contradict each other.

Why, then, does the world appear to be in only one state at a time? Here we find the central claim of the Copenhagen interpretation: it’s only upon observation that reality resolves itself into definite particles. Without observation, the universe remains in no particular state. To be precise, the universe is in a “superposition” of mutually exclusive states at the same time. What does it mean to be in a “superposition”? Well, the argument goes, it’s not really interpretable in ordinary terms. It’s something akin to a probability cloud that isn’t in any state at allIf that’s a paradox, so be it.

 Schrödinger’s cat

If that sounds like an extraordinary claim, you’re not alone. Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist who came up with a famous thought experiment in the 1930’s. In essence, he said, “Imagine a cat in a box. Within the box, there’s a flask containing acid which, when broken, would kill the cat. Whether or not the flask breaks is determined by a ‘probabilistic’ quantum event.” In his example, he chose radioactive decay. “Say, over the course of an hour, there’s an equal probability that an atom will decay or not. If the atom decays, the flask is broken, and the cat is killed. If the atom does not decay, the cat lives.

So after an hour, the cat has an equal probability of living or dying.  According to the Copenhagen interpretation, until we look inside the box, the cat is in a ‘superposition’ of alive and dead at the same time. Only when we look inside the box does one version of reality collapse, and the cat appears either alive or dead.”

What a preposterous conclusion! The cat is both alive and not-alive at the same time, and the universe waits with bated breath for our mere observation to determine which state it (randomly) collapses into. Astoundingly, Schrödinger’s cat is often used by proponents of the CI, not realizing he actually created the thought experiment to show the absurdity of their theory.

But it gets worse. Some supporters of the CI have taken the absurdity a step further. Reality, they say, is not only determined by observation, but conscious observation. Meaning, the collapse of the wave-function only happens when being viewed by a conscious observer, putting consciousness squarely in the middle of what defines reality. Our awareness becomes a necessary part in determining the structure of the universe – in effect, there’s no such thing as “external” reality, because “reality” is suspended in probabilities which are only concretely resolved by our conscious awareness. We are not passive observers of reality – nay, we’re creators of reality. In this way, the entire universe is quite literally mind-dependent.

It’s no surprise that this line of reasoning is popular with the Deepak Chopra’s of the world. It implies a spiritual, mystical connection with the universe, and it puts your awareness as the fundamental determiner of reality. Naturally, spiritual “gurus” are eager to sound scientific, as if the authority of the scientific community supports their mystical ideas. “Really,” they say, “we know the universe is a blurry blank slate, completely dependent on your consciousness to become concrete. You can transcend logic by seeing that the universe contains all potentials at once. It is, and it is not, any particular way. It depends on you. Everything is bound in a universal contradiction – a unity of opposites – and you can choose to resolve them or peacefully accept them.”

Indeed, it’s here – in the bowels of irrationalist mysticism and the rejection of logic – that we find the crudest philosophical worldviews: the lazy acceptance of self-contradiction, the belief that the universe depends on your particular consciousness, and the embarrassing notion that something can be true because you say so (and, of course, not true at the same time). All the while trying to gain a veneer of scientific authority.

Well, I have news for the quantum mystic. Your worldview is a load of baloney, built upon mistake after mistake, a foolish understanding of the relationship between data and theory, and a complete lack of big-picture critical thinking. Simply taking two steps back and thinking, “OK, what am I actually claiming and why?” would all but entirely resolve the paradoxes you find yourself within. But alas, many CI proponents are stuck believing that such philosophic ideas are useless; they’re simply following the data wherever it leads, even if that means throwing out basic critical thinking skills.

 Big problems

Alright, so lets start with the lowest hanging fruit. Take the sentence, “The wave-function collapses upon observation.” Even if we accept this central premise, the first embarrassing error is made by the quantum mystics. They interpret the word “observation” incorrectly. In our common language, “observation” implies a passive, conscious awareness of some event. So, they think the physicists’ experiment shows that conscious awareness directly affects reality. Sorry, but it doesn’t. “Observation” is never used in the “conscious-awareness” sense, but rather the “measurement” sense. Measurement, all done with mechanical tools, is what collapses the wave function. It’s called “the observer effect,” and it’s especially pronounced at the micro-microscopic level.

In a nutshell: in order to “observe” things at a quantum level, it requires specialized devices, which necessarily “interact” with whatever is being observed in order to work. Think about a glass of water. If you want to measure the temperature with a thermometer, the actual act of placing the thermometer in the water will subtly affect its temperature (what you’re measuring in the first place). The instruments of measurement physically interact with the system being measured. This usually isn’t a big deal in the macro-world, but it’s quite apparent at the quantum level.

Let me be clear: no data – ever – has been produced to show that conscious observation is what collapses the wave function. Quite the opposite is true. The experiments can be set up, the measurement devices running, and you’ll get the same results whether the group of scientists watches the experiment or leaves the room. The universe does not “know” whether it’s being consciously watched, and it does not switch back and forth between particle and wave because of shifts in human awareness. Anyone who claims otherwise is either confused about basic terminology, or is an outright charlatan. “Observation” means physically recorded measurement and not conscious awareness.

Next, even without questioning the double-slit experiment, we can still preserve its results without requiring mysticism or an abandonment of logic. One alternative to the CI is called the “many-worlds” theory, and it goes like this: the wave-function never actually collapses, it only appears to collapse, because reality itself splits into two channels. For example, in the double-slit experiment, there is one reality which a photon travels through the left slit, and another reality in which travels through the right slit. Our consciousness only resides in one of these worlds at a time, so that’s why we can’t perceive or interact with these alternate realities. Our minds simply go along for the ride as reality splits itself into many parts. Because quantum events happen constantly, you end up with a practically infinite number of real universes, each with only a micro-change between the others.

The many-worlds theory sounds wild, but it doesn’t require any logical contradictions, so it should immediately be preferred to the CI. However, a far more sensible idea is to take a second and think a bit deeper about the double-slit experiment. Perhaps we should be cautious before throwing out all of classical mechanics. Is there any way to preserve classical determinism, not reduce reality to a clump of probabilities, and still explain the double-slit experiment? Yes, and it doesn’t yield any radical, absurd, or transcendental conclusions.

Let’s start with the simplest hypothesis: we simply don’t know all the variables involved in micro-micro-scale phenomena. Rather then think we’ve a perfect understanding of all theories, and that our experiments must prove reality is probabilistic, we’re simply missing a theoretical piece to the puzzle. We didn’t used to understand gravitational theory, but now we do. It would have been foolish to chalk up the inexplicable force of gravity to random mysticism. People simply thought about it some more, and they came up with a sensible theory of gravity. Once we understand the missing link in quantum theory, classical and quantum mechanics will be integrated. This is called the “hidden variable” theory. One proposed hidden variable is called a “pilot wave,” which seems to fully explain the double-slit experiment without indeterminism.

We could also turn our attention to the double-slit experiment itself. What if the test is flawed? Take this hypothesis: the traditional double-slit experiment is set up in such a way where the measuring apparatus physically interferes with the photons and changes their behavior. The reason the wave-function collapses is not random – it’s determined by the interference of the specific tools involved. Note: this does not claim “as a principle, all observation collapses the wave-function.” It says, “in this particular experiment, these specific tools will collapse the wave function.” If that’s true, it means a) causality and classical mechanics are preserved, b) setting up the experiment a different way might yield different results, and c) the quantum mystics are a bunch of unthinking fools.

So, are there any modifications to the traditional double-slit experiment which show different results? Yes, and they directly contradict the key claims of the CI. Probably the best-known example is called the “Afshar experiment.” It shows photons being measured as a particle and wave at the same time, directly contradicting the principle of complementarity.

The setup of the Afshar experiment is simple and brilliant. All it does is add a wire grid and a lens. You begin by setting up the standard experiment, shining a laser through two closely-spaced pinholes, and making note of the interference pattern. Afshar-experimentThen, you shape a wire grid to mimic the interference; the wires reside in the dark fringes where the waves cancel each other out. When the light acts like a particle (when only one pinhole is open), the photons bounce off the wire via diffraction. When the light acts like a wave (when both pinholes are open), the interference allows the photons to travel around the wire without any diffraction. Here’s the kicker: by using a lens, you can direct all photons passing through the left pinhole to one detector and the photons passing through the right pinhole to another.

Sure enough, when both pinholes are open, you can record which pinhole the photon passed through, and you can know it experienced interference, because it did not bounce off the wire grid. It’s an observation of wave-ness and particle-ness at the same time. This test has been replicated and confirmed numerous times.

Furthermore, in recent years, as technology has improved, physicists have discovered a technique of recording the path of photons using so-called “weak measurement,” which allows for measurements of quantum phenomena without necessarily disturbing them, potentially avoiding the observer effect altogether. And go figure: by being able to passively observe the double-slit experiment, we can see the interference and the path of the individual photon at the same time. In other words, the wave-function and particle-function are being observed at the same time, which is supposed to be impossible due to the principle of complementarity and the so-called “Heisenburg uncertainty principle.”

Will the quantum-mystics ever bring up these tests, or the many others that have occurred over the last 30 years which challenge the CI? Never. It strikes at the core of their pseudo-intellectualism.

Think about the elementary nature of their conclusion: they devise an experiment to test impossible-to-see movements of extraordinarily small particles. The results come back blurry. They conclude: “see right there – reality itself is blurry! We have proof!” It’s like looking at something with smudged glasses and thinking that whatever you’re looking at is smudged in reality.

To quote Schrödinger:

“… [this particular theory] prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a ‘blurred model’ for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”

The whole Copenhagen interpretation reasoning-process is a bit ironic. They trust the accuracy of their experiment enough to conclude that inaccuracy is accurate.

To borrow an idea from Mitch Hedburg, it’s like looking at all the photographic evidence and concluding, “I know what’s going on: Bigfoot is blurry!” And when you doubt this conclusion, they bring you more empirical evidence – more blurry pictures taken by the same camera.

Or think of it this way: physicists can’t explain causally why matter behaves a certain way, but they’ve created an accurate probability-function to make predictions in the aggregate. Then, because their probabilities are accurate, they conclude that reality must be probabilistic.

It’s like saying, “I don’t know why the coin lands heads sometimes and tails other times. But, I’ve discovered that 50% it will be heads. So, my best theory is that the coin is actually heads and tails at the same time. Until I look, of course. Then, it pops into concrete existence as either heads or tails, with no causal reason.” Anybody can take a step back and see the purely theoretical (methodological) problems with this line of reasoning, nevermind the empirical tests.

Despite the numerous problems, of the quantum-mystics I’ve spoken with, almost all of them are explicitly unwilling to change their mind on the topic. They say things like, “You might have caught me in a contradiction, but you’re just using language and logic! The world transcends such archaic boundaries! Reality is contradictory, so shall I be!” And then they proceed to build theories atop their internally inconsistent worldview, building grandiose theories and interpretations of the world – all of which coming back down to a foundation of sand.

If you think that doesn’t do their ideas justice, consider a quote from famed quantum physicist Niels Bohr:

“No, no, you’re not thinking; you’re just being logical.”

Fun fact: Niels Bohr was also ready to throw out the law of conservation of energy, because he saw some empirical data which he thought challenged the theory. Turns out, the most popular models at the time didn’t account for “neutrinos,” which satisfy any conundrum. He apparently didn’t have the patience to deeply think about the philosophic relationship between theory and data.

It should also be noted that Einstein (among others), who was a pretty sensible guy, adamantly refused to believe the Copenhagen interpretation, writing and debating extensively on the subject. He and Bohr had several popular written exchanges on the topic, and tragically, the scientific establishment sided with Bohr. It’s shows a scandalous lack of bigger-picture critical thinking by those physicists. Though, thankfully, the CI is nowadays considerably less popular than it used to be (last poll I saw put the number at around 40% of professional physicists believe the CI is the most compelling theory to explain quantum phenomena).

In conclusion: no, reality is not determined by our observation of it. The universe does not magically know when it’s being watched. Reality is not stuck in a contradictory state of superposition and paradox, waiting to pop into existence once somebody opens their eyes. Or, as Einstein put it, “I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.”

You can not create your own reality just by willing it so. There is absolutely no data which suggests consciousness plays any role in collapsing the wave-function. The most obvious answer is the most accurate: the apparatus used to measure quantum phenomena in the double-slit experiment interferes with the results.

I’m afraid the scoundrels don’t have an easy way out. If reality is actually not a giant blurry paradox, there’s is indeed reason to fret over self-contradiction and imprecision. Suddenly, the laws of logic start binding you again, and you’re no longer free from the constraints of rational thinking. I sincerely believe, within my lifetime, the ridiculous claims of the CI and quantum mystics will be relegated to the dustbin, and a lot of people will feel quite embarrassed, including professional physicists.

[Note: after talking with some friends about this post, I want to make sure this is extremely clear: I am not arguing that “quantum physics is flawed,” or that the entire field is mistaken. I am criticizing a) the Copenhagen Interpretation, and b) a very particular way of abusing quantum physics, best represented in pseudo-scientific literature and media like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” I’ve intentionally tried to show their flawed reasoning and thought-process, and I fully realize classical mechanics and quantum mechanics can be integrated without paradox. Indeed, that’s the point.]