What the Beep?

Thursday, November 20, 2008 

The movie What the bleep do we know is a pseudo-scientific exploration of using quantum mechanics to justify a human potential-like pseudo-religious concept. I have an undergraduate degree in physics from MIT, and so I recognized a lot of the arguments as absurd immediately, but I reached the limits of my depth, particularly on the history of QM in this argument. Most, but not all of the concepts could be easily refuted from an undergraduate understanding such as mine, some seem to require more depth. But the practicing physicists I reviewed my answers with seemed to think they had nothing useful to add to the discussion, in part I suspect out of the still-somewhat-in-vogue idea that the best way to confront anti-scientific ideas is to ignore them, viz the debate over intelligent design (which I think, personally, the flying spaghetti monster settled.)


I never did answer his last message because I wasn’t sure how to go about simply contradicting him–he’s just wrong. Not like a difference of opinion wrong, but like fundamentally in error on the matter of whether consciousness is necessary to collapse the wave function to create reality. One must ask: did reality exist before humans? Is there no reality outside the range of detection of humans? At what point in the evolution of humans, did reality start to exist? What drove evolution before there was reality?

Reductio ad absurdum, the discussion devolves to the somewhat infantile philosophical question of whether anyone can know whether the world actually exists outside themselves. Making the statement “no, not really” is just so uselessly open ended. Most people who want to start a pseudo-religion around metaphysics try not to make testable claims. The Boxers didn’t really have much luck at it, but the many other religions seem to be able to continue extracting money from people for magic blockage removals and the like.

Anyway, the test for whether a quantum state needs human observation to collapse is an easy one. The un-collapsed state is the basis of quantum computers, the accidental, unobserved collapse is the primary limitation of quantum computers, that and the number of quantum particles in coherence. If (among a lot of other tests) the world was as coherent as FAW’s hypothesis requires, quantum computers simply wouldn’t work or would work perfectly. They do neither – they do work, but only for a short period of time, whether or not anyone is watching.

It seems he’s mixed the Many Worlds Interpretation and the Consciousness Causes Collapse Interpretation with the Copenhagen Interpretation. Copenhagen does not require consciousness, quite the contrary – it says that the waveform does not correspond to reality, but is merely a probability calculus that has no meaning outside the experiment in question.

A detailed counter argument is a bit of a challenge to formulate and probably irrelevant without being able to re-watch the film. My memory of the various arguments presented is fading, and the counter arguments here are predicated on a fairly deep understanding of QM and the arguments in the film, and so may be in error. I’ll try to address Mr. FAW’s arguments in-line directly, as much as I can, without getting either completely out of my own depth or drifting aimlessly across too much Quantum history.

There are many interpretations of the fundamental nature of Quantum Mechanics and differentiation seems to come to head over the concept of “measurement.” QM has been incredibly successful at predicting the physical properties of real materials and so it is considered useful, yet has not been proven complete. It stands on par with Relativity as the “micro” to Einstein’s “macro” and between the two theories most of the universe’s observed behavior to date seems explicable… or at least to fit fairly closely to derived equations that fit one or the other of those two theories.

But not both.

And that’s a critical point which shows a fundamental flaw: either Quantum Mechanics or Relativity or both are either incomplete or wrong. (If history is a guide, the bet is both).

It is therefore risky to argue a special insight into the structure of the universe, consciousness and the nature of god based on a theory with known issues.

But at the root of this argument, I think, is the position of some special power granted to the act of measurement by a conscious entity to cause a furcation in the state of the universe. The movie seems to favor a view that multiple universes exist simultaneously, that there are a near infinity of such universes each embodying the possible outcome of every measurement. This is a slippery term in itself, and without the introduction of consciousness as a necessary step, would seem to imply a multiplication of universes on the order of every particle in the universe to the power of every possible state to the power of the number of plank-time units since the start of the universe, a rather huge number. Positing a metaphysical property of consciousness dramatically reduces that value, but perhaps too dramatically:

How did the state of the Universe evolve before the evolution of consciousness?

QM suggests that there is a wave function for every entity: particles and aggregates thereof. The wave function of the Universe can be calculated: does it have a reality if there is no observer outside the universe to collapse it’s wavefunction? Does a conscious entity self-collapse all entrained wavefunctions?

Copenhagen (and the Extended Probability and Consistent Histories theories of QM) do not speak of collapsing the wavefunction. They say there is no physical relevance to the wavefunction. It’s a mathematical definition that has no meaning beyond the calculus itself.

I am curious as to how Quantum Mystics find the Conscious Observer of Many Worlds consistent with EPR with a moving reference frame (which is generally felt to introduce a temporality inconsistency with many worlds, wherein the moment of universe selection is indeterminate between two relativistically consistent “nows”).

But lastly, and I think most fundamentally, I have a pseudo-religious disagreement. I say pseudo religious because I’m not sure it’s a testable disagreement, just as the existence of God is not disprovable if one accepts the tenant that He will offer no proof of His existence.

I am not aware of any experiment that can disprove the Conscious Observer hypothesis, that is one can argue that experiments like the two slit experiment that show behavior associated with wave particle duality, which can be collapsed by “measurement” — that is for example by tagging the particles by polarization — would seem to prove that the waveform can be collapsed mechanically, but the counter argument is that the collapse isn’t known until a conscious observer interprets the results, and it is that interpretation that collapses the aggregate waveform of the particles being measured and the waveform of the measuring apparatus itself retroactively in time.

This argument seems a bit tautological to me. And it is fundamentally predicated on a special, metaphysical status for consciousness itself. While I readily admit that I do not understand what consciousness is exactly, nor can I recreate it in a test tube nor with a computer, I do not believe it is “special.” There is nothing about consciousness (of which I am aware) that defies the bounds of the normal rules of classical physics and chemistry let alone that suggests it merits a special place above Quantum Mechanics. While it is impossible to prove that reality isn’t a dream, and my sense of awake not actually a dream from which I will awake into reality tonight when I think I go to sleep; nor can it be proven to me that I do not exist alone and all others merely figments of my imagination or creations of some meta-entitty sent to study my response. But why bother trying? So to, it seems impossible to disprove the Conscious Observer (though a slightly less metaphysical interpretation seems fatally challenged by EPR’s moving frames).

The film seems to make an additional suggestion that I suspect goes a step too far for even the most metaphysically inclined: that consciousness is so powerful that it can influence the path “reality” takes through the many worlds simultaneous extant. I am unaware of any scientific proof of this sort of connection, nor of any particular reason to believe it I can find other than an abiding belief in the special status of consciousness. There is a suggestion that Masaru Emoto‘s pretty photographs show some deep proof of the power of thought to influence the development of ice crystals. It does not appear that Mr. Emoto’s work has been peer reviewed by anyone, nor have his experiments been repeated by other labs. Nor does it seem that he has managed to consistently repeat his own experiments. They thus fail as science: they are not repeatable. They may be pretty, but the hypothesis that the crystals are influenced by thought fails to stand up to testing.

In the end, it would be unscientific to categorically deny the possibility that consciousness has some special status in the workings of the universe, and it may will turn out to be true that the human brain is in some way connected to the underlying structure of the universe and even able to manipulate it, but I see no particular reason to embrace this belief, to choose it from an infinity of equally unprovable possibilities without some evidence that points directly to it–some evidence other than wishful thinking. I would apply Ockham’s Razor: does not the simplest explanation argue against the unnecessary multiplication of entities to include a supra-natural power of the brain? What anomaly, what otherwise inexplicable phenomenon does this theory, and only this theory, satisfactorily resolve?

Below follows my annotated discussion with FAW.

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I went off to see what the bleep. It was entertaining, though I found it unintentionally so… I hope not too much to the dismay of the more committed viewers around us. It’s getting diametric reviews, which doesn’t surprise me.

I’m not terribly sympathetic to the spiritual connections to quantum physics here and there proposed, despite having occasionally (in the distant past) used the line “quantum physics tells us not just that we’re everywhere simultaneously, but everywhen simultaneously…” to try to pick up women. Generally unsuccessfully.

My feeling about the movie was that it was trying too hard. Though I did not recognize any of the technically oriented speakers, their qualifications sounded impressive. Yet there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory that seemed to be the foundation of the many beliefs: that a conscious observer collapses superposition.

In English: Quantum does describe a “superposition” of states, for example that Shrodinger’s Cat is neither alive nor dead (or both alive and dead) until someone checks to see if ate the poison, or that the protagonist could go to the movie alone and with a date simultaneously. More practically than supernatural cats, the principle underlays what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” wherein, for example, two entangled photons can measurably effect each other instantaneously (faster than the speed of light) over great distances via a mechanism which can not physically be related to electricity, magnetism, or the physical transfer of information, as if the “particle” were some metaphysical entity that was not literally constrained to the bounds of space and time. Spooky indeed.

Entanglement and superposition are real, measurable, and practically underlay quantum computers (which actually work at demonstration level) and quantum cryptographic key distribution (which is a commercial product).

They’re real. They’re not perfectly understood, and yet regularly exploited. That is this spooky action isn’t theory, it’s product.

But there’s one deep error in the movie (that was, in fairness, acknowledged early then apparently forgotten “it could be a person or it could be rock” someone said): the “observer” that collapses the superposition and converts the spookily entangled universe of interrelated probabilities into the tangible state with which we normally interact is not conscious, indeed it has absolutely zero connection to human consciousness whatsoever. The “observer” is a term of convenience, it is technically a perturbation energy of a magnitude sufficient to test the state of the entangled system that the outcome would uniquely discriminate between possible states. It appears to have been a poor word choice that did not anticipate new age co-option of quantum theory.

FAW : There is no way that any “object”collapses the quantum wave function. Also Satinover had it wrong in the film. In fact there is nothing in the theory itself to suggest collapse. It is one of the reason that the parallel universes model was invented in 1957 which provides a good way to understand quantum computers. (See work of David Deutsch). I would suggest rereading von Neumann or read HP Stapp who writes about this “problem” of collapse with considerable clarity. There is no consistent way to even put the collapse into quantum physics without doing injustice to experimental facts. Many have tried and the latest is called I believe decoherent histories. But the basic assumption is that sufficiently complex alternative possibility decohere for some mysterious reason that is called the “environmental” influence. That is also pure speculation and attempts to draw a line between where and when collapse occurs and does not occur.

[FAW has it exactly reversed: the wave function is the theoretical concept with no application to reality, collapse is the norm.]

The term “observer” comes from thought experiments from the 1920’s that were used to explore the counter intuitive nature of quantum physics and were not meant to imply a cosmic interrelation between human consciousness and the real state of the universe.

FAW : Straw dog set up: cosmic interrelation between human consciousness and the real state of the universe.” Consciousness need not be human. If collapse occurs then accordingly nothing mechanical caused it. For me that suggests consciousness because the role of consciousness is ascertain what’s happening with certainty. Hence those that follow the von Neumann, Stapp, Josephson, Goswami, Wigner, and earlier London+Bauer positions posit that since no machine seems to cause collapse, and mind does observe a “real” world, then it is consciousness that collapses the quantum wave function.

[Oddly, this contradicts his previous comment. Either there is no collapse or there is… His leap of faith that collapse has to be consciousness is utterly unsupported. His biggest failure is saying that “no machine causes collapse,” as if to suggest that computers or robots have been tasked with observing collapse and failed. That’s simply not true, collapse is spontaneous: it is maintaining coherency that is the main challenge impeding the advance of quantum computers.]

That is if someone were to put a real cat into a box with some poison and wait it would definitely start to smell shortly after it ate the poison whether or not any human checked on it. Likewise quantum computers which rely on the entanglement of their bits to “solve” all possible conditions of a problem simultaneously will come to an incomplete solution of a stray source of perturbation energy happens to come into the system (radiation, cosmic ray, etc). The system has to be sufficiently isolated from ALL energy, not human consciousness, in order to work.

FAW : The reader assumes that the proposed cat and poison set up is not already entangled with many other systems and the stray bit did the dirty work. But even there was a stray bit, according to quantum physics the universe would split into two separate universes. In one the box would stink and in the other it would not. The probability would be 50% you (observer) were in one of those. It was just as likely that the stray bit didn’t effect anything as it was that it did, so this proves nothing. In parallel universes both universes split apart and co-exist. In Copenhagen Interpretation the quantum wave function collapses and the cat is either dead or alive. In Copenhagen one universe exists and the other vanishes in puff of collapsed probability. In parallel universes both version of reality exist together with an observer who sees the cat one way or the other and therefore think collapse. In Copenhagen consciousness does the deed. In parallel universes consciousness is a byproduct of the interaction but it exists in an infinity of ever multiplying universes. Which is right? The answer is: I speculate here, they both are and they are saying the same thing.

[Just wrong, Copenhagen ascribes no physical significance to the wave function. Parallel universes assumes no magic of consciousness. Further, the “stray particle” split hypothesized puts the particle and consciousness on the same level, which would contradict the position that consciousness is special.]

Posted at 16:20:28 UTC

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