More on Quantum things

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mecha...
English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics (1927). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schrodinger’s wave equation describes how the quantum state of a quantum system changes with time. Everett’s insight was that the observer of a quantum state was as much part of the system as the observed part of the system. Therefore they were “entangled” in the quantum sense and would be covered by a single quantum state equation.

If the observer and the observed are thus entangled, then so must be an observer who observes the quantum state of the observer and the observed. One can then extend this to the whole universe, which leads to the concept of a wave equation or function which describes the whole Universe.

English: Quantum mechanics travelling wavefunc...
English: Quantum mechanics travelling wavefunctions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That there is an equation for the universe is not really surprising and indeed, it is not surprising that it could be a quantum wave equation as the quantum world seems to form the basis of the physical, apparently classically described, world that we see.

I base this idea on the fact that everything that we sees appears to be describable in terms of a deterministic equation. It has been argued that such things as “psi phenomena“, but such claims are yet to be conclusively verified, with many putative examples having been discredited.


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Some people argue for a soul or mind as an example of a non-physical entity, but any such concept leaves a lot of questions to be asked. A non-physical entity cannot, by definition almost, be measured in any way, and there is difficulty in showing how such a non-physical entity can interact with physical ones, and therefore be noticed or detected.

By definition almost, a physical entity, such a body, is only influenced by physical things. If this were not the case we would see physical entities not following the laws of physics. For example, if it is possible to move an object by mind power or telekinesis, one would see the object disobeying fundamental scientific laws, like Newton’s First Law of Motion.

English: Isaac Newton Dansk: Sir Isaac Newton ...
English: Isaac Newton Dansk: Sir Isaac Newton Français : Newton (1642-1727) Bahasa Indonesia: Issac Newton saat berusia 46 tahun pada lukisan karya Godfrey Kneller tahun 1689 Lietuvių: Seras Izaokas Niutonas 1689-aisiais Македонски: Сер Исак Њутн на возраст од 46 години (1689) Nederlands: Newton geboren 4 januari 1643 Türkçe: Sir Isaac Newton. (ö. 20 Mart 1727) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mind is a curious example of a physical entity which is often thought of as being non-physical. After all, a mind does not have a physical location, apart from the skull of the person whose mind it is, and it can’t be weighed as such.

The mind however is a pattern, on the brain, made up of the state of trillions of neurones. It is made up of information, and is much like a computer program which is made up of the state of a few billion physical logic circuits in the guts of the computer.

Vista de la Motherboard
Vista de la Motherboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Open a computer and you won’t see “an image” anywhere. You will see patterns of bits of data in the memory, or on the hard disk, or maybe in transit, being sent to a computer screen. Similarly if you open someone’s skull you will not see an image there either. Just a bunch of neurones in particular states.

The one glaring exception to all the above, is, perhaps, consciousness. It’s hard to describe consciousness in terms of a pattern or patterns of the states of our neurones, but I believe that that is fundamentally what it is.

Schéma d'un neurone , commenté en francais
Schéma d’un neurone , commenté en francais (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people argue that we are conscious beings, (true), and that we consciously make choices (false, in my opinion). When we look closely at any choice that we make, it appears to be that choice is in fact illusory, and that our actions are determined by prior factors.

People seem to realise this, although they don’t acknowledge it. When questioned, there is always some reason that they “choose” in a particular way. Perhaps they don’t have enough cash to choose the luxury option when out shopping, or their desire outweighs their financial state. When pushed people can always think of a reason.

English: A choice of which way to go The choic...
English: A choice of which way to go The choices are a path to Greengore or Intack or the Old Clitheroe Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be sure, many “reasons” are actually post choice rationalisations, and choices may be based more on emotions than valid rational reasons, but whatever the emotions (such as the desire for an object), the emotions precede decision.

If, as sometimes happens, a person has to make a choice between two alternatives, that person can be almost paralysed with indecision. Even then, when a decision is finally made, it can be either a random choice, or maybe the person may say that they made a particular choice because they had decided a different way in another situation, or similar (e.g. they like the colour blue!).

English: Choose your leaders and place your trust
English: Choose your leaders and place your trust (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is no non-physical component to the Universe, as appears very likely, and psi phenomenon do not exist, then everything has a cause. I don’t mean this in the sense that event A causes event B which causes C, but more in the sense that the slope that a marble is on causes it to move in a particular direction.

Causality seems to be a continuum thing, rather than the discrete A causes B case. We can only get an approximation of the discrete case if we exclude all other options. There is a latin term for this : ceteris paribus – all other things being kept the same. “Ceteris paribus” would exclude the case where a wind blowing up or across the slope changes the path of the marble.

English: Picture of marbles from my collection
English: Picture of marbles from my collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For this reason I dislike the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Physics, as it is usually stated. The usual metaphor is a splitting movie film, which results in two distinct tracks in the future. I feel that a better picture would be a marble on a slope with a saddle.

The marble may go left, or it may go right, or it may even follow the line of the saddle. We still require “ceteris paribus” to exclude crosswinds, but there is no split as such. In a quantum model, the marble goes both left and right (and traverses the peak of the saddle with vanishing probability).

Monkey saddle
Monkey saddle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The probability that it goes left or right is determined by the wave equation for the system, and has a real physical meaning, which it doesn’t (so far as my knowledge goes) in the splitting metaphor.

I don’t know how my speculations stack up against the realities of quantum mechanics, but I like my interpretation, purely on aesthetic grounds, even if it is far from the mark!


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The Psi thing

Greek psi
Greek psi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read a book recently, a real paper book, which was called “brain wars” and was written by Mario Beauregard, who is a neuroscience professor at the University of Montreal. The book amounts to an attack on materialist philosophy, arguing that the materialist philosophy cannot explain everything, especially the phenomenon of consciousness and “psi” phenomena.

One of the cornerstones of his argument is based around the dualist notion that mind and brain are separate “things”, and indeed one key section from the text, quoted in the blurb on the dust cover as follows:

The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.

A little later he poses the question that the opponents of Decartes posed : “How, they asked, can an immaterial, mental substance act upon the material brain?”

A diagrammatic section of human brain by René ...

Beauregard later quotes Minsky’s statement “The brain is just a computer made out of meat”. For reasons that he goes into in depth later he states that quantum mechanics “has effectively smashed the scientific materialist worldview.” He then complacently concludes that “(m)aterialistic theories, despite their stubborn persistence in the scientific community, cannot solve the mind-brain problem”.

This despite the fact that Quantum Mechanics is completely materialistic and rational!

Marvin Minsky at the KI 2006 artificial intell...
Marvin Minsky at the KI 2006 artificial intelligence conference in Bremen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that Minsky’s view is closer to true than the view that there is more to reality than the materialistic view allows. Beauregard is not a computer scientist so he would not know, in detail, how computers work, under the covers. At a basic level running computer is all about signals. These signals flow through the computer like signals flow through the brain’s network of neurons. (Caveat: I’m not a neuroscientist like Beauregard so I may be misrepresenting his field.)

neuron fractal 1
neuron fractal 1 (Photo credit: Anthony Mattox)

At a slightly higher level, a computer runs an operating system. This is program that runs all the time on the computer, running the programs that the user requires, handling the users input by running other little pieces of code, and handling all the bits of equipment (peripherals) that are connected to the computer. Crucially, the operating system can make the peripherals do things, like print the letter “A” on a sheet of paper, or spit out the sheet from the printer. Special purpose computers are the core of the robots that build cars or assemble toasters and pack them  and label them. They can even sort letters, reading ordinary human writing, much of the time accurately.

Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...
Factory Automation with industrial robots for metal die casting in foundry industry, robotics in metal manufacturing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly people don’t think of robots as mobile computers that can interact with physical objects. The computers in robots run an operating system like your ordinary laptop or desktop, but they are often special versions called “embedded” operating systems.

Open up a computer though, and boot it up. Although you can point to various named parts, like the CPU, or the memory chips, you can’t point to the operating system. It essentially just a pattern impressed on the memory and the various registers and the CPU, and it changes over time. As Beauregard said about the mind, “it has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time”. Yet it can influence things, print a letter or paint a car chassis.

June 11, 2007
June 11, 2007 (Photo credit: HeatherKaiser)

It seems that the computer, with its operating system and subsidiary programs, is a good analogy for the brain/mind duality. A big caution here, in that this analogy is just analogy, but it could form the basis of a model of the way that the mind and brain work together. It doesn’t, per se, explain consciousness, but I think that I have, above, provided an explanation of how the supposedly immaterial mind can, through the brain, affect the body, so that we can think above moving a limb, and it happens.

Quantum Physics
Quantum Physics (Photo credit: Jonathan Thorne CC)

Beauregard fastens on “quantum physics” as a possible enabler of psi phenomena, arguing that in quantum physics there is no separation between the mental and the physical. He bases this on what he calls the observer effect : “particles being observed and the observer are linked, and the results of the observation are influenced by the observer’s conscious attempt”.

Hmm. Wikipedia defines the “observer effect” as follows :

In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics.

This is a purely physical effect of measurement – the measuring photon knocks the observed particle slightly off course. Nothing to do with the observer. (A related effect, the Heisenberg principle puts limits on the accuracy with which we can know both the original values of a pair related properties and the subsequent values – roughly speaking).

An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the s...
An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the same shade of grey as square B. See demonstration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think that Beauregard is actually referring to is an interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” otherwise known as the “Collapse of the Waveform”. As such he interprets it as saying that the act of observation affects the result of the observation. This is fundamentally not true, because what really happens is that the act of observation merely determines which of probabilities is true. As Wikipedia says :

What collapses in this interpretation is the knowledge of the observer and not an “objective” wavefunction.

In no way does the observer influence the results of the experiment except as a result of the real “observer effect” above, so there is no room there for psi effects.

English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld ex...
English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld experiment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may think that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did! There are unexplained and challenging events described in the book, but I don’t think that it goes anywhere near challenging the materialistic philosophy of science. The only part that I have issue with is when Beauregard challenges what he calls “pseudoskeptics”, those who profess to be skeptics and who are unwilling to look at the evidence for psi phenomenon.

USE IT...
USE IT… (Photo credit: Demetrios Georgalas aka brexians)

In fact these so called pseudoskeptics have probably looked into psi phenomenon at some stage and decided that further consideration is pointless given the diffuse and dubious nature of some evidence and the lack of any information about how this could tie in to or extend in some logical way existing materialistic physics.

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