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Henry Stapp has long been a noted figure in the small, distinguished group of serious quantum reality theorists. Some of the finest minds of twentieth century physics, such as Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, David Bohm, Richard Feynman, Roger Penrose, and Stephen Hawking have not been afraid to venture out of the fortress of mathematical rigor and into the wilderness of philosophy. They risked professional impropriety to talk about the larger issues raised by their work. In rare instances, such as with Einstein, it seems that philosophical inquiry actually precipitated the physics, rather than the reverse. Interestingly, there is no consensus whatsoever amongst these meta-physicists as to what modern physics entails for the real nature of the universe. They differ about as extremely as possible.
The latest edition of Stapp's Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, a collection of 14 essays, may not gain him many converts. The exposition is turbid and his conclusions are strained. Stapp has been a philosophic chameleon over the years, with forays into such disparate languages as that of William James, Alfred Whitehead, Carl Jung, and Werner Heisenberg (with whom Stapp studied). This reader is unsatisfied. Certainly, there are precedents to good philosophers who are bad writers. Kant and Hegel come to mind. Stapp is not writing in his native German, and only time will tell if the comparison is apt. The odd, shifting philosophical associations over the years do not lend credibility. In a nutshell, Stapp is in the tradition of von Neumann, Wigner and others who see human 'consciousness', brain processes of some sort, as being inextricably intertwined with the phenomena of quantum mechanics. Such phenomena as wave-particle duality and entanglement can only be understood when the active role of mental activity is included.
Stapp hops wildly about, often without citation, evoking sometimes a 'cutaneous rabbit', but seems to prefer now a 'Heisenberg / James (H/J)' model. The tenets are never explicitly given. Rather it is wielded as a foil against Ryle, Dennett, Bohm and others. Rather freely stated, I surmise, H/J holds that there are real aleatoric quantum processes in the universe. These are associated with a wavefunction, and we can state how they develop in time; this much is Quantum 101. To some extent, we may think of these processes as un-actualized Aristotelian potentia. Minds (or at least the minds of some well-trained Homo sapiens) reduce this wavefunction when they make a quantum measurement. A Jamesian stream of consciousness is the procession of such events.
The flipside to Stapp's work is his treatment of the 'hard problem' of consciousness: how is it that (quantum?) mechanical processes could give rise to this experience of being a me, which does not for the most part feel mechanical? Stapp naturally associates with those such as Roger Penrose and Michael Lockwood who defend a transcendental form of consciousness and seek to ground this in quantum mechanics. Actual evidence for this from cognitive science is slim, but the verdict is still out. Stapp mentions , for example, the nanometer-sized channels for calcium ions that exist in the brain (and elsewhere). Yes, at this scale there is appreciable indeterminacy. No, this is not adequate evidence that quantum processes affect our simpler cognitive abilities, much less questions such as volition or deep understanding.
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Our knowledge of the universe breaks down as we get to the quantum level of atoms. More precisely, our picture of the universe breaks down; quantum calculations are amazingly accurate. This generally upsets philosophers more than physicists. With classical objects such as falling apples, cups of coffee, and WiFi antennas, we believe justly that our knowledge of the physical behavior is, in principle, complete and accurate to an arbitrary degree. The world of classical physics was a tidy place, with only a few anomalies such as the odd perihelion radius of Mercury or the theoretical derivation of the blackbody spectrum to trouble one. If physics had simply stopped in 1900 our modern world would look mostly the same. Electrons would presumably have been treated phenomenologically. Electronics would have developed just as the phenomenon of heat was utilized, misunderstood before Boltzmann, in the 19th century. We would now probably lack nuclear weapons, lasers, flash memory and PET scanners. We would be vastly more stupid about the universe, but life would go on. Even our self-understanding, or lack thereof, would probably be exactly as it is now. This is a point that Stapp would strongly contest.
However, as physicists probed smaller down to the atomic level, and as they gradually accepted Democritus's uncuttable motes as more than philosophical whimsy, they naturally tried to form models and pictures of the new structures. The atom must be like something. The atom was briefly modeled as a plum pudding, which is a perfectly good model until the tiny central positive-charged (and quite cuttable) nucleus was discovered.
One can of course reject model-making altogether, stubbornly adopt a stern instrumentalist face and insist on talking only about measuring gauges and clocks and such, but this type of thinking does not generally advance science. The early quantum theorists freely made models and oversimplified analyses because that is generally the only way to advance. But theory must be checked. The chief corrective feedback to untrammeled theorizing is unexpected empirical confirmation. Thus Bohr developed the atom model as a type of 'planetary system' even though the orbiting 'planets' could not possibly transition classically from one orbit to another. They would radiate energy during the transition, and this was never detected. But if you think of a model in which the star and planets are never quite where you think they should be, but with the planets always tending to swarm fuzzily in certain regions, albeit with interesting and definable patterns, then one is not far off. It is a Lewis Carroll world to be sure, but one may still get about fairly well. And there is a myriad of testable consequences. This is why we could countenance such outrageously unintuitive theory. It is precisely this lack of testable consequence that quantum reality theorists suffer from. A theory that sums things up nicely may be an interesting exercise or pedagogical tool, but it cannot be science.
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The weirdness of quantum theory may be said to gather around two areas. I would not say that Stapp explains either one very well in 300 pages, so please accept my effort. One area has the anodyne name of Measurement theory. What happens when you 'measure' a particle? That is, when you force it by means of some experimental apparatus to 'be' in a certain location at a certain time. In other words, force it to act like a particle or mote instead of like a far-reaching, wavelike disturbance of a field (whatever that is), which it had been doing hitherto. The apparatus can be quite simple. For example, passing light through a single narrow slit is radically different from passing it through two parallel narrow slits. The slit(s) need only be a cut made by an X-acto knife in aluminum foil. A single slit forces the photons to act like particles. If you put a screen behind the single slit, you will see a (mostly) Gaussian distribution pattern, with a single hump centered on the slit. If you add a second slit the distribution becomes an undulating pattern, cresting at the center and diminishing toward the ends. This is what we associate with waves. All we did was alter the apparatus, the situation as it were, and the test subject became a polar opposite of itself. The effect is easily reversible. The observer of all this hubbub may be a 'conscious' human being or it may be a photographic plate, developed long afterward. The wave-particles may be sent through slowly, one at a time, and the result is the same as when there is a large flux. We may also 'delay the choice' of slit, and the consequence effectively works retroactively in time.
The ontological oddity is that photons and electrons and other small objects are perfectly capable of acting like either particle or wave depending on how one treats them. This is hardly intuitive. A rose is a rose; it just is what it is. A classical object may of course change, but not so radically and immediately, not reversibly. Not so small objects. There are a few accepted interpretations of the Measurement problem and associated phenomena. The eminent names mentioned above had differing views. All are controversial. None are really necessary in order to 'do physics'. They demand no testable, falsifiable consequences. Thus most working physicists tend to adopt Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation ('collapse of the wave packet') by default because it is kind of intuitive. It is good enough of a picture to pass off on undergraduates. After all, even Newtonian mechanics never made perfect sense, as Berkeley protested. But pragmatically it works marvelously, so it must have some truth to it.
The oddity is not restricted to the small, however, lest we think that mysteries can only occur at the limit of observability. The second area of quantum weirdness has to do with J.S. Bell's Inequality, which also is a harmless sounding name for something that turns our world inside out. Bell starts with a very simple calculated statistical inequality. Take any process that produces pairs (such as two oppositely polarized photons) and some machinery for detecting the state of one member of the pair. It turns out that once the measurement is made on one member of the pair, the other instantly reverts to its proper opposite state. This happens even if the other is far away, 'beyond the light cone' of relativistic causality. That is, the reversion occurs faster than light, which is not supposed to be possible. Bell developed his inequalities by building on the work of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (EPR). These three devised an experiment that was intended to be a reductio counterargument against the Copenhagen interpretation. EPR tried to demonstrate the absurdity of quantum theory because it predicts faster-than-light, or non-local causality. However, such effects can be demonstrated in the laboratory, so locality, as common and intuitively pleasing as it may be, is not a necessary condition of the universe.
The inequality even works on the probability that an eccentric professor who favors mismatched socks will step into the room with a black sock on. In other words, the inequality holds for any statistically determined process, not solely for quantum processes. The problem is that predicted quantum outcomes violate Bell's Inequality when we assume some kind of local determination condition. Such determination is what Einstein and others sought, primarily by means of adding 'hidden variables'. It was abhorrent to them that an atomic process would end in any one particular result without the usual, classical deterministic factors. For example, a Co60 nucleus may emit a beta particle at a random time, and this may or may not be tolerable. But when we find that any ensemble of Co60 nuclei somehow acts together in concert such that the half-life is always 1925 days, this strains credulity. How do the nuclei work this out together? Surely there must be more internal machinery going on that we haven't figured out yet. This is Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason updated. But Bell states that, whatever other problems this supposed machinery may have, as a deterministic system it must violate a very basic inequality.
Bell's argument is statistical. Statistics is a way of channeling our mortal human ignorance. Classically it is almost a charade. I don't really think that the next card in the deck or the next roll of the die are indeterminate, I just don't have the means to predict it. (Those who invent ways to do so at gambling casinos find themselves quickly surrounded by large, unsmiling men.) It is remarkable that the universe is such that human ignorance can be so codified and channeled. One of the big lessons of quantum theory seems to be that there really is chance in the universe. The tools that we developed to tame chance as a limitation of our knowledge now become our way of describing ultimate reality.
ψ ψ ψ
Through the mid twentieth century the theoretical structure of physics grew and grew. It broke loose beyond the ability of ordinary intuition to grasp. Our intuition develops by living as classical objects amongst other classical objects. The theoreticians were willing to sacrifice anything, even Conservation of Energy, in order to advance the models, to make them more unified, more comprehensive, more simple and elegant. Nature reciprocated by unexpectedly confirming the theories, until recently. The big problem now is that we seem to have reached the limit of practical experiments. Theory has not slowed by any means, not for particle physicists and not for those like Stapp who ask the 'reality' question: what does quantum physics tell us about the ontology of the real world? Theoreticians never lack for theories. Most theories are ganz falsch ,'not even false'. Nature determines scientific truth, and now nature grows coy. It is rare, perhaps nonexistent, in science for a theoretician to be so far ahead of his / her peers that their work is adopted only generations later. This is what is troubling about the string theorists and the more radical theorists of quantum reality such as Stapp. Such beautiful, exciting visions, but of what?
© 2011 Michael L Anderson
Michael L Anderson (omniapraeclara AT gmail DOT com) holds a PhD in Applied Physics, an MA in Philosophy and an MSEE. He consults in industry.