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Quantum “Woo” Phenomena

October 27, 2020

Just as on one side of the quantum theory exploration there is the danger of standard expositors giving you a false sense of security of its water tight nature and determinism in all aspects, on the other side lies the danger of the “Woo” approach to quantum phenomena, of taking advantage of the strangeness and seeming uncertainty in quantum mechanics to use it as support for all sorts of fantastical and mystical doctrines about consciousness, telepathy, action at a distance and the like. The other side of the spooky action at a distance that Einstein worried about.

For someone striving to come at this debate from an independent angle and not get drawn into taking sides with any common views, I have to say that I have always been suspicious of and tried to avoid both of these somewhat trendy and polarised extremes. One has the benefit of accurate calculation with the detriment of being fixed and closed minded, while the other has the benefit of open mindedness but to the detriment of providing anything calculable.

Thankfully the more interesting expositors in quantum theory tend to fit somewhere inbetween these two extremes:

Some perspectives considered perhaps to be “woo-adjacent” lets say, are the views of Dean Radin who performs experiments to try and show how human focused intention and consciousness can influence the way in which a wave function collapses. He has shown some positive results consistently in his experiments. The problem is that, absent a mechanism to account for the phenomena, aside from a quasi mystical appeal to consciousness acting somehow at a distance, the view will be unlikely to get much traction in the scientific community.

A related traditional interpretation of Quantum theory by Ernest Wigner aimed to solve the problem of the point at which the wave function collapsed, the point at which a measurement could be said to be made, at the position where a conscious observer becomes involved in the process. A related and in some sense “complementary” view to this has been more recently suggested by Roger Penrose who argues that in fact what is happening is in some sense the reverse process of what Wigner suggested. Penrose was not happy that universal phenomena in nature such as things that obey the laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity could be so heavily skewed towards an exceptional entity and occurrence as the consciousness of human beings. (Though this view has its supporters also in relation to talk of the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology.)

So Penrose said that instead of consciousness collapsing the wave function, the collapse of the wave function itself somehow gives rise to consciousness. His reasoning, called the Penrose-Hameroff approach, states that since classical computing cannot account for certain abilities we have as conscious beings to perform certain intuitive mathematical operations and other problems, and given that in general the more classical mechanical approach of colliding billiard balls seems to have been shown inadequate to account for the emergence of consciousness, and given that he does not want to rely on some other non-scientific mystical arising for consciousness or some more philosophical view such as dualism or idealism, he concludes that the best prospect consistent with physical laws of the universe as we know them, lies in quantum phenomena.

His final approach is called something along the lines of the Orch OR approach. Where this stands for Orchestrated Objective Reduction. As a way to account for the collapse of the wave function through maintaining certain space-time consistency. And the analogue of this process in the human mind lies in the brain in microscopic symmetrical structures in the brain such as microtubules which are well suited to maintaining a quantumly isolated environment to allow some level of quantum effects to occur.

This is a view I am going to come back to in more detail another time, but I wanted to give an outline of it now as an interesting extension from a more quantum woo considered perspective on quantum theory, to show how things are not all so neat and tidy in terms of how to pigeon hole various perspectives on the theory.

Another perspective that could even also be said to be woo adjacent is actually the view of one of the originators themselves, namely, the view of Bohr. As his concept of the principle of complementarity left a lot of questions and puzzles that people still worry over to this day, largely due to their not requiring a definitive physical or mechanical state of affairs to be taking place at certain points in the quantum process.

One more view is the Bohm universe as holograph view. Although not used for “woo” purposes by Bohm himself, and in fact was suggested by him as an attempt to be faithful to an Einsteinian determinism in some sense by having hidden variables, only they would be non-local hidden variables due to the impossibility of local hidden variables. Now in order to account for this Bohm postulated this holographic view of space and time, where the whole space-time continuum is less an external arena, and more a holographic projection. In this way non-local effects can be made to make sense without any spooky action at a distance required. For the more “woo” developed view of this one can consider a book such as by Michael Talbot, called, The Holographic Universe.

We can end this tour of “woo-adjacent” stations of quantum theory with another view that specifically tries to avoid woo, and save some sort of determinism. This is the many worlds view that averts issues with measurement and collapse of the wave function by saying in reality the wave function never does collapse, its just that all the different options split off and continue alongside each other in parallel universes. The view may seem very incredible at first sight, but if you develop it in line with certain ideas in modal logic and possible worlds approach, there may be some hope to come to reasonable conclusions.

Oh, and finally one more thing to mention is the recent approach informed by information theory. In this view the notion is developed of getting “It” from “bit”. I.e. it is argued that in some way physical entities are not the fundamental ontological reality, but instead the fundamental reality is more like computer bits, pieces of information, out of which our notion of things and particles is constructed.

The only completely, or almost completely, “non-woo” view of quantum theory is the standard model approach and the quantum field theory approach. This view has led to the great successes of quantum electrodynamics and unifying many of the forces such as electromagnetism, and the nuclear weak and strong forces, and has led to a lot of discoveries of particles and even predictions of particles followed by their subsequent discovery, such as the famous Higgs Boson. It is informed to some extent by an approach of creating Feynmann diagrams for all possible paths and through the idea of forces and fields as reducible to a more mechanistic notion of exchanging virtual particles.

The dissatisfaction with this view stems around a few key points. Firstly, it still hasn’t given us any way to make coherent sense of the measurement and wave collapse problem. Secondly, it relies on a renormalisation process of infinities that some in mathematics, such as Roger Penrose, feel is an unsatisfactory and slightly ad hoc approach. Thirdly, it leaves the big problem of how to account for Gravity that has been giving physicists difficulties for some time now in trying to create the GUT, Grand Unified Theory, or Theory of Everything.

To go into the attempts in that domain would be a subject for a whole other post. But, for now, I think I have summarised some of the main features of quantum theory that one needs to be aware of and also wary of! Time to get back to more study, have a good day.

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