Dienstag, 26. Juli 2016

the politics of quantum mechanics, or why quantum mechanics matter

This is the first part of a series in which I want to explore the most important scientific theory of our time and the ultimately world changing effect it will have. Before I tell you what that might be, we will need to lay down some basics about the fundamental concepts involved. This first part will be an attempt to explain the main aspects of quantum mechanics and why they matter.

Quantum mechanics usually is conceived as a concept so weird and scientific that it virtually stands for everything that is so much over our head, that we need not bother our self with understanding it. Admittedly, figuring out the math behind quantum mechanics will be far beyond most people's experience and skills in math. Only a few people in this world can really claim to have this comprehension. On the other hand, the philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics for our understanding of how the universe works are not that hard to understand (I think). What I want to offer to my readers in this article is some insight into the workings of quantum mechanics and why it is important.

Physics in general, is the formulation of theories that translate the phenomena we observe in our natural world in a comprehensible language called math. All of physics is interactions and math is the language used to communicate models describing these interactions to others, and to formulate predictions that would follow from our models. We can however try to understand the implications of these models without the need to understand its math.

The first thing that is strange about quantum mechanics is, that the observer has a very important role in the interactions we try to explain. To understand this, lets start with the probably most often replicated physical experiment of all time, the double slit experiment. The essence of it is, that if you shoot a quantum particle, like a photon or an electron (or many of them), on a wall with two tiny slits, that are close enough together, something weird happens. On a screen behind the wall a pattern appears, that we can clearly identify as the result of an overlapping of two waves spreading from the two slits. Physics calls that refraction and it is something that all waves do.

This is puzzling, because we thought we shot only one particle on those slits at a time. Something must have happened to it that changed it into behaving like a wave. How can one particle be a wave and pass through both slits at the same time? Obviously it would be interesting to know where that particle really went. So we change the experiment and place a detector at both of the slits and start over. What now happens is, that the refraction pattern disappears and our screen shows us that the particle appears at one of two points on the screen behind the wall with the slits, just what we had expected if we shot a gun at the wall.

Ok, so what must have happened is, that our detectors somehow messed the whole thing up? It turns out this is not the case. If we leave the detectors totally operational, but just turn off any way to get the information from these detectors (like a counter of some sorts) the refraction pattern reemerges. This puzzled physicists to no end. Very clever physicists tried to trick that experiment and invented something that is the “delay choice quantum eraser”. Its build is really ingenious and you can look it up on wikipedia if you like, but it does something that is not too complicated but again very puzzling in its result.

The double slit experiment is changed in a way, that we get the information from the detector on the slit a few moments after the particle arrives at the screen to produce the wave pattern. The now totally confusing result is, that whenever we observe the result from the detector on the slits, the refraction pattern still disappears and if we turn it off, the pattern reappears as before. As the detector counts the particle after it arrived at the screen, the detector must have changed the outcome of the experiment by changing the past!

This now is absolutely against any intuition we have. The linear flow of time is a principle we very much take for granted. But somehow, the linearity of time does not apply in the quantum realm. How far would that go? Can we just put both the screen and the results of our detector in a safe for ten years and then take them out? Would the outcome of the experiment be defined by which of the measurements we took out first? If we would erase the detector data and then look at the screens, would we see refraction patterns? There is nothing in original quantum mechanics that says that this would not be the case. Its not the case though and classical QMs inability to model this behavior is one of the things physicists try to solve today.

Another strange quantum phenomena, that I will refer to in this series, is entanglement. Usually it describes a situation where something that is yet fuzzy and uncertain (is described by a “wave function”) concerns more than one quantum particle. These particles can share this uncertainty for a relatively long time over a relatively long distance. Whenever an observer causes the wave function to collapse, it does so for all entangled particles simultaneously, even if they are quite far from each other. In the quantum world this is not a rare phenomena. Theoretically entanglement is a form of connection where all quantum particles of the universe resonate with each other and the “exchange” of quantum state happens instantaneously.
So clearly, the observer has a very important role in quantum mechanics. Whenever something is part of the quantum world its characteristics like time, place, impulse etc. are somewhat fuzzy or “uncertain” and it behaves like a wave, trying to measure one of these fuzzy characteristics results in the wavelike behavior to vanish. In quantum mechanics this is called the collapse of the wave function or “reduction”. It is important to note that this process is not reversible. We can't burn the data from the detectors after looking at it and then hope that the refraction pattern reappears. Somehow the information has entered the universe forever now and something called “an observer” is responsible for it. Physics, by the way, is very unclear about what the hell “an observer” is. i.e. the role of the observer is something completely different in general relativity theory (but equally hard to comprehend).

All this might be very interesting, but why is it so important? Before the double slit experiment we had “classical physics”. In classical physics everything is very deterministic. If the universe was classical, its whole future would have been written the moment it came to existence. That this is a weird notion should be clear to anybody with some sense.
In our understanding, quantum effects are random at heart, so on a small scale everything is random and fuzzy and these random effects can theoretically have infinitely large effects in our universe. The randomness of where our particle ultimately ends after passing through one of the slits theoretically could be set up to trigger an atomic explosion that ends our world, or not.

Philosophically, the double slit experiment has therefore toppled a “Weltanschauung” that was at the center of our way of thinking since the times of Aristotle. The rule of cause and effect, that we adhered to since Aristotles, does not rule our cosmos. The cosmos is largely driven by chance. This fundamental principal of chance in our cosmos, as far as we can describe it, even led to the existence of our universe itself. There is no scientific way to describe this process of chance. We can not tell why a radioactive isotope will decay at a certain point in time. Saying that “it chose to do so” is as good a description of what happened, as any other.

We as humans have not really embraced this quantum world view. Many sciences are still locked up in the classical world view, with a huge impact on our society as a whole. One of the things we embrace is the computability of virtually everything. We tend to believe in the ability of programs to solve all of our decision making problems. Sadly, all computers behave “classical” and deterministic. Computers are unable to take into account the chaotic randomness of the complex world we live in. This inability to accept the randomness of our world is especially visible in the fields neuroscience and artificial intelligence, both of which are leading sciences of our time.

The European Commission spends billions on a project called “Human Brain Project”. This project will maybe come up with some relevant science, but at its heart, it promotes the idea of the human brain as being nothing more than a classical computer, a machine made of flesh. In the USA, important scientists in the field of computer science promote the idea of “singularity”. Scientists, like Norman Minsky or Ray Kurzweil, have promoted the religious belief, that we might soon be immortal because we could download our brain into a computer.

We left classical physics behind us a century ago. As Richard Feynman said: “The universe is not classical, dammit!”. The notion, that a brain works like a computer, lacks any scientific evidence. In fact, there is lots of evidence today, that quantum behavior plays an important role all over biology. Life itself could be the result of quantum behavior in microbiology as far as we know. Core processes of life on earth, like photosynthesis, are quantum phenomena. Nature finds quantum behavior in its toolbox, and makes widespread us of it. The notion, that a complex structure as the human brain would be in essence describable by classical physics, is unscientific.

A deterministic brain would also be devoid of free will. We would be a zombie with the illusion of life, a mere observer of the thoughts, we were destined to have the moment we were born. Why would nature rely on randomness in reproduction and evolution, if there was a way to determine the most successful outcome of reproduction?

Why something like a deterministic brain would be worthwhile for evolution to create and how evolution without randomness happens at all, is never thought through by the promoters of a deterministic brain. How can social progress be made without the possibility of cultural evolutionary processes? Further, the idea of a classical physics computer brain degrades us all to mere objects. Its a paradox, that famous inventors like Ray Kurzweil would ultimately think that they are themselves just computers.

I sense that this worldview, that is objectifying people in the most literal sense, is an important part of the ideology that rules us. The struggle between determinism and free will has been at the core of the struggle between the rulers and the ruled in all our history. The rulers love determinism, ruling is in fact the notion that control over people is possible. Power strives to take away the exacting of free will as much as possible. 

Interestingly, objectification is what Michel Foucault describes as the the practice that we use to exercise power over others. Power, in Michel Foucaults theory, is the action/practice that determines the actions/pratice of others. In intersubjective relations, power forms subjects to be something that ideology wants them to be by objectifying them. By accepting the formation of our identity as an image of the template that society forces on us, we subjugate to power and willingly suppress ourselves.

The idea  of a deterministic brain also seems to tell us, that we all are little automatons of “homo oeconomicus”, disconnected from each other and our environment. Devoid of all connections with each others and the living universe, we seek only our own profit on the expense of others. We mere objects are only interested in adding more to ourselves, like little black holes, aimlessly drifting in a cold and dark universe and devouring anything in our way. With this worldview, it is no wonder we destroyed our planet.

The reasoning behind this worldview, and of the ideology that forces it upon us, ostensibly is “science”. We are to accept this worldview, because “science says so”. The truth is, that “science”, does not say so, the opposite is true. The double slit experiment tells us, that deterministic and reductionist theories are simply wrong.

We have consciousness. This consciousness, the ability to “observe” and to understand, to be the cause of the creation of something new is something very special. We are the source of new ideas that shape the universe and we do that interconnected with each other. Human intelligence, consciousness and understanding could not exist without free will. The source of this free will can only be a connection with the quantum world and thus with the living universe.

continued ...

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