Thursday, 15 October 2009
The Quantum Enigma
As we get progress through the education system we tend to get more and more specialised. Study of English becomes study of the Romantic Period becomes study of Wordsworth becomes study of the Prelude becomes study of the rhyming patterns in the first stanza becomes..... Truly. I knew a guy once whose PhD thesis was on the reproductive system of earwigs. And as we specialise we tend to talk less and less with people outside our own discipline, so that the end result of higher education is that we come to know more and more about less and less. Now that's OK, it serves our society pretty well, and all the quite important stuff carries on: the electric milk frothers still get invented and the Ipod covers get ever more colourful. But sometimes there are very important things which can get overlooked because they are by products of someone's specialised discipline and therefore "none of my concern" to the folks who actually discover them and know about them. Like the way consciousness and physics are related for example.
Now I know that having used two of my favourite buzz words in one sentence has caused not a few eyes to glaze over but bear with me. Quantum physics has been around for about a hundred years now, and is investigated by....well... quantum physicists. It is one of the most robust and accurate theories in all of science. Not one of the predictions of quantum mechanical theory has ever been proven wrong and by some estimates about 1/3 of our economy depends in one way or another on quantum physics. But even though it is so practical and provable quantum theory says some seriously weird stuff. Like one thing being in two places at once, for example. Now this is not some strange theoretical hypothesis. People in laboratories with big expensive machines have shown without a shadow of doubt that this is actually the case. You can read all about it in The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosemblum and Fred Kuttner. These two are genuine quantum physicists who hold down prestigious jobs at respectable American Universities. They run a course at Cornell which explains physics to liberal arts students and this book is a distillation of that course. It is easy to read and quite easy to understand. It's just not all that easy to wrap you head around once you do understand it because what the physicists are telling us is that the world is a seriously weird place.
It seems, to take another example, that small bits of matter are not actually there until they are observed. No, I am not making this up. Atoms and electrons and quarks and so forth exist in a state of superposition; that is they are in a number of different places simultaneously until observing them causes them to exist in only one of the possible places. No, seriously. This is experimentally demonstrable. Read the book. And if atoms and other little bits and pieces are so influenced by observation what does that say about the bigger things that the little things make: rocks and air and me, for example? And what does it mean that observing something somehow pulls it into existence? When I choose to look at light as a wave it will appear as a wave. When I choose to look at light as a stream of little particles, a stream of little particles is what I will see. Odd. What does it all mean for the consciousness which does the observing? For free will which chooses how to look at things? Now these question have existed for as long as there have been quantum physicists who knew all this stuff, but they have been largely ignored because they are metaphysical, and therefore none of the business of physics. And because they are the business of physics the metaphysicists have paid them scant attention. Our learning system strikes again! Rosemblum and Kuttner have made this connection between physics and consciousness and meaning the central concern of the course they teach at Cornell and the central concern of this book.
Most of us operate quite happily using the physics of Isaac Newton which describes what goes on in the world we inhabit day by day. The world, we all think, is solid and dependable and exists regardless of whether anybody observes it or not. Our consciousness is maybe just a freak accurence; a strange by product of the physical matter of which the "real" world is composed. Or perhaps it is a thing separate from the world which inhabits the world of matter and allows us to observe it. Quantum physics suggests something else. Something far more radical, and dangerous to our self understanding. Exciting as the possibilites of this learning are, it's no wonder the physicists have been happy to quietly close the door on this stuff for so long.