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Popular spat regarding quantum mechanics

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
This week there's been an apparent exchange between some fairly high-profile media:
IMHO the only one with a lick of sense is the Forbes article:
Forbes said:
... The idea that there is a fundamental, objective, observer-independent reality is an assumption with no evidence behind it, just thousands upon thousands of years of our intuition telling us "it should be so."

But science does not exist to show that reality conforms to our biases and prejudices and opinions; it seeks to uncover the nature of reality irrespective of our biases. If we really want to understand quantum mechanics, the goal should be more about letting go of our biases and embracing what the Universe tells us about itself. Instead, Carroll regressively campaigns for the opposite in teasing his upcoming new book. Unsurprisingly, most physicists are underwhelmed.
What's somewhat interesting to me is less the particular exchange itself, but it being the latest events in the increasing trend of the sort of anti-quantum quackery being addressed directly to the popular audience, making it very transparently a vehicle for self-promotion and making money. There is no genuine experiment and the research programme is still completely sterile, so over the last few decades, drumming up popular appeal is necessary to justify their existence.

People like Sean Carroll are a bit like an analogue of an anti-vaxxer promoter for physics. It's really a shame because his general relativity textbook is genuinely good.
 

Alias

Bean Daddy
Moderator
So this is the first time I've heard about this, why is there this anti-quantum quackery?
 

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
So this is the first time I've heard about this, why is there this anti-quantum quackery?
Well, it's a pretty general question, but roughly this can be split into two parts.

The major reason there an increasing rate of this stuff compared to prior generations is that there is substantial money to be made in telling people that their common-sense intuitions are correct and that academia is hopelessly blind or otherwise unwilling to admit it. This is plays on basic conspiracy-adjacent impulses in people in order to self-promote, and it's not really a coincidence that the NY Times piece is full of nonsense and lies pointing to how the mainstream physics is riddled with dunderheads and nincompoops... is also made to promote a book by the author. Frankly, that the main strategy over this is going to popular media is a minor symptom of just how much of non-science this stuff all is.

A contributing reason that's not without merit was linked in the Forbes article above: as the established research programmes slow down or take an increasingly specialised groups to do, a section of the physicists is more incentivised to reanimate the corpses of ancient, falsified paradigms. Because they can't easily move forward, they turn regressive.

Anyway, the much more general reason of why it exists at all is an apparently widely-shared human intuitions about ‘reality’, which occur again and agani when people tried to do science. For example, Descartes tried to explain gravity as vortices in matter filling the space between planets. When Newton took over, people formed a very mechanistic view of the world that allowed them to picture that the universe has a kind of ‘underlying clockwork’ structure that works deterministically from one moment to the next. In the XIX century, people made many models for the electromagnetic field, of which the aether was simply the logical end-point. Throughout all this, the unifying thread is a desire to put science into the following mould:
observations → objectively real underlying machinery of the universe → predictions,​
and the implicit task of science is to discover this underlying machinery. In context, ‘objectively real’ means ‘has a definite/unique physical state regardless of experimental setup’.

Quantum mechanics is different, because it essentially implies that the middle step is both a completely unnecessary metaphysical assumption, or at least the ‘objectively real’ part, and that it is actually actively harmful to understanding what is going on. The implicit task of science is then to turn observations into predictions given some experimental setup. ... But because many people seem to have trouble accepting that Nature has no obligation to indulge their metaphysical intuitions, they see this as fundamentally broken and write polemics about how physicists don't want to understand how stuff works.

Anyway, the philosophical difference of what science is about—making predictions under some conditions vs discovering objective reality, is probably the most general way to characterise why anti-quantum quackery happens at all. But very importantly, the difference is far from just philosophical: the former is an extremely successful and simple approach that revolutionised physics, while the latter is overwhelmingly parasitic on the as some people struggle to find what it ‘really real’ while simultaneously trying to hide this supposed reality from any observational relevance whatsoever (because then it would just be directly falsified).
 

IndyFront

Ξ⌊:Ξ≪⊕ `∧∀⊥∥'⌊: ∀∃∃∀⌊:⊕⌈≪⌊:⊕Γ.
Author
Where quantum probability "comes from"? Wouldn't "come from" where... well... everything else comes from? :p
 

IndyFront

Ξ⌊:Ξ≪⊕ `∧∀⊥∥'⌊: ∀∃∃∀⌊:⊕⌈≪⌊:⊕Γ.
Author
I found this video somewhat amusing
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
Well, it's a pretty general question, but roughly this can be split into two parts.

The major reason there an increasing rate of this stuff compared to prior generations is that there is substantial money to be made in telling people that their common-sense intuitions are correct and that academia is hopelessly blind or otherwise unwilling to admit it. This is plays on basic conspiracy-adjacent impulses in people in order to self-promote, and it's not really a coincidence that the NY Times piece is full of nonsense and lies pointing to how the mainstream physics is riddled with dunderheads and nincompoops... is also made to promote a book by the author. Frankly, that the main strategy over this is going to popular media is a minor symptom of just how much of non-science this stuff all is.

A contributing reason that's not without merit was linked in the Forbes article above: as the established research programmes slow down or take an increasingly specialised groups to do, a section of the physicists is more incentivised to reanimate the corpses of ancient, falsified paradigms. Because they can't easily move forward, they turn regressive.

Anyway, the much more general reason of why it exists at all is an apparently widely-shared human intuitions about ‘reality’, which occur again and agani when people tried to do science. For example, Descartes tried to explain gravity as vortices in matter filling the space between planets. When Newton took over, people formed a very mechanistic view of the world that allowed them to picture that the universe has a kind of ‘underlying clockwork’ structure that works deterministically from one moment to the next. In the XIX century, people made many models for the electromagnetic field, of which the aether was simply the logical end-point. Throughout all this, the unifying thread is a desire to put science into the following mould:
observations → objectively real underlying machinery of the universe → predictions,​
and the implicit task of science is to discover this underlying machinery. In context, ‘objectively real’ means ‘has a definite/unique physical state regardless of experimental setup’.

Quantum mechanics is different, because it essentially implies that the middle step is both a completely unnecessary metaphysical assumption, or at least the ‘objectively real’ part, and that it is actually actively harmful to understanding what is going on. The implicit task of science is then to turn observations into predictions given some experimental setup. ... But because many people seem to have trouble accepting that Nature has no obligation to indulge their metaphysical intuitions, they see this as fundamentally broken and write polemics about how physicists don't want to understand how stuff works.

Anyway, the philosophical difference of what science is about—making predictions under some conditions vs discovering objective reality, is probably the most general way to characterise why anti-quantum quackery happens at all. But very importantly, the difference is far from just philosophical: the former is an extremely successful and simple approach that revolutionised physics, while the latter is overwhelmingly parasitic on the as some people struggle to find what it ‘really real’ while simultaneously trying to hide this supposed reality from any observational relevance whatsoever (because then it would just be directly falsified).
I would look at it from a different angle. QM doesn't entail that there is no "really real" -- it entails that the world cannot be represented as it is by the human mind. That implies denial of the "really real" only if you assume that the world is fully cognizable by the human mind. And that's what really bothers people. For the same reason that Kant bothered them, and Berkeley and the skeptics etc. Because that means that the world is irrational, absurd.
 

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
I would look at it from a different angle. QM doesn't entail that there is no "really real" -- it entails that the world cannot be represented as it is by the human mind. That implies denial of the "really real" only if you assume that the world is fully cognizable by the human mind. And that's what really bothers people. For the same reason that Kant bothered them, and Berkeley and the skeptics etc. Because that means that the world is irrational, absurd.
Well, there are some reasons I was softened my phrasing to talk about specifically that this kind of assumption is not necessary for science to function and is instead detrimental to said functioning, rather than denying it in some wider abstract sense, whatever that might be.

QM is at positivism-adjacent in insisting that it is not possible to talk about the results of experiments independently of the experimental procedure. Specifically, if one considers the hypothetical results of multiple experiments that one could perform, it is not appropriate to stich them together into an objective picture of the world, objective in the sense of independently of the multiple differently experimental setups from which they were obtained. ... Because attempts to do so lead to empirically observable contradictions, this does not depend on philosophical of analysis of what things mean (unlike philosophical positivism). Thus, QM implies that the universe doesn't work that way, and it's just too bad for people that were expecting something different.

You may be right about this being the psychological motivation for some people. However, they're also very wrong. Unless we're using those terms in some highly highly idiosyncratic way, there is nothing irrational or absurd about a scientific theory that lets you calculate answers if you feed it questions given what you know of a situation. The above spanner in the works can be reformulated like this: if you actually ask some questions, you will always get consistent answers, but you can't always coherently mix them with hypothetical answers to questions that you didn't ask. In a pithily stated way, QM's stance is that “unperformed experiments have no results”.

The claim that one can always do something like that has nothing to do with the world being rational or irrational; it's simply an extra assumption about how the world works. I suppose some people may see such preconceptions as foundationally necessary even when they're not. (I'm not certain what ‘fully cognisable’ means in context, so I replaced that with discussion of some specific things that one can or can't do according to QM.)
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
Well, there are some reasons I was softened my phrasing to talk about specifically that this kind of assumption is not necessary for science to function and is instead detrimental to said functioning, rather than denying it in some wider abstract sense, whatever that might be.

QM is at positivism-adjacent in insisting that it is not possible to talk about the results of experiments independently of the experimental procedure. Specifically, if one considers the hypothetical results of multiple experiments that one could perform, it is not appropriate to stich them together into an objective picture of the world, objective in the sense of independently of the multiple differently experimental setups from which they were obtained. ... Because attempts to do so lead to empirically observable contradictions, this does not depend on philosophical of analysis of what things mean (unlike philosophical positivism). Thus, QM implies that the universe doesn't work that way, and it's just too bad for people that were expecting something different.

You may be right about this being the psychological motivation for some people. However, they're also very wrong. Unless we're using those terms in some highly highly idiosyncratic way, there is nothing irrational or absurd about a scientific theory that lets you calculate answers if you feed it questions given what you know of a situation. The above spanner in the works can be reformulated like this: if you actually ask some questions, you will always get consistent answers, but you can't always coherently mix them with hypothetical answers to questions that you didn't ask. In a pithily stated way, QM's stance is that “unperformed experiments have no results”.

The claim that one can always do something like that has nothing to do with the world being rational or irrational; it's simply an extra assumption about how the world works. I suppose some people may see such preconceptions as foundationally necessary even when they're not. (I'm not certain what ‘fully cognisable’ means in context, so I replaced that with discussion of some specific things that one can or can't do according to QM.)
"Irrational" here means that the world cannot be represented within our general definition of "reason." I cannot visualize an electron; I can't give a mechanical reason for why something is the way it is.. We've been taught since Descartes or thereabouts that the world is mechanical and can be exhaustively described by algebraic geometry, by things bumping into each other. (This isn't "common sense" -- it's a particular intellectual tradition -- as Heisenberg pointed out, QM has parallels in pre-modern physics).

That QM allows you to calculate things means that the world is irrational, if you have this assumption.

(OK, Descartes is when this started, it didn't become "common sense" until a couple of hundred years later. As usual, there was a long lag time between the appearance of the idea and its becoming dispersed through society, There are lots of these "common sense" ideas that are actually folk-wisdom versions of somebody's theory.)
 

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
"Irrational" here means that the world cannot be represented within our general definition of "reason."
Having a precise framework for reasoning about things is exactly what the foundations of QM are for. It would kind of strange to say that rules of deduction that have nigh-mathematical precision are outside the general definition of ‘reason’. Hence my claim that the deduction is wrong, even if the belief that it's right psychologically motivates people as you say.

I cannot visualize an electron; I can't give a mechanical reason for why something is the way it is.. We've been taught since Descartes or thereabouts that the world is mechanical and can be exhaustively described by algebraic geometry, by things bumping into each other. (This isn't "common sense" -- it's a particular intellectual tradition -- as Heisenberg pointed out, QM has parallels in pre-modern physics).
I mean, on one level I agree (and this was part of my point above)*, but then... no, not really. I know what Descartes was cobbling together, but what ‘algebraic geometry’ even means is very different in 1650 to 1850 to 1950, and I think it'd be pretty difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to characterise understanding of classical mechanics ca. 1850 as being of the same intellectual tradition as Descartes while excluding quantum mechanics from that tradition. And in a very direct way, quantum mechanics is the extremisation of Descartes' program of algebratisation.

For example, the Hamiltonian formulation of classical mechanics is ill-characterised as things bumping into each other. Instead, the state of a classical system is a point in an abstract phase space, and as time goes on it traces out some path. Given different initial conditions, those paths never cross, so they don't ‘bump into’ one other. And yet this phase space has a rich geometric structure (later formalised as a symplectic manifold) that depends on the details of the physical system, and the classical observables that live there have mathematical relationships between each other that are formalised as a commutative algebra.

As soon as one does that, it is natural to ask: what would happen with that algebra was not commutative? And that's the key difference between quantum and classical mechanics. (Though historically the path was directly reversed, with much of the physics coming before this relationship, while deforming a classical algebra of observables to be non-commutative became one technique of quantisation.) ... Additionally, this is analogous to a whole lot of subsequent research in algebraic geometry, where more and more of topological and geometric properties were formulated purely in the language of algebra, not coincidentally giving rise to non-commutative geometry.

A cute example of what modern algebraic geometry is capable of it is that one can have a space with geometric structure without points. Not just talking about geometric properties without referring to points, but a space with a well-defined geometry for which points don't exist and can't be defined. (And yes, this involves allowing certain algebras which are commutative for non-pointless topologies/geometries to be non-commutative instead.)

That QM allows you to calculate things means that the world is irrational, if you have this assumption.
I would say that as time went on, from Descartes' program of describing things mechanistically bumping through algebraic geometry, we have increasingly abstracted and relied upon the algebraic geometry and decreased the relevance of mechanistic bumping, to eventually found it to be just plain counter-productive, while QM is metaphorically ‘all the algebra, none of the bumping’ extreme end of that trend. In a sense, QM is the final step of cutting away something that was found to be more and more vestigial, so while in many ways it is a radical change from the prior traditions, it also shares important commonalities and continuities with it.

*So here's the part where I said partially agree with you: Descartes' mechanistic bumping is a particular conception of some sort of underlying objective machinery of the universe (which is why I threw him into that post), and yes, if you have the worldview that there must be some such thing, QM must seem fundamentally broken. That's exactly my point of why some people are drawn to anti-quantum quackery. Because as a matter of fact, there's nothing irrational about throwing away that assumption.

(OK, Descartes is when this started, it didn't become "common sense" until a couple of hundred years later. As usual, there was a long lag time between the appearance of the idea and its becoming dispersed through society, There are lots of these "common sense" ideas that are actually folk-wisdom versions of somebody's theory.)
Yes. When writing that post, I've thought of simply replying that anti-quantum people mentally live in centuries ago, but though it'd not be sufficiently informative by itself. ;)
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
And in a very direct way, quantum mechanics is the extremisation of Descartes' program of algebratisation.
Yes. What does this mean? It means that a framework that was established on the basis of what we can see and touch has moved far beyond that, to undermining the world that we can see and touch, in the sense in which it tells us that what we see and touch is not what is ultimately there.

I don't want to sound like a pomo, but "reason" is historically determined. If we assume that everything is at bottom stuff bonking into other stuff in a 3D space (except maybe minds), which has been "common sense" since 1750 or so, then QM is unreason. That's why people don't like it.
 

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
I don't want to sound like a pomo, but "reason" is historically determined. If we assume that everything is at bottom stuff bonking into other stuff in a 3D space (except maybe minds), which has been "common sense" since 1750 or so, then QM is unreason. That's why people don't like it.
Well, then we're not substantively disagreeing, though to me it's just strange that something would be within mathematical reasoning but outside reasoning. ... Perhaps we had different expectations of what ‘cognisable’ would imply; I kind of went through a basic checklist (QM works directly on what's known by an observer, who learns new things by perception, so I expected that to be good enough to be called cognisable), decided I was a bit confused about your intended meaning about fully, and so concentrated on the ‘reason’ part instead. I'm guessing in retrospect that you meant something like direct visualisation or something.
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
Well, then we're not substantively disagreeing, though to me it's just strange that something would be within mathematical reasoning but outside reasoning. ... Perhaps we had different expectations of what ‘cognisable’ would imply; I kind of went through a basic checklist (QM works directly on what's known by an observer, who learns new things by perception, so I expected that to be good enough to be called cognisable), decided I was a bit confused about your intended meaning about fully, and so concentrated on the ‘reason’ part instead. I'm guessing in retrospect that you meant something like direct visualisation or something.
I don't think we're disagreeing at all. I'm just adding a historical/epistemological dimension.

Your criterion of something being "within reasoning" seems to be something that "works directly on what's known by an observer, who learns new things by perception." That won't cut it for most people, who want to know what is "really going on," which means that they want to know what bonky stuff is bumping into other bonky stuff, something they can visualize. Because that's what they've been taught the world is like.

People imagine the world to be like what they observe, even when they're not observing it. Know what I mean?
 

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
People imagine the world to be like what they observe, even when they're not observing it. Know what I mean?
Yep, I do. Restricting the meaningfulness of talking about things they don't know (which is derived from observation) is exactly the problem. That's what “unperformed experiments have no results” means. ;)

But I want to note that there are slightly more sophisticated people, who likely have had some physics education, that while realising that bonky stuff in 3D space doesn't cut it, still cling to a directly analogous intuition. So they might instead have their stuff bonking somewhere else, such as infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces (MWI), or perhaps if still in 3D, they might imagine it waving instead of bonking (pilot waves), or whatever else. But the intuition that unifies these different schemes is that they're going for ‘objectively real machinery doing some stuff’, contra QM.
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
Yep, I do. Restricting the meaningfulness of talking about things they don't know (which is derived from observation) is exactly the problem. That's what “unperformed experiments have no results” means. ;)

But I want to note that there are slightly more sophisticated people, who likely have had some physics education, that while realising that bonky stuff in 3D space doesn't cut it, still cling to a directly analogous intuition. So they might instead have their stuff bonking somewhere else, such as infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces (MWI), or perhaps if still in 3D, they might imagine it waving instead of bonking (pilot waves), or whatever else. But the intuition that unifies these different schemes is that they're going for ‘objectively real machinery doing some stuff’, contra QM.
As you no doubt know, this is something that QM gets from its neo-Kantian roots and is why the Soviets had a very hard time accepting it (Lenin even wrote attacking the Machians specifically, so...).

I don't remember who it was -- Fichte? Schopenhaur? -- who talked about the "naive realism" of people who think that the world is basically what it looks like, even when no one is looking at it.
 

Vorpal

Administrator
Administrator
As you no doubt know, this is something that QM gets from its neo-Kantian roots and is why the Soviets had a very hard time accepting it (Lenin even wrote attacking the Machians specifically, so...).
Yeah, though Marxist concern about Einstein were much weirder. While it's very plain that QM has idealist roots and so one might very naturally expect a materialist to have axe to grind, relativity (by itself!) is a classical theory.

For example, observers in those respective theories have very different roles. In relativity, an observer is essentially a stand-in for something like ‘an arbitrary fiducial system of clocks and rods’ and so the concept can be cut out without losing anything substantive. It is especially taken to the extreme in GTR, where there tetrad formalism directly corresponds to a mesh of infinitely many local observers permeating spacetime, but their role is nothing more than be a reporting service for their clocks and metre-sticks (or whatever) that they are imagined to carry, rather than making a fundamental choice about what to measure and providing subjective knowledge of a situation as in QM. That their multitude of imaginary measurements are ‘stitched together’ into one picture of spacetime also makes them them fundamentally different from QM.
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
Yeah, though Marxist concern about Einstein were much weirder. While it's very plain that QM has idealist roots and so one might very naturally expect a materialist to have axe to grind, relativity (by itself!) is a classical theory.
I suspect that it's because Einstein used an explicitly Machian argument.
 

Heliostorm

Well-known member
Anyway, the much more general reason of why it exists at all is an apparently widely-shared human intuitions about ‘reality’, which occur again and agani when people tried to do science. For example, Descartes tried to explain gravity as vortices in matter filling the space between planets. When Newton took over, people formed a very mechanistic view of the world that allowed them to picture that the universe has a kind of ‘underlying clockwork’ structure that works deterministically from one moment to the next. In the XIX century, people made many models for the electromagnetic field, of which the aether was simply the logical end-point. Throughout all this, the unifying thread is a desire to put science into the following mould:
observations → objectively real underlying machinery of the universe → predictions,
and the implicit task of science is to discover this underlying machinery. In context, ‘objectively real’ means ‘has a definite/unique physical state regardless of experimental setup’.
Ah yes, I remember having this discussion on SB with Mandemon, who apparently literally could not conceive of the possibility that there could be no objective reality. Evidently for some people it's an intuition so fundamental to their understanding of the world that they cannot suspend it long enough to grasp the existence of an alternative.

Well, at the very least, unlike anti-vaxx this is unlikely to lead to any public health crises.
 

Alcibiades

Well-known member
The4 notion of "objective reality" is arguably incoherent. It's supposed to be something "really existing" separate from us, but nevertheless it's supposed to have qualities (like shape, motion in space and time, space and time themselves) which are only known subjectively.
 
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