Study: Science fiction is not as weird as the reality of quantum physics

According to the eminent science writer John Horgan, a “radical quantum hypothesis” creates doubt about objective reality:

The author of Mind-body issues explains that, although quantum mechanics has been confirmed by countless experiments as well as computer chips, it “defies common sense”. Specifically, it creates doubt about what “the facts” are.

Eugene Wigner

In 1961, physicist Eugene Wigner proposed a thought experiment, similar to Schrödinger’s more famous cat’s dilemma:

Instead of the legendary cat in a box, imagine a friend of Wigner’s inside a lab monitoring a radioactive specimen. As the specimen decays, a detector flashes.

Now imagine that Wigner is outside the lab. If Wigner’s friend sees the detector flash, he knows the specimen has decomposed. But for Wigner, standing outside the lab, the specimen, his friend, and the whole lab float in a blur of possible states. Wigner and his friend seem to occupy two separate realities.

In 2020, physicists performed a version of Wigner’s thought experiment and concluded that his intuitions were correct. In an article for Science titled “Quantum paradox points to shaky underpinnings of reality,” physics journalist George Musser says the experiment challenges objectivity. “It could mean that there is no absolute fact,” Musser writes, “a fact as true for me as it is for you.”

John Horgan, “Does quantum mechanics reveal that life is just a dream?” at American scientist (February 2, 2022)

When physicists tried a version of Wigner’s thought experiment in 2020, they found that his hunches held true. A fact they found disturbing.

Physics journalist George Musser, author of Remote spooky action (2016), was quite adamant about the implications:

Now researchers in Australia and Taiwan offer perhaps the clearest demonstration that Wigner’s paradox is real. In a study published this week in Nature Physics, they turn the thought experiment into a mathematical theorem that confirms the irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of the scenario. The team is also testing the theorem with an experiment, using photons as a proxy for humans. While Wigner believed that resolving the paradox requires quantum mechanics to break down for large systems such as human observers, some of the new study’s authors believe that something equally fundamental is on thin ice: the objectivity. It could mean that there is no absolute fact that is as true for me as it is for you.

“It’s a bit disconcerting,” says co-author Nora Tischler of Griffith University. “A measurement result is what science is based on. If somehow it’s not absolute, it’s hard to imagine.

George Musser“The quantum paradox points to fragile foundations of reality” at Science (August 17, 2020) The document discussed requires a subscription.

The entangled photons showed an “irreconcilable disconnect between the friends and the Wigners”. Musser thinks that one of the four basic assumptions in physics must yield:

Few physicists think superdeterminism might be to blame. Some see locality as the weak point, but its failure would be glaring: the actions of one observer would affect the results of another even over great distances – a stronger type of non-locality than the type that quantum theorists consider often. Thus, some question the principle that observers can pool their measurements empirically. “There might be facts for one observer and facts for another; they don’t need to be meshed,” says study co-author and Griffith physicist Howard Wiseman. It is a radical relativism, still shocking for many. “From a classical point of view, what everyone sees is considered objective, independent of what others see,” explains Olimpia Lombardi, a philosopher of physics at the University of Buenos Aires.

George Musser“The quantum paradox points to fragile foundations of reality” at Science (August 17, 2020) The document discussed requires a subscription.

Horgan links the paradox to a new approach to quantum mechanics:

A new interpretation of quantum mechanics called QBism (pronounced “cubism”, like the art movement) makes subjective experience the foundation of knowledge and of reality itself. David Mermin, a prominent theorist, claims that QBism can clear up “confusion about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics”. All you have to do is accept that all knowledge begins with “individual personal experience”.

John Horgan, “Does quantum mechanics reveal that life is just a dream?” at American scientist (February 2, 2022)

David Mermin explained in Nature in 2014,

QBists are often accused of solipsism: a belief that the world only exists in the mind of a single agent. It’s wrong. Although I cannot enter your mind to experience your own private perceptions, you can affect my perceptions through language. When I converse with you or read your books and articles in Nature, I plausibly conclude that you are a perceiver rather like me, and I deduce characteristics of your experience. This is how we can come to a common understanding of our outer worlds, despite the intimacy of our individual experiences.

N. David Mermin“Physics: QBism puts the scientist back in science” at Nature (March 26, 2014)

David Mermin

Essentially, QBism makes the observer part of the observed scene. That doesn’t mean all is well. It simply means that everyone’s knowledge is acquired from one point of view. In this case, there is no abstract knowledge of a situation; there is only knowledge perceived by an observer.

One thing QBism certainly does is eliminate the possibility that the mind is just an illusion, as some philosophers and neuroscientists have proposed. In this case, there would be no knowledge. Qbism makes the observer real by making the observer part of the experience.


You can also read:

Can quantum physics, neuroscience merge as quantum consciousness? Physicist Marcelo Gleiser examines the pros and cons of current theories. The problem is that if we assume that “the mind is nothing more than the brain”, we may not be able to discover anything about how it works.

and

A quantum physicist shows how consciousness can create reality. In his argument against physicalism (physical nature is all that exists), Andersen derives from the 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer the concept of Will as the basis of all reality. Georgia Tech quantum field theory researcher Tim Andersen bases reality on the will rather than the mind, as Bernardo Kastrup and the cosmopsychists envisioned.

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