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A question and a small rant on mystics who abuse QM

  1. Jan 13, 2009 #1
    I am taking modern physics this year, and I am going through some intro QM before I actually tackle it in class, so perhaps I am wrong:

    It seems to me that the wavefunction is more of a mathematical tool than a real natural phenomenon. I.e. matter waves seem more to me as information waves- a mathematical approach to find probability of position and momentum. Saying that schrodingers cat is dead and alive seems completely absurd, and it seems to me that rather, we know from schrodingers equation that there is a probability that a cat is dead or alive, but not both dead or alive. We comfirm our estimate when we open the box.

    Am I correct? Ive been going through some popular sci type of resources on QM and it seems a lot of the people writing about this use really lax language, and make QM seem mystical and metaphysical while to me, it seems mostly about a theory on what we can know, rather than how nature behaves. saying that the cat is dead and alive is this type of language usage that deeply disturbs me, because then you have philosophers and mystical charlatans abusing of scientific theories. Furthermore, it seems a lot of physicists are partly blame to this, because they think mathematical models are nature, while in reality they are not. Its like saying a computational model of the universe is the universe. So then, you get physicists playing philosophy and to an extent, becoming religious by saying that the equations in their paper are nature and that nature follows "laws", and therefore it makes the whole physics deal seem mystical and metaphysical while it is not.

    What do you think about this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 14, 2009 #2


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    You will always have that problem, assigning math to nature, not even in Quantum. Does "laws of nature exists" (and what is a law of nature) are questions asked by philosopgy of science.

    Now the schrodinger cat is just one of those examples where you are trying to talk about quantum physics with layman language and with examples from our daily life.
    Schrodinger cat is perhaps more towards the "hidden variable" interpretation of QM, then Copenhagen interpretation.

    QM and wavefunctions does a really good job in explaining how a nature behaves, but it should be wrong to call it that nature HAS wave functions, from an onthological point of view.

    This is also an interesting question: Do we invent or discover mathematics?

    But final advise is to forget about those layman, popular, explanations of QM and study the real deal. Good luck :-)
  4. Jan 14, 2009 #3

    Yup, most physicists regard the wavefunction as a purely mathematical tool that has no objective existence.

    As Brian Greene, who is very reserved, says in "the Elegant Universe" - you have to have courage to ask certain deep questions in QM.
  5. Jan 14, 2009 #4
    The cat in the box is an analogy. When an analogy doesn't work for you, you toss it.
    What happens on the QM level is very different from the 'everyday level', so any analogy will be imperfect and somewhat misleading. If you are really interested in physics, do the math.

    Mysticism is what you get when a used car salesman runs out of cars to sell. Its prepackaged idealized ignorance.

    Philosophy and metaphysics are not synonyms for mysticism. You can think of metaphysics as the big set, and within it, is the smaller set of the sciences. All science is a form of philosophy, but not all philosophy is scientific. The important part is knowing when and where you cross the line from physics to metaphysics, biology to ethics...etc... Not because philosophy is useless, but because you have to deal with it differently. And you can, but you must use the purely rational as opposed to the empirical.

    Physicists who start waxing philosophically can be just as bad as plumbers who describe the internet as piping. The internet is not actually a series of tubes.

    Science and math are all about generalizations, which allow us to make predictions and therefore informed decisions. Laws are just guidelines. The ontological reality of math, and laws of nature, are an open philosophical question. No science involved... yet.

    The best part of philosophy, in my opinion, is watching a formerly purely-metaphysical question get explained via rigorous science.
  6. Jan 14, 2009 #5
    Both cats do exist in Multi-World interpretation.
    When observer opens a box, it is decoherenced with a cat, so finally there are 2 observers observing 2 cats. Both observers say:

  7. Jan 14, 2009 #6

    So the cat never dies? Because each cat has 2 states that go to 2 different universes and one remains alive in some universe. That means the cat never truly dies. If i commit suicide does this theory say i'll inevitably survive in some universe, no matter what? Would this be in a thought universe and what is me or the infinite copies of me? A thought?
  8. Jan 14, 2009 #7
  9. Jan 14, 2009 #8
    I think a lot of metaphysics and mysticism overlap, in fact, i think they are two sides of the same coin. The metaphysician poses himself pseudo-problems that can never be solved because those problems do not exist in the sense that their proposed answers cannot be true or false, For example, asking "what is reality" or "how many angels can dance on the tip ofr a pin", are the same type of pseudoproblems. saying that there is an infinite amount of universes is either only math whem not given a physical description, or worse, if given a physical description it becomes a pseudoissue.

    Now the problem to me is not if the analogy of schrodingers cat works for me, but the image it gives off of physics being something deep and mystical. It disturbs me, not only because it is wrong but i dont like the elitist character it gives as if physicists are the guardians of some deep secret.

    I am studying some of the mathematics of QM right now, but i wont see it in lecture until about a month.
  10. Jan 14, 2009 #9

    Unless we explain how a statistical ensemble of probability waves can talk, sleep, dream, fall in love, etc., physics and science in general will be shrouded in mystery. That is if we apply philosophy to the issue, as we are doing here. And the truth is we simply don't have good answers to most of the questions asked in this sub-forum. Nevertheless, when physics meets philosophy, the resultant picture is pretty interesting and enlightening imo.
  11. Jan 25, 2009 #10
    I think you're essentially correct. It was my dissatisfaction with popular accounts of physics that precipitated my studying it.

    As for physicists being to blame for the popularizing of pseudo-mysteries and metaphysics, and incorrect ways of talking about quantum phenomena, etc., I think only a very small percentage of physicists are involved in this.

    Anyway, can you imagine a physics-oriented TV show stripped of all the bullcrap? Who would watch? Especially in the USA.

    Having said that, I think that modern physics HAS revealed that Nature still holds many mysteries that might or might not be solved by us some day (I'm most fascinated by light), and that the DEEP nature of reality will always be a mystery as far as we're concerned.
  12. Feb 17, 2009 #11
    I think I read somewhere (archie comics?) that the wave interference pattern observed in the double slit experiment (using an electron or photon gun) can be interpreted as interference of probability waves. if so, that's a pretty funky concept, and a strange bridge between physical and non-physical phenomena, and would indicate that the wave equation is more than simply a mathematical tool.

    the connection between mysticism and physics (mystaphysics?) got a big boost with the popularization of the idea of entanglement. the idea that separate - and even widely separate - bodies are connected over space and time, well, you have to admit that the idea of underlying unity is certainly going to ring some chimes, no?

    if i sound ignernt, it's because i'm half educated, and that half was educated in kentucky. pity me.
  13. Feb 20, 2009 #12
    The cat is hiding the wavefunction; it doesn't let us in to the quantum world any more than a CCD does.
    The corollary is, we cannot observe it, we have to hide it from ourselves.
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