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A Realtively General Question for you Quantum Physicists

  1. Nov 4, 2009 #1

    I know absolutely nothing, beyond the basic generalities, regarding Quantum mechanics or theory, and truth be told my maths knowledge tapers off somewhere around functions and 3x3 systems of equations. I'm a student of Philosophy and the Humanities, and as such I too enjoy debating on Internet forums (most of them much like this one, except revolving around topics I admit to having a working knowledge of)

    And that concluding caveat brings me to my point. I've noticed that there seems to be a trend, pattern, on the Internet that everybody who wants to sound smart just starts talking out of their *** about Quantum theory, black holes, strings, or topics such as that.

    This happens quite often in discussions about metaphysics, especially when one party or another wants to circumvent the use of simple logic and reason in favor of the (what I call) "The universe isn't logical, so I don't have to be either" argument, which is itself fallacy, but I won't get into it here - mostly it just means the person in general watched "What the Bleep" and wants to sound like an authority on all things mysterious and ineffable.

    So, my question, to you all (whom I presume to actually know what you're talking about when it comes to these topics) have you noticed this trend, or is esoteric knowledge of Quantum Physics really that widespread and I'm the one behind the curve?

    Just curious.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2009 #2


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    You don't have to circumvent logic to talk about quantum physics. If any one says so, they are confusing common intuition with logic. I too find that most people who participate in 'metaphysical' discussions and bring up quantum physics tend to have very little knowledge of the actual physics. And no, real knowledge of quantum physics is in no sense 'widespread'.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2009
  4. Nov 4, 2009 #3


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    Welcome to PhysicsForums, USB73!

    Yes, there is a trend. There are plenty of folks who have heard enough about Quantum Mechanics (QM) to know there are "strange" elements in it. For some reason, every "popular" article seems to focus on the "strange weird world of the quantum" or similar. What they leave out is the really important stuff in their attempt to justify the title of their article. Here are some key things usually dropped:

    a. The theory is not new. The foundation was completed over 80 years ago, by around 1927. By 1935 incredible progress had been made with the theory and critical new discoveries were possible or predicted, such as: anti-particles, virtual particles, neutrinos, etc.

    b. There have been no significant modifications to the theory since inception. Of course it has been substantially extended, especially in the areas of relativistic treatments and field theory - including the treatment of the weak and strong forces.

    c. The other big theory of physics is General Relativity (GR), introduced about 1916, and it is just as strange. In fact, both are highly mathematical theories in the sense that several mathematical axioms and approaches seem to drive each theory. This is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of QM and GR.

    d. The theory was designed to explain some key elements of the basic atom, and in that regard has proven to be a gold mine. Experimental support for the theory is substantial (actually that would grossly understate the results) and as far as I know, I don't believe there are any substantial "cracks" in it that require repair. Some elements have been verified to over 200 standard deviations of accuracy.

    e. Most scientists do not consider "wormholes", "time travel" and "alternate universes" as being essential elements of either GR or QM. These are more like circus sideshows. The real work in QM is complex and, unless you are really interested in it as I am, boring. I glance at dozens of new papers per week without seeing any reference to these sideshow items.

    It is a shame that QM is not discussed in high school or lower level college classes, as I think it is amazing. And yes, I too am in awe of things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, virtual particles and path integrals. Enjoy! I think you will find this a fun and interesting site to gain insight into modern physics.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2009
  5. Nov 4, 2009 #4
    I agree with the other posters, quantum physics is still a very esoteric subject. I view the average person's retreat into quantum theory to avoid metaphysical issues in the same way that I view a religious person's retreat into the incomprehensible nature of God...as a default excuse to avoid thinking. Ultimately, most debates amongst physicists about the meaning of quantum theory boil down to the debate between the philosophies of subjectivity and objectivity. Questions concerning quantum mechanics and it's interpretation are basically the physicist version of "If a tree falls in the woods and nobody's around to hear it does it make a sound?" As a philosopher, you might gain some insight by thinking of classical physics as dualistic western philosophy and quantum physics as eastern philosophy. Certainly many eastern ideas have been incorporated into quantum theory...I'm thinking of complimentarity and its similarity to tao specifically. So you're not behind the curve. :D Ultimately it boils down to the fact that science is based in empiricism, but since some things (like both the exact position and exact momentum of a particle) are impossible to know via observation in principle, we have to ask, "do they still exist all the same?"
  6. Nov 4, 2009 #5


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    Good points. And just because there are elements of the physics that run counter to our everyday intuition (such as relativity) does not mean that "morality is relative" or similar. What you could say is that there is no clear line between causality and chance in the world. Interestingly, this opens things up for you to have your own interpretations of roles of things like free will, god, chance, determinism, etc. It does not appear that physics can answer some of these fundamental questions, nor does it appear that it ever can, given what we know today.
  7. Nov 4, 2009 #6


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    Actually, that's not even remotely true. Take a look at a book on the foundational problems of quantum physics, like "Quantum Theory and Measurement" edited by Wheeler and Zurek. Not once is anything like that mentioned. The real problems of interpretation in quantum physics are far more technical than "subjectivity vs. objectivity".
  8. Nov 4, 2009 #7
    Some teachers like to popularize physical mysteries using human analogy, opposites attract, etc. Therefore, some who want to be popular like to describe human mysteries in physical terms.
  9. Nov 4, 2009 #8
    I was going to say that subjectivity and objectivity were probably bad word choices on my part, but I'm not so sure...especially if you think of perception as a type of measurement. After all, the uncertainty principle implies that you can't observe some pairs of quantities exactly without changing them (due to the nature of the measurement process). This raises questions about whether a particle has properties, like a well defined position, even if you can't measure it. How you answer questions like this might depend on whether you have a subjective philosophy or an objective philosophy...either the position exists independently of you, or its just an idea you have about the particle in your mind. Also consider the discussion of the role and nature of the observer and observables in quantum theory...what constitutes an observation/measurement etc? Sure the real discussions are more technical, but I stand by my simplification for a philosopher. Perhaps it would have been better if I had said that that discussions concerning the meaning of the quantum theory are due to different stances concerning realism? Still, I would ultimately attribute those different stances to differing views on subjectivity and objectivity.
  10. Nov 4, 2009 #9


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    Your "simplification" has nothing to do with the actual research in the foundations of quantum physics. Your description of the uncertainty principle and what it implies is also wrong, and is a 'popular science' version of it. Yes, many people discuss 'realism' and 'subjectivity vs. objectivity' and other vague nonsense, but you claimed that "most discussions among physicists" are centered around such things. This is totally false.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2009
  11. Nov 5, 2009 #10


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    Dear Maxwells Demon,

    yes, the lesson of qm that shock its founders like Heisenberg and Bohr most was the fact that you run into logical contradictions if you assume that a quantum mechanical entity does actually "have" a property when you do not actually measure it. You wrote "This raises questions about whether a particle has properties, like a well defined position, even if you can't measure it." QM clearly denies this possibility.
    Einstein and Planck could never accept this.
    However today, these, let me call them negative results of QM, do not stand in the foreground so much. It turns out that the structure of QM is much richer than any "realistic" theory could be and we begin to exploit these new possibilities (isn't according to Heidegger the aim of all natural science the explotation of nature?) e.g. in quantum computation.

    But let me ask you another question: Aren't the ideas about reality even in rather main stream modern philosophy, like e.g. Derrida, way beyond the rather conservative concepts of physicists?
  12. Nov 5, 2009 #11
    Thanks for all the responses.

    I do find the Quantum stuff to be very fascinating, if only that because - from a philosophical standpoint - it seems to prove that Free Will is indeed an integral aspect of existence, and not only that a required property (in the form of consciousness) of the universe.

    I guess, my initial question arose from the fact that I like to be honest during a debate, and I always try and remain true to that Socratic principal that "I am wise, because I know I do not know" sort of mindset.

    Recently an acquaintance was rambling on about Black Holes, and how "mainstream science" doesn't get it (a another common theme on the pseudo-intellectual fringe). He said:

    "There exists but two singularities in our known universe. What happened at the beginning- the 'big bang' and what goes on inside a black hole."

    To which I responded, "I don't think all singularities are the same. All a "singularity" means is that a given property is infinite. In the case of black holes it is density, but in the case of the big bang it was density and temperature."

    However, I admitted that I'm not a physicist or a mathematician, but that I'd be willing to wager his absolute statement is wrong, because he isn't either.

    To wit he responded with a long-winded diatribe expounding on the metaphysical nature of reality and a bunch of New Age flim-flam and hoodoo which just caused me to roll my eyes in frustration.

    In any event, I may stick around here and read along, asking some dumb questions from time to time, but this interests me greatly.
  13. Nov 5, 2009 #12


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    No, quantum physics does NOT prove that free will is an integral aspect of existence.
    Perhaps you are referring to the recent "free will theorem" by Conway and Kochen, but this theorem states someting else: "IF humans have free will, then elementary particles have free will too." Note the crucial word "IF".
  14. Nov 5, 2009 #13
    Could I ask, what is studied by Philosophy? Without physical basic, philosophy is nothing more than juggling with the fuzzy words. I don’t remember the exact quote, but there was something like “Philosophy gave nothing to physics, while physics gave a lot to philosophy”

    Without physics, philosophers would be victim of misconceptions like ‘time flows’, or ‘time moves’, etc etc. Or remember how Kant ‘proved’ that space is 3 dimensional…

    I don’t want to offend you, but what are you doing 5 years?
  15. Nov 5, 2009 #14
    Actually Philosophy was Einstein's first passion and he I think he might be smarter than you so be careful before you disregard and disrespect philosohpy...
  16. Nov 5, 2009 #15


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    Not really a fair comment. I like and study music, I don't see how that diminishes my interest in or understanding of physics. You can't really compare different branches of study, and this is no place to debate the merits of one over the other anyway.
  17. Nov 5, 2009 #16
    Yes, but music does not pretend to 'explain' what Time and Space are (for example).
    While Philosophy pretends that it can.
  18. Nov 5, 2009 #17
    Your ignorance continues to shine. Philosophy has been studied by some of the greatest minds in history. Calling it completely worthless is idiotic.
  19. Nov 5, 2009 #18
    So could you provide a list of major achievements of that 'science'?
    Any examples of its predictive power?
  20. Nov 5, 2009 #19
    That's like saying Music or Art has contributed nothing to society in the last 5000 years. Just because it doesn't involved Math or Physics doesn't make it worthless. Don't get me wrong I love Math and Physics but I'm not ignorant enought to ignore all of sides of life.
  21. Nov 5, 2009 #20
    I like Music and Art
    No problem with that
    Just don't call it 'science' then

    If you agree that Philosophy IS NOT science then we agreed
    If you insist that Philosophy IS science then I repeat my question, show me the results.
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