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Clarification on QM

  1. Jun 12, 2003 #1
    I've seen this a lot in people's post on Quantum Mechanics and just to clarify this common misconception...


    In QM when they talk about observations collapsing wave functions, they are talking about devices that fire particles and measure the way they bounce back to measure the traits of OTHER particles. When this happens, those particles being fired into the system disturb that very system - that is ALL that is meant by "observation". It doesn't include or have anything to do with consciousness or anything mystical that people are always trying to attach to it. It simply means that when you fire a particle into another particle, it will disturb the particle being hit - basic common sense.

    On the macro level wave functions are collapsed automatically by all of the particles bouncing into them. No consciousness affects any of this in the slightest and the universe would operate just as it does, even if you removed all life and consciousness from it.

    People have taken that unfortunate choice of word "observation" and interpreted it to mean something to do with the awareness of conscious or intelligent beings, and it is simply a purely mechanical function having nothing to do with this. From this misinterpretation of the word "observation" they come up with all sorts of "mind over matter" silliness and claim that QM backs them up when it does nothing of the sort.

    So, once and for all, let everyone here know that QM as a science has nothing to do with conscious beings or awareness.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 12, 2003 #2

    Tom Mattson

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    And of course, it doesn't help matters when dimwits like Frijtof Capra write "literature" like Tao of Physics. People read that garbage and think they actually know quantum mechanics.
  4. Jun 12, 2003 #3
    I have recently read a number of of books on QM, QED etc. Admittedly they are writen for laymen and not scientist but they use a lot of quotes. Quotes like the observer is as much a part of the experiement as are the detectors and particles themselves. They repeatedly say the the observer is the scientist doing the experiment. They also refer to such things as the EPR paradox which explicidly states that it takes a person to make the local observation to colapse the probability wave and therefore instantly know the state of a distant particle. I admit that I do not understand QM or QED or QFT but then a lot of very well know and respected authors including Fynman himself admit that they don't either. They however do not agree with you. Me? I only know what I read and you are far out numbered by some very great people in the field.
  5. Jun 12, 2003 #4


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    New Agers also absolutely LOVE to pick up on that one. The idea that the universe does not exist without human observers, seems to fit very well with the idea of life after death, magic healing, psychic powers, ghosts, reincarnation and other hot topics for popular New Age books. Unfortunately the idea is appealing to those with existential worries, and will continue to be repeated as long as there are book stores that carry New Age material.
  6. Jun 12, 2003 #5
    New Agers believe this?? If ppl on earth observe the universe - and one of these ppl die - the universe would still exist for everyone left alive on Earth to observe. So-->if everyone on Earth were to die - the universe would still exist. There just would'nt be any humans observers left alive to contemplate it. I am sure the roaches will enjoy the view.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 12, 2003
  7. Jun 12, 2003 #6

    Les Sleeth

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    Just a small quibble about putting the full blame on those flakey new agers for this problem. Who is it that publishes books on cats being dead and alive at the same time, who talks about the universe "running backwards" and all things that have happened going in reverse, and who is it that waxes poetic about time travel and endless bubbling and/or parallel universes?

    In the absence of a sound theory to explain our origins, scientists too crank out some pretty wild stuff without the slightest bit of evidence to support their fantasies. Why should they be surprised when new agers pounce on it for their own purposes?
  8. Jun 13, 2003 #7
    What's a new ager and what do they have to do with QM and understanding it?
    Who is Frijtof Capra? I'm not familiar with him though I've seen the name. What is "Tao of Physics?" Maybe I shouldn't ask and a better off knowing. My question still stands What has all this have to do will QM or QED?
    Did I and many others really misread and misinterpret what the pioneers of QM said and wrote from 1900 to 1986. I realize that they, the theorical physicists, have come a long way in the last 20 years but it seem to me that what they are doing is trying to come up with answers to the questions that the giants of QM created with the creation of the theory.
  9. Jun 13, 2003 #8

    Les Sleeth

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    I believe Tiberius is referring to the tendency of new age theorists (and sometimes the creationist variation, intelligent design) to leap on anything scientific which might be interpreted as a link between consciousness and physical reality (outside the body). New age thinking pretty much means taking the slightest physical coincidence and then making huge leaps in logic to suggest a theory. One of my favorite is some guy I read who stated as fact that "herd animals share a common soul."

    In the case of a collapsing wave fuction, when scientists reported the impossibility of observing particles without disturbing them because, for example, using light to observe a particle sends photons barging in, new age thinkers interpreted that to mean that act of consciouness looking is what disturbs, rather than photon bombardment.

    Regarding Frijtof Capra, he wrote his book in the early '90's, I believe, trying to forge some sort of bond between science and certain metaphysical ideas. I think his real purpose was to try to popularize physics. It's funny that Tom was upset about his physics; when I read it I was upset with his metaphysics. In any case, I don't think he succeeded in demonstrating a link between physics and metaphysics whatsoever (which is not to say there isn't a link).
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2003
  10. Jun 13, 2003 #9
    If that's the case, Les, they must think of me and others here as being a New Ager. I guess Einstein was too. We've been trying to link science and R_______ together since before scientist became scientists and were instead philosophers. It could go back to the Greeks for that matter. I think its funny how each new generation thinks that they are the New Age and all of there ideas are new. Of course we thought the same thing way back then.
  11. Jun 13, 2003 #10
    Nice thread, Tiberius, though it might be more confortable in the Theoretical Physics Forum. I'm glad that you saw the need to clear that up, because I've even personally met people who think that QM supports Strong Anthropic principle, because of the "observer"/"observation" distinction made in layman texts.
  12. Jun 13, 2003 #11
    I'm glad you acknowledge the books you've read on QM were for the layman. The problem is that, without the mathematical framework, when you talk about QM on a conceptual level, the language makes it very easy to misunderstand what it is they are saying. Once you look at what the conceptual descriptions are actually describing, then it becomes clear that consciousness has nothing to do with colapsing wave functions or QM. This math-to-language barrier problem is intensified by the fact that many of these pop-science books intentionally use over-hyped language, and state leaps of judgement, for whatever motives. So, to answer your question, yes - you've misread (and they've mis-written). And actually the "greatest minds" you mentioned would agree with me once you get down to the details.

    Thanks for nice your comments on the thread. I chose the philosophy section because it is here that the misconception is most often made, and for philosophic purposes that it most often effects.
  13. Jun 13, 2003 #12


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    Aah... But there's your problem...:wink:
    What if the collapse doesn't happen at the level of
    our brain but only "beyond" ? Will our brain be in
    a super-position of states ? What will that mean ?
    Is the fact that that doesn't appear to happen
    merely reflective of the statistical unlikeliness or
    the tiny lenghts of time ?

    Live long and prosper.
  14. Jun 14, 2003 #13


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    I think the big difference is that of intellectual dishonesty on the part of the New Agers. While books about time travel and parallel universes are speculative, scientists usually won't claim they are anything more. While such things may be allowed by physics, mere speculation on the implications of such does not promote an agenda. New Agers on the other hand, will take a pre-existing theory like QM, and make blatently wrong claims about the findings of such theories. They make these claims either because they are uneducated on the matter, or are being blatently dishonest. Worse yet, these New Age authors could care less about the accuracy of the material. They are only trying to make other New Age claims (such as psychics and mediums) sound more credible, and they don't mind getting the facts incorrect.

    Give some examples of such theories. I think you will find that while being difficult to test, these theories you view as wild are actually based on actual physics. If a theory is shown to be incorrect, scientists will typically look elsewhere for explanations. That is because science is about actually trying to figure out how things work. The New Age authors on the other hand, could care less how things work. They are ONLY interested in promoting their religious beliefs, and if misquoting some scientists on QM gives more credibility to their beliefs, they will go with it. Upon being corrected, they will continue to spew out the same nonsense over and over. As you said above, creationists do the same thing, with no interest in the actual science but only in the promotion of their own religious worldviews.

    In short, if scientists showed the same kind of intellectual dishonesty as New Age authors, they would be in the same boat.
  15. Jun 14, 2003 #14

    Les Sleeth

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    I have no love for new age or any kind of theorizing that is not guided, and limited, by facts. I think you are right to say most of it (at least what I've read) is garbage. I am not sure it is blatent dishonesty, but rather just very little awareness of how inflexible the rules of physics really are. They get too creative for the understanding of the universe they have.

    Well, here we disagree some. I believe most scientists who disseminate their ideas to the public do have an agenda, and that is to convince everyone that we live in a purely materialistic universe. I agree with you that mostly scientists are "about actually trying to figure out how things work," but that doesn't mean they aren't biased toward materialistic explanations of everything, including the orgin of the universe, life, and consciousness.

    A theory I have been hearing everywhere spoken like it is a fact is that the universe began with a quantum fluctuation in "nothingness." Besides the fact that "nothing" fluctuation is utterly nonsensical (if it can fluctuate, it is at the very least something with the potential to fluctuate!), there is not one bit of experimental evidence from which to draw this conclusion. If nothing better comes along, I bet you in a few years it will be every bit as accepted as "most likely" as my other favorite pet peeve already is.

    That peeve is, and we don't need to argue this again, the claim that life is a product of spontaneous chemical genesis. Once more scientists' commitment to a materialistic explanation (i.e., an agenda), make them say chemogenesis is "most likely" when they cannot demonstrate chemistry has the potential to spontaneously kick into the sort of self-organizing gear it takes to reach a living system.

    The genesis aspect, in fact, is exactly were every hole is in the materialist theory. They don't have a single confirmed answer there, just a bunch of theories patched in so that the materialist explanation can continue with the blessing of "sound science" (I imagine Walter Cronkite speaking that).

    Meanwhile, and I think you know I don't believe an alternative to materialistic theory has to be the Biblical or any other kind of God, there are others who think, and feel, there is "something more." I don't believe science can reveal it, but maybe that's because science only reveals materialist stuff.

    Of course, when not exaggerating claims of "most likely" I far prefer science to new age silliness. What I don't like is the discounting by materialistic types of all feeling. Built into us is our capacity for logic, but built in also is our feeling. All logic is not equal, and all feeling isn't equal. Some people feel so deeply they sense this "something more." They can't quantify it, they can't prove it. But with logic one can't grasp a feeling either.

    To be a feeling person isn't a license to be stupid or emotional, it is just to recognize there are aspects of reality that can only be felt and never be rationalized or proved. But so what? If the "something more" can only be felt, and all you are open to is logic . . . well then you won't know it, and you may even start to devise a philosophy that is based on logic and observation, and which defines feeling as not to be trusted in the pursuit of truth.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2003
  16. Jun 15, 2003 #15


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    I don't see it. Can you give some examples?

    The way I see it, science will work the same regardless of whether physicalism or idealism is correct. As such, I don't think there are any theories that conflict with idealism. That's because any theory is neccessarily restricted to describing how the natural world works - and it cannot go beyond that with metaphysical claims.

    There is some confusion here. The nothing fluctuation is not to the same as the philosophical topic of nonexistence. The void that is speculated to have existed prior to the big bang is merely a quantum state where time and space do not exist. That is, a state where nothing exists except the laws of physics. So while this theory does not reify the zero, it does deify the laws of physics - and any arbitrary laws at that. So the claim being made here is that the fundemental thing in the natural world is the laws of physics, not spacetime or any fields. But again, this is limited to the natural world. It does not say anything about the origin of the laws of physics, and cannot.

    I doubt this rather silly idea is going to be accepted by most physicists any time soon.

    Keep in mind that science is only the study of the natural world, and there is no alternative to the idea. Given that life is ultimately chemistry, it seems to be plausible that the very origin of life to has a chemical origin. But that's just the restriction of science.

    Hang on a minute here. I don't think any scientists would claim the area of abiogenesis is a solid science yet. Yes, it's all speculation at this point, but there are really no alternatives that could ever make any predictions.

    That's the position I take. Science is only limited to the study of the natural world, regardless of whether or not it is all there is to existence. The question of "something more" does not change how the natural world works, and is really left to philosophy.
  17. Jun 15, 2003 #16
    Good point.
  18. Jun 15, 2003 #17

    Les Sleeth

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    I have so many books that do it, it would take me all day to list them. Everyone from Francis Crick to Daniel Dennett either imply or outright state that no other explanation beyond physical processes are, or will be, required to explain life and consciousness.

    You are missing my point. The way it goes is, you watch a Discovery Channel special on evolution with scientists leading the discussions, you read any textbook on evolution, you read scientists popularizing evolution or origin of life theories, and what you hear is, "life most likely began in the 'soup' of the pre-biotic oceans when macromolecules spontaneously self-organized themselves into the first living cell."

    That "most likely" is what I object to for reasons I've stated, and can be generalized as not having sufficient evidence of self organization to claim it is most likely. The statement should read, "materialist theory states . . ." and then I'd have absolutely no objection to that.

    But now you are doing it too. First of all, life processes are chemistry. No one knows what the "living" part is (nor consciousness either). So when you say "plausible," that shows of your materialist assumption already in place, which is that the missing part will be physical in nature. And although there are not competing physical theories, but there are competing theories.

    The very reason the originating principle may be missing is because it is not available to empirical study, and therefore may be metaphysical. If one does a genuinely scholarly study (as opposed to a topical study) of those most successful with metaphysical endeavors, they suggest originating type principles are metaphysical. While dedicated materialists might not like that as evidence, lots of others do.

    So, the metaphysical explanation is every bit a plausible in its arena as the materialist one is in its arena. Why then don't scientists just say "in matters of origins, it is unknown" and leave their little materialist assumption of "most likely" out of it?

    I don't understand why you are contrasting physicalism with idealism, unless it refers to something besides what I've said.

    I am glad to hear that, at least it makes more sense than absolutely nothing. I still don't buy that a quantum fluctuation alone generated the forces and energy needed to create our universe. Right now such fluctuations look only powerful enough to generate virtual particles.

    Now that is idealistic. If you feel that way, you have my total respect. But it isn't what I read and hear from scientists in the media. And just to be clear, I don't think metaphysical stuff should be mixed with the physical. I think they are two separate things and should be treated that way.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2003
  19. Jun 15, 2003 #18


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    It helps to remember that within science, the above is true. That is, a scientific explanation of consciousness must include physical processes. Anything else is metaphysics, and not science.

    Again, you must realize that this is based only on the search for an scientific explanation of origins. Within the scientific view of the natural world, there obviously are theories that are more plausible than others. But it doesn't mean those views need to be viewed outside a scientific context. Also, evolution has nothing to do with the origins of life itself.

    There are no scientific competing theories. Again, we can make statements about what is most probable, but only within a scientific context.

    See above, as the same applies.

    It is quite relevant here, because the topic of whether scientists have a physicalist bias or not has come up. I am saying it doesn't matter - science is compatible with both, and thus any scientific claims will not necessarily have a claim in favor of physicalism.

    That is where inflation comes in.

    It's not idealistic, because I'm merely stating that science is neutral to metaphysical claims. That doesn't mean I physicalism is wrong, it's just that science cannot be used to support such metaphysical positions.
  20. Jun 15, 2003 #19
    My respect for you grows with every post. Unlike others including many scientists in the media, you say that physical science and metephysics are compatable and not mutually exclusive. I have been trying unsuccessfully to make this point for weeks. My, and I think it's clear, that Les's main objection is the repeated overstatement of the proofs and facts that some scientist claim to have requarding the metaphysical, spiritual or religious.
    An example, simply stated is that science says that it can not and does not investigate metaphiysics because its subjective and they can and do only investigate the material. In the next sentence science says that since it does not investigate metaphysics it has no evidence that anything immaterial or metaphysical exists. Then of course the illogical conclusion that since science has no evidence that any thing immaterial or metaphisical exist, science has PROVEN that it DOES NOT EXIST.

    This, to me, is the same thing that you claim the New Agers are doing. You are one of the first that I have read in these forums or vertually anywhere else with very few exception who has actually stated the true logical position of science. I salute you.

    As for the need of an observer to collapse the probability waves, I'm still not convinced as most of the books were not pop culture science books but were written by very respected scientist and science authors; but then I'm not convinced that ALL is probability waves in the first place and that actual real particles and EM wave actually really do exist in the own right. I personally was trying to show the illogical position of those who claim that math and probability waves are all that exists and was the begining of the universe.
    Please don't ask me what my belief system is. It'll only encourage me.
  21. Jun 16, 2003 #20

    Les Sleeth

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    Eh, I would think you'd know me well enough by now to know I am clear about what science is, but maybe I’ve been ambiguous. We totally agree about what science is supposed to do. If you read my posts carefully, you will see I have not recommended mixing science and metaphysics. There is absolutely nothing better than science for understanding the physical universe. I trust and respect it for that totally, and have little patience for people who want to ignore it so they can substitute crackpot new age ideas.

    Obviously there are physical processes involved with life and consciousness, and clearly it is advantageous to understand what they are and how they work. That does not mean, however, one can assume that life and consciousness are essentially physical. When I swim, I am in water, moving in water, and water is all around me. Should I assume my association with water makes me essentially water?

    You are talking about the ideals of science, I am talking about what is actually going on in the media with certain scientists, and they are definitely not neutral.

    Again, we have absolutely no disagreement about scientific ideals. But if science has no answer for the origin of life, why do you think it is okay for them to say to the world (by the various means I’ve already listed) that self-organizing chemistry is “most probable”? They don’t have the evidence, the sort of spontaneous self-organizing chemistry potential they need, even for science standards of claiming “most probable.” In fact, they ain’t even close, so how is it “most probable”?

    Without evidence it fails empiricism’s own standard for hypothesizing. It is merely the subjective opinion, unsupported by adequate evidence, of those who believe the universe is purely material. It is therefore biased and unscientific to say most probable.

    That is exactly what I said. I said there are no competing scientific theories. But there are competing metaphysical theories. Some people who've taken the time and effort to look within, and I mean serious time and work, have found something other than physical inside themselves; also, some of these serious inner practitioners have felt the non-physical thing within them was part of something much larger outside themselves.

    Can science investigate this? No. Can individual human beings investigate this? Yes. Have any highly respected individuals investigated and produced significant results? Yes (e.g., the Buddha). Is that evidence? Yes. But those who are biased toward a material explanation will say, “that’s outside the realm of science,” ignore it as potential evidence, and then say to the world “chemogenesis is most likely” even if they can’t support it with evidence.

    What they should say is that they don’t know because these questions of origin of life and consciousness are important. Far too important to tolerate cheating by people feigning objectivity while harboring (and trying to hide) their materialist bias. In this sense, they are being every bit as dishonest as the new age philosophers they love to criticize.

    I still don’t see it. This universe is packed with energy. How would all that energy be generated by inflating a fluctuation? It seems like it would have the opposite effect actually. Even inflation itself seems like it would require energy to drive it. What’s the origin of this energy?
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2003
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