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Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness – book recommendation

August 23, 2014

Am presenting a book recommendation on Quantum Mechanics that has been very popular, but at the same time highly controversial. So I am following the book description with a link to a refutation paper and then following that with response to the refutation paper. (It turns out that one of the book authors received his PhD under the physicist that has mounted what is an attempt to refute the book – adds an interesting dimension to the debate to be aware of this.)

Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness
Authors: Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner

This book is derived from material that one of the authors uses to teach a course on Quantum Mechanics to non physicist majors at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Book Description

The Oxford University Press back cover of Quantum Enigma

In trying to understand the atom, physicists built quantum mechanics, the most successful theory in science and the basis of one-third of our economy. They found, to their embarrassment, that with their theory, physics encounters consciousness. Authors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner explain all this in non-technical terms with help from some fanciful stories and anecdotes about the theory’s developers. They present the quantum mystery honestly, emphasizing what is and what is not speculation. Quantum Enigma’s description of the experimental quantum facts, and the quantum theory explaining them, is undisputed.

Interpreting what it all means, however, is heatedly controversial. But every interpretation of quantum physics involves consciousness. Rosenblum and Kuttner therefore turn to exploring consciousness itself–and encounter quantum mechanics. Free will and anthropic principles become crucial issues, and the connection of consciousness with the cosmos suggested by some leading quantum cosmologists is mind-blowing. Readers are brought to a boundary where the particular expertise of physicists is no longer the only sure guide. They will find, instead, the facts and hints provided by quantum mechanics and the ability to speculate for themselves.

In the few decades since the Bell’s theorem experiments established the existence of entanglement (Einstein’s “spooky action”), interest in the foundations, and the mysteries, of quantum mechanics has accelerated. In recent years, physicists, philosophers, computer engineers, and even biologists have expanded our realization of the significance of quantum phenomena. This second edition includes such advances. The authors have also drawn on many responses from readers and instructors to improve the clarity of the book’s explanations.

Here is the refutation paper:

Does Quantum Mechanics Require A Conscious Observer?

Michael Nauenberg, Physics Dept. University of Califonia Santa Cruz, CA, USA

Abstract: The view that the implementation of the principles of quantum mechanics requires a conscious observer is based on misconceptions that are described in this article.

Here are responses to the refutation paper:

Co-author Fred Kuttner’s response, also at University of Cal. at Santa Cruz, to Nauenberg (I’ve also add an easy, direct link so folks don’t have to go through the clunky download process to get the paper. Will also note that Kuttner received his PhD under Nauenberg):

Response to Nauenberg’s “Critique of Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness”

Click to access Response-to-Nauenberg.pdf

Here’s my (the blog author) first personal response to Nauenberg’s paper:

I’ll take a sheet out of Bell’s playbook (in respect to the clever back handed approach that his theorem took) – the simplest and most painfully obvious way to point out that the Michael Nauenberg advocated interpretation is not a settled matter in physics is to point to the Many Worlds interpretation.

That rational people in the field of physics have gone to such heroic lengths to devise an explanation of (or explain away) the QM “role of observer” enigma is a definitive indicator that the enigma exist in the minds of very serious practicing physicist. The Many Worlds interpretation origin sprung from attempt to get rid of the “conscious observer problem” by the brave approach of just ride the abstraction of math all the way to final conclusions. The abstraction of QM math is seemingly supportive of the Many Worlds concept so the conclusion that was drawn was that “we’ll just say it must be indicative of actual reality”.

Taking the math as literal reality arises as an issue to contend with in General Relativity where the continuous math involved leads to mathematical infinities that gives rise to enigmatic entities such as the black hole singularity. But it’s believed that one has to shift gears, so to speak, from using purely continuous math and switch to Quantum Mechanics in order to realistically model what reality may be like under those conditions (leading to Stephen Hawkin’s work describing quantum evaporation of black holes). The Many Worlds approach doesn’t shift any gears, though, but just rides QM mathematical abstraction to ultimate literal conclusions – assuming this to be a valid approach.

Many scientist and physicist are Materialist and when it comes to how they choose to parse the enigma of the the role of the conscious observer in famous, highly repeatable QM experiments, they opt for the Many Worlds interpretation. Those that prefer to remain agnostic on the issue opt for Copenhagen – in a sense side stepping (or ignoring) the dilemma. But the Many Worlds advocates know full well that the matter is not as cut and dry simple as Michael Nauenberg would attempt to explain (hand wave) it away as, hence the energy they expend in pushing the Many Worlds explanation – to this very day: “Yes, consciousness is not present in QM but we had to toss Occam’s Razor principle in the waste bin to get there – inventing the ultimate free lunch of infinitely forking universes that (sorry for this) magically are not observable to each other.”

My (the blog author) second personal response to Nauenberg’s paper:

Nauenberg says he wrote a paper 45 years ago to address von Neumann’s reasoned conclusion that a conscious observer collapses a QM wave function for a system under observation (as there had to be something external to the physical universe that was not itself encompassed by the wave function). His paper has the look of indeed being stuck that far back in time. Since then very unusual experimental variations of the double slit have been performed such as Wheeler’s Delayed choice with quantum eraser.

Delayed choice experiments have uniformly confirmed the seeming ability of measurements made on photons in the present to alter events occurring in the past. On the other hand, if a photon in flight is interpreted as being in a so-called “superposition of states,” i.e. if it is interpreted as something that has the potentiality to manifest as a particle or wave, but during its time in flight is neither, then there is no time paradox. Recent experiments have supported the latter view.

As per usual there is the element of observer knowledge involved (as in why does the universe behave differently based on the state of knowledge of a conscious observer?):

This result is similar to that of the double-slit experiment since interference is observed when it is not known which slit the photon went through, while no interference is observed when the path is known.

However, unlike run of the mill double slit, it also introduces seeming retro-causality:

However, what makes this experiment possibly astonishing is that, unlike in the classic double-slit experiment, the choice of whether to preserve or erase the which-path information of the idler was not made until 8 ns after the position of the signal photon had already been measured by D0.

Despite the seeming retro-causality exhibited in the experiment:

Some have interpreted this result to mean that the delayed choice to observe or not observe the path of the idler photon changes the outcome of an event in the past. However, the consensus contemporary position is that retro-causality is not necessary to explain the phenomenon of delayed choice.

Effectively the consensus view is to reject that there is actual retro-causality involved and instead accept that the system once observed collapse to a state that exhibits a history consistent with the facts of the observation. In other words, the universe is an information computation engine of sorts rendering an outcome of observation to conscious observer that insures inherent consistency. So called seeming retro-causality only manifest once an observer actually observes. Injecting delays for up to a year, etc., make no difference as in the end the observer collapses the system to a consistent outcome to suit what is observed. A state of a system in the past cannot be meaningfully spoken of as having any actual existence because it has not been subjected to any observation by a conscious observer.

It’s a trippy experiment for sure but it makes mince meat out of Nauenberg’s rhetorical alchemy as couched in an intellectual position he locked onto permanently 45 years ago.

At this point it’s useful to transition to Vlatko Vedral, Professor of Quantum Information Science at the University of Oxford, and his book:

The Universe as Quantum Information – Vlatko Vedral

Vlatko is much younger than Nauenberg so he’s not stuck in ancient QM (as in 19th century ancient) thought modalities.

There has also been recent attempt to revive the old Pilot Wave approach to a concrete reality underlying QM. That’s been dealt what is perhaps a permanent set back by the latest QM experiments that are separating particle attributes from the particles. Pilot Wave theory can’t account for that at all as it is another experimentally reproducible phenomenon that indicates that reality is rendered by a QM information processing substrate (there is no underlying concrete reality).

Scientists have for the first time separated a particle from one of its physical properties – creating a “quantum Cheshire Cat“.

MyCoreArticles (and some related links)
[awakening, synchronicity, Gnosticism, AAT, nature of reality/consciousness, etc.]


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