A Trip Down the Quantum Rabbit Hole

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen's off her head
Remember what the doormouse said:

Feed your head

Feed your head

In the twentysome summers that I have surfed the murky waters of the Internet, I have lost count of the number of articles, threads, posts and flamewars I have seen which feature two groups of people with views less disparate than the graduation photos of quintuplets, railing at one another over the finest of political, moral or philosophical distinctions. So many of the things that people fight over with such vehemence are due to either minor differences in priority, or simply a lack of the facts, principles and motivations driving "the other side". This bothers me, because even though I generally align with "liberals"and "progressives" on the side of the big political, economic and social issues in the United States, it seems that far too many liberals and progressives are rigidly mechanistic in their stance on matters of the human spirit, prompting them to adopt a stance on religion/spirituality that is neither "liberal" nor "progressive".

To be sure, I have seen enough of the intolerance practiced on the "conservative" side of the donnybrook to realise that religious fundamentalism in the US is as much to blame for this state of affairs than any other factor. It specifically INVITES an angry reaction. The folks who adopt hard-line mechanistic atheism generally do so because they are trying to "push back" against the cultural oppression practiced by many fundamentalist Christians in the US. This makes it more difficult to get angry at people who stoke the "religion is bullshit and if you say otherwise, that proves you are an idiot" meme. I can sort of see the trigger that is firing them off... I just wish they werent so goddamn haughty or so obviously, scientifically illiterate.

This religious/counterreligious divide is a massive fault line for the world as a whole, though the gap in the US and Western Europe seems to be as wide as anywhere on the planet. There is clearly a spiritual void, which drains the energy and joy from everything. Mainstream Christianity doesnt fill the void, though many people join a church because they can sense a shadow of a glimmer of something that might fill that void. So "religious folks" huddle in small herds drawing faint nourishment from the dry showbread of past millennia, rarely talking to anyone outside their "Demonination", while the alternative to mainstream religion for a growing percentage has become - mechanistic atheism.

Dont misunderstand what I mean by that. I love science, and I tend to consider myself a "rationalist" by nature. That is not the problem. The problem is that mechanistic atheism - the way it is expressed by many people today - is a joyless and spiritually unrewarding philosophy. If you consider yourself an atheist, but take joy in everything you do and find your life to be truly fulfilling, then I an NOT referring to you. There must be something in your life which you believe is consistent with your "atheism", but which I would describe as "spiritually meaningful." 

When Socrates described the nature of man, he said that there were two sets of needs, or drives, which animated a human. They were guided and controlled by the logical intellect, but not "subservient" to it. On the contrary, without them, the intellect would be immobile, weak, unfulfilled, and would eventually die. These were the Eros and the Thymos. The Eros referred to all physical needs and desires including hunger thirst, sex, and emotions like anger, sadness and love) The Thymos included things like the need for companionship, intellectual stimulation and a sense of self-worth. However it also incorporated the desire to accomplish, to build, to create, to understand your place in the world, to conquer fears and overcome difficulties. These, and many other drives, were referred to by the ancient Greeks as "Spiritual needs". And the Greeks had no monopoly on this concept. Every great religion, reform, political philosophy or social movement based its power on the ability to address Spiritual needs -- to satisfy the Thymos -- to address the ambition of every human Soul to somehow, in some small way, be "heroic."

It seems to me that much of the unhappiness, anger and ennui that I see in the world today is a reflection of the fact that modern life no longer fulfills these spiritual needs. Some people even go so far as to immerse themselves in "virtual lives" which can become more important to them than "real life", simply because the virtual world still offers some form of spiritual fulfillment. Maybe it is time to stop creating virtual realities, and start looking for ways to restore the Thymos to our real lives.

. . . . .

Most of those people who adhere to a mechanistic world view will describe themselves as "logical" and "scientific". The reasons that they give for making fun of religious fundamentalists are usually based on some variation of the same argument: the idea of God, or a soul, or a supreme being or any other variation on the theme is illogical, and incompatible with science. The problem, though, is that most of the people who adopt this sort of mechanistic stance clearly do not know much about science. Because in recent years, science has been moving in directions that are almost antithetical to a mechanistic view of the universe. In fact, recent experiments have produced data that will mess with your head more relentlessly than M. Night Shyamalan. When you encounter the core concepts of quantum theory for the first time, you are bound to start asking yourself how you know that ANYTHING is true.

Let's start the so-called "double-slit experiment", which was first proposed as a way to determine whether light was a particle or a wave. The way the experiment works is that you take a consistent light source (such as a laser) and pass the beam through two slits. If light were made of particles, the image projected on a screen behind the two slits would show the outline of the slits. In other words it would look like an "equals sign rotated 90 degrees", or the negative image of an electric wall socket. When the experiment is performed, however, the pattern that emerges is an interference pattern (a broad illuminated area, with lighter and darker bands showing where the wavelength interference occurs). This suggests that light passes through the slits in the same way that ocean waves would pass between a breakwater -- spreading out once it has passed the obstacle. The ripples from two gaps in the breakwater then form an interference pattern of ripples on the shore.

So we have proven that light is a wave . . . . right?

Well, not yet. This was essentially the view that Newton held, and our concept of light remained wavelike until the middle of the 20th century. But some physicists familiar with the particle-like behaviour of photons decided to find a way to limit the emission of photons to a single photon at a time.

When this experiment was performed in 1990, by Clauss Jönsson of the University of Tübingen, he discovered that each individual photon passed through the apparatus left a single dot on a photographic plate. Not a wave, but a dot. So now we have a result that proves light is NOT a wave, but rather, a particle. Or have we?

As the experiment was continued, and the researchers fired photons through the slits one by one, the dots did not correspond to the anticipated "wall socket" pattern. On the contrary, as more and more photons accumulated, they eventually produced an interference pattern, as shown below.

So light is a particle that acts like a wave. Or rather, light is a wave that acts like a particle. This is starting to get weird. Dont worry . . . . we still have not really entered the rabbit hole. It is going to get a lot weirder. Are you ready to take the red pill, and see how deep the rabbit hole really goes?

 . . . . .

After the 1990 experiment proved that light is both a wave and a particle (but also neither of the above), self-respecting physicists really started flailing around for an explanation of what was going on. A host of young physics students began trying to think up experiments that could either resolve the paradox, or else help explain how two apparently contrary things could both be true. Unfortunately, their efforts just made the situation worse.

In 2001, several scientists performed the same experiment, but this time instead of light, or electrons, or other subatomic particles, they used small particles of matter - specifically "buckyballs" (C60). These are tiny molecules of carbon which are consistent in shape and size, and large enough to be seen with an electron microscope. We know that they are "particles" - they are, after all, made of 60 atoms of "matter" (carbon), arranged in a pattern that we can even photograph. So when they get passed through a double slit apparatus, they HAVE to produce a particle-like pattern.

Only they dont. They create exactly the same interference pattern that you get when you use photons.
Matter is not made of particles, it is made of waves. Sometimes the waves behave like particles, but not always.
Let me rephrase that.
Matter is not made of waves, it is made of particles. Sometimes the particles behave like waves, but not always.

This is NOT weird. If you are hearing about these experiments for the first time and think they are a bit weird . . . . trust me - you dont know what "weird" is. But we are moving in a progressively weirder direction.

OK, so now we have demonstrated that even "matter" is schizophrenic. It cant decide what to be -- a particle or a wave. But there must be someway to get our hands around this dilemma and understand what is happening. Lets back up, and try to clarify this situation a bit further: If you pass light through a single slit, you get a simple diffraction pattern (a fuzzy rectangle). If you pass it through two slits, you get an interference pattern. But when individual photons are sent through one at a time, they leave a dot. That means they must have gone through one slit or the other. What if we could design an experiment that could detect which slit the photon passed through? That might help clarify things . . . 

So a bunch of scientists set up an apparatus with a series of lenses and mirrors that allowed you to shoot a photon towards the apparatus, and detect which slit it passed through. As it continued on through to the photographic plate, its position on the plate could also be detected. If we perform the experiment repeatedly and diligently, it might help us develop models of the trajectory that photons are taking.

Sure enough, after setting up the experiment and running it for a while with a multitude of photons, the apparatus DID allow the physicists to determine which slit the photons were passing through. Cool. Now we had proof that the particle is indeed a particle. There was only one problem. . . .
When the researchers checked the photographic plates, the interference pattern had disappeared. Now all you could see was two bands of light -- a wall socket -- an equals sign rotated 90 degrees.

This freaked a few people out. Obviously something must be wrong with the apparatus. Lets try again, using the same apparatus... but this time we wont turn on the photon detectors. That way we can demonstrate that the apparatus is faulty.

The apparatus was adjusted and the experiment repeated.
The interference pattern reappeared.

So they switched the detectors back on . . . .
and it promptly disappeared.


You could almost hear Schroedinger's cat rolling over in its grave (assuming it was actually dead). For the first time, physicists had actually DEMONSTRATED that you can CHANGE reality just by LOOKING AT IT.

Although Newton-loving "mechanistic" physicists started considering a career change, mathematicians and theoretical physicists got to work trying to resolve the situation. Eventually they came up with a mathematical explanation. The mathematical formula which explains the nature of wave/particle duality is known as the "Copenhagen Interpretation." (I know . . . it sounds a bit like a spy novel, doesnt it?). Basically, the Copenhagen Interpretation says that in the process of observing which hole the light passes through, the researchers "collapsed" reality into one version of the wave/particle duality. As with the paradox discovered by Heisenberg -- that you can detect either a particle's position, or its speed, but not both at the same time -- the observer's "interference" with the experiment is what turns light into particles, or waves, depending on the experimental conditions. Light can be either a particle or a wave, but it cant be both at the same time.

This is called the "principle of complementarity". Physics has just determined that reality is only reality once you look at it. If you dont look at it, it might be one thing ... and it might be another.
Weird enough for you yet?

Well, in 2001 a guy named Shahriar Afshar came along and designed an experiment that set off a huge firestorm in the physics community. If you want to know what the experiment was about, and have a few weeks (or months) free, you can read several hundred different scientific papers about it , all linked at this MIT webpage. Essentially, Afshar claimed that he had set up an experiment which refuted the concept of complementarity... or at least he had shown an example of how it could be violated.

The physics community exploded! There was an uproar, and hundreds of other experiments were designed and performed to try to show that Afshar was wrong, and the experiment did NOT violate complementarity.

Sit down somewhere quiet and contemplate the above situation carefully (If you are a mechanist, you DEFINITELY should be sitting down).

Complementarity says: "reality is not real until someone sees it. The observer determines what reality will be - it doesnt have any independent existence." What Afshar did was design an experiment that violates complimentarity. In other words, his conclusions say: "maybe matter really IS matter after all. Maybe it does have independent existence, and is NOT some mystical thing that only takes on a real form when we look at it" . . .

. . . and the scientific community went apeshit! Hundreds (if not thousands) of physicists fell all over themselves trying to show that his experiment was faulty or his interpretation was incorrect, because it would shatter the foundations of our understanding of the universe if he turned out to be right.

Are we in Wonderland yet?

. . . . . 

The details of the experiments themselves, and the competing efforts to explain them, would occupy a book, or even several volumes. To put it simply, the results and implications of these experiments are still not fully understood. However, in the end it doesnt matter who is "right" and who is "wrong". The possibilities we are arguing over are both so bizarre as to make the Old Testament sound like a logical and consistent book. Either everything in the universe is made up of things that are both waves and particles AT THE SAME TIME, and we can choose to see and experience either one, depending on which we want to experience (Hmmm . . . I think Ill perceive the wall on that bank vault as waves, rather than particles, and walk through it to the other side) . . . or matter has no existence either as a wave or as a particle until we decide to look at it. In other words, reality is created by the observer; it does not exist in a particular form until it has been given form by a perceiver.

In actual fact, that entire paragraph is more mechanistic than what physicists are depicting. The characteristics of our language make it very difficult to be more precise. It isnt a question of matter "HAVING" a particular form, or "BEING" in a particular state, nor is it a question of the observer "PERCEIVING" reality, and "DEFINING" the details. All of these words are derived from a language that categorizes things in subject-object-verb relationships. What physics is telling us is that the subject and object are both part of the same dance - a dance that creates and recreates both subject and object, as well as their relationship to one another, in flickering instants which only can be called "reality" from the standpoint of the dancer.

"Through his dance, Shiva sustains the manifold phenomena in the world, unifying all things by immersing them in his rhythm"

The purpose of the above essay is not to try to prove one position or another. Our model of the cosmos has changed dramatically over the course of human history, and I suspect that it will continue to change. The answers that satisfy us today are not necessarily the answers that will satisfy us in the future. And THAT is the purpose of my essay. We need to remember the experiment with the upside-down glasses. After wearing them for a while, we think we see the world rightside-up, even though the image on our retinas is upside-down. We know for a fact that the brain is capable of lying to us about the image on our retinas, if it thinks that the lie has survival value or makes it easier for us to satisfy basic needs. How many other perceptions of ours are actually upside-down?

. . .

If mankind ever hopes to find a way to live in harmony with the world, not to mention with other humans, they need to start taking the scientific principle of Relativity to heart. There is no absolute space, there is no absolute time, and there is no absolute truth. There is no such thing as a privileged frame of reference. Each one of us sees only a part of the Truth, and even that Truth is only true for us. Until we accept that fact, and refer to it whenever we are tempted to ridicule someone else's ideas or beliefs, the conflict and destruction will continue.

The most common retort to the above paragraph is as follows:

"Some things are more true than others. Do you really think that it is OK for people to pump tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere just because they dont believe in global warming? That is silly. When a person is wrong, you have to TELL them they are wrong."

Which, of course, misses the point so completely that it is hard to even decide where to start. The person who goes out and buys a Humvee because they "dont believe in global warming" does so based on the complacent conceit that their own truth is the absolute truth. Someone who is humble enough to admit their own fallibility will listen to the warnings and avoid doing things that MIGHT destroy the planet, even of they are not 100% sure of the danger. The self-righteous conceit that I KNOW BETTER is what prompts such foolish behaviour.

The question is not whether your stupid neighbour acts on the basis of such conceits.
The question is whether YOU do.

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