I want to address this essay in Tuesday’s New York Times by science writer Dennis Overbye entitled, “Far Out Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?” (available with free registration). The essay correctly criticizes the misuse of physics by fuzzy-minded New Age people. But Overbye also errs in buying into an all-too-common misconception about the implications of Quantum Mechanics (QM).
Overbye begins with a discussion of the recent film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” (which I have not seen). According to his account, the movie's premise is that QM implies the human mind essentially creates reality, so we should be able to alter and improve it as we like. Overbye traces the inspiration of this idea to Eugene Wigner’s suggestion (which followed on John von Neumann’s formulation of QM) that consciousness is the factor responsible for implementing measurements which collapse the superpositions of quantum states into a particular outcome. This idea has been enthusiastically picked up by the filmmakers and other New Ager’s, who inappropriately extrapolate it into the notion that the mind is somehow in control of reality. This opens the door to idealism, paranormal phenomena, and Deepak Chopra.
So far so good. But then we start running into problems when Overbye contrasts this improper use of physics with what he sees as the sober reality of the situation.
He starts by quoting Columbia’s David Albert as saying “It has been decades since anybody took Wigner’s idea seriously.” First, this is incorrect. There are people who have tried to build on the proposal; first and foremost I would cite Henry Stapp (see post here). Second, I believe the reason the mainstream hasn’t worked on the idea is because they lacked good research programs which had traction on the proposed intersection between consciousness and quantum systems; it is not because the idea has been shown to be wrong, which is the impression Overbye’s quick account leaves the reader. I’m personally skeptical that full-blown consciousness is the trigger for wave function collapse, but this remains an open question.
Next, Overbye misinterprets decoherence theory in this passage: “Many physicists today say the waves that symbolize quantum possibilities are so fragile they collapse with the slightest encounter with their environment. Conscious observers are not needed.” I’m sympathetic here since I made the same mistake for years. While I think we can legitimately infer from modern quantum theory and experimental results that natural systems ubiquitously implement measurements all around us, that is not what decoherence theory has shown. Decoherence describes how the interaction of a quantum system with the environment leads to a suppression of interference effects; rather than provide for an objective collapse, it still leaves a ‘mixture’ of states which prevails until we conduct a measurement (see this post for further discussion). The measurement problem remains. (Physicists also continue to explore explicit collapse models, but I think it's fair to say these remain problematic.)
Here’s Overbye’s bottom line:
“In other words, reality is out of our control. It’s all atoms and the void, as Democritus said so long ago. Indeed, some physicists say the most essential and independent characteristic of reality, whatever that is, is randomness. It’s a casino universe.”
This is a very common perspective, among scientists, philosophers and laypeople alike. They take the lesson of QM as being that the strictly deterministic clockwork metaphysics implied by classical physics should be simply overlaid with randomness. But regardless of the details, they assume that a worldview of materialism/physicalism which safely ignores the quantum measurement problem remains the correct stance.
I believe this is wrong. One cannot ignore that the reality implied by QM consists of both deterministically evolving quantum waves and the measurement events which give rise to the concrete phenomena of the macroscopic world. Measurement events remain unexplained within present-day physics. But I conclude the metaphysics necessary for a solution must be richer than physicalism. A property dualism where the ability to measure is an additional aspect of reality is needed (perhaps this could be incorporated into a version of neutral monism, too). And the proposal that this (likely ubiquitous) property and the emergent phenomena of life and consciousness are essentially linked is alive and well. It’s a shame the New Age antics seem to have raised a credibility hurdle for serious consideration of this view.