25 February 2012

Quantum mechanics gets a bit less spooky

Quantum mechanics is a very robust theory of the small-scale phenomena in the universe.  It has been repeatedly verified in the lab, and has been become a fundamental tool to explore the rest of the universe.  But it does imply some rather bizarre things, that certain types of theists have used to attempt to (a) discredit science and simultaneously (b) prove the existence of their fairy tale gods.  New work now suggests multiple ways of reconciling quantum weirdness with the regularity of the human-scale universe - without requiring god.

First of all, if you don't "believe" in quantum mechanics, then you need to understand that the computer you're using this second runs because of quantum effects.  So turn it off, and go check yourself in to the nearest asylum, because that's where you belong.

For those of you who are left, you may know of some of the weird quantum effects that I'm talking about.  Einstein called one of them "spooky action at a distance."  Perhaps the most famous (and irritating) artifact of quantum science is Schrodinger's Cat, which was both alive and dead in a box with a randomly released poison till it was observed.  This led to all manner of new-age nuttiness.  Also, diverse theists immediately tried to interpret quantum weirdness as a sign from or of god.

Eventually, a new concept, decoherence, was developed to reconcile micro-scale quantum effects with meso-scale "reality" as we observe it.  But it was often seen as a bit of a kludge, a spit-and-baling-wire approach to patch together two different and far more elegant systems.

Recently, an alternative to decoherence has been developed by Dagomir Kaszlikowski and colleagues, which is far more elegant than decoherence and yet shows quite neatly how quantum effects combine at the meso-scale to create the kind of reality we observe every day.  It's still early days for Kaszlikowski's theory, so it's too soon to declare it the winner.

But that's not really the point I want to make.

Instead, consider the "society" in which this work has gone on - the scientific community.

In that society, the evidence for quantum mechanics - coming as it does from hundreds of diverse areas of research and consisting of thousands of replications of carefully designed experiments - is overwhelming.  QM both allows the explanation of existent phenomena and the prediction of other phenomena.  A sure sign of a good theory is when it successfully predicts things that couldn't otherwise be predicted.

QM isn't dogma, it's only the best model that fits the facts.  Even Einstein, who couldn't really accept QM, did not deny that it was the best model available for very real physical phenomena.  He might not have liked it, but he knew that the evidence rules.

Some thought the search for connectivity between QM and the Newtonian mechanics of the human-scale universe was a desperate attempt by scientists to justify their "spooky" quantum weirdness.  In fact, however, it was a test: if no connection could be found, then there had to be something substantive wrong with QM.

First, decoherence was developed.  Then, because scientists were not willing to settle for only the decoherence explanation, we also have Kaszlikoski's alternative treatment.

Both developments were driven entirely and only by the evidence, and the cumulative body of scientific knowledge.  Throughout this work, the scientists largely got along, listening attentively to each other, arguing respectfully, pointing out errors in reasoning rather than flaws of character (the latter of which are entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand), never hesitated to cooperate quite selflessly in the interest of discovering an objective truth about the universe.  And they did all this without god.

Now, of course, I'm sure there were disagreements and occasional arguments, rudeness, etc.  After all, scientists are just human beings.  But if one stands back far enough to look at the overall development of QM, one sees a very collaborative and surprisingly orderly movement from a state of relative ignorance to a state of relative knowledge.

Now compare this to the childish bickering, not to mention the suffering and death caused by religion.  From the Taliban to Rick Santorum and every religious nutjob in between, we see every textbook form of irrationality, delusion, and outright malevolence of which human beings are capable on display under the umbrella of god.

That's the point I want to make here.

The name of this blog is "replacing god."  Here's one piece of that puzzle: science and scientific thinking.  Modulo the foibles of human nature, the way in which scientists think and work is far more sensible than any other approach ever devised.  I can say this will full confidence because when compared to every other form of collaborative knowledge development, science is the most robust, most reliable, and least likely to cause harm.  It is, in every measurable way, better than the alternatives.  It's light-years better than anything religion has to offer.

So let's dispose of homily, and of proselytizing, and of witnessing, and conclaves, and of all those other foolish religious trappings of the search for understanding.  Let's use a scientific approach instead.  It'll work.


  1. Yeah, you say science isn't a religion but I heard the decoherence sect tried to have Kaszlikoski burned at the stake as a heretic. And god says he doesn't believe in Einstein so what have you got to say about that, then???

    1. You're confusing science with scientists. Scientists screw up all the time, but in the long run, it's all just the mildest noise. I wrote about this previously: http://filsalustri.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/when-it-comes-to-science-never-say-never/

  2. Love the blog! check out mine at www.fedupwithfaith.blog.com


  3. Interesting and helpful. I used to live near Sedona, so I ran into faux QM theories a lot.

    Barbara Ehrenreich has a nice section on Quantum mechanics and new age uses of it in her book on Positive Thinking.

    1. Thanks for the kind works and the pointer. I've added Barbara Ehrenreich to my reading list.

  4. Richard Dawkins et al, worship at the alter of scientism. They make pretenses to objectivity, never shy to inform us that their holy science gives them an unclouded vision of Truth. Yet one wonders how the spooky actions of the quantum world (which you so wantonly disregard) fit in their tidy version of reality. Moreover, one could be forgiven for wondering what Dawkins et al would do if their almighty science in all of its dispassion, pointed to Design. What would they do if the veil were lifted and "we find an unmovable finger obstinately pointing outside the subject, to the mind of the observer, to the Hindu scriptures, to God, or even only to Gravitation?" Would they admit defeat? Doubtful. They are as dogmatic as any Archbishop.

    1. Jimmy, I'm grateful for your comment. Rarely has the expertise of a maker of "custom interior furniture" (according to your profile) been so useful in scientific matters as it is here.

      Unfortunately, your collection of risible attempts to associate science and atheism with religious dogma are tired, old chestnuts that were entirely discredited years ago. Not to mention the wanton ignorance you exhibit of science, the scientific method, and the benefits that scientific knowledge has brought to humanity.

      Just to be clear: I've published your comment here so that we rational people can laugh at you.