What the Bleep Do We Know!?
What the Bleep Do We Know!?
What the Bleep Do We Know!?
thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity
has its own
reason for existing. One cannot help but be in
awe when one
contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life,
of the marvelous
structure of reality. Itis enough if one tries
comprehend a little of this mystery every day.
Never lose a holy
curiosity.” - Albert Einstein
At the core of this report are provocative questions about the way we
participate in an unfolding, dynamic reality. What the Bleep Do We Know!? proposes
that there is no solid, static universe, and that reality is mutable - affected
by our very perception of it. At the same time, the report acknowledges that
reality is not entirely relative or simply created out of thin air. Mothers do
give birth to real babies. Some things are more solid and reliable than others.
In fact, according to quantum
physics, things are not even “things”, they are more like possibilities.
According to physicist Amit Goswami, “Even the material world around us - the
chairs, the tables, the rooms, the carpet, camera included - all of these are
nothing but possible movements of consciousness.” What are we to make of this?
“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot
possibly have understood it,” notes quantum physics pioneer Niels Bohr. Before
we can consider the implications of quantum mechanics, let’s make sure we
understand the theory.
What is Quantum Mechanics?
What is Quantum Mechanics? Quantum mechanics, the latest development in
the scientific quest to understand the nature of physical reality, is a precise
mathematical description of the behavior of fundamental particles. It has
remained the preeminent scientific description of physical reality for 70
years. So far all of its experimental predictions have been confirmed to
astounding degrees of accuracy. To appreciate why quantum mechanics continues
to astound and confound scientists, it is necessary to understand a little
about the historical development of physical theories.
Keeping in mind that this brief sketch
oversimplifies a very long, rich history, we may consider that physics as a
science began when Isaac Newton and others discovered that mathematics could
accurately describe the observed world. Today the Newtonian view of physics is
referred to as classical physics; in essence, classical physics is a
mathematical formalism of common sense. It makes four basic assumptions about
the fabric of reality that correspond more or less to how the world appears to
our senses. These assumptions are reality, locality, causality, and continuity.
Reality refers to the assumption that the physical
world is objectively real. That is, the world exists independently of whether
anyone is observing it, and it takes as selfevident that space and time exist
in a fixed, absolute way. Locality refers to the idea that the only way that
objects can be influenced is through direct contact. In other words, unmediated
action at a distance is prohibited. Causality assumes that the arrow of time
points only in one direction, thus fixing cause-and-effect sequences to occur
only in that order. Continuity assumes that there are no discontinuous jumps in
nature, that space and time are smooth. Classical physics developed rapidly
with these assumptions, and classical ways of regarding the world are still
sufficient to explain large segments of the observable world, including
chemistry, biology, and the neurosciences. Classical physics got us to the moon
and back. It works for most things at the human scale. It is common sense.
But it does not describe the behavior of all observable outcomes,
especially the way that light - and, in general, electromagnetism - works.
Depending on how you measure it, light can display the properties of particles
or waves. Particles are like billiard balls. They are separate objects with
specific locations in space, and they are hard in the sense that if hurled at
each other with great force, they tend to annihilate each other accompanied by
dazzling displays of energy. In contrast, waves are like undulations in water.
They are not localized but spread out, and they are soft in that they can
interact without destroying each other. The wave-like characteristic also gives
rise to the idea of quantum superposition, which means the object is in a
mixture of all possible states. This indeterminate, mixed condition is
radically different than the objects we are familiar with. Everyday objects
exist only in definite states. Mixed states can include many objects, all
coexisting, or entangled, together.
How is it possible for the fabric of reality to be
both waves and particles at the same time? In the first few decades of the
twentieth century, a new theory, Quantum Mechanics, was developed to account
for the wave-particle nature of light and matter. This theory was not just
applicable to describing elementary particles in exotic conditions, but
provided a better way of describing the nature of physical reality itself.
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity also altered the Newtonian view of the
fabric of reality, by showing how basic concepts like mass, energy, space, and
time are related. Relativity is not just applicable to cosmological domains or
to objects at close to light-speeds, but refers to the basic structure of the
fabric of reality. In sum, modern physics tells us that the world of common
sense reveals only a special, limited portion of a much larger and stranger fabric
Electrons can behave as both particles and waves. As
waves, electrons have no precise location but exist as “probability fields.” As
particles, the probability field collapses into a solid object in a particular
place and time. Unmeasured or unobserved electrons behave in a different manner
from measured ones. When they are not measured, electrons are waves. When they
are observed, they become particles. The world is ultimately constructed out of
elementary particles that behave in this curious way.
In classical physics, all of an object’s attributes are in principle
accessible to measurement. Not so in quantum physics. You can measure a single
electron’s properties accurately, but not without producing imprecision in some
other quantum attribute.
Quantum properties always come in “conjugate” pairs. When two properties
have this special relationship, it is impossible to know about both of them at
the same time with complete precision. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty (also know as
the Indeterminacy) Principle says that if you measure a particle’s position
accurately, you must sacrifice an accurate knowledge of its momentum, and vice
versa. A relationship of the Heisenberg kind holds for all dynamic properties
of elementary particles and it guarantees that any experiment (involving the
microscopic world) will contain some unknowns.
What does the phrase “we know” mean? It means that theoretical
predictions were made, based on mathematical models, and then repeatedly
demonstrated in experiments. If the universe behaves according to the theories,
then we are justified in believing that common sense is indeed a special,
limited perspective of a much grander universe.
The portrait of reality painted by relativity and quantum mechanics is so
far from common sense that it raises problems of interpretation. The
mathematics of the theories are precise, and the predictions work fantastically
well. But translating mathematics into human terms, especially for quantum
mechanics, has remained exceedingly difficult.
The perplexing implications of quantum mechanics were greeted with shock
and awe by the developing scientists. Many physicists today believe that a
proper explanation of reality in light of quantum mechanics and reliability
requires radical revisions of one or more common-sense assumptions: reality,
locality, causality or continuity.
Given the continuing confusions in interpreting quantum mechanics, some
physicists refuse to accept the idea that reality can possibly be so
perplexing, convoluted, or improbable - compared to common sense, that is. And
so they continue to believe, as did Einstein, that quantum mechanics must be
incomplete and that once “fixed” it will be found that the classical
assumptions are correct after all, and then all the quantum weirdness will go
away. Outside of quantum physics, there are a few scientists and the occasional
philosopher who focus on such things, but most of us do not spend much time
thinking about quantum mechanics at all. If we do, we assume it has no
relevance to our particular interests. This is understandable and in most cases
perfectly fine for practical purposes. But when it comes to understanding the
nature of reality, it is useful to keep in mind that quantum mechanics
describes the fundamental building blocks of nature, and the classical world is
composed of those blocks too, whether we observe them or not. The competing
interpretations of quantum mechanics differ principally on which of the
common-sense assumptions one is comfortable in giving up.
Copenhagen Interpretation – This is the orthodox
interpretation of quantum mechanics, promoted by Danish physicist Niels Bohr
(thus the reference to Copenhagen, where Bohr’s institute is located). In an
overly simplified form, it asserts that there is no ultimately knowable
reality. In a sense, this interpretation may be thought of as a “don’t
ask–don’t tell” approach that allows quantum mechanics to be used without
having to care about what it means. According to Bohr, it means nothing, at
least not in ordinary human terms.
Wholeness – Einstein’s protégé David Bohm maintained
that quantum mechanics reveals that reality is an undivided whole in which
everything is connected in a deep way, transcending the ordinary limits of
space and time.
Many Worlds – Physicist Hugh Everett proposed that when a quantum
measurement is performed, every possible outcome will actualize. But in the
process of actualizing, the universe will split into as many versions of itself
as needed to accommodate all possible measurement results. Then each of the
resulting universes is actually a separate universe.
Quantum Logic – This interpretation says that perhaps quantum
mechanics is puzzling because our common sense assumptions about logic break
down in the quantum realm. Mathematician John von Neumann developed a “wave
logic” that could account for some of the puzzles of quantum theory without
completely abandoning classical concepts. Concepts in quantum logic have been
vigorously pursued by philosophers.
NeoRealism – This was the position led by Einstein, who refused to
accept any interpretation, including the Copenhagen Interpretation, asserting
that common sense reality does not exist. The neorealists propose that reality
consists of objects familiar to classical physics, and thus the paradoxes of
quantum mechanics reveal the presence of flaws in the theory. This view is also
known as the “hidden variable” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which
assumes that once we discover all the missing factors the paradoxes will go away.
Consciousness Creates Reality – This interpretation pushes to the
extreme the idea that the act of measurement, or possibly even human
consciousness, is associated with the formation of reality. This provides the
act of observation an especially privileged role of collapsing the possible
into the actual. Many mainstream physicists regard this interpretation as
little more than wishful New Age thinking, but not all. A few physicists have
embraced this view and have developed descriptive variations of quantum theory
that do accommodate such ideas.
It should be emphasized that at present no one fully understands quantum
mechanics. And thus there is no clear authority on which interpretation is more
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