Field of Science

Quantum Reality and the Measurement Paradox

I may be primarily an evolutionary theorist nowadays, but I have many interests, and this summer is proving to be a good time to explore some areas not directly connected to my need to publish. Lately I've been doing some reading on quantum mechanics, and what it tells us about reality.

QM is astonishing in both its mathematical elegance and its fundamental counter-intuitiveness. Unfortunately, I think many (including mathematicians) are discouraged from learning about quantum because it is typically presented assuming a deep knowledge of classical mechanics. But in my view, QM isn't just a theory about physics. It's a theory about reality and truth, and many of its implications can be understood with no knowledge of physics at all.

The essential feature of quantum reality, and what makes it different from the way we naturally think, is the superposition principle. It says that if A and B are two possible states of something (a photon, a cat, the whole world...), these states can be added to get another possible state, A+B. For example, if a light switch can exist in ON and OFF positions, there must also be a possible state ON+OFF. Subtraction works too: the state ON-OFF must is a valid state as well. To my mathematician friends: we are moving from the set of possibilities {ON, OFF} to the two-dimensional vector space generated by the basis vectors ON and OFF.

It's important to delineate what is not happening here. ON+OFF does not mean that the switch is stuck somewhere between on and off. It also does not mean that it might be either on or off and we just don't know which. ON+OFF is a fully-determined state which is neither ON nor OFF, but a superposition of the two.

Of course, no one has ever observed a light switch being ON+OFF. Something happens when we observe these superimposed states, such that we can only ever see the "classical" states ON or OFF.

In the standard (a.k.a. Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum mechanics, when a superimposed state is observed, it "collapses" into one of the classically observable states. In the case of ON+OFF, whenever we look at the switch, it collapses into either an ON or and OFF state, with equal probability. But until we look at it, in remains in the state ON+OFF, which has unique properties making it distinct from either the ON or OFF state.

This interpretation poses a host of logical difficulties. What exactly constitutes an "observation", and how would a light switch "know" that it is being observed and should therefore jump into an observable state? Many of the best minds in physics believe that observation has something to do with consciousness, but this raises several obvious questions: How is consciousness is defined? What gives it this unique power to induce jumps in physical states?

I've recently come across a new interpretation, proposed in 1997 by Cerf and Adami. They suggest that superimposed states do not collapse when observed, but rather the observer becomes entangled with the observed, forming a larger superimposed state.

To illustrate this, let's turn to Schrodinger's cat paradox. An atom is prepared in a superposition of two states: one in which the atom will emit a photon and one in which it won't. This atom is placed in a box with a cat and an apparatus which will release poisonous gas if the photon is emitted (the details of the setup are unimportant). According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the system exists in the superimposed state


until such point as the box is opened by a conscious observer, whereupon the system "collapses" and the cat becomes either just alive or just dead. (This raises some questions of whether cats count as conscious, but such objections only deepen the underlying paradox).

In the Cerf and Adami interpretation, there is no collapse, only entanglement. When we observe the contents of the box, we ourselves become entangled with this system. We become part of the resulting superimposed state:


Of course, we still only see the cat as being either dead or alive, not both. But according to Cerf and Adami, this is only because the state EMIT+NOT_EMIT of the atom is unobservable to us. Of the full superimposed state, we can only see the parts pertaining to the cat and to the observer. Observing only part of the system, it appears to us that the cat is either alive or dead. Anyone else observing the cat would see it to be in the same state that we do, but this is only because the second observer is just as entangled as we are. The cat is still superimposed between alive and dead, and if we could see the whole system, we'd realize that we ourselves are superimposed between seeing it alive and seeing it dead.

From a mathematical point of view, Cerf and Adami's proposal neatly resolves the paradox of observation and state collapse. However, it raises far more troubling questions of its own, which the authors do not begin to explore.

Think of a decision you made today. It's not unreasonable to think that there are quantum processes in our brain whose outcomes affect our decisions (this view is advanced by my friend Bob Doyle). Let's say that there was a certain quantum state in your brain whose collapse into one of two states (in the Copenhagen interpretation) tilted your decision one way or the other.

If this is true, then in Cerf and Adami's interpretation, we actually exist in a superposition of realities: one in which your decision went one way and one in which it went the other. You can only see one of these realities, and everyone you've encountered since has become entangled with you and therefore sees the same reality that you do. But the alternate reality is playing itself out, Sliding Doors-style, superimposed on top of our own.

Furthermore, due to quantum interference, any actions taken in this reality can affect any of the superimposed other realities. And conversely, anything your alternate-reality twin does in his or her reality can affect the reality you and I see.

I tend to believe Cerf and Adami's idea, because millenia of physics research have shown us that the mathematically elegant solution is usually the right one. But this means our universe is weirder than we can possibly imagine.