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Quantum physics, probability, reality, and the human condition

by Sergei Winitzki December 2004

Abstract I consider the notion of random events and discuss randomness and reality from the viewpoint of quantum physics. The text is intended for a non-specialist audience.

Chance, probability, and physics

First let us take a look at the scientic picture of probability. Random events are mentioned quite often in natural sciences. It is accepted that science does not predict the actual outcomes of certain processes but merely assigns probabilities to possible outcomes. In such cases one says that the process is random. The result of a coin toss, the particular pattern of clouds in the sky, and the stock market uctuations are random. It is perhaps less widely appreciated that contemporary physics admits two fundamentally different kinds of randomness. The rst kind stems from an insufcient knowledge of a process; this is the coin-toss randomness. In fact it is possible to design a coin-tossing machine with switches and levers and springs, and to manufacture it with enough precision to make all coins fall either heads up or tails up, according to the position of a switch. In other words, given enough knowledge of the process of tossing one can predict its outcome with certainty. A similar randomness is found in the shape of clouds: if only we knew the precise velocity of the wind at all heights and locations (which is in fact an unsurmountable difculty), we could also predict the future arrangement of clouds. Weather forecasts fail essentially because of insufciently detailed information about the present conditions on which the future weather depends very sensitively. The second kind of randomness is the one inherent in all quantum processes; this kind of randomness is not related to any lack of knowledge. Quantum systems are outside of our immediate everyday experience and thus are more difcult for 1

us to understand. A simple example of a quantum process is a radioactive decay where the nucleus of a certain atom suddenly bursts, emitting various particles. It is considered impossible to predict the directions of the emitted particles or the precise moment of time when a particular radioactive atom will decay. On the average, the decay process occurs after a certain time, and there is a probability distribution for the decay time which is obeyed rather precisely if many atoms are measured; but this is all we can say. It seems that atoms do not have any internal clocks or other internal mechanisms that would determine the details of the decay. No theory has been found to predict these details with any degree of precision; we possess no means of measuring or preparing an atom that could enable us to predict the exact time of decay of this atom or the direction of the produced radiation. So physicists gave up trying to build a predictive theory of the radioactive decay and started considering its randomness as a fundamental feature of the decay process rather than a consequence of our insufcient knowledge. In other words, according to contemporary physics there is nothing about the atom that constitutes the direct cause of the decay. Another example of a fundamentally random process is the motion of a single subatomic particle such as a neutron or a photon. The individual trajectories of such particles appear random, and yet these trajectories obey precisely formulated probability laws if many particles are measured. One says that quantum objects exhibit quantum uctuations and that these uctuations are inherently random and unpredictable. Quantum physics is content to predict only probability distributions for outcomes of such fundamentally random processes.

Physics and reality

Physical theories have been sometimes used by philosophers as a crutch to support certain philosophical constructions. Before the advent of quantum theory, some atheists would explain that there is no place for God because all events in the world occur according to the deterministic laws of physics. However, in the 20th century the character of physical laws has undergone some changes, particularly after the discovery of quantum phenomena. As explained above, quantum theory is profoundly indeterministic and yet this theory has been used to invent such well-known devices as lasers (used e.g. in compact disc players). The presentday atheists might have a harder time to reconcile quantum phenomena with their worldview. Just what makes a particular atom decay at a particular time? Who throws the dice? Indeed, it may appear that something (someone?) needs to make decisions for each particular atom to decay at a particular time. The same agent apparently decides the path of every elementary particle and the magnitude of every quantum uctuation. This picture might look suspiciously similar to deism. However, the scientic 2

worldview is not shaken so easily. One answer to the question of who throws the dice is that there is nothing to throw. The mistake is in the expectation that every event must always have a specic cause. (If the book is on the oor, someone must have tossed it there.) This expectation is based on our ordinary everyday experience which entirely misses the quantum phenomena. Quantum physics does not require every event to have a direct cause. Some events (for example, the motion of planets) happen causally and can be predicted, while other events are actually random, i.e. are not directly caused by anything. I believe that the refutation of the quantum deism is correct and that quantum physics does not imply the existence of God. However, I would like to warn the reader against a frequently committed error of equating a physical theory and the real world. In the above example, the reasoning was that the real world is described by the quantum theory and thus we can analyze the theory to understand the world. I reject this reasoning on grounds of the following two arguments. The rst argument is that physics does not claim to describe the actual reality but only provides approximate mathematical descriptions of observed phenomena. Note that there are innitely many mathematical descriptions that t all observed phenomena. Of all possible descriptions, physicists usually only consider the simplest one as a canditate physical theory. This is a reasonable and practical approach known as Occams razor. This approach often gives workable theories. But it is clear that the resulting theories do not necessarily have anything to do with the actual reality. Even if we assume that any and all observations can be ultimately described by some theory which is the simplest and the most elegant of all discovered theories, the true reality does not have to coincide with that theory. Moreover, the perceived simplicity of a physical theory depends on the mathematical language which is invented by humans. There might be other mathematical systems in which our simple solutions appear complicated. The second argument is that physical theories may change quite radically while still keeping agreement with the available experimental facts. For example, Newtons theory of gravitation is simple and works exceptionally well. However, some relatively recent observations (such as the precession of the orbit of Mercury and the gravitational deection of light) cannot be explained by Newtons theory but agree with Einsteins general relativity. Einsteins relativity theory involves such concepts as curved spacetime and non-Euclidean geometry and is generally regarded as one of the most powerful and elegant physical theories. Nevertheless, the consensus today seems to be that Einsteins theory is, in turn, an approximation to a more fundamental theory. So it is unlikely that quantum theory as explained in a contemporary textbook will survive as the ultimate fundamental description of the Universe. Therefore I would call it a mistake to draw far-reaching philosophical conclusions from any particular physical theory as if that theory corresponds to the actual reality. 3

Reality and quantum superpositions

At this point I would like to discuss reality as perceived by us (humans) and as described by quantum physics. For this discussion I need to use one basic fact from quantum mechanics, namely the principle of superposition. Quantum mechanics describes systems that are in some states. For example an electron can be either on a certain orbit within an atom, or ying away from the atom; these would be two different states of the electron. The principle of superposition says that if a quantum system can be in some states X and Y , the system could also be prepared in a state which is a superposition of X and Y . A superposition of two states is essentially described as being e.g. 15% of X and 85% of Y . If the system is in the superposition of 15% X and 85% Y , then an X/Y discrimination experiment will detect the state X with 15% probability and the state Y with 85% probability. However, it is important to realize that the superposition state is not equivalent to a simple uncertainty (lack of knowledge) about the state of the system. There are experiments that prove that the superposition state is really a new physical state, different from either X or Y . To illustrate this difference, let us imagine two experiments. In the rst experiment, a third party sends us a system in an unknown state which is either the state X or the state Y with the probabilities 15% and 85% respectively. The third party has thrown a specially manufactured coin with the odds 15:85 and prepared the system according to the outcome, but we lack the knowledge of that outcome. We are only told that the two outcomes occur statistically with the given probabilities. (This is called a statistical mixture of the states X and Y , in contrast with the quantum superposition of these states.) Then we perform a certain measurement on the system, e.g. measure its magnetic eld at some point. In the second experiment, we prepare a quantum superposition of 15% of X and 85% of Y and again measure the magnetic eld. The amazing fact is that the two experiments can give drastically different results. For instance, the magnetic eld might be always zero in the rst experiment and always nonzero in the second. (We cannot give more details about this in the present text, but experiments of this kind are standard in quantum physics.) Since there is an experimental procedure that can distinguish between a statistical mixture and a quantum superposition, we say that these two situations are physically different. Note that an X/Y discrimination measurement cannot distinguish between the statistical mixture and the quantum superposition: in both cases the outcome is X with 15% probability and Y with 85% probability. To recognize a superposition, we need a special kind of measurement which does not distinguish between X and Y , for instance, a measurement of the magnetic eld as in our example. The principle of superposition also says that the evolution of a superposition 4

of any two states is the same as the superposition of evolutions of these two states. This is all we need to know about quantum mechanics at this point. Clearly, the principle of superposition makes no sense from the ordinary point of view. Suppose that X is the state of a carrot which is fresh, while Y is the state of the same carrot after it is steamed. It is impossible to visualize the superposition of the states X and Y of the carrot. Similarly, nobody has ever seen any superpositions of the same bird ying east and west, or of the same quantity of water boiling and freezing at the same time. Everybody knows that it is impossible to be at two places at once, or to do something and yet not do the same thing. Yet the principle of superposition is conrmed beyond doubt by many experiments with elementary particles, lasers, and other quantum systems. One may say that a particle such as a photon or an electron can be at two places and y in several directions at the same time. Since everything is made of those particles, the principle of superposition must hold for all objects, including carrots and birds. Any two possible states of any object can be superimposed. This paradox can be explained in the following way. Although it is physically possible (in principle) to build a quantum device that prepares a carrot in a superposition of X and Y , we humans would not be able to directly perceive the carrot in the new state. We can only see the carrot either in the state X or in the state Y . In the language of physics, this happens because the physical process of looking at the carrot is not the kind of process that could detect the superposition, but rather it is a kind of X/Y discrimination process. This conclusion can be formulated as, Our (human) reality is not the quantum reality. All that is real for us does not include quantum superpositions. Here I mean the ordinary, empirical reality all that which we are directly aware of by means of our senses and memory. There is another disturbing consequence: namely, according to quantum theory there exist states of humans doing or thinking different things at the same time. In fact, this is precisely what happens when a human looks at a quantum carrot. I shall now describe this situation in more detail. Consider an experiment in which a carrot can be either fresh (state X) or steamed (state Y ) and a human subject inspects the carrot. Let us denote by A the state of the human subject before looking at the carrot, by P the state of the human who saw a fresh carrot, and by Q the state of the same human who saw a steamed carrot. The process of looking at the carrot in the two cases can be symbolically represented by the following evolution diagrams: (carrot in X, subject in A) (carrot in X, subject in P); (carrot in Y , subject in A) (carrot in Y , subject in Q). Here the quantum system consists of the carrot and the human subject and the states of the system are denoted by (carrot in X, subject in A) etc. 5

Now suppose that the carrot is prepared in a superposition of being fresh (X) and steamed (Y ). The initial state of the system is then (carrot in X, subject in A) + (carrot in X, subject in A). According to the superposition principle, the evolution of this state is the superposition of the respective evolutions of the constituent states. After the subject looks at the carrot, the state of the system is (carrot in X, subject in P) + (carrot in X, subject in Q). The human subject is now in a quantum state that does not include a well-dened awareness of the state of the carrot. The subject will see either a fresh or a steamed carrot but it is impossible to predict which. I prefer to say that these are two parallel realities to be perceived by the human, both equally real. It is clear that the human subjects body has not been split in two by means of this experiment. Neither does it make sense to assume that the subjects mind has split in two, or that the entire world has split in two. It is merely the mathematical description of the world that now involves a superposition of two states rather than just one state. The next step is for the lab supervisor to ask the human subject about the carrot. Denote by A the quantum state of the supervisor before hearing the answer, by P the quantum state after hearing that the carrot is fresh and by Q the state of the supervisor after hearing that the carrot is steamed. Before the question, the total system consisting of the carrot and the two humans is described by the superposition (carrot in X, subject in P, supervisor in A ) + (carrot in Y , subject in Q, supervisor in A ). This state indicates that the supervisor is in a denite state A , i.e. the supervisor does not yet know what happened to the carrot. After the subject answers the supervisors question, the total system will be described by the following superposition, (carrot in X, subject in P, supervisor in P ) + (carrot in Y , subject in Q, supervisor in Q ). At this time the supervisor is not in any denite state, similarly to the subject. However, neither of them can be aware of this fact. Awareness is described by certain states such as P or Q and the principle of superposition guarantees that all physical effects of the state P of the subject are separate from all effects of 6

the state Q. Therefore all physical processes that give rise to the supervisors awareness will proceed in parallel for the supervisor states P and Q . In other words, the supervisor and the subject will never see anything funny. To summarize this discussion, let me imagine that I am the subject who looks at the carrot prepared in a superposition of states. My awareness will be either that the carrot is fresh or that it is steamed, depending on which branch of the superposition I (the real I) happen to be in. Suppose that I am in a branch with a fresh carrot. Within this branch there is no trace of the presence of the steamed carrot in the other branch, and thus I will have no other awareness but that of a fresh carrot, no matter how hard I search within myself or how I test the carrot. All subsequent experiments with the carrot will conrm that the carrot is actually fresh. In other words, I will be unable to conclude by any experiments that I am or have been in a superposition of several states. And this is exactly what the quantum theory predicts: that I am in a superposition but cannot be aware of it because the description of my states of awareness is also included into the superposition. What, then, is the actual condition of the carrot (and of myself) after the experiment? There are two possible answers. The rst view (called the Everett interpretation) is that there is no actual condition because the superposition of a steamed and a fresh carrot is a perfectly valid condition of the carrot, even though we cannot be directly aware of such a condition. According to this view, the world is always in an incredibly complicated superposition of all possible outcomes of all events, and we are also in a superposition but aware only of one branch of reality. The second view (called the Copenhagen interpretation) is that something decides what the actual condition of the carrot should be and the carrot follows this decision. The something which decides is the source of true randomness in the world. Initially almost all physicists (starting with Niels Bohr) held the second view, but now the rst view seems to gain a wider acceptance. I also prefer the rst view. However, I would like to emphasize that neither viewpoint can be supported or refuted by any experiments. These viewpoints are simply different interpretations of quantum mechanics and are selected on the basis of their logical consistency and practical convenience. There is an important detail in the description of quantum superpositions which I glossed over in this discussion. Why is it that I can see an electron or a photon in a superposition of some states (this is routinely done in physics labs) but I cannot see a carrot in a superposition of fresh and steamed states? The answer is that the carrot is made up of many billions of billions of particles and it is very difcult for so many particles to remain in the superposition state. Systems containing many interacting particles usually leave superposition states and assume statistical mixture states. The process of this transition is called quantum-to-classical transition or decoherence, i.e. losing the quantum coherence. If an object con7

sists of a huge number of particles (a carrot certainly does), it is almost impossible for it to remain in a quantum superposition state. Quantum theory gives a typical timespan for an object to remain in a quantum superposition; this timespan is called the decoherence time. The decoherence time for a carrot is extremely short in comparison with the decoherence time of an atom. A carrot prepared in a quantum superposition of being fresh and boiled quickly goes through a quantumto-classical transition and becomes a carrot that is either fresh or boiled, which is a statistical mixture rather than a superposition. (Recall that there is a difference between quantum superposition states and statistical mixture states.) An atom goes through the quantum-to-classical transition as well, but the decoherence process is much slower and there is sufcient time for us to observe atoms in various funny states.

Quantum superpositions and our brains

It might well be that the functioning of our brains depends in some way on quantum phenomena. (I am inclined to think that this is so, although some recent research suggests that basic brain processes are essentially classical.) As far as I understand, the physical realization of a thought is a certain sequence of chemical changes in neurons that are connected to each other. A chemical reaction in a neuron might depend on the arrival of just a few molecules of some substance. A single molecule behaves more like a quantum particle than a carrot: it can remain in a superposition of quantum states for a relatively long time. Therefore it is likely that quantum effects play a certain role in the behavior of neurons and thus in our behavior. If this is true, then it is impossible to predict exactly when a certain thought would occur to us, just like it is impossible to predict exactly when a radioactive atom would decay. According to this view, our thought processes are subject to quantum uctuations and quantum randomness at the very basic level. Thus we are in a quantum superposition of different thought states even if we are not performing experiments with quantum carrots. Then the actual reality as we perceive it, including the reality of our own thoughts, is randomly chosen from a large superposition of states. This is the quantum-mechanical kind of randomness that does not have any cause. I am inclined to interpret this indeterminism of thought as the basis of human creativity.

Our brains, free will, and chance

When physicists say that a certain event, such as a radioactive decay, has no direct cause, they mean something along the lines of nobody managed to nd a cause and by gosh we did look for it long and hard. While this is a valid reason 8

to abandon a particular line of scientic research, philosophically this is really a rather limited statement. Firstly, there can be no experimental proof that a certain random event has no hidden cause. Secondly, science denes cause more or less as correlation, and this presupposes a possibility to repeat experiments and to collect statistics of the outcomes. However, as we all know, life is full of events that seem to cause one another but can never be repeated in a controlled fashion to scientically prove the causation. For example, I may think that I got a bad cold because I was stressed out at work and then walked for half an hour in the cold rain. But I cannot really prove this statement scientically because I surely will not repeat the experiment. Even if I started to gather statistics on myself, there are too many factors to include and a simple causation will not emerge. Astrologers, fortune-tellers, psychics, palm-readers, and other such professions exist thanks to the fact that we do not know the causes of events happenning to us. For instance, an astrologer might say that the cause of some events involves the positions of Mars and Jupiter erroneously calculated according to certain ancient star charts. MAny of use are inclined to believe the astrologers. In fact we have no better ways of nding the causes when there are no real causes. Let me give an example that illustrates the nature of this real-life causation. An astrologer might tell you that, according to the erroneously calculated positions of Mars and Jupiter, you will meet an important person early next week. A scientic approach to verifying this statement consists of recording each and every meeting this week, next week, and the following week, and then comparing the relative importance of persons met on each day, checking whether the rst three days of next week will involve a statistically larger number of important meetings. Of course nobody in their right mind would perform such statistical analyses. Either I believe the astrologer and then I will look out for important people early next week, or I dont believe the astrologer and will dismiss the prediction. Moreover, it seems clear that a detailed statistical analysis would not show anything signicant: the scientic probability of meeting an important person is statistically the same every day. In fact, the astrologer is not telling me that there is a scientically proven higher probability to meet an important person. The astrologer might be simply telling me that the meeting will happen, regardless of its probability. This is a much more important statement: a truly random event might not happen no matter how high its probability, but if we know that an event will happen, we can stop thinking about probabilities and start making the appropriate decisions. The desire to know the real causes for events is one of the central elements of the human condition, and the fortune tellers know this. We humans seem to have free will; in other words, nobody knows what causes us to think and to behave in a particular fashion. Neither has anybody managed to think and to behave in a completely predictable way throughout their life. If the basic mechanism of our brain is quantum-mechanical, it follows from our consid9

erations that physical science will never discover any material cause directly responsible for human decisions. This responsibility is upon us as we say. By this we mean that there is a certain entity or an agent called our will and this agent is the source of our decisions. From the quantum viewpoint number two, this agent is the same as the source of randomness in a radioactive decay. From the quantum viewpoint number one, there is no such agent but the randomness is shifted to the random choice of the branch of reality which we (the real we) are aware of. In both cases, it is clear that our will and self-awareness, i.e. all that which we most closely associate with our very selves, is precisely the agent responsible for the choice of our reality. The events of my life (in the branch of reality I am aware of) have been determined, at least in part, by a chain of quantum-to-classical transitions in my brain, and the clearest manifestation of this chain of choices is my awareness of my free will and of myself. What I call myself, i.e. the source of my free will, can be thought of as the sum total of these truly random choices. In brief: quantum theory tells us that our free will is one of the factors that determines our reality. As a qualication, I should add that the statement the will determines the reality does not mean that we are able to transform reality in any way we wish, or even that we are aware of the processes that underlie the phenomenon of free will. The state of affairs is surely rather different. Firstly, there exist other people (and other quantum-mechanical systems) and they have a similarly decisive effect on my reality insofar as I interact with them. Secondly, even if I were alone on an island, I would not really be a master of my own will. It is a common illusion, easily refuted by a bit of introspection, that one can wish whatever one wants. I would venture to say that we can never predict with certainty what we would feel or wish in the next second. Neither can we have a direct conscious control over the neurons in our brains. This is expressed in a succinct way by the aphorism our brains work faster than we think.

I would like to warn the reader that the last two sections, particularly the passages concerning the issues of free will, is entirely an amateur effort and a result of my personal musings on this subject. On the other hand, in the sections having to do with quantum physics I presented an interpretation of quantum theory which is more or less widely accepted in the scientic community.