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The Realism of Quantum Realities

Kevin Hennessy Philosophy 237 March 21, 2000

The conicts between Instrumentalism and Realism have been numerous and intense since the advent of natural philosophy as a popular discipline two and a half millenia ago. Since then, each philosophy has enjoyed periods of waxing and waning support correlated with novel ideas and emergent contemporary philosophers. However, the base tenets of either side have remained constant in their denition. Instrumentalists envision sciences teleology as a strictly mathematical tool for prediction. Realists see the teleology as a window into the real nature of the universe. The stability of these philosophies progressed, in concurrence with Classical physics, towards an apex at the end of the nineteenth century due to ubiquitous adoption of Newtonian and Maxwellian theory. Analogous to an earthquake in magnitude and spontaneity, the Quantum physics revolution quickly shook Realism, Instrumentalism, and Classical physics at their most fundamental roots. Classical theory was soon forsaken for a more accurate model. Quantum Theory (the mathematical description used to predict any quantum systems state) has been adopted by the modern physics community as an accurate method of prediction. However, the Realism vs. Instrumentalism debate has not moved on to adopt new tenets quite as easily. Quantum Reality (the explanation of what truly occurs beneath the veil of Quantum Theory) comes in many dierent avours, most of which seem contradictory to Classical Realism. Can Quantum Theory be explained from a Realists perspective? By analyzing several proposed Quantum Realities with an assumed understanding of modern Quantum Theory1 , I will explain how Realism was violently disturbed by the quantum revolution and show in what possible forms it may co-exist with Quantum Theory. Eighteenth century Realism/Instrumentalism epitomizes the Classical picture of reality.2 At this time, Newtonian mechanics and the Mechanical World View reigned as the popular description of the universe. An Instrumentalist at this time was perfectly happy with an astoundingly accurate tool for prediction; he was not concerned with the underlying truth beneath the mechanistic view of his physics. The Realist interpreted the Mechanical World View much dierently. He believed
A knowledge of the following is assumed: wave theory and spectral decomposition; Heisenberg uncertainty principle; the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox; J.S. Bells Interconnectedness theorem. 2 The word reality is used in this paper to mean the true, un-modeled, interpretation of ones existence relative to that which he is existing in.

that all ordinary objects (objects with which we naturally perceive and interact with) were made of elements that moved mechanically in an absolute space and time. They were small, solid, indestructible objects that always remained identical in mass and shape.[4, p.3] According to W. Schommers in Quantum Theory and Pictures of Reality, for a common Newtonian Realist... . . . the picture of reality is given by the following vision: In the beginning, God had created material objects, the forces between them, and the equations of motion. Then, the whole universe was set in motion and it has continued to run ever since, like a machine, governed by the equations of motion[4, p.3] A Classical Realist, like his instrumental counterpart, used Classical physics to tell him what we observe; but, more importantly, the Realist used it to tell him what is. As the 20th century approached, the denitive resolution of Classical physics became fuzzier and less dened. Analogously, so did the electron. Due to the Classically contradictory results from experiments on the Photo-electric eect, the Compton eect, and De Broglies wave nature of matter; it was obvious that much revision of the physical laws of the universe was in order. A replacement, Quantum Theory, was developed by four distinct means; however, each arrived at precisely the same predictions: Heisenbergs matrix mechanics, Schrdingers wave mechano ics, Diracs transformation theory, and Feynmans sum-over-histories approach.[3, p.43] The mutual conclusions perfectly predict the outcome of the experiments that destroyed Classical physics as well as any other experiment performed to date. A modern Instrumentalist cannot deny Quantum Theory as his savior for the shortcomings of Classical Theory. However, the modern Realist nds himself conned in an eigenstate of ambiguity. According to Quantum Theory, elemental constituents of ordinary objects can no longer be thought of as small, solid, indestructible objects, that always remain identical in mass and shape. In 1932 the brilliant mathematician John Von Neumann considered the contrary: that an ordinary reality underlies the quantum facts. In a short, formal argument in his masterful book on Quantum Theory Die Grundlagen(The Foundations), he proved that the existence of such a reality 3

is mathematically incompatible with Quantum Theory.[3, p.48] The medium in which Realists placed their sense of reality had vanished, and was replaced with an abstract wave equation that had no clearly-dened qualitative interpretation. The wave function corresponding to any quantum system completely denes the probability of it displaying any attribute under the surrounding circumstances. From this wave function, physicists deduce accurate statistical predictions that, for an example, an electron will be at a certain position, have a certain momentum, or display any other of the innite possible attributes associated with it. Amidst these new conclusions, a subscriber of the Realist philosophy cannot avoid being embarrassed by Quantum Theory. This new theory proves excellent in telling us everything about what we observe, but it encounters serious diculties in telling us what is merely hinting that whatever it may be, it is not ordinary. Quoth Bohr, The ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct actuality of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation, however, is impossible. . . atoms are not things.[3, p.77] The modern Realist has a formidable dilemma with which to contend. This dilemma would be remedied if the Realist could answer two questions:[3, p.100-200] What exactly transpires when I interact with a quantum system? (Quantum Measurement Problem). What exactly am I interacting with? (Quantum Interpretation Problem) The Quantum Interpretation Question (QIP) exists in light of the fact that Quantum Theory dictates that we can no longer interpret the fundamental constituents of matter as ordinary objects. If we can not picture an electron as particulate in nature, what are our other options? A quantum entity in an unmeasured state is exceptionally well represented by a wave function. The QIP asks: what does this entitys wave function tell us about the factual situation of the unmeasured entity? What attributes does the unmeasured entity have? Are two quantum entities with the same wave function physically identical? The Quantum Measurement Problem (QMP) exists due to the counter-intuitive way in which quantum systems respond to measurements.3 On an abstracted level,

measurement is dened as a circumstance in which an observer gains new information

the attributes that a quantum entity shows upon measurement (position, momentum, energy, etc.) seem inextricably linked with the way in which we conduct the measuring process. Out of the innitude of potential attributes that a quantum entity possesses, we determine which ones are displayed by choosing to measure said attributes.4 Consequently, the knowledge of each conjugate attribute(the attribute corresponding to the opposite spectral wave family) assumes many more possible values. By this process objective reality is discarded, and the door is open to subjectivism. The particle seems to have no denite attributes until we observe it. The unrefuted Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle formally predicts this very behavior, so the QMP strives to answer a even more basic question. Consider this example: We are analyzing an electron moving in space towards a phosphorescent screen. We (by virtue of arbitrary hypothesis) know this electrons momentum to a very high degree. No adept physicist will disagree that we, by virtue of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, do not know the electrons position very accurately. If we pick any point on the screen, we can determine the probability of the electron hitting that exact spot by analyzing the spectrum of the electrons wave function with respect to impulse waves(the waveform corresponding to the position attribute). Since we very accurately know the momentum, the probability distribution across the screen is very broad. It is hard to predict where the electron will hit the screen. In due time, the electron strikes the screen at one specic location, producing a ash of light at that spot. This event drastically transforms the electron. Before contact with the screen, it was in a superposition of all its possible locations (as specied by the wave function); and afterwards it has chosen one of those many possible locations for its position attribute. The QMP asks: what exactly happens in that innitesimally small transitional period in which the electron decides to collapse into one particular eigenstate? Several Quantum Realities have been constructed to try to resolve the two previously-posed questions. Each interpret the quantum facts(experimentally observed facts of quantum systems) in a dierent manner. Some interpretations are
about a system. For example, measuring takes place when we determine the position or momentum of a quantum entity, or even when we open up our eyes in the morning. 4 Herbert[3], refers to this process as the quantum meter option; whereby the observer can actually choose which attributes an entity has.

purely instrumental. The rest result from dierent physicists taking dierent parts of Quantum Theory seriously and identifying each with reality. Orthodox Ontology based Quantum Realities: Ernst Mach, a professor of physics at the Universities of Prague and Vienna form 1867 to 1901 embodied the most adamant instrumental philosophy of his time. Machs point was that there is no purpose to be served by seeking to describe a reality beyond our immediate senses. Instead, our judgment should be guided by the criteria of veriability and simplicity.[2, p.77]. He based his reasoning on the fact that dierent physical models can produce exactly equal predictions. For example, in about 150 AD Ptolemy chose to explain the observed motions of the planets around the earth by constructing an elaborate theory based on epicycles. With some advanced computations, the orbits of the planets (even considering how accurately they are presently known) could be decomposed into an large number of epicycles, thus providing a predictively accurate explanation of planetary motion. Ptolemys epicycles were created by his assumption that the sun and planets orbit the earth, whereas a much simpler theory places the sun at the center of the solar system, as suggested by Copernicus. Both theories can explain the motion of the planets, yet both can not be real. The ignorance created by the fact that multiple models can predict the same conclusions is enough to incite many scientists to become instrumentalists. They do not attach a deeper signicance to the concepts used in a theory (such as epicycles) if they are not in themselves observable or subject to empirical verication. The instrumental perspective is actually elevated and more appealing when taken in context with Quantum Theory. Relative to Classical systems, quantum systems are much harder to directly observe and paradoxically harder to empirically describe when we are not watching them. A Classical physicist with an inkling of Instrumentalism in his ontology will gladly submit to the full instrumentalist philosophy when exposed to Quantum Theory. Due to his empiricism, a quantum Instrumentalist will quickly point out that the quantum Realists view involves a logical contradiction. Since we have no way of observing an observer-

independent(objective) reality5 we cannot verify that such a reality exists.[2, p.79] The icon of Quantum Instrumentalism is the Danish physicist Neils Bohr. Together with Schrdinger and Heisenberg, he developed the orthodox ontology of o Quantum Reality, commonly called the Copenhagen interpretation, which is what most physics students are initially taught.[2, p.82] This interpretation dichotomizes reality into a Classical part and an unknown part. A measuring device, or any ordinary object must be treated in Classical terms. A quantum system may inherit none of these familiar Classical properties. Copenhagenists require the preceding partition due to the fact that when we measure a quantum system, we must convert the result into a macroscopic signal if we wish to gain the information. The underlying quantum reality is imperceivable and non-existent in a literal sense. When quantum entities are not being observed, they do not possess any dynamic attributes. It is our status as observers that coerces the entity to reveal a macroscopically detectable attribute of our choice. It is obvious how a Copenhagenist or more generally, an instrumentalist, would answer the two dening questions on the subject of Quantum Reality after considering Bohrs words: There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to nd out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.[2, p.84] The instrumentalist would claim that nothing really exists to pose the QIP on; and he would answer a stern N/A to the QMP[2, p.194], nullifying it on the basis of its futility. Ordinary Object Realities A Neorealist6 does not post haste to conclude that all of our experiences and perceptions to date are a misrepresentation of reality. Many of the ideas that we are classically familiar with can be extended through the atomic realm and
Presently, we do not know how to observe a quantum entity without collapsing its wave function. 6 Term taken from Nick Herbert in Quantum Reality

the lowest quantum reality. In contrast to Bohr and Heisenbergs thoughts, Neorealists believe that atoms are things ordinary objects analogous to what we encounter with our senses. This straightforward view of the worlds true nature has been generally dismissed by establishment physicists as misguided and hopelessly naive; however, this did not prevent Neorealism from accumulating an impressive list of names on its subscription list. Chief among Neorealist rebels were Einstein, Schrdinger, de Brolie, David Bohm and Plank. To gain a more in o depth understanding of the Neorealist perspective, consider the personal views of Einstein and Bohm. Einstein contributed greatly to the founding of Quantum Theory. However, in the context of quantum mechanics, he is usually known as a dissenter from accepted theory. For many years after Quantum Theorys formalism, the meaning behind the uncertainty principle puzzled him, and he tried hard to prove that it was incorrect.[1, p.222] Einstein ultimately agreed that the uncertainty principle does place some limit on the amount of knowledge a measurer can obtain on a system. However, he refused to abandon his idea of eternal objectivity. In the case of an observed quantum entity, objectivity is assured. That is, after a measurement there is no dispute among dierent observers regarding the value of the entitys dynamic attributes (attributes that have a potential to change such as momentum and position). However, according to orthodoxy the unmeasured entity does not possess any dynamic attributes, but merely wave-wise superpositions of possible attributes. Recall that Copenhagenists believe that the dynamic attributes of the entity are revealed subjectively during the measurement process; the measuring device and situation play an important role in determining which attributes the entity reveals and at what value. Einstein found this subjectivity unappealing and reasoned that the entity had specic values for all of its dynamic attributes throughout the entire time it was in an unmeasured state. In the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, Einstein makes a very substantial case that if a local reality (one whose particles are inuenced only by elds and mechanics, bound by the speed of light) is presumed, then the quantum entity in the paradox must possess denite attributes at all times.[3, p.200-210] Einstein accompanied a list of eminent supporters of Neorealism; but the arguments against them were strong. As mentioned earlier, in 1932 Von Neumann 8

produced the Von Neumann proof[3, p.48], which concluded that the existence of an underlying ordinary reality is mathematically inconsistent with Quantum Theory. He showed that if electrons possess objective, observer-independent dynamic attributes, then their behavior must contradict the predictions of Quantum Theory. For about twenty years after its inception, Von Neumanns proclamation was accepted as valid.[3, p.48] However, in 1952 David Bohm constructed an ordinaryobject Quantum Reality based on a slight loophole in the Von Neumann proof, giving hope to Neorealists. Despite the fact that David Bohm studied physics under Oppenheimer(who had learned Quantum Theory from Bohr himself), he later adopted a Neorealist picture of reality. Einstein was able to convince the Copenhagenist that, in spite of von Neumanns arguments, an ordinary reality interpretation of Quantum Theory was possible. Bohm manifested his Realist beliefs in a complete description of an electron. In this view, the electron is a real particle, an ordinary particle that constantly possesses objective dynamic attributes at any time and under any condition. The electron is connected to a wave referred to as a pilot wave, which is just as real as the electron but with some unconventional properties for a eld. The pilot wave has the ability to instantly respond to external changes in the environment. Depending on the measurement situation is, the pilot wave can respond instantly and, in turn, cause the electron to change its attributes. Bohms theory is not inconsistent with Von Neumanns because the pilot wave does not conform to the limits that von Neumann specied in his argument. The pilot wave is blatantly non-local, and therefore, outside the scope of the von Neumann argument. Bohms argument can be justiably branded as absurd. It challenges one of physicists most cherished beliefs: that the world is fundamentally local. However, in 1964 base evidence was exposed that could support Bohms non-local pilot wave. The deliverer of this present was J.S. Bell, and the packages contents were the interconnectedness theorem. In a startlingly lucid fashion, Bell oered a strong proof that in order for quantum facts to exist as they do, a non-local reality must be assumed, in any case. This was more than a thought experiment (like the EPR paradox); Bells theorem has been proven experimentally.[3, p.219-227] Proof of non-locality directly supports the Bohm description of the electron and vindicates 9

naive Neorealists. However, the implications of Bells theorem strongly imply that Einsteins interpretation of Neorealism is not correct. Einstein contended that locality should govern any physical theory, including Quantum Theory. The Neorealist answers the two Quantum Problems so easily and clearly, one might wonder what all the confusion is about. The wave function is simply a mathematical representation of the pilot wave. Quantum measurements are not dierent from classical measurements; we are just noticing an entitys attribute (and inuence it in the process); but the attribute was objectively there, even before we looked. The ordinary-object Quantum Realities have a well-deserved place in the quantum ontology. Through novel proofs and experimental evidence, it has been shown that a Realist is entitled to believe that ordinary particles constitute the fundamental nature of the universe; this can be very, very comforting. The Many Worlds Quantum Reality An ubiquitous phrase in discussions of Quantum Theory is collapsing the wave function. This concept adds a gurative perspective to what occurs during a quantum measurement; i.e. an entity instantaneously chooses one specic eigenstate from a myriad of superimposed attribute values. The concept of the collapse of the wave function was introduced in the early 1930s by von Neumann and has been integral in Quantum Theory since.[3, p.19] However, there may be reason to contest this popularly held (yet very obscure) notion. Supporters of the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Theory acutely point out that there is no evidence that a collapse really takes place. They propose a highly contrasted alternative. Over 30 years ago Hugh Everett III proposed that the act of measurement splits the entire universe into myriad branches, with a dierent value of the measured attribute being recorded in each.[2, p.195] In contrast to the orthodox ontology, the measurer is not given nearly as eminent a role. A conscious observer is tantamount to an inanimate object save the ability to become aware of, and store the measurement in his memory. However, the inuence of the measurer should not be underestimated. Everett used thorough matrix mechanics to represent each relative state of the quantum superposition as a state vector. When two systems interact, the overall composite systems state is a grand linear superposition 10

of terms in which each element in the superposition of one sub-system multiplies every element in the superposition of the other. The end result is equivalent to . . . entangled states.[2, p.196] The logical extension of Evertts theory implies that once entangled, the relative states can never be disentangled. J.S. Bells interconnectedness theory and the EPR paradox predict the same sort of entanglement that can connect two particles together over innite space and time. The Many Worlds Theory is not an implausible attempt to oppose the status quo; it is a legitimate interpretation of quantum theory that uses pure Schrdinger o wave mechanics, which requires that the wave function obeys the deterministic, time-symmetric equations of motion at all times. Everett was able to show that his relative states method is consistent with the orthodox ontologys derivation of probabilities.[2, 196] All things considered, the Many Worlds interpretation seems viable except for one lingering paradox. The idea of a branching universe seems to contradict our everyday experience. We do not sense or perceive in any way our universe splitting when we make a measurement. The theory just fundamentally seems hard to swallow. Everett defends his position by noting: When Copernicus rst suggested that the earth revolves around the sun, this view was criticized on the grounds that the motion of the earth could not be felt by any of its inhabitants.[2, p.199] A proponent of the Many Worlds theory will have a simple and denite response to the QIP. He believes that reects all of the possible eigenstates and for each a new new universe will be created. Since the importance of measurement has been removed in the Many Worlds theory, a supporter claims that this is the exact time when the universe splits. He does not have to explain the speculation concerning determinism, quantum jumps, and the collapse of the wave function. The Many Worlds theory stakes its claim to explaining reality by removing many of the paradoxes associated with the QIP and QMP (as long as one has an open mind). This interpretation is surely a valid proposal for a Quantum Reality. Consciousness Created Quantum Realities Unlike the Copenhagen view that denies the existence of a quantum reality, or the Many Worlds theory that equates humanity with inanimate objects, another 11

Quantum Reality exists that rmly restores our self esteem. Proponents of the Consciousness Created Quantum Reality (CCQR) believe that consciousness is the most important factor used to explain the reality of Quantum Theory. Their conclusions are logical extensions of the arguments presented by von Neumann in his version of Quantum Theory.[3, p.25] Von Neumann made the logical assumption that if all quantum entities are governed by wave functions, and all macroscopic objects are made entirely of quantum entities, then all macroscopic objects should be governed by the grand superposition of the constituent quantum entities wave functions.[2, p.186] That is, macroscopic objects should obey the laws of Quantum Theory. Within this model, CCQR supporters can see no other option than that these macroscopic s must be collapsed by the consciousness. Consider our previous example of the electron traveling towards the phosphorescent screen. Let us assume that the horizontal position on the screen that the electron strikes is reected (by means of arbitrary hypothesis) by the position of a needle on scale. The farther right the electron strikes, the farther right the needle points. As the electron is traveling towards the screen, it is in a superposition of many possible positions. If we do not directly observe the screen, it is still in a superposition after it hits the screen. Since the needle and scale are composed of quantum entities, it is logical to assume a linear superposition of the needle over all possible pointing directions. The photons scattered by the needle and its scale enter the eye of the observer and interact with his retina. This is still a quantum process. The signal which passes down the observers optic nerve is in principle still represented in terms of a superposition. Only when the signal enters the brain (the conscious mind of the observer) does the wave function encounter a system which we can suppose is not subject to the laws of quantum theory, and the wave function collapses.[2, p.186] The series of events between the measured system and the observers mind is referred to as the von Neumann Chain.[3, p.190] Due to the assumption that all macroscopic objects are governed by the same laws of Quantum Theory as quantum entities, the only logical place in the von Neumann Chain in which the wave function can collapse is at the rst system which could potentially not adhere to these laws: the consciousness. In the early 1960s, the physicist Eugene Wigner proposed a thought experiment


that vindicated CCQR. In paraphrased form7 , the paradox can be explained via our electron experiment. Suppose that there is a 50% chance the electron strikes the screen and 50% chance that it misses. The odds are even that a photon will be emitted. Now we put an atom between the screen and ourselves such that if a photon is emitted, the atom absorbs it and quickly re-emits it. Quantum theory states that we must now represent for this system in terms of the entangled superposition of states constituted of the original system plus the atom. If we want to know whether or not the electron hit the screen, we assume that the entire system is in a superimposed probability state until we collapse it all by observing whether the atom emitted a photon. Now, instead of inserting an atom between the screen and ourselves, lets have one of our friends be the intermediate observer. A while after we shoot an electron towards the screen, we ask our good friend what he saw. He replies with either, a photon was emitted by the screen, or i saw nothing. However, now we inquire as to what he felt about the ash before we asked him. Our friend replies, I told you already, I did [did not] see the ash. Wigner concludes that our friend must have already made up his mind about the measurement before he was asked about it. If we use standard Quantum Theory to explain this situation, the results are absurd. It implies that our friend was in a state of suspended animation before he answered our question. Put yourself in the place of our friend, and you can conclude that you were denitely not in a superimposed state. You knew immediately after the electron was red at the screen whether or not a photon was emitted. Quoth Wigner, It follows that the being with a consciousness must have a dierent role in quantum mechanics than the inanimate measuring device.[2, p.188] Wigner concludes that the wave function must collapse at the rst interaction with a conscious observer, i.e. our friend (hence the name of this paradox: Wigners Friend). Proponents of CCQR answer the QIP by interpreting as a probabilistic representation of which scenario will play itself out in the observers consciousness. However, they have no lucid explanation of the QMP. They make great strides in systematically conning the region in the von Neumann chain in which the wave collapse must take place; however, they can not explain exactly how the

Original explanation of the Wigners Friend paradox found in [2, p.187-188]


consciousness interacts with the wave function. Even though CCQR does not take a denite stance on the QMP, it deserves its place in the list of potential Quantum Realities. Its logical basis is valid and consistent with the predictions of Quantum Theory; and on an elevated level it provides comfort by assuring us all that we attain a special place in the most fundamental processes in light of our consciousness. Cogito Ergo Sum. As a result of von Neumanns proclamation that ordinary objects can not exist on a quantum level and the concurrent denial of any quantum reality by the Copenhagenists, the Realists ontology was drastically threatened with the advent of Quantum Theory. The mechanistic ontology that Classical Realists were so partial to was based on ordinary objects, which apparently no longer exist. In an attempt to resolve the blatant contradictions between Quantum Theory and Classical Realism, several Quantum Realities have been proposed. The instrumental version proclaims louder than ever that it is futile to try to understand the reality beneath Quantum Theory; however, a few Realistic Quantum Realities stand out as valid interpretations of the reality beneath the mathematical veneer of Quantum Theory. The three that I have analyzed each interpret the quantum facts dierently and propose answers to the two pivotal questions facing the modern Realist: What is the meaning of the wave function? (QIP) and What really occurs when a measurement takes place (QMP). I claim that all of the proposed answers to these two questions oered by the three Quantum Realities are theoretically valid. Each comes to logical conclusions via thought experiments and systematic interpretation of the quantum facts; and more importantly, each can perfectly coexist with the modern, well-proven version of Quantum Theory. Reality may not be as depressingly non-existent as Copenhagenists claim. We all have several viable options to choose from that can align themselves with our personal ontology/eschatology. In some interpretations of Quantum Reality the proponents actually go far enough to claim that at the base reality of existence, an electron is . . . an electron.


[1] Evandro Agazzi, editor. Realism and Quantum Physics. Editions Rodopi B.V., 1997. [2] Jim Baggott. The Meaning of Quantum Theory. Oxford University Press, 1992. [3] Nick Herbert. Quantum Reality. Anchor Press, 1985. [4] W. Schommers. Quantum Theory and Pictures of Reality. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 1989. [5] Phillip Wallace. Paradox Lost. Springer-Verlag New York Inc., 1996.