If you know only a little about quantum mechanics, it may be to say that it is so weird that even quantum physicists don’t understand it. The math is obscure, with very strange relations that often defy common sense. Quantum mechanics can be seen as unfriendly to our native human logic.
But in fact, the reverse could also be stated. Quantum mechanics is about events in nature that are experiential rather than just totally physical. From a classical physics standpoint, they look weird, but from a social standpoint, they are much more natural. In fact, they can give us insights into the nature of our own personal interactions that we would not have otherwise. Quantum mechanics is friendly to our understanding of our own consciousness and its relation to the world.
When viewed this second way, quantum mechanics is quite natural and even intuitive. And by the way, the classical physics that you learned in school is not as natural and intuitive as physicists might like you to believe. How did you do with electrodynamics, pressurizing containers, temperature gradients, and tensile strength calculations? Physics requires a way of thinking that is highly structured and almost nothing at all related to our personal and social experience. Physicists are forced to adopt a frame of mind that for all practical purposes is an initiation—not an intuition.
In contrast, founding quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg realized that quantum mechanics required the scientist to be part of the quantum experiment, fully engaged. Physicist John Wheeler declared that that quantum physics show we live in a “participatory universe.”[i] Physicist Henry Stapp said of quantum mechanics, “it replaces the world of material substances by a world populated by actions…and observed feedback from the actions.”[ii] Quantum mechanics is about decisions that entities make under conditions of uncertainty as well as the process by which they make them.
We will take four concepts in quantum mechanics that are considered weird and mysterious and see how they are in fact quite natural to our experience, perhaps more so than their classical physical counterparts.
First is the idea of commuting quantities. In classical physics quantities generally commute, which means that A x B is the same as B x A. Or, in linear algebra, vector A times vector B is the same as vector B times vector A. That sounds nice and simple. So, because two vectors in quantum mechanics do not always commute, it would seem more complicated. But let’s see why this is the case: For vector A we will substitute the experience of walking 10 steps forward. For vector B we will substitute the experience of walking 8 steps to the right. Now if you take 10 steps forward and 8 steps to the right, you end up at the same place as if you reverse the order and take 8 steps to the right and 10 steps forward. They commute—just like in classical physics. But not always. Suppose you are at a riverbank, in front of a bridge. If you take 10 steps forward and 8 steps to the right, you end up at a nice spot on the other side of the river. But if you first take 8 steps to the right, and then 10 steps forward, you will end up in the river! In another simple example, pollsters have found that if you ask someone how much money they make, and then ask them to rate how important the economy is to them on a scale from 1 to 10, they will get a higher number than if they ask about the economy first and then ask their income. These questions, which seemed independent, do not commute. Life experience does not commute, and quantum mechanics nails it!
Superposition is a buzz word today, meaning that some physical system can be in two seemingly mutually exclusive states at once. The famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment purportedly made a cat both dead and alive at the same time. Quantum physicists have been able to put a small metal paddle made of thousands of atoms into a state where it is both vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously. Weird, perhaps. But not if you think about quantum mechanics as conscious experience. The superposed states are states that occur before an actual measurement is made. A measurement “collapses” this dual state and forces nature to make a choice, one way or the other. Well, where else in nature do physical systems sit steeped in multiple possible choices before an outcome occurs? Every moment of your life! Your life is almost nothing but a series of multiple options held simultaneously until you make a decision at which point the other alternatives disappear. And because most experiences do not commute with each other, this moment of decision will never return in exactly the same way. Now, of course, you might retort that it is one thing to think multiple states simultaneously, but another thing for the physical world to be in two different states at once. But that objection may simply be because we have a wrong idea about the fundamental activity of nature. All integrated quantum systems like you or an electron or even a carefully isolated metal paddle may themselves represent elemental “units of meaning” that maintain multiple inner states as long as they aren’t disturbed from the outside—just like you when you are lost in thought.
One of the strange qualities that quantum mechanics first presented to physicists is called complementarity. Physicists found that sometimes light acts like particles and sometimes it acts like waves—just depending on how you set up an experiment. Well, which is it? It is both, depending on the context. How do you act when you are at home versus when you are at work? Differently, of course, because you have multiple characteristics that are activated differently in different circumstances. You have enough complexity to be flexible given the environment you find yourself in. Well, once again, if we breathe just a little bit of life into photons or electrons, they have just enough flexibility to respond to different elemental conditions in different ways. This concept gives us a different view reality from the classical physicist’s dry view of a dead world. In fact, everywhere in the world, entities respond meaningfully to different situations in whatever ways they can.
Finally (but only for lack of space—we could go on), we have entanglement. The idea of entanglement was articulated by physicist Ervin Schrodinger to describe the strange implications of quantum mechanics for violating how we think about space. As Einstein and some colleagues pointed out, quantum mechanics implied that two electrons that were once together and fly apart, may remain deeply connected with respect to some characteristic. For certain pairs of electrons, if one is spinning in one direction, say up, the other will always be found spinning in the opposite direction, say down. But the electrons do not have to choose which condition they will be in until the exact moment that one is measured. Upon measuring one, it “chooses” up or down. And that choice forces the other to have the opposite spin instantly, (faster than light!). It does so no matter how far apart the two electrons are. Einstein called this spooky action at a distance, because it seemed to defy his law of special relativity that no causal process can propagate faster than light. We call this a nonlocal connection because it disregards intervening space. So, just how crazy is a nonlocal interaction? In fact, if we shift once again into the mode of thinking about experience, it isn’t so strange. Suppose you and a significant other are on different continents. You Skype and start chatting, sharing intimate thoughts and feelings. At some point you say, “I feel close to you” though you are physically far apart. But then the other scolds you over something, and you feel distant again. But then you reconcile and suddenly you are close again. Now, it is easy to say that this means nothing, because the communication is through light fibers and into your brains and so the communication is no faster than the speed of light. But stop and think about the real meaning here. Physical distance is simply irrelevant. The connection is a connection of meaning. The electrons might be seen as being in both a physical space and a “spin space” Their spin space operates as a different dimension with nothing to do with physical space. In fact, some physicists are beginning to think that physical space exists only by virtue of particles entangled in such a way as to create a continuous fabric.
Historically, physicists have objected to quantum mechanical analogies to personal experience such as those presented above. They have been considered misappropriated concepts. Now some physicists are not so sure. Which kind of world would you rather live in, classical or quantum?
[i] Wheeler, John Archibald (1990). A Journey Into Gravity and Spacetime. Scientific American Library. New York: W.H. Freeman. p. 5.
[ii] Stapp, Henry. Mindful Universe, (Springer, Berlin, 2011) p. 20.