April 24, 2007

No observer, no reality

Found this on PhysicsWeb: Quantum physics says goodbye to reality.

Some physicists are uncomfortable with the idea that all individual quantum events are innately random. This is why many have proposed more complete theories, which suggest that events are at least partially governed by extra "hidden variables". Now physicists from Austria claim to have performed an experiment that rules out a broad class of hidden-variables theories that focus on realism -- giving the uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it (Nature 446 871).
Entire article.


BoyintheMachine said...

I'm going to wait until criticism of this study is published prior to simply accepting it.

I do however, require some clarification concerning this theory. Is there an emphasis concerning 'seeing' versus any other sense? If so, why? Logic would dictate it is 'thought' and not 'sight', or any other sense, that would be involved.

Another reason why I am skeptical of such a theory is the mere fact that the human brain has the capacity of 'replaying' stored sensations. If this theory is sound then when visualizing a beach ball in my mind, have I unknowingly created it in some weird dimension or alternative universe?


Jonathan Dotse said...

I have a problem with agreeing with this issue of randomness in nature. In my opinion there cannot be anything random except when we are unable to measure or idnetify the variables, and this has been shown repeatedly throughout human history. I'll really believe in quantum randomness when we've gone far enough down the microscope to know for certain that there isn't some party going on down there that we're missing.

John said...

There's a lot of confusion over what the term "observer" means in this context. Many have interpreted it to mean conscious observer, when that's really not quite the case. In quantum mechanics, when one thing comes into contact with another - e.g. two particles - that interaction counts as observation. Whether or not the "observer" is conscious makes no difference. A person, a rock and a photon are all the same in this regard.

These theories do not directly say anything about consciousness or human observation, but rather how quantum behavior changes when something is interacting with something else.

Just wanted to clear that up. I often encounter people who mistake aspects of quantum theory for spiritual statements. I'm a physics student at CU-Boulder, but I encourage everyone to read more about these concepts, they're truly amazing and a very rewarding - though certainly confusing - area of study.

Infidel753 said...

Throughout history solipsists have claimed, on various grounds, that the objective physical universe is an illusion in some sense. Basing such a claim on quantum physics makes me especially suspicious, since lately all sorts of people have seized upon quantum physics as a justification for all sorts of pre-existing supernatural and metaphysical concepts.

In any case, if the universe is an illusion, it is a superbly (often frighteningly) convincing one. It is as consistent in its workings as a real universe would be, and "illusory" pleasure and "illusory" pain feel as good and bad, respectively, as they would if they were real. If what I perceive is a mere product of my conscious observation, it seems infuriatingly impervious to any effort I make to reshape it to my liking by pure effort of will.

So the only sensible course is to proceed as if the universe were as real, solid, and objectively "out there" as it appears to be (and, in my opinion, is).

Michael Anissimov said...

As John points out, an "observation" is any type of measurement, which by no means requires a conscious observer. The obfuscatory wording in this press release is just another attempt to attract attention, something physicists are quite obsessed with.

The majority of the public is constantly searching for evidence in support of consciousness-causes-collapse theories. The pseudoscientific cinema train wreck, "What the Bleep?", is clear evidence of this. The physicists want attention from the public, and phrase their press releases accordingly. The public sees c-c-c as validated. And the cycle continues.

Fact is, the universe is a cold heartless place which we have only minimal control over. Certainly the billions of stars in our galaxy do not depend on human observers to go on existing. The universe is not our caring cosmic bubble bath. If the universe had a mind, it would want us dead, because we are resisting the universal trend of increasing entropy.

All your commenters are on target. They've each given a reason why we should be skeptical about drawing conclusions from this study.

Jonathan Dotse said...

John and Michael - thanks for the clarification on the definition of an observer. This is the first anyone has offered in all that I've read on quantum observation effects, and it makes a lot more sense than my original assumption. I guess I should have picked that up on that earlier, but a layman cannot really be blamed.