I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
In the middle ages, healers would conjure up evil spirits or magical spells.
Now in the 21st century it seems they’ve turned to black holes,
and above all, quantum physics.
In this essay I will be looking at one of the most fascinating aspects of quantum mechanics – the observer effect. Just like Copernican Revolution shook the foundations of cosmology and unsettled people’s everyday view of the universe, quantum mechanics seems to have done something very similar in the 20th century and beyond. Due to its many puzzling implications and quantum effects that cannot be readily explained using our everyday understanding of the world, it is of no surprise to see that the work of scientists has been widely appropriated by pop-culture, including (but not limited to): T-shirts that illustrate the paradox of Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, a very successful TV show in which the main character plays an astrophysicist working on string theory and too-many-to-note songs/poems/jokes about the front-line of physics.
Of course, not all is well. This topic is of great interest to me not because of passion for formulas, maths, puzzling equations or other things I do not possess, but rather due to a mystic and healer named Deepak Chopra, who has spent recent years of his life getting rich off feeding the public with misinformation about science and claiming that most of the diseases known to humanity (including mortality) can be cured, thanks to recent findings in quantum physics. It is sad to see the fame that Chopra has been enjoying (mostly due to his well-honed rhetorical skills), while real science, which is done in the background and follows rigorous methodology, gets almost no publicity in the main-stream media, except for the occasional and almost always over-exaggerated “Scientists have discovered that ... ”.
It would be nearly impossible to counter every absurd claim Chopra has made regarding quantum physics, so instead I will focus on his views on the role of an observer in an experiment, trying to show that his interpretation of this quantum effect is misguided. Now it is important to note that Chopra is not a solitary thinker, and claims that his views are supported by such well-known figures as Sir Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, Michio Kaku and Leonard Mlodinow amongst many others.
Due to my almost non-existent background in physics and maths, which has been quite a hindrance during the course, I will have to avoid delving deeper into formulaic world, and instead focus on taking a broader loo, beginning now.
The observer effect, also known as the measurement problem, is not a specifically designated term for quantum mechanics; instead it is widely used in social sciences, physics and elsewhere, to note that in some experiments the mere fact of an observer being present will affect the end results. One classic example is the measurement of tyre pressure: it can only be done by releasing some of the air, thus inadvertently changing the object being measured.
In quantum mechanics, the observer effect first appeared in Bohr’s writings. In a 1935 reply to Einstein et al., Bohr notes:
The procedure of measurement has an essential influence on the conditions on which the very definition of the physical quantities in question rests.
Bohr’s work was continued and subsequently rejected by Werner Heisenberg, but the biggest shove for what became to be known as Copenhagen intepretation came from the work of Albert Einstein, who believed that under ideal conditions observations (and measurements more generally) function like “mirrors”, reflecting an independently existing, external reality.
Einstein’s position seems quite common-sensical and probably would not be contended among most of the people – to hold the view that what we are seeing actually is the case of the matter, that there exists an external world that can be interacted with and unobtrusively measured, seems to be almost everyone’s worldview.
A fascinating thought experiment was proposed in 1935 by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger baffles or intuitive understanding of the world by showing how quantum effects can supposedly be translated to macroscopic scale which we are the most familiar with. It goes like this: a cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison it in. A hammer is placed near the vial and set up in such a way that it can smash it if the radioactive decay (as measured by a Geiger counter) goes over a pre-set level. The question is: what is the cats state? It surely must be dead or alive, but not according to quantum mechanics. Schrödinger claims that the cat must be thought of as in a superposition between both states – dead and alive at the same time.
Now it is important to note that Schrödinger’s work was done in the early stages of quantum mechanics and therefore it would be foolish to accept the idea just as it is. Since 1935, we have learned much more about particle physics and quantum mechanics than ever thought possible, so does Schrödinger’s puzzle still stand? To some, it does.
Deepak Chopra is an author, public speaker and a self-proclaimed alternative healer. Chopra’s healing focuses on a mix of Ayurveda, or “Science of wisdom of life” and what I believe to be a gross misunderstanding of quantum physics. Deepak believes that in order for a particle to collapse, a conscious observer (human, preferably) is needed.
Chopra’s claim is worth quoting in full:
Quantum physics tells us that objects exist in a suspended physical state until observed, when they collapse to just one outcome — we don’t know what happens until we investigate, and our investigation influences that reality. Whether or not certain events may have happened some time ago, may not actually be determined until some time in your future — it may actually be contingent upon actions that have not yet taken place. No physicist challenges the fact that particles do not exist with definite physical properties until they are observed. Every particle has a range of possible physical states, but it's not until the actual act of observation that it takes on defined properties.[..] Indeed, the quantum theory implies that consciousness must exist, and that the content of the mind is the ultimate reality. If we do not look at it, the moon is gone. In this world, only an act of observation can confer shape and form to reality -- to a dandelion in a meadow, or a seed pod, or the sun or wind or rain. Anyway, it's amazing, and even your dog can do it too.
We are each a localized field of energy and information with cybernetic feedback loops interacting within a nonlocal field of energy and information.
Chopra believes that a conscious observer is needed for collapses to happen, giving it a special role as suggested in the essay topic, but as I will argue this does not seem to be the case. Chopra’s belief is based on a long-standing tradition, or at least he claims:
Chopra and other defenders of Ayurveda, following Capra and Zukav, are fond of claiming that modern physics has substantially validated ancient Hindu metaphysics. However, physicist Heinz R. Pagels, author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature vehemently rejects the notion that there is any significant connection between the discoveries of modern physicists and the metaphysical claims of Ayurveda.
The issue gravitates around single question – what is an observer? It must be noted that there is no one commonly agreed-upon meaning of what it is supposed to be, which in turn causes a lot of trouble when lay people approach the subject matter. In everyday use, the word “observer” implies a conscious creature that can gather sensory information from the outer world, but, just like with so many other things, this definition should be disregarded when “observer” is appropriated to quantum mechanics.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is an ancient philosophical riddle, whose truth cannot be verified empirically, as it would be self-defeating. But not being able to observe things directly has never stopped humanity from inferring what is the matter, and we should not stop ourselves from doing the same in this case as well. A falling tree does make a sound, because sound-waves travel independently of observers, and the same is true for Shrödinger’s cat. The cat is either dead or alive, because it’s death is caused by the poison, not the observer. The observer can be ignorant of what the cat’s state is, but that will not affect it in any way.
A further take-down of Chopra’s position is provided by American neurologist and skeptic Steven Novella:
QM states that light, electrons, and all fundamental particles exist not as discrete point particles, but spread out as a wave. We can only describe the probability that they will be in a specific place at any moment, and that probability is the wave function. Particles, when free from interactions with other matter, actually behave like waves. But when a particle (whether of photon of light or an electron) interacts with other stuff they are no longer spread out but collapse down to a point particle. This is the wave-particle duality of matter. The collapse to a particle, however, is not dependent on any observer – just interaction with other stuff. No observer is necessary. When a photon from the sun strikes the earth and its energy is absorbed by a leaf on a tree in the middle of the jungle, it collapses to a particle. The same is true when it strikes a dead rocky asteroid out in space. Consciousness, and even life, is not necessary.[..] He is doubly wrong – not only is consciousness (an observer) not the thing that collapses wave functions, but QM effects do not apply to dandelions or moons (try shooting dandelions through a double slit experiment).
Ever since the first days of quantum mechanics, it has been known that it is impossible to measure both properties (momentum and position or color and hardness, as Albert’s metaphor suggests) at the same instance of time. The observer affects the property not measured, making it switch with a predictable pattern. Before the measurement was made, the quantum system was in an undetermined state, after it is done, it is only undetermined towards the property not measured.
During our conversation, only one thing brings him [Deepak] to the point of high animation. On the day of our interview, the local morning newspaper has run a story on him that includes a quote by someone who thinks Chopra's latest theories are hooey. Victor J. Stenger, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii is quoted as having written that, "no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe. "I'd love to do a public debate with people like that, you know?" responds Chopra. "The fact is, to me it's shocking that some quantum physicists don't know their quantum physics?”
If there is one thing that Chopra can be admired for, it is his willingness to defend his position in a public debate. Unfortunately for physicists, Deepak is a great orator and not afraid of using sophistry in his claims, which in turn make it so much harder to have an actual debate about the issue at hand.
Chopra is a great illustration for why we need to work at science communication and educate the public about breakthrough scientific theories. People need to be taught how scientific progress is made and what is the current view, not only in quantum mechanics, but also in physics, geology, biology etc. We need to abide by strict definitions of terms in order to not talk past each other, or we will perish under the likes of Chopra.
Chopra gives hope to the dying that they will not die and hope to the living that they can live forever in perfect health. But his hope seems to be a false hope based on an unscientific imagination seeped in mysticism and cheerily dispensed gibberish. The popularity of Ayurveda and Chopra is a testament to the failure of modern life and modern medicine to satisfy deep longings for simplicity, trust, a clean and wholesome environment, something to counteract the fragmentation, alienation and isolation that many people feel.
But Chopra goes much further than this. In an interview with Richard Dawkins, he boldly states:
There are fundamentalists in science who have somehow hijacked the word “quantum” for their own use.
For this arrogant claim I believe Chopra’s IG Nobel prize to be well deserved:
PHYSICS. Deepak Chopra of The Chopra Center for Well Being, La Jolla, California, for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.
But I’ll let Victor have the last word.
Quantum physics is claimed to support the mystical notion that the mind creates reality. However, an objective reality, with no special role for consciousness, human or cosmic, is consistent with all observations.
 Front of which says „The cat is dead”, whilst back claims the cat to be alive, thus noting how weird the idea of a superposition is when translated to the macroscopic world.
 „The Big Bang Theory”
 Krips, Henry, "Measurement in Quantum Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/qt-measurement.
 Robert T. Carroll, Ph.D., Deepak Chopra. Skeptics Dictionary, Robert Todd Carroll, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, copyright 2003, p 75.
 Chopra, D., Lanza, R. The Illusion of Past, Present, Future. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/the-illusion-of-past-pres_b_326250.html
 Novella, S. http://skepticblog.org/2009/11/16/deepak-chopra-mangles-quantum-mechanics-again/ Deepak Chopra Mangles Quantum Mechanics – Again
 Chopra, D., January interview. http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/chopra.html
 Deepak’s interview with Richard Dawkins http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-FaXD_igv4
 Victor Stenger, Quantum Quackery. Skeptical Inquirer . Volume 21.1, January / February 1997 http://www.csicop.org/si/show/quantum_quackery/
Rīgā dzimušā filozofa Jesajas Berlina vērtību plurālisms paredz morālo uzskatu nesavietojamību un nesamērojamību. Apskatot brīvību un vienlīdzību nākas secināt, ka nav iespējams vienlaikus realizēt abu vērtību maksimumus, jo tie viens otru izslēdz. Lielākas grūtības gan sagādā tas, ka abas ir nesamērojamas – pēc nesavietojamības konstatēšanas nav iespējams noteikt kuru no vērtībām izvēlēties, jo nepastāv kopēja mēraukla, pēc kuras tās salīdzināt.
Nevar noliegt, ka šāds plurālisms ir identisks relatīvismam. Pēc pārmetumu uzklausīšanas, Berlins tos noraida un norāda, ka abus ļauj atšķirt tas, ka vērtību plurālisms atzīst universālu vērtību pastāvēšanu. Berlins konstatē, ka ikvienā kultūrā pastāvējušas vērtības, kuras veido cilvēces kodolu un ļauj vērtības dēvēt par cilvēciskām.. Berlins apgalvo, ka ja kāds iesperšanu akmentiņam uzskatītu par tikpat vērtīgu nodarbi kā ģimenes nogalināšanu, nevar būt ne runas par abu rīcību motivējošo vērtību nesamērojamību, jo otrajā gadījumā pārkāptas cilvēku universālās vērtības un ir jārunā par šīs būtnes, kas acīmredzami nav cilvēks, nepieskaitāmību. Universālās vērtības iezīmē pārējo vērtību robežas un pēc tām vadoties, varam izvēlēties, kuras vērtības pieņemt, nezaudējot savu cilvēciskumu. Berlina apgalvojums būtu uzmanības vērts, ja šīs universālās vērtības tiktu nosauktas un aprakstītas, kas ikvienam ļautu pārliecināties par to, vai plānotā rīcība iekļaujas cilvēcisko vērtību horizontā, kas ļautu neuztraukties par pārstāšanu būt cilvēkam.
Šķiet, ka plurālisma vājumu bez universālo vērtību identificēšanas saprot arī Berlins, precizējot, ka patiesībā plurālisma atslēga ir fakts, ka vispār varam izprast citu vērtības. Berlins uzskata, ka šī spēja ir universāla un nodrošina plurālisma objektivitāti un to, ka tā balstīta intuitīvā iztēlē, neuzskata par trūkumu. Objektivitāti nodrošina indivīda subjektīvā izpratne, par kuras pareizību nav iespējams pārliecināties objektīvi.
Manuprāt, augstākminētais pārstāsts uzskatāmi norāda uz vērtību plurālisma ļodzīgajiem pamatiem – attiecīgā indivīda spēju iztēloties kādu kultūru, kas, lai arī cik neprecīza, būs jāatzīst par objektīvu un pareizu. Neskatoties uz Berlina pūliņiem, vērtību plurālisms joprojām nepalīdzēs pieņemt lēmumu, kā rīkoties kādā konkrētā situācijā, taču joprojām būs normatīvs, jo norādīs, kādus lēmumus pieņemt nedrīkst, balstoties nepierādītā uzskatā par to, ka tā darīt nepiedien, jo tā nekad nav rīkojusies neviena cita kultūra.
Lai vai kā, man šķiet, ka Berlina vērtību plurālismu ir iespējams precizēt un padarīt imūnu pret relatīvisma kritiku, uz tā pamatiem veidojot metaētisku ietvaru, kurā analizēt veselas vērtību sistēmas. Pirmkārt būtu jānorāda, ka ietvars darbojas ar tiem morāles konceptiem, ar kuriem identificējamies ikdienā, kas, manuprāt, ir veselas vērtību, normu un uzskatu sistēmas, kā piemēram (1) kristiešu, (2) dabas draugu, (3) libertāriešu, (4) utilitāristu. Katrs no šiem konceptiem, piemēram, paredz kādas specifiskas rīcības ierobežojumus, kurus visdrīzāk iespējams aprakstīt tā, lai tie būtu piemēroti ievietošanai ietvarā, kas savukārt ļautu veikt to savstarpēju samērošanu. Ietvars paredzētu vairākas sadaļas, viena no kurām varētu būt „ētiskās sistēmas pamatojums” – (1) jārīkojas tā, kā rakstīts Bībelē, jo tā rakstīts Bībelē; (2) jārīkojas tā, lai pēc iespējas lielāku labumu gūtu Zeme, jo tā ir pati svarīgākā; (3) jārīkojas tā, lai vairotu citu tiesības rīkoties tā, kā viņiem tīk; (4) jārīkojas tā, lai nodrošinātu labumu pēc iespējas lielākam cilvēku skaitam. Nonākot konkrētā situācijā, piemēram tādā, kurā jāizvēlas starp piecu koku vai trīs cilvēku glābšanu, būtu iespējams izvērtēt, vai plānotā rīcība nebūs pretrunā ar iepriekšpieņemto vērtību sistēmu.
Jāpatur prātā, ka ietvars nepretendētu un pilnīgi precīzu atbilžu sniegšanu, rēķinoties ar to, ka dotās situācijas ne vienmēr būtu iespējams pietiekami precīzi aprakstīt. Gala lēmums, kā rīkoties attiecīgajā situācijā, jebkurā gadījumā būs jāpieņem indivīdam, un, kā norādījis Berlins, zināms morālais risks vienmēr ir neizbēgams, taču šāds ietvars ilgtermiņā palīdzētu apzināties savas rīcības cēloņus un kļūt konsekventākiem lēmumu pieņemšanā, ļaujot izdarīt sevis izvēlētajai pārliecībai atbilstošus spriedumus un šādi atklāt sev piemītošās vērtības, kuras varētu definēt kā kādu specifisku rīcību līdzīgās situācijās.