The Unsolved Puzzle

This is short review of the The Unsolved Puzzle by Jonathan Kerr.

After more than a 100 years of quantum mechanics, there remains a debate of how to interpret it. Nobody disagrees that the mathematics describing experimental behavior are correct, the problem is understanding what the mathematics is telling us about reality. Wikipedia has an entire entry dedicated to the variations of interpretations.

So I was interested when I caught reference to a new interpretation that claimed to resolve the mysteries.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of this interpretation, but it actually makes a lot of sense, even common sense, to me. Whether it is exactly new might be a question.

The developer of this new approach is Jonathan Kerr. I can’t tell if he is actually a physicist in the sense of someone with a degree who actually works in the area. His book looks like something self-published. On the other hand, he has some movies which explain his ideas which include interviews with Carlo Rovelli and Neil Turok who are recognized physicists.

His book is amazingly readable, almost a page-turner. It is relatively short with short chapters. It has no equations so no mathematics are required. It reads a little like a detective story with some historical background and some personal history along the way about various dead ends in his thoughts on quantum mechanics before he reached his current understanding of the puzzle.

Kerr’s interpretation he calls dimensional quantum mechanics.  It seems very similar to Rovelli’s relational quantum mechanics. So similar, from what I understand, that I am not exactly sure it is substantially different.

There is no woo in the theory. No consciousness is required. The theory is exactly the opposite of that. The whole “observer” thing is a red herring. An observer, as the term as used by ordinary people, isn’t required. Measurement per se isn’t required. The wave collapses to a particle because it interacts with matter. That’s it. It doesn’t matter whether a consciousness observes it or not. It happens whether we look or not. Measurement in a laboratory isn’t anything other than causing the wave to interact with something. Measurement is a subset of interactions.

A wave is actually a particle but we are seeing multiple version of it – dimensions in the theory – so it has many possibilities. When it interacts with matter, one of the possibilities becomes fixed to a particular reference frame in relation to the matter it interacts with. A different possibility could possibly become fixed to a different reference frame to other matter. This accounts for the various paradoxes where one “observer” sees one thing and another “observer” sees something else.  In the world we see, waves are “collapsing” by interacting with matter so the large scale structure gets built up from the ground up with matter becoming fixed or entangled with other matter so everything is in a common reference frame.

(Note: After reading a bit of Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems, I think most of Kerr’s theory is in Rovelli’s relational quantum mechanics. Kerr does seem to bring in a “dimensional” component that I don’t see in Rovelli’s RQM, but the notion that interaction is what causes the wave to take on it dynamic properties is in the relational theory.)

Posted in Human Evolution, Quantum Mechanics, Waves | 21 Comments

Hard[ly a] Problem

As I browse about the web, I constantly run into the infamous “hard” problem of consciousness of Chalmers in one form or another.

Sometimes the problem comes from an unexpected source – people who are materialists who actually think they have the answer to the problem. Usually the problem is thrown up by idealists or dualists who are trying to demonstrate that the materialist cannot account for his/her own consciousness, hence there is no reason to take materialism seriously.

Previously I described the “hard” problem as an “unserious” problem. Chalmers’ enumerated a number of challenging but useful areas of scientific investigation in neuroscience that he called “easy” problems. These he contrasted with the “hard” problem of explaining how experience arises from physical processes. The “easy” problems are problems amenable to scientific inquiry. The “hard” problem will never be amenable to scientific inquiry because it is asking to explain subjective experience from an objective perspective.  Let’s say we have perfected brain scans to the point that we can map absolutely every scan to subjective experience. Have we answered the “hard problem? I think not in Chalmers formulation because “there is also a subjective aspect”. You can’t explain subjectivity from the outside because it is inside the experience.

The “hard” problem, in a sense, is a gimmick, a trap for the materialist who is asked to explain subjectivity from the outside. The “hard” problem for the idealist is the really “hard” problem posed when Samuel Johnson kicked a rock and refuted Bishop Berkeley’s idealism by saying” “I refute it thus.”

Here I’d like to approach the “hard” problem is a slightly different way but one not incompatible with my previous views on the subject. Chalmers’ problem is actually of a class of problems which have no logical answer. They are meaningless problems. Let’s ask a question sometimes asked by clever children.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

We know there is no real answer to this question. We could appeal to God or something similar, but we know that just creates a new but logically equivalent question about why would there be a God rather than nothing. The only answer is a “turtles all the way down” answer.

Let’s take another question.

Why are the laws and properties of nature such that they are compatible with life and the world as we know it?

This you may recognize as the anthropic principle.  This is almost the same question as the previous one. If the laws were different, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Any answer – let’s try God again – leads us again into a infinite regress. If we propose X as the answer, then the question becomes: Why X?

Now let’s pose the “hard” problem.

Why am I aware?

This is not how the “hard” problem is usually presented. It is usually presented as the problem of explaining experience from physical processes. This is really the “hard” problem in its simplest form. An answer to “why am I aware” would be an answer to the “hard” problem. If I wasn’t aware, I couldn’t ask the question. If I couldn’t ask the question, I wouldn’t be aware. This is the same as “why is there something rather than nothing” question, except the “something” has been replaced with my awareness.

Idealism thinks they have solved the problem by declaring experience fundamental but that is just shifting the problem. It is like answering “why is there something rather than nothing” by declaring “something” fundamental.

The why still remains.

Because there is no answer.

Posted in Human Evolution, Philosophy | 15 Comments

Evolution, Learning, and Uncertainty

A question that has puzzled me is the one of the evolutionary reasons for consciousness. I’m speaking loosely here. Evolution doesn’t really have reasons. Changes happen in organisms because the changes in the long run bestow some advantage (or at least no disadvantage) to the survival of the organism. Let’s rephrase the question: what evolutionary advantage does consciousness provide?

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Posted in Brain size, Consciousness, Electromagnetism, Human Evolution | 25 Comments