The Quantum Reality Map

— A look at the philosophy of quantum theory
John Smith—12/2004
With the recent release of the film "What The Bleep Do We Know?", quantum mechanics is once again in the public imagination, as it was 80 years ago when it was first formulated. The film presents quantum mechanics as scientific justification for our minds literally creating our reality, but this position has been criticized for not being scientifically accurate. Here is a short rundown of the philosophy of quantum theory.

QUANTUM MECHANICS is an oxymoron: in microscopic world of quanta or packets of energy for which it was originally formulated, reality is anything but mechanistic. It is more appropriate to called it quantum theory or, more usefully, the quantum reality map. The only reason it was called quantum mechanics is because it superseded Newtonian mechanics.

Quantum theory was first formulated to predict events in the atomic and subatomic world. Prediction is, after all, what physical laws and theories are for — if a map doesn't predict the territory, one soon gets lost. In the classical model of reality it was thought that, with the right map, predictions of atomic events would be perfectly accurate. However, much to everyone's surprise, the quantum map that was developed was fuzzy, statistical and quirky.

The quantum reality map was pieced together in the 1920s by the most brilliant minds in physics after inaccuracies were found in the existing classical reality maps. Because theories of physics have to be mathematically consistent, one tiny inconsistency in experimental observation can unravel a whole new mathematical reality map, and this is exactly what happened with quantum theory, which was formulated to solve the discrepancy between how a "hot" object should radiate energy according to classical theory and how it actually does in experiment.

It is only after the mathematical skeleton of any new physical theory has been derived that physicists and philosophers can start thinking about the philosophical implications, which, if they are profound enough, lead to an entire paradigm shift within the scientific community. This paradigm shift eventually infects the public perception of the world, but this can take centuries (the public still largely uses the Newtonian paradigm formulated in the 17th Century).

In the case of quantum theory, the philosophical implications of the theory are so striking that one of its founders, Niels Bohr, famously commented, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum mechanics has not fully understood it." And because quantum philosophy is so counterintuitive, the public perception of the world has remained Newtonian — only the professional reality maps of physicists and chemists (and now a few biologists) have been affected; almost all of these same quantum physicists or chemists will, in everyday life away from solving academic problems, operate using a Newtonian reality map.

In the Newtonian world view, everything is one vast machine or mechanism made up of matter and energy. This machine is entirely deterministic which means that if you knew the speed and position of every piece of matter in the universe you would know its entire future — just as if you knew the speed and position of the balls on a billiard table, you could calculate where they will all end up. Everything happens (time moves forward) in a three dimensional space. Consciousness and mind have absolutely no place in this model, they are not on the map, which is why those who make the mistake of taking the Newtonian map too seriously (forgetting that it is a map) tend to either be atheist or dualist (God is entirely separate from the world).

In the quantum world view, the universe is a vast unified sea of possibility, with matter and energy as two facets of the same universal process. In this paradigm, we cannot know the future because nature is fundamentally uncertain. Not only that, but using the billiard analogy above, the billiard balls are frozen energy and they are acting out their dance in counterintuitive non-local ways because they are moving about in many more dimensions (including parallel universes) than just the three allocated in the Newtonian model. Time is just another dimension from the quantum perspective, and there is nothing at this atomic scale to stop particles traveling backwards in time (on a macroscopic level, time appears to move forward because of the laws of entropy).

The interesting point of the quantum reality map is its probabilistic. So, for example, the theory describes a "particle" like an electron as a spread-out fuzzy wave, but as soon as we measure it, the wave collapses and we see a little dot. Even though we see a dot, it doesn't mean that the uncertain nature of the electron has disappeared because, although we have pinned down its position, the speed and direction of this dot suddenly become more uncertain. So the fuzziness of position has been just turned into another type of fuzziness — that of momentum. From this map's perspective, nature seems fuzzy and fuzziness seems to be conserved! (The Conservation of Fuzziness is a fundamental principle of quantum theory.)

Quantum theory works very well indeed. In fact, it would be fair to say that, outside the nucleus of the atom, the map seems pretty complete. Inside the nucleus, strange things still go on, which is why physicists spend so much time building massive particle accelerators to smash atoms to bit and see what happens as the pieces of the nuclei fly out in all directions.

If the world is quantum, how come the Newtonian "billiard ball" map is still so useful in everyday life? (It was good enough to land men on the moon.) The reason for this is that quantum theory approximates to classical theory at large scales: all those strange quantum shenanigans going on at the atomic level tend to cancel each other out on a macroscopic scale, which is why real billiard balls don't act in a strange manner (unless you are a very bad player). There are exceptions to this, however, where the quantum wave nature of atoms can synchronize (and not cancel each other out) and we get some weird and wonderful forms of matter that acts counter-intuitively (laser light, Bose-Einstein condensations and superconductivity are some examples).

Whilst the difference between using a classical map and a quantum map is almost always undetectable in everyday living — both giving almost the same predictions at this macroscopic scale — philosophically they are entirely different. So if the quantum map is our most accurate, then we must change our philosophy of the world to embrace it because, whilst the Newtonian paradigm still has its uses as an easy-to-grasp approximation to quantum theory at a large scale, philosophically the Newtonian paradigm is dead. We have to move on. But what are the philosophical implications of the quantum reality map?

To answer that question requires the understanding of what the philosophical implications of any reality map actually are. The map describes the territory, and allows us to make predictions. If the map is entirely independent of reality, then it cannot really have philosophical implications. This is because any extrapolation of the map to the realm of the fundamental nature of reality and our place in it — i.e. philosophy — is meaningless. (A case can be made for the philosophy of the mapping process itself though.)

Entertaining philosophical implications of reality maps implies that those maps say something meaningful about reality itself, rather than just allowing us to make predictions of events. For example, if we use the Newtonian reality map we can predict simple macro-scale physical events pretty accurately, but to then say that the success of this map implies a soulless clockwork universe is an invalid induction unless one believes that the map is more than just predictive… that it actually says something directly about the nature of the territory it is trying to describe.

The fact is that as science progresses, the reality maps it constructs get more and more accurate and so some believe that the maps we use will eventual approaching the nature of reality itself. In this way, the map indeed becomes the territory when we finally formulate the holy grail of physics: "The Law Of Everything". However, whilst the maps themselves seem to be diverging towards greater agreement with experiment, there is no such divergence with the philosophical implications of these maps. In fact, the philosophical implications of succeeding maps can be wildly different, in which case the slight increase in accuracy attained mathematically is accompanied by a paradigm shift and a whole new context.

It is entirely possible, even probable, that quantum mechanics itself will eventually be superseded by a reality map that has entirely different philosophical implications. Only hubris, like that exhibited at the end of the 19 th Century when leading physicists believed that all that was left for physics was to "dot the i's and cross the t's", would insist that the quantum reality map will stand forever. (It is ironic how many New Agers jump onto quantum mechanics as the be all and end all just because it opens the door to the possibility that mind affects matter.)

There is little point, therefore, pondering the philosophical implications of particular reality maps when those maps themselves are likely to be superseded by more advanced reality maps. At least, that would be the case if maps really were completely separate from the territory they describe. But there is an important exception.

Our reality maps are made with our minds… with our consciousness. Suppose reality itself — whatever "it" is — is made of the same "stuff". If this is the case, reality could well react to how we view it. Our maps would then be defining reality itself: reality may be just an amorphous energy-grid of possibility upon which our maps and beliefs condense out, giving the illusion that there is a territory "out there" for us to map in the first place. If this applies, we literally create our reality.

The argument actually works both ways: if consciousness can directly affect reality, there will never be a "law of everything" because reality is a "moving target" due to the involvement of consciousness in the process which is itself always in a state of flux. With consciousness in the equation, therefore, there can only ever be tendencies or statistical possibilities in conjunction with our states of mind or expectations. Uncertainty becomes hardwired into the system because of the inherent uncertainty in consciousness itself, and creativity becomes a basic principle of experience.

Back to the quantum reality map: this map was developed specifically to explain anomalies in physics experiments. It is a statistical theory that deals in probabilities and not certainties, and one that generally applies to microscopic scale of things, although there are now macroscopic technological applications of quantum theory that include lasers, magnetic memories, transistors, superconductors, nuclear magnetic resonance technology (NMR) and SQUID measuring devices. Quantum theory certainly does, therefore, "work".

Central to the quantum theory is the wave-particle duality and non-local effects. The wave-particle duality means that all "things" can paradoxically be described both as a wave and a particle, but not at the same time. When an electron orbits an atom, for example, the theory implies that it is a three dimensional fuzzy wave of a whole range of possible positions and momentums that surrounds the nucleus of the atom; but as soon as we try to measure it, this wave or superposition is said to "collapse" to a particle set of values… to a particular place with a particular momentum (although the uncertainty principle kicks in here so there is still a little residual uncertainty or fuzziness). The act of measurement itself, therefore, changes the nature of the system from a wave of possibility to an "actual" particle. But as soon as the measurement process is done, the particle goes back, from the perspective of this theory, to being this wave of possible positions and momentums.

It is important to understand that the act of measurement is not necessarily synonymous with consciousness: there are many physicists who will tell you that it is entirely possible to formulate the philosophical implications of quantum theory without any reference to mind or consciousness. Measurement itself can be mechanical; the wave function still collapses, although nobody is aware that it has collapsed unless they look at the measurement that has been mechanically recorded.

An example might be Schrödinger's cat. To illustrate the strange paradox of the quantum world, Schrödinger, one of the original developers of the quantum reality map, described a thought experiment to illustrate the strange nature of the quantum world. A cat is put in a box with a vial of cyanide which can randomly break at any moment by a special device measuring radioactive decay (which is believed to be truly random, which is why he chose it). Schrödinger argued that when the cat is in the box, it's "wave function" is both dead and alive because we simply don't know its fate. But as soon as you open the box, the "wave function" collapses and the fate of the cat is pinned down. However, this only demonstrates an epistemological limitation. Suppose when we open the box we find the cat dead and suppose a pathologist estimates that the time of death was two days ago, then one could say that the cat's wave function actually collapsed two days ago because after that time we are certain of its state. In this way, it is not consciousness itself that collapses the wave function but the witness of that collapse by the decay of the cat's corpse. Consciousness was not directly involved.

Another example might be whether the moon really is there when nobody is looking at it. If it wasn't there, the tidal system would stop. So the physical properties of the ocean bear witness to the presence of the moon. Again, consciousness need not be involved in collapsing the wave function of possibility.

These fundamental limits in knowing the state of a system when it is not being measured, therefore, does not necessarily mean that "reality" reacts to consciousness, or indeed to the measurement process itself. This wave uncertainty could just be a limitation in the quantum reality map itself, and nothing to do with any uncertainty in the territory that this map is trying to describe. Some physicists believe, therefore, that quantum theory will be superseded by one that shows more of the workings of reality, uncovering the so called "hidden variables" that the current map misses out.

However, although there is nothing in quantum theory itself that demands a central role of consciousness in the collapse of the wave function, research undertaken at various institutions around the world (such as Princeton's PEAR program and experiments at Stanford) conclusively show (if you are open-minded enough to actually look at the evidence) that mind does indeed affect matter. Therefore, on the strength of this sort of evidence, one is justified in introducing consciousness into the philosophical implications of the quantum map (or indeed whatever map is currently regarded as the most accurate).

The other interesting feature of quantum theory is non-locality. Once two particles are quantumly linked together, no matter how far apart they are pulled, they are still are one system. Change one and the other changes instantaneously, no matter if they are at opposite ends of the universe. Again, this could just be an epistemological quirks of the quantum reality map rather than saying anything fundamental about the nature of reality. But it could also be used philosophically to illustrate the interconnectedness and oneness of reality itself.

Enter consciousness. If reality or the territory is conscious or made up of the same "stuff" as our minds, then there is a blurring between the map and the territory, and then the conscious act of perception becomes fundamental to the collapse of the wave function. Indeed, the conscious act of perception becomes fundamental to every aspect of every map! From this perspective, quantum theory presents an attractive justification and metaphor for the act of reality creation. This position, however, hinges on the choice of whether reality is made of consciousness or not.

If the map is completely separate from the territory, then any philosophical implications of quantum theory are meaningless (so-called logical positivism). However, when there is a blurring between the map and the territory, then the philosophical implications of quantum theory become important. This blurring between the map and the territory can be due either due to assumption that the map is the territory because of its accuracy, or that the two are linked because reality itself is made of "mind stuff". The former leads to a more conventional philosophical interpretation of quantum theory whereas the latter leads us straight into mysticism. What is important to realize is how we view our map, whether it is independent of the territory or whether it is linked in some way, is a matter of choice.

Whilst there is now many well-documented scientific studies that conclusively show that the mind can effect matter — see Dean Radin's book The Conscious Universe — this creative principle of maps can actually work against itself. Uri Geller, for example, might well have been unable to bend a metal spoon in front of physicist Richard Feynman because of the latter's belief that such a task was impossible, a belief that was stronger than Geller's belief that he could do it. In this way, the philosophical implications of maps become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The philosophical implications of quantum theory that involve reality creation are becoming more popular in mass society today because of the effect of books and films like What The Bleep Do We Know? This mystical interpretation of quantum theory is shot down by many physicists and philosophers because, as Tom Huston writes in his article Taking the Quantum Leap… Too Far? in the magazine What is Enlightenment?, "Ken Wilber pointed out twenty years ago [that] even the founding fathers of quantum physics/mechanics — Max Plank, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Shrodinger, Sir Arthur Eddington, et al. — who were all self-proclaimed mystics, strongly rejected the notion that mysticism and physics were describing the same realm."

However, the reason these pioneers may not have equated the two worlds is because, for them as physicists at the beginning of the twentieth century, quantum theory was formulated to iron out discrepancies between experiment and the old classical physics theories. Their focus, therefore, was very much on the physics… they are primarily physicists after all! They were simply not aware that quantum theory would eventually have, for example, biological applications as well, and that the very thinking process in our brains could well be quantum mechanical. (Quantum biology is a new field of study; it studies the applications of quantum theory on biological systems, and it has already thrown up some tantalizing possibilities.) This could place consciousness itself at the heart of physics and most definitely bring mysticism and scientific theory together, at least in principle. If quantum mechanics has nothing to do with our consciousness, then the two could well be irreconcilable.

At the very least, therefore, quantum reality maps present a very useful metaphor for the act of reality creation that many leading-edge thinkers now believe in. Nobody is saying that the mathematical equations that describe quantum theory are directly applicable to the fulfillment of our mind's expectations (although it may be involved somewhere in the mind's processes). But philosophically, the implications of those equations do give meaning to our lives and can help us to reformulate our world view. The quantum reality map can help us realize four aspects of mysticism: the collapse of the wave function alludes to the creation of reality by mind; the non-local interconnection of quantumly linked particles hints at a basic oneness of all things; the multi-dimensions needed for quantum theory hint that there is much more than just this three dimensional world we experience; and the uncertainty principle helps us understand that nothing is definite.

In everyday living, most people are still stuck in either the Newtonian paradigm or religious paradigms, so the quantum paradigm gives us a useful bridge to a new relationship with reality. Focus on its implications will certainly change the reality that we experience, and in the process change who we think we are and what we think we are capable of. The quantum paradigm is perhaps the first, in modern scientific times, to potentially include consciousness in a previously objective universe. That is why films like What The Bleep Do We Know? should not be mocked for their lack of strict scientific rigour. They help to catalyze the current awakening of humankind to new and potent possibilities.