Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

November 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

QUANTUM CHICANERY....Chad Orzel asks:

What's your favorite example of quantum chicanery?

By "quantum chicanery," I mean somebody using the language of quantum theory to make wildly unrealistc promises of magical results. Examples abound — Bob Park got several months' worth of "What's New" out of some guys who claimed to be able to generate free energy by putting hydrogen in "a state lower than the ground state." My personal favorite was a guy I heard on a talk show (I was stuck in an auto repair place) claiming that the secret to eternal life was to simply concentrate on measuring yourself to be healthy and happy, which would collapse your wavefunction into that state.

Well, does Penrose's view that consciousness is a result of quantum mechanics count? If not, there's always the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? It at least deserves a mention. And don't forget Deepak Chopra, surely one of the front runners in the contest for greatest quantum charlatan of all time.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

Penrose wins, 'cause he should know better. "Quantum mechanics is mysterious. Consciousness is mysterious. Therefore, consciousness much be connected to quantum mechanics!"

Blech.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 20, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

I remember walking out of What the Bleep with my partner, and he found the movie kind of inspiring/comforting. I held my tongue as long as I could and finally blurted out what utter bullshit I thought it was. Not a good move. Admittedly, pissing on something someone else enjoyed is not often a smart play socially, but with your partner it really isn't wise.

Posted by: Glenn on November 20, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK
Well, does Penrose's view that consciousness is a result of quantum mechanics count?

Clearly, no.

Consciousness is an observed phenomenon. Positing that the explanation for an observed phenomenon may lie in quantum theory is not using "the language of quantum theory to make wildly unrealistic promises of magical results."

Its certainly conjecture. It may well be wrong. But its clearly not "quantum chicanery" of the type being sought.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 20, 2007 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Take your pick: Perpetual motion, cold fusion, homeopathic medicine, or "six more months will turn the tide in Iraq." All technobabble unsupported by scientific evidence. Bob Park of the American Physical Society wrote a nice book on these things a few years back called "Junk Science."

Posted by: Pat on November 20, 2007 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you need to go for a walk.

Posted by: Jesus of NBC on November 20, 2007 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Fritjof Capra.
The great grandaddy of the essential trick of QP BS, which is to use QP to prove that science is irrational, and if science is irrational, then irrationality(astrology, mysticism, etc.) must be science.

Posted by: jimmy on November 20, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Hi Kevin,

Some stuff to read, if you're genuinely interested, by Penrose' co-author and microbiologist Stuart Hemmeroff.

I must admit I find the Penrose/Hammeroff model compelling. There's been some experiments done with consciousness and randomly generated numbers which turn out exactly as their theories predict.

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig on November 20, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

While I disagree with Penrose's hypothesis, by advancing it he is not engaging in chicanery. He's not trying to get you to part with your money to obtain a cure or enlightenment, or sit through a stupid movie that uses pseudoscience to advance a load of crap. In particular, he's not claiming that you can change the world just by thinking positive thoughts and wishing really, really hard.

According to "What the Bleep Do We Know", a housewife from Tacoma, Washington can "channel" a being named Ramtha, a 35,000 year old "spirit-warrior". We know when she is channeling because she speaks in a funny accent. I don't know of anything that tops that.

Posted by: Joe Buck on November 20, 2007 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Possibly related - From the Daily telegraph:

Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything. An impoverished surfer has drawn up a new theory of the universe, seen by some as the Holy Grail of physics, which has received rave reviews from scientists.

"Lisi's inspiration lies in the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics, called E8 - a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points first found in 1887, but only fully understood by mathematicians this year after workings, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan."

The E-8 pattern is a rather cool manadala.

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig on November 20, 2007 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Penrose is surely not a charlatan. I'm (slowly) slogging my way through his "road to reality" which is fantastic. As he is quick to point out all the time, his ideas are not mainstream, and there is no particular evidence against or for them. On the other hand, he has suggested several experimental lines of inquiry so that his theoretical models could actually be tested. In fact, Ch. 30 of "road to reality" has an entire section on what line of inquiry he would pursue next should these propsed experiments have negative results. This is the hallmark of "not a crank" thinking - do you want your ideas to be tested and potentially proven wrong? The Chopra's of the world are not scientists and do not even understand what a "wavefunction" really "is." In a sense, they are not even grappling with the ontology of physics ("what can/does this mathematical theory tell us about underlying reality?") because it serves their purposes to obscure the distinction between fact and fiction.

Posted by: jonc on November 20, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

How can you be in two places at once, when you are not anywhere at all?

Posted by: Brojo on November 20, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

The worst case of quantum chicanery I ever saw occurred over several years about two decades ago.

I had a kitten (at that time) named Van der Waals - after the physicist and since she was a calico with huge clusters of color down her back. About 3 months after she occupied the house, on a very cold March day in Ottawa, Canada, we found a very skinny, starving orange cat under our front porch.

Heisenberg became a member of the house immediately - she was so named because at the start of her tenure she seemed very uncertain - always pausing and seeming to think, well, should I eat, shit or sleep.

Anyway, Waals was rather jealous of this new cat and took to trying to beat her up, chase her and just bother her. Waals continued this for the rest of Heisie's life, 11 more long years.

I think that is the worst case of quantum chicanery I have ever seen.

Posted by: optical weenie on November 20, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

"I had a kitten (at that time) named Van der Waals"

Van der Waals would be a great name for a Gecko. We now know that the Gecko's ability to walk on vertical surfaces depends on the Van der Waals force. Which is really amazing if you know anything about the Van der Waals force.

As for Penrose, I don't think he's engaging in chicanery. Eccentricity maybe, but he's still an honest scientist. Chopra is another story. While his knowledge of Hindu philosophy is excellent, his knowledge of science is clearly not.

Posted by: fostert on November 20, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Anytime someone cites the Heisenberg uncertainty principle when they're just talking about normal uncertainty.

Posted by: Cain on November 20, 2007 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

I was coming in here to say something like "Penrose's ideas are a bit wacky, but don't deserve to be lumped in with Deepak Chopra and WTBDWK!" but I can see that's already been taken care of.

I think it's important to understand the context of Penrose's "Emperor's New Mind", etc In philosophy of mind at the time he was writing those books there was intense interest in "supervenience", or "emergent properties" (e.g. the image of the dogs playing poker emerges from the organization of the brush strokes on the canvas, despite there being no necessary relationship between the existence of the paint plus canvas and the image.) This was being used by many philosophers to show that "mind" could be an emergent property of an entirely physical being.

The problem with this as stated is that it's very much an example of "...and then POOF! consciousness appears" type explanation. In particular it doesn't really explain why consciousness is the way it is. The next step was to try and find properties of matter at smaller scales that could conceivably account for something like consciousness.

Penrose was a believer that the way certain quantum phenomena work was inherently "mind-like" (in that "decisions" were being made by them-this is the crux of the whole argument, and where he is at his vaguest and least convincing) and that it was this characteristic that "percolated up" to form the phenomenological aspects of consciousness.

Philosophers of mind generally believe something like this has to be true, but the divergence with Penrose lies in his insistence that any other explanation of mind and consciousness using supervenience fails because it does not insist on these "mind-like" properies at smaller scales.

Apologies for the liberal use of scare quotes, but I wanted to try and present his case without suggesting I agreed with it.

Posted by: Andre on November 20, 2007 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

boy howdy what a load of crap "bleep" was. If you're genuinely interested in consciousness and intelligence, go read "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins (founder of Palm and Handspring). I would bet a good chunk of my paycheck to say that his theory of intelligence will form the foundation of what will ultimately the correct theory on this subject.

Posted by: evermore on November 20, 2007 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

I am sure that Kevin would never descend to such chicanery by using terms like "momentum" or "critical mass" to refer to anything other than the specific meanings of these terms in physics.

For example, saying that a political campaign is "gaining momentum" or that public opinion on some issue is reaching "critical mass" is the most atrocious chicanery, at least as bad as anything that Deepak Chopra can be accused of doing by using the concepts of quantum physics as a metaphor for other aspects of experience.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on November 20, 2007 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

I strongly recommend The Skeptic's Dictionary, www.skepdic.com, for a full discussion of the Capras and Chopras of our world.

SecularAnimist, I wouldn't normally come close to saying this about someone like you, but...
pull your head out of your ass and stop being anal!
It's a metaphor Kevin's using, for doorknob's sake.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 20, 2007 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

I have little doubt that Penrose understands quantum mechanics.

What he is utterly ignorant of is how consciousness, and philosophical problems associated with it, might possibly be explained. I mean, the guy seems to think that the issue of human free will is somehow solved by the possibility that "uncomputable" quantum mechanical effects might underly some of our decisions. If those effects are only probabilistic, instead of fully deterministic, this helps how, exactly? Of what consequence is it if a given neuron fires because of some deterministic, but utterly trivial (and for all practical purposes random) physical characteristic (such as the above threshold presence of a randomly distributed brain chemical), or fires instead because of quantum mechanical "randomness"?

It's sheer idiocy.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

I felt bad I had no shoes till I saw she had no feet.

Posted by: Being Borin on November 20, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

franklyO, that's the problem with any and all explnations of Free Will that don't depend on "Poof! It's there".

For instance, exactly how does it help to posit Free Will as the gift of a God who, being omniscient, knows exactly what you are going to do with it? At that point, it's free only in a localised sense. If God didn't like what humanity as a whole would do with free will, then presumably he wouldn't have made the gift. Non-localised free will should surely involve an element of being able to upset even the omniscient's plans, in which case they are no longer omniscient.

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig on November 20, 2007 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

For instance, exactly how does it help to posit Free Will as the gift of a God who, being omniscient, knows exactly what you are going to do with it? At that point, it's free only in a localised sense.

Well, I'm not sure what you mean here.

I think the idea is that God somehow stands outside of time and can see at one "glance" what every person will, in fact, choose to do. He does not affect what they choose to do by "seeing" their choice; he merely "observes" and knows. He is not "predicting" what they will do based on previous things; he is, again, simply observing the choices from outside of time.

Now maybe notions like being "outside of time" don't make any sense, or, "observing" a future event. But difficulties like that are typical of God talk anyway.

And certainly a lot of people think that the issue of free will, whatever it may be, has little or nothing to do with the presence or absence of God.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

I think the idea is that God somehow stands outside of time and can see at one "glance" what every person will, in fact, choose to do. He does not affect what they choose to do by "seeing" their choice; he merely "observes" and knows. He is not "predicting" what they will do based on previous things; he is, again, simply observing the choices from outside of time.

This makes God omniscient, but just an observer of the universe. I don't think many theists would be happy with this. If He created the universe and everything in it, that means that "when" he created each person, he knew what choices that person will make, and if He really is omnipotent, could have made this person so that he would choose differently.

I frankly don't know what people mean by free will, and I don't think most other people do either. At best it's a handwave because of our lack of understanding of consciousness, and at worst it's a special-pleading Get-out-of-Jail-Free card.

Posted by: ericblair on November 20, 2007 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

Andre,

There were three interrelated mysteries that Penrose hoped to wrap together into one mystery: (1) the mystery of consciousness, (2) the mystery of wave function collapse in quantum mechanics, (2) Godel's incompleteness theorem.

I give him a lot of leeway in the first two cases, since nobody really has a definitive take on them. But where Penrose was completely off track was his use of Godel's incompleteness theorem as an argument for why consciousness is not possible in computers. That argument is nonsense.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on November 20, 2007 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

I think that Penrose makes the mistake that many scientists/mathematicians make when it comes to long standing problems in philosophy that impinge on the disciplines of physics or math: namely, the assumption that the hard part of the job in solving them is understanding the physics and/or math, which, of course, they do understand. In fact, it is at least as hard to understand the real philosophical issue, and requires as much education in the discipline of philosophy.

They end up embarrassing themselves.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

You need to read Hameroff's commentary realizing he's coming from the background of being an anaethesiologist and in his more (mainstream) work you find him using statements like "consciousness of a slime mold." So we're not talking about very high level here.

He was supposed to contribute a chapter to our book but started sounding more and more nutty and his co-author decided he was a total lunatic and ran screaming off into the wilderness. Hence, no chapter.

Hameroff has a concept that quantum computing involving cellular automata patterns of proteins moving along microtubules has something to do with brain activity ("consciousness")

Interesting proposal, although I find it difficult to see how you get "quantum computing" at room temperatures. And I think "consciousness" is a catch-all term we really don't understand. Go read the first chapter of "Consciousness as a Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes for a good take-down.

For my vote on biggest quantum charlatan, whoever wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters is pretty well up there.

Posted by: grumpy realist on November 20, 2007 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Does not the very act of observing Quantum Chicanery change the results?
I still have an aluminum pyramid, dull razors and plenty of chi. . .

Posted by: Sparko on November 20, 2007 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

You know what's really interesting is that the phycics guys thta are really on the cutting edge are starting to sound more and more like Deepak Chopra. I suppose it's easy to be critical of that which you don't understand. Not to say you should take everything at face value but the easiest thing to do is to be a skepyic Much like those that believed the world flat.

Posted by: Gandalf on November 20, 2007 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Well, in another case of quantum chicanery, George Bush proclaims to be pro-soldier and yet . . .

Bush Asks Wounded Soldiers To Return Portions Of Signing Bonuses

Posted by: anonymous on November 20, 2007 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK
I mean, the guy seems to think that the issue of human free will is somehow solved by the possibility that "uncomputable" quantum mechanical effects might underly some of our decisions. If those effects are only probabilistic, instead of fully deterministic, this helps how, exactly?

It helps (especially when combined with the idea that the system involved in processing the quantum events into observable actions is chaotic, so that small changes in inputs can produce large changes in outputs) in explaining how a meaningfully non-determined will (one, but not the only, sense in which "free will" is used) can exist.

It doesn't "help" much with the peripheral problems which mostly relate to whether "free will" is an aesthetically pleasing and philosophically useful concept, whether or not it happens to be a factually accurate description of the universe.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 20, 2007 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

The most stunning advancement in pseudoscience I've seen recently is the
TESLA PURPLE ENERGY SHIELD™
, yours for $89.95.
Among other claims, it invokes quantum physics:

It is widely recognised in the field of quantum physics that each material object and each human being vibrates to an individual frequency of angstrom units (light waves) per second.


Posted by: Bill Arnold on November 20, 2007 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

But where Penrose was completely off track was his use of Godel's incompleteness theorem as an argument for why consciousness is not possible in computers. That argument is nonsense.

"Nonsense" is probably a bit harsh, in that it's a fairly common inference from Godel's Second Incompleteness Theorem when talking about the various theories of artificial consciousness. The idea is that it establishes that any sufficiently complex formal system can make statements that are obviously true (to a human) but not able to be proved as true within the system, i.e. that they're not computable.

This would imply that a computer could be presented with statements it simply couldn't establish as true, despite the answer being obvious to a human. This leads us to believe that computers as currently constructed can't be exactly the same as human minds. Now if we then posit that only things that are exactly the same as human minds can develop consciousness (an unspoken assumption in this argument, but a critical one) then computers can't be conscious.

You're right that linking this all up with quantum theory is a huge leap (sort of an "All mysteries are the same mystery" argument) but it's not completely out of left field given the state of things in modern philosophy.

Posted by: Andre on November 20, 2007 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Penrose wins, 'cause he should know better. "Quantum mechanics is mysterious. Consciousness is mysterious. Therefore, consciousness much be connected to quantum mechanics!"

Blech.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 20, 2007 at 1:51 PM

G/E 08, you have committed the fallacy of assuming a strict fallacy. Of course it does not *follow* by *neccessity* that any two mysterious things must be connected, but: there is a great chance that a strange phenomenon would be connected to QM. QM is pervasive in ultimate influence at the micro level, and it does often entail unconventional traits. I mean, if you noticed some non-linear behavior in the response of a crystal to microwaves, you would figure maybe there's a quantum component. So, it is worthwhile to *look into* that possibility, which Penrose does - he doesn't just "assume" the connection. (It really irks me, how often people assume that: someone else "assumed" rather than carefully considered something!)

Many thinkers make the sophomoric mistake of thinking that if a connection is not logically mandated by an association, it is in practice a fallacy to think the connection is there. That isn't true. Formally, a fallacy is a conclusion that is falsely presumed to be *mandated* by logical deduction. But many things that aren't mandated are nevertheless good *bets* to be related, etc. You have to understand the role of fallacies and some related but acceptable lines of thought, not just look for them as former incidents and chalk up "failures" thereby.

BTW, QM is so weird, it's hard to know what should constitute chicanery anyway - it takes some arrogance to do so. Some of the best minds in the field, like John von Neumann, believed that consciousness collapsed the wave function.

Well, we don't really understand the collapse of the wave function, so my nomination for the Nobel Prize in quantum chicanery is: "decoherence." The ideas of decoherence don't really explain or get us to the concentration of what was spread over a wide region of space, into a particular spot (and why not somewhere else.) But it's the current fad among the conventional physicists for how to "solve" the collapse problem. Go figure (or "shut up and calculate!" ...)

tyrannogenius

Posted by: Neil B. on November 20, 2007 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I know of a guy who, a serious physicist at the time, who in the late '60's, early '70's, conceived of "quantum money", a use of quantum theory to permit secure transfers of non-material money or something like that. Nobody believed him and treated his ideas like pseudo-science and he couldn't get published, but his ideas later the basis for quantum cryptography.

"Quantum Cryptography was born in the early seventies when Stephen Wiesner wrote "Conjugate Coding", which unfortunately took more than ten years to see the light of print [1]. In the mean time, Charles H. Bennett (who knew of Wiesner's idea) and Gilles Brassard picked up the subject and brought it to fruition in a series of papers that culminated with the demonstration of an experimental prototype that established the technological feasibility of the concept [2]."

You could look it up.

Not to say the nutcases noted above are serious physicists; merely that sometimes weird-sounding stuff turns out to be true, and better than that, practical.

Posted by: David in NY` on November 20, 2007 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

It helps (especially when combined with the idea that the system involved in processing the quantum events into observable actions is chaotic, so that small changes in inputs can produce large changes in outputs) in explaining how a meaningfully non-determined will (one, but not the only, sense in which "free will" is used) can exist.

But of what matter is that particular, narrow definition? Suppose there are two possible "boxes" inside a neuron that cause it to fire or not, depending on whether it's state A or state B. The first box is actually driven by a quantum effect, and is truly "random". The second has inside it something equivalent to a computer random number generator, which is, in fact, deterministic (it could actually have any number of deterministic physical processes underlying it).

From the standpoint of "undetermined" free will, of what consequence is it that it might be the first box rather than the second? Certainly, from the standpoint of those who have been worrying about undetermined free will before they even knew about quantum effects, it's hard to see how the "real" randomness of the first box, as opposed to the second, solves any problems for them. Suppose that we think our boxes are all of type A, but find out that they operate like type B instead? Should we be devastated by the revelation? ("Oh my God, I thought it was an undetermined quantum effect, and it was just a simulator????")

Is this issue what people have been concerned about over the centuries when they protested that their idea of free will conflicted with the notion that they were determined to do one thing or another? I can't begin to see how this would be a satisfactory answer for them.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

Oops, I meant

Suppose that we think our boxes are all of the first type, but find out that they operate like of the second type instead?

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

I mean, what would you make of this proposition, just off the top of your head?:

"Quantum cryptographic systems take advantage of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, according to which measuring a quantum system in general disturbs it and yields incomplete information about its state before the measurement. Eavesdropping on a quantum communication channel therefore causes an unavoidable disturbance, alerting the legitimate users."

Sort of justifies Gandalf's observation above that "the phycics guys that are really on the cutting edge are starting to sound more and more like Deepak Chopra."

Posted by: David in NY on November 20, 2007 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

The idea is that it establishes that any sufficiently complex formal system can make statements that are obviously true (to a human) but not able to be proved as true within the system, i.e. that they're not computable.

I can never get this argument.

What makes you think that human beings are capable of knowing any given true statement of, say, mathematics (or just about anything else) is true? Why are these true statements obvious?

The basic fact is, you can take any true statement of mathematics and make it part of a formal system in which it is proved (if trivially).

So how do we really differ from a computer again?

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK

Sort of justifies Gandalf's observation above that "the phycics guys that are really on the cutting edge are starting to sound more and more like Deepak Chopra."

Nope.

I'm sure it really sounds like that only to those who don't understand the lingo. These words, in fact, have a precise physical/scientific meaning.

Chopra is, on the other hand, full of shit, unless he's explicitly talking in metaphor, in which case it's metaphorical shit.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

frankly0:

If QM allows free will, it isn't from the mere fact of neurons firing in isolation in an undetermined way. It would have to do, with some wholeness about the brain, so the firings expressed some sort of global movement that was itself not determined (but could be greatly influenced) by the simple aggregation of isolated processes.

Posted by: Neil B. on November 20, 2007 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

"Quantum" is often used as a synonym of "large".
E.g., a "quantum change" often means a very big change.

OTOH in quantum mechanics, a "quantum jump" is notably tiny.

Posted by: ex-liberal on November 20, 2007 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

Neil B,

The problem with your scenario is that it conflicts with quantum physics, or at least any plausible application of them to the brain processing.

It may make sense to imagine that a little mechanism inside of a neuron is 1) driven by a "collapse of wave function" and 2) in turn drives that neuron to fire or not.

But what DOESN'T make sense is to imagine that there is some global interaction between all these little mechanisms that somehow changes the probabilities of their firing the neurons one way or the other. There is simply zero evidence of such a global interaction. Quantum mechanics ordinarily would say that the probabilities of each of these mechanisms "collapsing its wave" one way or the other is effectively separate and disconnected from the rest. We don't expect that a particular two slit experiment is going to affect the outcome of another two slit experiment except, I believe, under truly extraordinary conditions. I can't imagine that there's any evidence that on a systematic basis such interdependencies could be achieved in the brain.

Really, you might as well explain consciousness by the intervention of the tooth fairy, which is more likely to exist.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

franklo0, you really dropped the ball on that one. The existence of entanglement relations shows at least that such correlations can (in fact, must) exist. Sure, there's no evidence for other kinds, but once you have a foot in the door, it's at least plausible and no longer "impossible." Without such coordination, I don't think that mess up there could produce such stable behavior, given the destabilizing effects of multiplying chaos. After all, it's not a formally programed system (nor a *narrowly focused* "neural net" with one task to keep track of.)

Finally, I wish people would quit making silly over the top boasts to how "there's more evidence for the tooth fairy" etc. about such things. It is a non-sequitur of a pretense of more solid reason to doubt/ridicule than you really are justified in (yeah, I know, kids find money under the pillow, but the tooth fairy is a specific explanatory construct, not just the finding itself.)

Posted by: Neil B. on November 20, 2007 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK


"Sort of justifies Gandalf's observation above that 'the phycics guys that are really on the cutting edge are starting to sound more and more like Deepak Chopra.'"

Nope.

I'm sure it really sounds like that only to those who don't understand the lingo."

I think that's what Gandalf and I meant, if you "don't understand the lingo." Actually, the passage I quoted is nothing like Chopra except to people who don't understand the difference.

Posted by: David in NY on November 20, 2007 at 6:04 PM | PERMALINK
But of what matter is that particular, narrow definition?

Rather a lot, since if it exists, anything that it can affect is no longer strictly a mechanistic product of the First Cause (this simultaneously gets God off the hook for a lot of things and demolishes any last vestiges of credibility for the teleological argument for the necessity of God's existence.)

Suppose there are two possible "boxes" inside a neuron that cause it to fire or not, depending on whether it's state A or state B. The first box is actually driven by a quantum effect, and is truly "random". The second has inside it something equivalent to a computer random number generator, which is, in fact, deterministic (it could actually have any number of deterministic physical processes underlying it).

From the standpoint of "undetermined" free will, of what consequence is it that it might be the first box rather than the second? Certainly, from the standpoint of those who have been worrying about undetermined free will before they even knew about quantum effects, it's hard to see how the "real" randomness of the first box, as opposed to the second, solves any problems for them.

Well, knowing that its one or the other solves the fundamental problem that they've been considering, which is determining which it is.

It doesn't solve any of the problems of the implications of either result, since there are (mostly aesthetic, like most philosophical "problems" that aren't purely semantic) "problems" in philosophy associated with either the "determined" or "non-determined" result, even preceding any physical explanation of how either would manifest.

Suppose that we think our boxes are all of type A, but find out that they operate like type B instead? Should we be devastated by the revelation?

Some people would say "yes"; to wit, the people who have always raised the problem with the "determined" result as being it would mean there is simply no point to anything since everything that you will ever do and that will ever happen is completely predetermined from the initial state of the universe.

Of course, some people would say "no", and indeed others would go further and rejoice with that result, saying that it demonstrated that God has indeed structured everything from the very moment of Creation, and that that is for the best.

Is this issue what people have been concerned about over the centuries when they protested that their idea of free will conflicted with the notion that they were determined to do one thing or another?

Essentially, yes. That's not the only philosphical problem surrounding free will. Whether it could exist at all consistent with our physical understanding of the universe is another problem, and if so how is another one. What particularly it would mean and what limitations it would have in producing observable outcomes is another. The aesthetic conflict between certain types of free will that people think they would like to believe in and certain types of general predestination that they would also like to believe in on a fuzzy level is not the only issue, here.

I can't begin to see how this would be a satisfactory answer for them.

For those who have logically contradictory desires, an explanation of how one of those logically contradictory desires might be possible (thus excluding the other) is, of course, not satisfactory.

But then, people with logically contradictory desires are rather set up for disappointment.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 20, 2007 at 6:04 PM | PERMALINK
"Nonsense" is probably a bit harsh, in that it's a fairly common inference from Godel's Second Incompleteness Theorem when talking about the various theories of artificial consciousness. The idea is that it establishes that any sufficiently complex formal system can make statements that are obviously true (to a human) but not able to be proved as true within the system, i.e. that they're not computable.

This is not accurate. The theorem proves that any sufficiently complex formal can makes statements that are true within the system but cannot be proved within the system.

This does not demonstrate that these unprovable truths will be "obviously true", whether to a human or otherwise.

Humans can, of course, make assumptions about the truth of statements without formally proving them, but its not entirely clear that a computer could not be constructed that would treat certain propositions as true without formally establishing their provability, so the fact that humans can believe statements are true to any degree of confident without being able to compute their truth doesn't establish that humans are, in that respect, categorically superior to a Turing machine.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 20, 2007 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

The existence of entanglement relations shows at least that such correlations can (in fact, must) exist. Sure, there's no evidence for other kinds, but once you have a foot in the door, it's at least plausible and no longer "impossible."

Look, I'm sure that there is the scientific possibility that a quantum effect in a given neuron in the brain might affect a quantum effect in another neuron in the brain. But your huge problem is that, under ordinary conditions, the likelihood that one might actually affect the probabilities of the other is about as close to zero as is possible in physics, given their distance from each other, and the number of other things that lie between them. When you try to compound those effects into something systematic across all neurons, then the probability of such an effect I'm sure is far less than the probability that a tooth fairy has come to exist in some room in my house by an unlikely aggregation of atoms.

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 6:25 PM | PERMALINK

the likelihood that one might actually affect the probabilities of the other is about as close to zero as is possible in physics

Should be, more clearly,

the likelihood that one might actually affect the probabilities of the other materially is about as close to zero as is possible in physics

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

Just because cutting edge physicists say things that sound like Deepak Chopra babble to people who know no physics doesn't mean that Deepak Chopra == cutting edge physics.

If you know quantum mechanics, Deepak Chopra just sounds like a babbling fool.

Ditto for all New Age ninnies invoking quantum stuff. (We had one who wandered into our building one day who on first glance, didn't seem crazier than the standard theoretical physicist. I got sent out to deal with him. What a hoot.)

Posted by: grumpy realist on November 20, 2007 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

Neil B,

Would you really claim that every time we construct a new two slit experiment, we better know what all the other two slit experiments in the world are up to, otherwise we're not going to be able to predict the likelihoods of our own?

If not, why imagine that it makes sense to insist that we do so with the brain?

Posted by: frankly0 on November 20, 2007 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

Although human beings became conscious of DNA in the 20th Century, its shape, how it reproduces and how the information it contains is transmitted, DNA had already been doing these things. This is also true about our bodies' atoms and subatomic particles. We are these physical processes. They do not happen separate from us. Unconsciously there is an awareness of these physical processes occurring because we are them. The nulcei of every cell is replicating. Every subatomic particle of every atom of every molecule in every cell in every organ is doing its job to keep each and every one of us whole. There is no separation between us and the physics that make us.

Where does the desire to become aware of ourselves come from? I think the physical processes themselves create that desire.

Posted by: Brojo on November 20, 2007 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

frankly0, you must not understand the sort of correlated patterns involved in "entanglement." The result at any one place look just like the sort of thing we expect there, the predictied percent of hits for circular, linear polarization, etc. It's only when you compare the pattern that you see correlation in hits. Note: these correlations have no relation to the distance involved, they are not like ordinary field interactions like the forces between masses or charges, etc. Again, don't throw around fairies unless you know what you're talking about.

Also, just because a special phenomenon occurs one place/context etc. doesn't mean it has to contaminate everything else - after all, entanglement correlations *really do occur*, and we don't have to worry like you say about double slit experiments like that. Please, educate yourself.

Posted by: Neil B. on November 20, 2007 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

Neil B (my Dad's name),

It may not deal with distance, but the entanglement can't be collapsed by interaction. The idea that anything between neurons can maintain entanglement is laughable.

Of course, FranklyO and I can't DISPROVE there is some connection, but on that level, we can't DISPROVE the tooth fairy.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 20, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

In terms of biology, Brojo is wrong.

Posted by: Bob G on November 20, 2007 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK

"What the Bleep" deserves the gold prize for quantum chicanery. I understood less about quantum mechanics than I did before I watched it.

Posted by: Xanthippas on November 20, 2007 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

Too many favorites to even list.

Quantum physics is the second-to-last refuge of scoundrels.

Incidentally, relativism is the *very* last refuge of scoundrels, just past the *merely* last one.

Posted by: Winston Smith on November 21, 2007 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

There is no separation between us and the physics that make us.

Which is, I think, why we are able to discover how physics works. What this means though is that there may be limitations about the universe that we may not be able to fully understand because they do not exist as a physical part of ourselves. I am thinking of Time. Time exists, but since it is not a part of our physical selves, there is no underlying unconscious awareness that can be used to tease out its mechanism, if such a word even applies to this phenomenon that exists outside our three dimensional recognition.

Posted by: Brojo on November 21, 2007 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

There is no such thing as free will. That's because consciousness is an evolutionarily bootstrapped construct. There may be quasi-free will of semi-subconscious subselves/subroutines, but that's different.

Try reading some cognitive science/cognitive philosophy books.

And, for all of you "mystics," just because you capitalize Something that doesn't make it mysterious, methaphysical, transcendant or anything else.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 21, 2007 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

As for Goedel, consciousness and computers, if people like Dennett are right that consciousness is algorithmic (and, personally, I don't think they're right), Goedel's theorem could also be used to show that it's impossible for humans to be conscious.

In other words, Goedel's theorem has nothing to do with either consciousness or free will.

I think Kevin needs to start a second post on Goedelian chicanery, which can be almost as bad as quantum chicanery at times.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 21, 2007 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK
There were three interrelated mysteries that Penrose hoped to wrap together into one mystery: (1) the mystery of consciousness, (2) the mystery of wave function collapse in quantum mechanics, (2) Godel's incompleteness theorem.

Number 2 goes away if you go with the Many Worlds interpretation rather than the Copenhagen Interpretation. The Many Worlds interpretation recognizes no wave function collapse as none is necessary.

In any case, both are absurd in a classical sense and whether one goes one way or another is purely a matter of taste.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on November 21, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Folks, entanglements aren't collapsed per se anyway in and of themselves. They are correlations *between* interactions/collapses, and it's not something to be "maintained" either: you want something to happen to get the correlation, not just have the potential for a correlation maintained indefinitely. Correlated neural activity would effect the brain's output. You guys don't really understand the issue, aside from whether it helps the brain to function in a holistic way.

Posted by: Neil B. on November 21, 2007 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Praedor Atrebates: The MW interpretation is bunk, because there is no point in talking about splitting or whatever of worlds unless you take "collapse" for granted as a localization to begin with. Really, waves are just waves forever in the math, you have to distill that into some little nugget somewhere. Instead of the wave "never" collapsing, it's the opposite extreme: you'd have to have it collapse everwhere (ie, a set of collapses that was split up into different universes: the collapse at each point (x,y,x)_i sent into a different universe. It's the same sort of scam as decoherence.

Posted by: Neil B. on November 21, 2007 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

One possibility is that wavefunctions don't collapse -- they decohere. (Incidentally, Neil B., decoherence is why quantum effects in the brain can't possibly be global.)

On Goedel:

Andre can't prove this statement is true. (But I can! So can you, if you're not Andre.)

I can't prove this statement is true. (But anyone else in the world, including a conscious AI system, could.)

Posted by: Cyan on November 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

Cyan: Go reread what I first said about decoherence above, and why it is a scam (and so is multiworlds for same reason.) You're wrong about the brain too, since correlations don't depend on those issues.

As for Gödel: His point was not that one "system" in the sense of "an entity" or thinking machine could not understand itself, but maybe could understand another entity - rather, than a given "system of thought" did not contain within in it the tools to understand every question brought up within the rules of that system. (Like, arithmetic does not give us the tools to answer every question about arithmetic.)

From his biography in Wikipedia (accurate case):

In 1931, Gödel published his famous incompleteness theorems in "Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme" (called in English "On formally undecidable propositions of Principia Mathematica and related systems"). In that article, he proved that for any computable axiomatic system that is powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers (e.g. the Peano axioms or ZFC), then:

1. If the system is consistent, it cannot be complete. (This is generally known as the incompleteness theorem.)
2. The consistency of the axioms cannot be proved within the system.

These theorems ended a half-century of attempts, beginning with the work of Frege and culminating in Principia Mathematica and Hilbert's formalism, to find a set of axioms sufficient for all mathematics. The incompleteness theorems also imply that not all mathematical questions are computable.

Posted by: Neil B. on November 21, 2007 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

Whoops, sorry! I missed that you had already taken note of decoherence. I'm not sure why you class it as chicanery -- I'm finding the phrase, "the concentration of what was spread over a wide region of space, into a particular spot" a little opaque, and I'd be interested to hear you expand on this.

Posted by: Cyan on November 21, 2007 at 8:56 PM | PERMALINK

I went into physics because I found a magazine with a picture of a girl in a bikini holding a wrench that said, "Girls love quantum mechanics."

Posted by: jerry on November 23, 2007 at 10:10 PM | PERMALINK

npkzhd nczvyd dlomgrhu sjmc otkbzh mzuv mzdebovnl

Posted by: gudzokc ikfwxe on January 10, 2008 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly