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Month: January 2019

Why study quantum physics?

Here’s why I began studying quantum physics. I wondered: How does this universe work? What underlies molecules and atoms? How is reality created?

Quantum physics is part of the answer—a huge part. But the trouble is, physicists don’t understand how quantum particles create the solid objects that our senses perceive. After all, quantum particles are just vibrations in what appears to be huge quantities of empty space.

Many physicists are unperturbed by this question. They use the mathematics of quantum physics for running experiments or for developing technologies, and they leave the Big Questions alone. However, some physicists/mathematicians have gone ahead and speculated about the Big Questions.

How does quantum physics explain our perceptions of the world?

One speculation of particular interest to me is that Information Theory can cast light on this question. Information Theory reduces the universe to mathematical patterns. It reduces the vibrations of quantum particles to the mathematical equations which calculate the vibrations. These equations describe changes in matter and energy, what physicists call “evolutions.” The equations are not just static descriptions like the formula for the composition of water: H2O.

The entire universe can be seen as an intermeshing of equations, one supplying data to another, each equation being influenced by others. The physicist, Max Tegmark, wrote the book Our Mathematical Universe on this premise. Another good book on the subject is Programming the Universe by one of the inventors of the quantum computer, Seth Lloyd.

Information Theory is illuminating. But there’s a big piece of the puzzle that’s still missing. How do mathematical equations become subjective experience? We experience colors, sounds, tastes, and other sensations as if they were out in the world. But, actually, these are our subjective experiences of electrical impulses in the brain. After all, our skulls don’t have holes in them to let the world in. The only thing going on in our brains are electrical impulses.

"The Matrix" raining code
Raining computer code, as in the film, “The Matrix.” Are equations generating digits that our consciousness turns into sensations? [Image source: By Jamie Zawinski – screenshot, MIT, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matrix_digital_rain; retrieved Nov. 29, 2018]
electrical impulses in neurons
Electrical impulses traveling through brain cells somehow allow us to experience sensations. [Image source: Looie496 created file, US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging created original – Public domain; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuron]

Here’s where my brain starts to hurt—our brains are, themselves, describable as mathematical equations interacting with each other. And the electrical impulses that shoot through the brain are describable as mathematical equations. And these electrical impulses arise from sense organ stimulations that are describable as mathematical equations. These stimulations arises from interactions with the external world (which, of course, are describable as mathematical equations).

But, how exactly, do we experience electrical impulses traveling through the brain as colors, sounds, tastes, and so on? How do mathematical equations become subjective experience?

The quantum physicist, Amit Gswami in The Self-Aware Universe, suggests how this happens. He proposes that our consciousness codes equations into the images, sounds, smells, and tastes of our subjective experience. In other words, the world is really in our minds. Or possibly, there is one mind, and we’re all tuned into it, each one of us experiencing it somewhat differently due to our own unique filters. The traditional Buddhist view has things to say about this.

Is consciousness fundamental?

Plato
Plato (428-348 BC) [Image source: Public domain; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato]

This view, “Idealism,” depends on the assumption that consciousness is fundamental and matter derivative. Of course, the current scientific view that consciousness arises from brain matter, is exactly the reverse.

Max Planck
Max Planck (1858-1947) [Image source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20429172]

Some philosophers and physicists throughout history have espoused Idealism. Plato, considered one of the founding fathers of Western thought, was an Idealist. And so was the grandfather of quantum physics, Max Planck. Planck said in 1931:

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

Rene Descartes proposed another view called “Dualism” in the 1600’s. He saw both matter and consciousness as fundamental but also as very different substances. Dualism formed one of the basic unspoken assumptions of the worldview that I grew up with and probably most Westerners have grown up with. It is the worldview that most Westerners who aren’t paid to think, unthinkingly adopt.

Descartes dualism
Descartes (1596-1650) thought consciousness and matter were two different fundamental substances that met in the pineal gland of the brain (the epiphysis). [Image source: Public domain; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind]

Starting in the middle of the 20th Century, mainstream scientists began rejecting both Idealism and Dualism. They adopted Materialism. This view is that matter is fundamental and consciousness arises from the brain. These days, some scientists, like Amit Gswami, are beginning to question Materialism. Philosophers like David Chalmers are working out the logic of Materialism and pointing out some logical difficulties that it raises. The precepts of quantum physics, in particular the precept that fundamental particles are nothing more than vibrations, can be seen to undermine the foundations of Materialism.