What Schrödinger’s Cat Tells Us About Reality

When you ask someone if it is possible to conduct an experiment in which a cat is both dead and alive simultaneously, she will wonder if you have gone mental (believe me, I tried it at work several times). “Off course this is not possible. That is complete rubbish!”

Or could it be that reality is much weirder than most people realize? In this short essay I will explain how this experiment is possible, why it works like it does, and what it means for our understanding of the world (it will turn out I have indeed gone mental, but in a different way). If you are willing to accept a paradigm shattering worldview, the result is not so crazy at all.

By the way, if you’re not yet familiar with the observer effect of quantum mechanics, check out this video first:

The Experiment
The Austrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961) came up with the famous thought experiment to show how ridiculous the widely accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is. According to this interpretation, physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured, and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities that measurements will produce certain results. The act of measurement causes the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. This feature is known as wave function collapse.

The experiment works like this: a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a Geiger counter, a bottle of poison and a radioactive particle that may or may not decay after an hour. If the Geiger counter detects that the particle has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed. But because no one is observing the box, the radioactive particle exists in superposition, meaning it exists (or actually doesn’t exist) in all possible states at once. It is not until someone opens the box that the wave function collapses, the particle assumes a definite state and the cat is either killed or not.

The Implications
The paradigm that the world exists as independent reality and we are merely innocent bystanders is smashed by Schrödinger’s experiment. Nevertheless, this is still the dominant worldview today, especially in the West, while these experiments are already a century old. The observer is not observing an independent reality, but is in fact creating it. Not by herself; we are all part of a bigger consciousness that is determining what is manifested reality and what is not. It turns out that we are not living in a material world, but in a mental world. The only way to escape from the weirdness of the dead-alive cat is to accept mind as a property of reality besides matter. Off course I don’t mean mind as created by the material brain, but a mind that is linked to it, but also exists independent of the body.

What quantum mechanics shows us is that reality consists of two levels. One level is the everyday world we observe. Within this level we – as conscious observers – materialize objects within our relative perspectives of space and time. The other level is that of pure potentiality. At this level, everything merely exists as possibility, but nothing exists in a determined state. Within this level – that lies beyond the veil of our perception – space and time don’t exist as independent bedrock realities. And because these dimensions don’t exist, it is no longer possible to separate anything, so at this level we are all one. This is hard to grasp from our individual ego-states, but in special states of consciousness, such as near death, people experience it all the time.

That is the real radical stuff that quantum mechanics tells us, and most physicists don’t like it much. Schrödinger himself wanted to return to the objective worldview in which events were deterministic (meaning that if you have all information about a reality, you can predict what will happen). His experiment has become the perfect vehicle to demonstrate why this deterministic view does not work at all.

Quantum mechanics has shown us that a pure mechanical, material universe without mind could never exist. It has also shown us that living creatures could not have arisen out of dead matter, because without a conscious observer to begin with, matter has no definite place within reality. Consciousness must therefore be the unified basis of all existence.

Advertenties

What are you really?

Boy, did Theo had problems with that car he bought at Honest Joe’s. It started off with little things. A doorlock needed replacing. And some fiddly bits in the rear suspension fell off. The usual. Then bigger stuff started to go wrong. First the clutch, then the gearbox… Finally the whole transmission. The tale of Theo’s car, or more usually the Ship of Theseus, is one of the many puzzles used by philosophers to test intuitions about the identity of things or persons over time. It seems our intuitions in these areas are often strong but conflicting. The story of Theseus’ Ship was told by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbs who then elaborated further. To pick up on Theo’s version: Honest Joe’s didn’t live up to his name. Most of the bits he replaced in Theo’s car were working fine. And he mended any that weren’t. He had saved the old parts and was fitting them together. After two years, he had assembled an exact copy of Theo’s car. He thought it was a copy, but maybe it was Theo’s car.

Which is the original? The car Theo has, now entirely build of new parts, or Joe’s version build entirely of the original parts?

The identity of the car over time is not nearly as neat and tidy as we might wish. It isn’t just a problem with cars and ships, people change enormously over a lifetime. Physically and psychologically, there may be very little in common between a two year old toddler and a 90 year old who has taken his place 88 years later. So are they the same person? It they are, what makes them so? This is the problem of personal identity which has kept philosophers busy for hundreds of years. So what just are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be the same person at one time and a later time?

Animals and brain transplants
The common sense view is probably that personal identity is a matter of biology. I am now who I was in the past because I am the same living organism, the same human animal. I am linked to a particular body which is a single and continuous organic entity. But imagine for a moment a brain transplant. An operation we can envision to be in reach of future technology. In which your brain is transferred into my body. Our intuition is surely that you then have a new body. Not that my body has a new brain. This consideration has lead some philosophers to retreat from body to brain. To claim identity is linked not to the whole body, but to the brain.


Micaela Lattanzio’s project ‘Fragmenta’. Found here….

This move fits our intuition regarding the brain transplant case, but still does not quite do the job. Our concern is what we suppose emanates from the brain, not with the physical organ itself. While we may be uncertain how brain activity gives rise to consciousness or mental activity, few doubt the brain actually underlies that activity. In considering what makes me me, it is the software of experiences, memories, beliefs, et cetera, that concerns me, not the particular lump of grey matter. My sense of being me would be not much shaken if the total sum of those experiences were copied onto a synthetic brain. Or indeed of someone else’s brain could be reconfigured to hold my memories, beliefs, et cetera. I am my mind. I go where my mind goes. Based on this view, my identity is not linked to my physical body, including my brain, at all.

Psychological continuity
Taking the psychological approach to the question of personal identity, rather than a biological or physical one, let’s suppose that each part of my psychological history is joined to earlier parts by strands of enduring memories, beliefs, et cetera. Not all, and perhaps none, of these need extend from start to finish. Provided there is a single overlapping web of these elements. Then it remains my history. I remain me. The idea of psychological continuity as the main criterion of personal identity comes from John Locke. It is the dominant theory among contemporary philosophers, but is not without problems of its own.

Imagine for instance, a Star Trek style teleportation system. Supposed this records your physical composition down to the last atom and then transfers this data to some remote location. Let’s say from London, earth, to Moonbase 1. There your body is exactly replicated from new matter at the precise moment your body in London is annihilated. All is well, as long as your psychological self is also exactly copied. But now suppose the transporter failed to carry out the annihilation in London. Now there are two of you: one on earth and one on Moonbase 1. According to the continuity account, because the psychological continuity is preserved in both cases, they are both you. In this case we have little hesitation to saying that you are the individual in London while the one on the moon is a copy. But if this intuition is right, we seem to be forced back from the psychological to the biological animal account. It appears to matter that you are the old meat in London rather than the new meat on the moon.

Getting yourself straight
Such mixed intuition may come from asking the wrong questions or applying the wrong concepts in answering them. David Hume drew attention to the elusiveness of the self claiming that however hard you look in on yourself, you can only ever detect individual thoughts, memories, experiences. While it is natural to imagine a substantial self, that is the subject of these thoughts, he argues this is wrong. The self is no more than the point of view that makes sense of our thoughts and experiences. This idea of the self as a substantial thing, which we take to be our essence, causes confusion if we imagine our self undergoing brain transplants or being annihilated and reconstituted somewhere else. We assume our personal survival in such thought experiments somehow depends on finding a place for this self. But if we stop thinking in terms of this substantial self, things become clearer. Suppose for instance that the teleporter functions correctly in annihilating your body in London, but producing two copies on the moon. Asking who is you is now simply asking the wrong question. The outcome is that there are now two human beings, each starting off with exactly the same stream of thoughts, memories and experiences. They will now go their own way and their psychological histories from now on will diverge. You, essentially the fond of thoughts, experiences, et cetera, have survived into two new individuals, an interesting form of personal survival, but achieved at the cost of your personal identity.

Source: 50 philosophy ideas you really need to know (Ben Dupré)