Monthly Archives: July 2009

Heinz Pagels Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics is viewed by Objectivism with disdain and discredit for lacking an objective philosophical basis.  The standard “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum mechanics states that the uncertainty principle is an absolute feature of reality.  The uncertainty principle states that one cannot simultaneously determine the momentum and position of an existant (usually referencing a particle, but it need not be a particle).  The Copenhagen Interpretation goes further to state that an existant does not have a specific position or momentum  – or in general a specific “state” – until the existant is observed.  Rather, what the existant has is a probability (amplitude) wavefunction that extends throughout space whose intensity describes a probability distribution for the properties of the existant.

Somehow, that just doesn’t sit well with Objectivists.  (Other interpretations are much worse, however – we can discuss those later).  Among the consequences of the Copenhagen Interpretation is a choice between a failure of local causality, or instantaneous action over indefinite distances (Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”).  That would be another nauseating choice for Objectivists to accept.  And so, they don’t accept the validity of the theory.

Recently, I fell upon the book “The Cosmic Code” by Heinz Pagels.  Pagels was a physicist, and this book was an attempt to bring modern physics issues to a public audience.  Such attempts are generally extraordinarily difficult, and all too frequently result in pushing misconceptions into the minds of the unprepared reader.  Pagels’ book is no exception, and a good part of it is not safe reading for someone who truly wants to understand modern physics.  (It is my opinion, as a partially-educated physicist, that someone who truly wants this understanding had better start by educating themselves in the appropriate math to handle the actual theories directly.  I believe that I have about 70% of what it may take to gain this understanding, which means I’m tortured by recognizing bad discussions of the theories in popularizations, but am not able to understand the actual theories in their full form).

Pagel’s book is separately into two significant parts.  In the first, he builds up the history and basic structure of the theory of quantum mechanics.  In this discussion, he does a fairly decent job with reducing the subject to terms for the layman without leading him too far off into the possibilities for misconception.  The second half is devoted to an understanding of particle physics and cosmology – and here I believe he moves beyond what he is able to describe carefully to an untrained mind.  Nonetheless, my interest is in the first part of the book. 

The crux of Pagels’ work lies in his development of a new position between the standard Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum mechanics, and the macroscopic world.  Pagels believes that the lack of objectivity in the microscopic world need not mean that there is a corresponding lack of objectivity in the macroscopic world.  His argument for this is based on thermodynamics, and in particular, in the second law of thermodynamics.  Pagels states that quantum mechanics is insensitive to the direction of time.  Specifically, that the governing equations and associated laws of the theory work equally well whether time moves forward or backward.  In fact, the renowned physicist Richard Feynman caused quite a stir among particle physicists when he proved that the behavior antimatter (existing as positrons and antiprotons, as well as many more exotic particles) can be alternatively described as normal matter moving backward in time. 

However, says Pagels, as one “zooms out” from a microscopic viewpoint, there comes a scale at which larger structures are seen to behave very differently dependent on the direction of time.  He gives the example of viewing the smoke from a pipe.  At a microscopic level, we see a random-looking motion of individual molecules.  At the critical scale, we begin to see the smoke leaving the pipe and dispersing irreversibly through the surrounding air.  Time has now taken on a permanent direction – the smoke is going to continue to disperse with time, not suddenly reverse and travel back into the pipe.  Pagels invokes the second law of thermodynamics – that entropy of a closed system will increase over long time averages – to explain his observation. 

To tie this observation to a statement about macroscopic objectivity, he then states that the flow of entropy is inherently related to the flow of information.  Humans acquire information only through massive averages of microscopic phenomena – we acquire only macroscopic information.  Since at the macroscopic scale the direction of time is fixed, information, once acquired, cannot be lost in principle.  Because of this fact, objective truth and causality are inherent in the macroscopic world.

Unfortunately, the presentation of this huge conclusion is all done within a page or two in The Cosmic Code, and I find it very difficult to fill in some of the gaps that have been left – both because of the brevity, and because the presentation is targeting a non-scientific audience.  Having thought over this interpretation for several weeks now, there are some significant problems that need to be investigated further for this to satisfy my own disillusionment with the quantum theory.  A key area of concern is the intersection between Pagels’ view of information, human epistemology, and the second law of thermodynamics.  A second concern is over the statement that humans only acquire information through massively averaged phenomena.  Beyond this, there are a few splinter questions that he has raised within the book, each deserving a separate discussion.

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