The debate on quantum idealism and science

Searching the web for references on the interpretations of quantum physics, particularly the idealistic one (which is just another name for the mind makes collapse interpretation), I stumbled on 2 blog articles by different authors.

Both authors are physicists, rationalists, logical positivists, well trained in quantum physics and supporting its standard Copenhagen interpretation.
Both are non-religious, and usually reject Christian views (apologetics and so-called "Christian science") as packs of anti-scientific fallacies.

And both were reviewing the same source of Christian apologetic videos : the "InspiringPhilosophy" YouTube Channel, which supports this "idealist" interpretation of quantum physics.

The titles they gave to their blog articles reviewing these videos, were respectively:

Here I will examine the arguments so as to sort things out.
Also because I am myself mixed between agreement and disagreement with these videos. Indeed, I have myself a similar background as the authors of both reviews, except that, instead of the Copenhagen interpretation (I explained the difference), I support this idealist interpretation of quantum physics which is presented in these videos.

So, unlike Luboš Motl, I agree with the main idea that is presented in these videos. However, I still do not agree with all the details they contain. I do find there a number of flaws, as is naturally expectable from the part of Christian apologists not well-trained in physics, trying to bring scientific arguments in the face of a large public. I understand that Luboš Motl did not care to point out these flaws because he had other points to make.

I will not make a full list of the flaws of the videos here, but focus on the points of criticism expressed by "AnticitizenX".

Before starting, let me reply to another article of his :

"nobody ever seems to give me a straight definition".

I do have a straight definition of free will, maybe not containing its full nature (which I don't think can ever be formulated), but at least a negative definition already sufficient to make it rigorously clear that it differs from the case it had no real meaning:

Free will is a kind of law of behavior that cannot be well approximated by any algorithmically expressible probabilistic law.

For more precise mathematical details of what this means in terms of information entropy, please refer to my pdf presentation of the mind/mathematics duality.
This statement is experimentally falsifiable as expressed in the following (roughly) equivalent form:

Artificial intelligence cannot pass the Turing test

A version somewhat longer I once wrote:
Free will is the paradoxical (but coherent) combination of determination and indetermination, which is similar to the one that can be found in mathematics, on the one hand in algorithmic (halting problem), on the other hand as especially demonstrated by Tarski's Truth Undefinabiliity Theorem, that is : the actual outcome cannot be predicted in advance because "correct prediction" would require the full underlying stuff to be correctly produced in the way it is indeed actually produced, stuff which only comes at the time and place where it comes to produce it in reality. With the difference that free will is a behavior of the mind which is not mathematical, which precisely means (as concerns the non-algorithmicity) that Artificial Intelligence cannot pass the Turing test.
More remarks about time (unpredictability) and about the non-algorithmicity of the mind.

So, reading further his "challenge":

"Across from you are what appear to be two identical twins.  They look the same, they act the same, and in all physical respects, they are as alike as two people can possibly be. However, there is one key distinction that exists between them: one of them has free will, while the other one does not. (...) Your only job is to tell me which is which. Which one has free will and which one does not?"

My answer is simple : if they are physically identical, and one has free will but the one hasn't (is a zombie), then they do not act the same. They can be distinguished by their behavior. The zombie's behavior is best described as obeying the probability law given by quantum mechanics (something usually not observed; still I guess it sometimes happens and is then qualified as a sort of coma); the one with free will is visibly departing from this law. (See more comments on the experimental testing of free will)

Now I will reply to the article on quantum mechanics and idealism point by point.


"Because unlike idealists, I've actually studied quantum mechanics (...) none of you dumb-asses understand quantum mechanics"
Unlike these idealists, yes. It is a pity for me to see incompetent people gathering the bulk of public attention as defenders of a view I support, and this way more or less discrediting this view by their way of posing as its official defenders, in the eyes of scientists who obviously won't be convinced by such methods (at least those not mastering well enough these specific topics to be immune from the repelling effect of this sociological observation). As a saying goes, a view suffers not as much of being strongly opposed, than of being terribly defended.
Now the question is to distinguish between "these idealists" and "all idealists". But, as the difference is a matter of whether competent idealist exists, the question of this existence may be interpreted in 2 ways: as a matter of necessity (scientific fact) or as a matter of sociological accident.
My view is that it is a matter of sociological accident : that too few competent scientists happened to come and work on supporting this view, and the few who did, unfortunately did not happen to do it well enough. This is why I decided to bring my own works on the topic.

Number 1

"The heart and soul of all quantum mechanics is the Schrödinger equation"

Thanks, I know well this equation, I studied it. After this I also started learning Quantum Field theory, which has its own formalism, that looks different but with essentially the same properties with respect to the famous paradoxes about measurement. I also studied and understood the concept of density operator, and the formulation of the phenomenon of decoherence that we can deduce from it.
So I consider to know well what is the heart and soul of quantum mechanics : this a specific kind of mathematical structure which may take different forms depending on the context and purpose of the particular problem that is considered. It happens to take the form of the Schrödinger equation in cases where the non-relativistic applies, but it takes different form in a relativistic context. But I found a way to sum up the core expression of this mathematical structure in relatively simple terms independently of that kind of context : I expressed it terms of a few principles as I explained in my page of introduction to the concepts of quantum states and measurement.
So, I do see it essential to really and correctly explain the core mathematical structure of quantum physics in order for a debate on its interpretations to make sense. However, this turns out to be not as hard to properly understand as this criticism assumes. In these conditions, I see it not so absurd to consider the possibility of drawing clear conclusions from these and correctly explaining them to the public, though I do not consider this to have been done correctly enough in these videos yet (some things were correct, but unfortunately mixed with some errors). And I am convinced that this cleaner formulation I brought, will also contribute to make the idealistic interpretation look more directly natural. 

Of course, you may wonder : if it is so relatively simple to express the core mathematical concepts of quantum physics, why was this not already taught to you like this in official courses on the subject ? This is a long story, which I commented here in length (focusing on the case of relativity theory instead). See also my links page on the problems with the academic system, particularly my quote from Richard Conn Henry there.

Then, apart from how the academic system makes it more difficult than necessary to understand hard physics, the other reason why there appears so many uneducated people filling the space of claims on the connection between quantum physics and consciousness, is not that there is anything particularly incompatible with science in the idea of such a link, but that the world is full of idiots trying to put forward pseudo-scientific speculations in general.

Indeed a lot of pseudo-science is regularly produced by amateurs without any serious understanding of the core maths of what they are talking about, trying to "resolve the paradoxes" of quantum physics (and the same for relativity) by proposing theories which look more "reasonable" in their eyes, precisely because they are more "mechanical", getting rid of the role of the observer so as to better satisfy their materialistic prejudices... as they fail to have learned and understood the evidence of the fact that all this category of ideas has already been proven fundamentally incompatible with scientific data since long ago. Luboš Motl abundantly reported about this sociological fact already, and I did it too in my adventure with the fqxi essay contest.

Number 2

"... in order to effectively engage in quantum mechanics, you have to embrace several key principles of logical positivism (...); principles, I might add, that Christian idealists are all more than happy to reject at almost every opportunity..."

This claim may induce confusion by the choice of subject: "Christian idealists". The problem is, Christianity is one thing, but idealism is another. So, while it is possible that, indeed, "Christian idealists" reject the principles of logical positivism (though I did not stumble on explicit declarations yet), this claim fails to specify whether it is supposed to be because they are Christians, or because they are idealists. So we have here 2 different topics to discuss:

Topic 1 : Christianity vs. logical positivism. As far as I can see, they are indeed opposed. I have my own long and painful experience of how Christians keep all sorts of beliefs as matters of moral principle, independently of any possibility for these beliefs to be verified or falsified, including how they so often manage to preserve their beliefs by fleeing and "criminalizing" any attempt to report evidences of their falsity. Still, beyond this observation of their clearly wrong and harmful ways of rejecting logical positivism in action, I also quickly found references confirming that they also explicitly reject logical positivism in theory :

For more explanations on how religion is precisely made harmful by its rejection of logical positivism, see Greta Christina's article : The Armor of God, the same idea being developed in that video (starting at minute 26).

Topic 2 : Idealism vs. logical positivism. Unlike Christianity, I find idealism as perfectly compatible with logical positivism. First because some of its basic principles, particularly the existence of free will, are directly expressible in logical positivist terms as I did above. Second, because both are very similar in their principles : idealism says "Conscious experiences (in the sense of a universal consciousness beyond individual ones, that may seem inaccessible only in usual approximations) are all what exists". Logical positivism says "Claims are only meaningful (legitimate objects of science) insofar as they are potentially verifiable", i.e. expectations on possible conscious experiments".

By the way, this fundamental similarity between idealism and the logical positivism of quantum physics, was the basic motivation for Luboš Motl's praise of these videos.

To make it clear how Christianity and the mind makes collapse interpretation should not be confused, you can refer to this article : A Theological Argument for an Everett Multiverse, by a high-level physicist who is Evangelical Christian.

Number 3

"Quantum idealists constantly argue from authority in place of actual argument."

Personally I don't argue from authority. I write my own exposition of arguments on what is wrong in other interpretations, analyzed one by one (Copenhagen, hidden variables, Many Worlds, Spontaneous collapse). Many of these arguments are quoted from (or similar to) what I could find in other sources (scientific articles); I also understood them as valid by myself, so that I also engage my own responsibility in quoting them. A few more arguments are my own.

"several of his most key arguments are supported almost entirely by the abject say-so of completely obscure figures with no authority at all.  (...). I don't know any nice way to say this, but Henry Stapp is a complete scientific nobody"

I'm not going to defend Henry Stapp as any good scientific reference.
See my detailed comments about Henry Stapp moved to a separate page.

Now, we are in a terrible situation : there is a vague general idea of relating quantum physics with consciousness, that many people can intuitively feel, but only a few actors on the scene, most of whom are pulling into different directions :
... and the list remains open.

Now, this big mess of many mutually incompatible views might look fun and stimulating from a viewpoint of journalists just trying to entertain the imagination of an ignorant public, but is dramatically dividing the credibility of the whole issue from a scientific viewpoint. Indeed, when many mutually incompatible ideas are out there, not more than one of them has a chance to be the right one, so that, for this simple reason, when someone undertakes to report all of them, it is already pretty clear that he is spending most of his time spreading bullshit. And if ever one of them was indeed right, then how could we understand that he did not yet manage to convince more people into his own version of things already, since the long time that the debate was in the air ?
This is one of the very characters of pseudo-science, that its many members remain durably dispersed into mutually incompatible ideas, unable to reach a consensus on what should be held as the correct picture of things.
And it can indeed be seen as a violation of the basic principles of scientific deontology, to try making use of the popularity of an incoherent mess of random crazy speculations... and go pretend that this may be any sign of... more reliable reference of scientific credibility than what is directly expressed by the overall position of the physicists community itself. No such a method can be taken seriously by scientists.

But on the other hand, for the very reason that this messy situation makes the field look so unscientific and thus unattractive to serious physicists, these serious physicists are naturally tempted to stay away from that pool of ideas (either that it looks unserious to them, and/or they don't want to run the risk to be seen unserious themselves if they do), meanwhile leaving unscientific cranks as the only actors on the scene, thus perpetuating the trouble as a vicious circle. This is why I still ultimately see no nonsense in regarding the whole fuss as a mere sociological accident rather than indicative of any underlying scientific necessity.

So, in order to raise the scientific level of the issue, I consider necessary to start by making a big clean-up in the list of references, even if we might regret the resulting small size of the community in the short-term.

A minimum necessary care would consist in first working to form a circle of experts to debate and try forming one or several consensus, making it clear :
before going to explain to the public: what exactly is the picture of expert views, how many different views there are and how much support (and by whom) each view got.

Forget (leave out of the main consensus) Penrose&Hameroff, Stapp, Hoffman, Whitworth, and any similar authors of random speculations, as well any involvement of quantum gravity concepts which are out of subject here. (Penrose made good remarks on the non-algorithmicity of the mind in connection with the incompleteness theorem, but had no good idea on how to make things physically fit together, despite the fact he was otherwise a good physicist).

For the philosophical side of things, you can of course refer to Chalmers, R.C.Henry (be careful, he was sometimes careless about details, we need more care to form a solid expression of things), and quite a number of others. Henry Stapp also made some good philosophical remarks, but need to not follow him in his technical mistakes. For example in this series of video interviews I liked those of Menas Kafatos, Lothar Schafer, and Subhash Kak (the same are also there). And in that other one in the same site : D.Chalmers, Andrei Linde.

For the physics side, focus on the well-established scientific core : Von Neumann, Wigner, Schmidt and Walker ; the concept and properties of decoherence. Care providing a deep scientific understanding of these facts, for which my educational work can be useful.
Wheeler also has some clues but also confusions (be careful to not over-interpret his retro-causality concepts, since the same physical stuff can be read in different orders: see my comments on the EPR paradox and how to interpret it, in particular in the delayed choice experiment)

Because I found these well-established physical facts as already sufficient to complete the understanding of the physical side of the mind/matter interaction. We don't need to invent another physics. We only need to grasp these known physical things well on the one side, explain some metaphysics on the other side, and then just observe how elegantly these 2 sides of the interface directly fit each other (of course not specifying all details, but at least how they can fit in principle).

And the way they fit can be simply summed up as follows :
The physical universe is the trajectory of a visit of consciousness in the mathematical universe : a part of the mathematical universe which is distinguished by the event of being consciously perceived. At every conscious time, the state of the physical universe is the mathematical projection in the Hilbert space, of the universal conscious memory of all past physical perceptions.
Also refer to the scientific debate between the diverse interpretations (Wallace, Genovese, and others; I collected a list of references ; an entertaining video debate is also available.

Number 4

"The entire idealist argument relies on aspects of quantum mechanics that are known to be unresolved mysteries. what is the proper physical interpretation of a wave function? What constitutes a "measurement?""
The wave function is known to be the basic object of physics. More precisely, the state of a physical system is best defined to be the density operator, which is related to the concept of wave function in a well-known mathematical manner.
Still a number of people have troubles to accept this fact because of some philosophical prejudices which they want to keep disregarding the known scientific evidence: they have their own a priori opinion that the physical world ought to be based on some kind of thing which they could qualify as "physical", to fit some a priori sense of what they want to mean by this word, and they feel unhappy because what was discovered in physics as the form of basic objects, did not meet their expectation. So they wish to "interpret" what was found, in terms of what they expect. Of course it will forever remain a "mystery" how 2 things might fit when they actually don't. So they have some candidates, which they found to be unsatisfactory. On the other hand, it is possible to understand things in an idealistic way that perfectly fits. Unfortunately, despite its simplicity, this solution remains ignored in debates. One of the main reasons for this seems to be that they just did not happen to hear and grasp a clean version of this concept.

"Do particles obey local realism or not? "
This is not any mystery : it has been scientifically proven that they don't.

"These are all actively debated questions in quantum mechanics with no real consensus beyond the standard Copenhagen interpretation."

Yes I know, I have studied these debates as I already mentioned above (Number 3). I watched this video, and studied the article State of Play by David Wallace, among many other sources. Unfortunately, they are only analyzing and comparing diverse naturalistic interpretations, that is, not including the mind makes collapse interpretation in their comparative analysis. So, despite their huge effort effort to develop naturalistic interpretations, usually motivated by their a priori wish to eliminate any fundamental role of conscious observers from the picture, they still could not find any clearly acceptable one.

Apart from both above mentioned factors (the role of prejudices and the lack of publicly known precise expression of the mind makes collapse interpretation), we can also find in that video (around 51:00) another sort of reason why they did not include it in their debates : there is no equation to describe consciousness and the way it collapses the wave function. If there was any equation for this, we could use it to mathematically analyze how it works, how coherent it is, and can we find any defects there. Without any equations, such an analysis cannot be developed as an academic work. Unfortunately, since the very nature of consciousness and the wave function collapse is that they are non-physical, which precisely means that they cannot be described by any equation, there no way for this requirement to ever be satisfied.

And for the same reason that the mind makes collapse interpretation cannot be expressed in terms of equations, to deduce lots of complicated consequences or possible defects lists, there is a sort of impossibility to publish tons of articles about it in physics journals. Somehow, Henry did publish articles (see my selection of relevant ones in references): especially one in Nature, and some unofficial pages of comments about others works. He formulated there things as follows : "let me offer the Henry interpretation: There is no actually existing universe at all. The universe is purely mental.".
Of course, the temptation is natural to misinterpret this lack of tons of publications on the Henry interpretation as if it was any sign of invalidity. It isn't.

Number 5

Of course this involvement of the hologram concept was ridiculously out of subject here. They may have been mislead by the fact that nobody yet had the courage to delete or at least include strong warnings of non-scientificity in the wikipedia articles about Bohm's ideas of "implicate and explicate orders" and related pseudo-holographic stuff, a sociological phenomenon similar to what I once experienced about Scale Relativity.

However, not only we can make predictions as above mentioned, but lots of experimental results have already been obtained since long : that is the whole field of parapsychology. The only problem is, these results are subtle, not easy to reproduce. Like in any scientific field, a significant amount of training is needed to figure out what exactly this large body of experiments and observations says, and assess it properly, so as to really understand the reasons for some possible conclusions. What often happens is that "skeptics" only have a quick superficial look at it and just rationalize the small pieces of data they look at as explainable by chance, fraud, delusion, or anything like this. But by their superficial, naive way of looking and accusing of pseudo-science their opponents, they are behaving in a pseudo-scientific manner themselves.
I initially got to know about this phenomenon some time ago as I developed this page in French criticizing the French skeptic movement, "Zététique".

Related pages

A call to clarify the debate on the links between quantum physics and consciousness
Specifications for a Mind Makes Collapse interpretation of quantum physics
A mind/mathematics dualistic foundation of physical reality
Introduction to quantum physics (notions of states and measurements)
Main page of arguments on quantum physics interpretations
On materialism and its pathological pseudo-arguments far from science