Einstein, Quantum Mechanics, and the Human Mind

This post was motivated by my reading of the Cover Story, State of Mind, by Matthew Chalmers in the 10 May 2014 issue of The New Scientist.  Einstein’s Theory of General  Relativity accounts for a large amount of the behavior of the physical world.  It is deterministic, predicting what follows what.  Quantum mechanics accounts for the physical behavior on a very small scale and accounts for subatomic behavior.  However, at this small scale, the behavior is not strictly determined.  It is probabilistic.  Moreover, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the location and the velocity cannot be determined at the same time.  One or the other can be measured, but the measurement itself produces change.  Einstein could not accept quantum physics.  He said that God does not play dice with the universe.  Yet quantum physics works quite well, and a fair amount of modern technology results from quantum physics.

In the quantum world objects exist in a fuzzy combination of states, and the very act of measuring them forces them to adopt a specific state.  Einstein spent the latter part of his career trying to reconcile his theory with quantum physics.  Einstein, with all his genius, failed to do so.  Many prominent physicists have continued Einstein’s quest, but all have failed to do so.

Now there is a theory that reconciles the two different theories, but it does not do so in the physical world, but rather in our minds.  It is called quantum bayesianism (QBism).  Thomas Bayes formulated a theorem named after him that computes how probability changes after new information is added.  There is a Bayesian approach to statistics that incorporates the concept of subjective probability.  This approach is quite popular with cognitive psychologists.  QBism states that quantum states are all in our minds.  They are just a mental tool that we use to understand our variable experience in the world.

This reminds me of an experience I had earlier in my life.  This was with a bright young physicist who had difficulty coming to grips with the concept that light could be regarded as waves, or as discrete particles of photons.  As a psychologist, this had never been a problem for me as I did not, and still not, think that we have direct contact with the physical world.  We learn about the physical world through our senses from which we build mental models of external reality.   I have since learned that the 18th century philosopher Kant held the same or a similar notion.  He thought that there is no direct experience of things, and that we construct in our minds models from sensory inputs.  In the case of light, wave theories are the best way to think about some phenomena, and particle theories are the best way to think about other phenomena   In the case of physics, Einstein provides the best models for thinking about the larger physical world, whereas quantum mechanics provides the best models for thinking about the subatomic world.
A good example of this categorical perception can be found in the processing of language.
There is a phoneme in both Korean and Japanese that falls half way between an r sound and an l sound.  This sound is quite clear to Koreans and Japanese, but I always hear either an r or an l.  Difficulty arises on their side when they are speaking and “ I love you” comes out as “I rove you.”
Perhaps with enough training I can overcome this faulty perception.  Certainly Japanese and Koreans who become fluent in English certainly do.

Returning to the world of physics, it is possible that some theoretical physicist will develop a means of reconciling the two theories.  And that theory might provide deeper insight into the discipline of physics, although it is highly doubtful that I shall be able to understand it.  In any case, this is not something for the rest of us to be concerned with as our minds shall  continue to construct mental models as they are needed.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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