Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment designed to point out the silliness of over-interpreting quantum mechanics. It was devised in 1935. Alas: the silliness remains
This Atlantic article was published back in April but it has come to my attention only recently. Two friends have independently sent it to me in the last month and asked for my thoughts.
It’s an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California. It’s about consciousness and how to approach it as a scientific problem.
Parts of the article make sense. For example, Hoffman argues that quantum mechanics cannot be overlooked in any scientific explanation of consciousness. Quantum mechanics is the physics of tiny things — molecules and atoms and nuclei and quarks — and it is completely different from the circuits-and-pulleys stuff that most neuroscience majors learn in introductory physics. It is counterintuitive and very hard to get used to. And it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that the large-scale activity of a system as complex as the human brain may depend on things that happen on the quantum scale.
But man is this article annoying. It’s a textbook example of a genre of scientific-ish writing that should have a name but I can’t think of a suitable one at the moment.
This genre is distinguished by three marks. First is its premise, which is expressed nicely in the article’s title: “The Case Against Reality.” Under this title are statements like, “The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality,” and, in Hoffman’s words, “snakes and trains have no objective features.” The point seems to be that, since the world we perceive, including snakes and trains, is composed of tiny quantum particles, and since tiny quantum particles obey laws that are alien to our senses, then the world as we know it is an illusion. It is the quantum version of a uniquely modern gotcha: “What you know is completely wrong.”
This genre’s second feature is a super genius explaining why what you know is completely wrong. But invariably the explanation only thickens the fog. Both of my friends who shared the article with me are college-educated and quite intelligent, but even they couldn’t make sense of it.
The third, and really vexing, mark of the genre (my how it needs a name) is that what it says is true-ish, usually in a narrow, reductive sense. For example, a table seems like a simple thing until you start asking questions about it. And those questions don’t end — they lead you down a molecular-optical-quantum-subnuclear hole that assuredly has no bottom. The more questions you answer, the more new questions appear. And the new questions and their answers get stranger and less intuitive and more abstract as you go. Trying to get a handle on reality in this way is not possible because it’s always slipping between your fingers (btw the Buddhists have known this for thousands of years).
Hoffman uses as an example a square blue file icon on your computer desktop. He says that the specifics of what we sense — small, square, blue — have no connection to the underlying reality, which is a zillion transistors set in a specific pattern on some chip deep in the computer’s guts. The square blue icon stands in for a reality we don’t have time to worry about. It helps us get through the day — survive, in a Darwinian sense — and that’s all it does. In the same way, Hoffman says, our perception of snakes and trains (and tables) has no clear connection to the underlying nature of these things. Our perceptions are merely symbolic. So he seems to say.
But at what level do things stop getting symbolic and start getting “real”? At what point down the hole do you say, “This is it. This is reality”? What does “real” even look like? How would we recognize it? What is an atom or a proton or a quark? Do we know these things better than we know tables? Why would we pick the molecular or atomic or nuclear or subnuclear level over any other? And why not go the other way? Physics on superbig scales is also different from our everyday physics (see general relativity, dark energy).
What really grates is the easy moral: There is no reality. “The idea that what we’re measuring are publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go,” Hoffman says. But no sober physicist would talk this way about anything but individual electrons or nuclei or atoms. Or maybe tiny groups of them. They would never say that a snake or a train or a table is not a publicly accessible object. The physicist would tell us that the rules change at larger scales. They become less prone to statistics and quantum uncertainty. They get more, well, “publicly accessible.”
Make no mistake: quantum mechanics is wonderful and exciting and mind-bending stuff. It offers lessons worth learning. It is hard to teach or even talk about without losing one’s composure. But: snakes and trains have no objective features? Let’s not lose our senses as well.
Vaughn Fender, Elijah Fed by Ravens (2013) for the Old and New Project
THE DAYS ARE dark in Israel. The Davidic monarchy has long since fallen apart and King Ahab has made an unholy alliance with the neighboring nation of Phoenicia. His worship of foreign gods is problematic, as is his refusal to do what Yahweh plainly tells him to do. The Old Testament litany — “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” — applies fully to Ahab. Accordingly, the people suffer.
So Elijah, at the bidding of the Lord, gives Ahab a piece of his mind. He tells the monarch to straighten up or God will send a drought on the land. Having delivered his message, Elijah heads for the wilderness, where even a king cannot find him, to wait out the dark, dry days:
The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.
1 Kings 17.2-6
Now, a word about Mickey.
Mickey is my friend. He is kind and thoughtful. A week or two before the election we were standing around yakking at the church. He said, “You know, Paul, regardless of how this election goes, we have a lot of work to do here in America. No one is listening to anyone, we seem to have turned against one another, we have lost sight of courtesy and mutual respect. This hostility prevents us from acknowledging even simple facts and basic reason.” He was right, and it’s clear that that things are no better today, post-election.
We as a nation have entered the wilderness. Not a wilderness to which God has sent us for our protection, but a wilderness of incivility and insecurity and insularity. What are we to do with ourselves?
One thing we could do is take note of the wilderness. This time I mean the one that scurries and flits in your backyard, the one that turns silently over your house at night, the one that pushes its way up between the cracks in your driveway, the one that churns in your very body. The one in which you have lived every day of your life, that you are a part of, that sustains you and provides for you and is your very source. That wilderness stands ready to be valued and loved regardless of what happens in Washington. We might as well value and love it; our dependence on it is complete.
As was Elijah’s. He relied on the wilderness to survive a dark and dangerous time. It was God’s good pleasure for things with feathers to attend to the “troubler of Israel” (Ahab’s name for the prophet). Birds brought him what he needed. They pulled him through and gave him his future. They brought strength when Elijah had none.
This is what the towhees and the thrashers and the kinglets do for me. They bring strength. They set my heart at rest. They take me out of self-concern and worry about my country and my life and connect me to my source. They bring me hope. Their serenity makes me less likely to snap at people. Their beauty helps me see the same in those I disagree with. Their simplicity inspires me to purge the non-essentials that clutter my mind and my life. Like ravens, the birds I mention are not flashy. They’re as common as grass. The wilderness is now, and very present.
Maybe birds aren’t your thing. Perhaps you prefer flowers, or the night sky (another of my favorites, right up there with birds), or your pet cat, or the silence and darkness of a morning walk. Maybe you’re a fool for a sunset or horses or seashells or rainbows. Maybe you prefer relativity or genetics or neuroscience or particle physics. These are all faces of the wilderness. They all bring us what we need: serenity, wonder, connection, admiration for the neighborhood.
The wilderness is healing and thoroughly good because God shines through it, all of it. This light can be hard to see but I tell you it’s there. Keep looking — the wilderness never disappoints.
Scott Simmons, Eastern Phoebe (2013)
THERE IS A quiet clearing alongside a pond in the forest not far from here.
That’s how I like to think about it, anyway, because it sounds like I live in the deep woods, perhaps in some magnificent and lonesome boreal expanse, which I do not. I live in Decatur, Georgia, a small city. Atlanta, which you may have heard of, is a suburb of Decatur. So it’s more accurate to say:
There is a grassy patch surrounded by some trees and a retention basin not far from here.
These trees and this basin are themselves surrounded by streets and cars and city buses and old closely-spaced houses. The pond is sealed behind a chain-link fence, which itself is covered in kudzu. So you cannot actually see the water without some effort. A concrete manhole juts out of the grass near the center of the patch. Immediately to the north is the college running track. Just beyond this is the science building (“here”), the college, and downtown Decatur: hulking public buildings, banks, schools, restaurants, bars, shops, churches, train stations, pedestrians galore. Surrounding Decatur is the metro itself, 5.5 million souls getting through the day, every day. The interstates never sleep. Overhead, jets fly into and out of ATL without letup. It’s a noisy and bright place.
This is not only accurate, it is good. I love my city.
But I also love my quiet clearing alongside the pond in the forest. On better days I walk over to it and sit for a few minutes to pray and meditate as I’m able. I imagine I’m in a far northern wood, a thousand miles from civilization. I take my binoculars and scope the place out.
There’s always something. Some days it’s a new species like a grosbeak or Tennessee warbler. Sometimes I get an excellent look at a familiar but stunning bird like a pileated woodpecker. One day an eastern towhee, a secretive and beautiful creature, hopped within a few feet of me, totally unaware of my presence. I nearly had a heart attack.
Sometimes the pleasures are less obvious. Last Friday afternoon I walked over and sat down. The sun was low and nothing AT ALL was happening. The crows and jays and cardinals and thrashers that usually fill the place were absent. With no birds to occupy my attention I became aware of the fact that I was worried. My worry is always there but I can only hear it when it’s quiet and I’m not distracted. It goes something like this:
The kids are not okay.
I am a not a good father.
My country is going to hell.
I do not like my neck.
I will not see a total solar eclipse before I die.
I will die.
Each thought a dull blow to my soul.
I inhaled and started counting out my breaths because that’s what all the super-balanced mindfulness people say to do.
Then a small bird landed on the uppermost branch of a very tall tree on the far side of the basin. I pulled up my binoculars and got a fix on it. The sky was bright behind it so I could see only its silhouette. It was an eastern phoebe. I knew this by the way it continuously worked its tail like a stir stick. I had read about phoebes doing that, and there it was! A tiny but real connection and a funny thing to see. He sat way up there stirring and surveying like the Swizzle King of Atlanta. It spotted a flying bug and went after it and returned to its perch. It did this a few more times and then zipped away for good.
I stood up and left the place.
On the way back the low sun and yellow leaves reminded me of Dad. I missed him so suddenly that it took my breath away. I stood for a few minutes in the shade, looking up at the trees. A Delta jet, banking north, flashed high above them. I knew it was Delta because of the red tail. I thought of the trips he took with me to India, to the UK, to Eastern Europe. He was an excellent travel partner.
Worry is about me. Grief is about everything. It is fundamental, cosmic, and unpolluted by ego. It comes like quicksilver out of its hiding place at the center of the universe and cuts me clean open, exposing me to the noise and light of the world, leaving me standing, poor and empty and free, in the midst of the city I love.
Alan Dyer, Milky Way Amid the Trees (2012)
“I walked in complete darkness. Other than the asphalt under my feet, the only way to tell I was on track was to look up — stars shining between the trees created a kind of overhead reflection of the road, making it easy to follow.” — Stars Beneath Us, p 129
Make a gift of SBU today and help secure a shining future for all of us.
Over the weekend I discovered that I’m very close to making up my advance for Stars Beneath Us. This means I will see my first-ever royalty checks next year. They will not represent vast sums (although they might; see below), but they will be concrete evidence that a longstanding and deeply personal dream of mine has been realized.
Then there was last Tuesday. In the face the election I’ve decided to do something beyond forming and voicing my opinion and voting, which is all I’ve ever done in support of politics. Until now I’ve never supported any organization or movement with a clear policy agenda. That’s about to change. Global warming and renewable energy are two issues close to me and my work, and I will donate all royalties from sales of Stars Beneath Us made between today and 31 December 2017 to the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose mission is to
develop and implement innovative, practical solutions to some of our planet’s most pressing problems–from combating global warming and developing sustainable ways to feed, power, and transport ourselves, to fighting misinformation, advancing racial equity, and reducing the threat of nuclear war.
The UCS has received the highest ratings from all the major charity watchdogs. After several days of research I’ve decided it’s the right organization to support. They do what they say they’re going to do, and have results to show for it.
The holiday season is upon us, and it’s a good time to think of friends or family who may be interested in Stars Beneath Us, a science and religion book unlike any other. It’s one of a series called Theology for the People, and that’s exactly who it’s for. It rejects abstraction in favor of a more personal and narrative style and is, in the words of one reviewer, “a seamless blend of story and theory, biblical texts and scientific concepts.”
If you’d like to give a personalized copy to some special person for Christmas, please contact me here. I will let you know how to get the book to me. Once I receive it I’ll write in it whatever note you think appropriate, sign it, and send it within 48 hours to the domestic address of your choice. All this at no extra cost to you!
Not a bad deal: A personalized copy and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped secure the future of our bright little corner of the cosmos.
Thanks for considering it!