In last week’s podcast,,” our guest host, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, interviewed idealist philosopher of science and physicistBruce Gordon on how the quantum physics that underlies our universe makes much more sense if we have a non-materialist view of reality. Even then, it challenges our conventional view of how nature “must” work: We were introduced to the quantum eraser experiment, which showed that what happens at the level of individual particles depends on whether you choose to measure it or not and to non-locality, the Cheshire Cat’s science of being in no one particular place at any time. Particles can do that even if we can’t. But wait: Is it possible that things larger than particles can in fact do that (macroscopic superpositions)?
This portion begins at 25:40 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.
Bruce Gordon: One of the things that we didn’t talk about is the possibility of macroscopic superpositions as well. Well, of course there are examples of this under special laboratory conditions. Large organic molecules have been put into superposition.
In the context of superconductivity, you’ve got something called squids, and we’re not talking about cephalopods here. We’re talking about superconducting quantum interference devices. In that context on a macroscopic level, occurrence have been put into superposition. So that you’ve got, for example, billions of electrons moving clockwise around a superconducting ring, superimposed on similarly billions of electrons moving anti-clockwise. So the two are put into superposition that way.
Note: Here’s a open access paper at Nature discussing macroscopic superposition: Johnsson, M., Brennen, G. & Twamley, J. Macroscopic superpositions and gravimetry with quantum magnetomechanics. Sci Rep 6, 37495 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep37495 Molecules can be superposed.
Bruce Gordon (pictured): So what’s going on there is, you can’t have substantial objects in superposition that way, if they’re materially substantial. But they can be superimposed as a projection on our mental environment, without any difficulty. It’s like a projection on the screen of our consciousness of two incompatible classical states, that cannot be substantial materially, but can be superimposed mentally.
We are standing as an observer outside that superposition observing it. We are not in superposition ourselves. Which I think in a way speaks towards something that can be said in response to the many-worlds interpretation. But nonetheless, that’s just an added element of the peculiarity of the quantum world as it creeps up, or percolates up into our experiential reality. We can make it percolate up into our experiential reality under special laboratory conditions. Which is why we haven’t noticed it in previous centuries. It’s taken modern technology and the exploration of reality at its most fundamental level that modern technology has made possible, to reveal this aspect of the nature of the world, and of the nature of reality to us.
Michael Egnor: Although I must say that Heisenberg, who was philosophically a rather sophisticated physicist, commented that “The phenomenon of quantum collapse was presaged in many ways by Aristotle.’s notion of the reduction of potency to act.” That is, reality can exist in potential states, but actuality is a single state. Heisenberg was quite impressed with the notion that Aristotle had a deeper insight into these dynamics. That insight was sort of lost with the Newtonian physics. So maybe science is just rediscovering Aristotle.
Bruce Gordon: Okay. I’m sympathetic to the idea of potentiality inhering in superposed states and then expressing itself through decoherence — a wave function collapsed, depending on how you’re describing it, as actuality. So yes. But what’s going on underneath the surface of decoherence is essentially a destructive interference of potentiality.
Michael Egnor: Right, right. One other thing I’ll just quickly mention that absolutely fascinated me was that Thomas Aquinas, extending Aristotle’s psychology, pointed out that in order to understand, or to perceive an object in the external environment, our intellect or our senses must grasp its form.
Grasping the form is the process of understanding. But St. Thomas pointed out that in order to be grasped, the form must be reduced from potency to act. It must become actual, not merely a potential. Which to me sounds just like the observer effect in quantum mechanics — that is, to observe something our mind must make it actual, to grasp its form.
Bruce Gordon: Yes. One has to render it as a concrete particular for the purpose of grasping it and understanding it. I don’t disagree and there is that kind of confluence of ideas that you’re describing.
Michael Egnor (pictured): You can even ask how an observer or a scientist could understand the quantum system, if the quantum system were not reduced from potentiality to actuality? How can you understand something that’s only potential if there is no actuality to it?
Bruce Gordon: Right. It is the interaction if you like, of potentiality and actuality in that peculiarly quantum mechanical way that gave rise to the science.
Next: How does quantum mechanics shed light on consciousness?
Here are the first two parts of this podcast:
IS the moon there if no one looks? Or is there no “there” there? Elementary particles do not need to be in a particular place until they are observed and then that’s where they are. The spins of elementary particles can be separated from their positions, just as the grin was separated from the Cheshire Cat.
In quantum physics, “reality” really is what we choose to observe Physicist Bruce Gordon argues that idealist philosophy is the best way to make sense of the puzzling world of quantum physics. The quantum eraser experiment shows that there is no reality independent of measurement at the microphysical level. It is created by the measurement itself.
Here are stories from Bruce Gordon’s previous podcast with host Michael Egnor, where he defends idealism as a way of making sense of nature:
Why idealism is actually a practical philosophy. Not what you heard? Philosopher of science — and pianist — Bruce Gordon says, think again. Is reality fundamentally more like a mind than a physical object? Many are sure of the answer without understanding the question.
A physicist and philosopher examines panpsychism. Idealism says everything is an idea in the mind of God. Panpsychism says everything participates in consciousness (thus is not just an idea). Bruce Gordon thinks that, for a thing to be conscious, there must be something that it “is like” to be that thing. Can panpsychism demonstrate that?
- 00:23 | Introducing Dr. Bruce Gordon
- 03:03 | The mind-dependent character of reality
- 06:50 | What counts as a measurement?
- 12:36 | The phenomenon of non-localizability of individual particles
- 14:34 | The quantum Cheshire Cat phenomenon
- 17:18 | The idealist perspective
- 18:37 | Wrapping in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought
- Dr. Bruce Gordon at Discovery.org
- N. David Mermin, physics professor at Cornell University
- Werner Heisenberg, German theoretical physicist