Monday, April 17, 2017

There is no quantum world

Physicist N. David Mermin wrote:
If you ask Google to search for “no quantum world,” you will get nearly 300 hits. They all give the following quotation (or recognizable corruptions of it):
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
Over 90% of them attribute the statement to Niels Bohr, with phrases like “Bohr’s dictum ...,” “Bohr insisted that ...,” “Bohr proclaimed ...,” “Niels Bohr said, in a frequently quoted passage ...,” “Niels Bohr wrote [my emphasis] ...,” and even “Explain and evaluate Bohr’s philosophy of quantum theory with reference to his assertion ... .”
Mermin is unable to confirm that Bohr said exactly those words, and gets conflicting opinions about whether it correctly reflects what Bohr did say.

The respected philosophy professor Harvey R. Brown writes in a new paper:
Of course, for the post-1927 Einstein the wavefunction is, as we have seen, essentially a probability distribution over hidden ontic states; it is (at least) these ontic states that correspond to a "concept" that is "independent of experience", if we are "thinking physically". According to Einstein, orthodox quantum mechanics is incomplete precisely because it does not specify what such ontic states are. The idea that quantum physics can do without them altogether seems to me to be antithetical to Einstein’s program, metaphysically shy though it is.
Brown goes on to criticize those who claim to have some interpretation of quantum mechanics consistent with the above Einsteinian realism, such as the version of QBism by Fuchs.

Lubos Motl has a new rant against John Preskill largely for having some of those same Einsteinian views about quantum reality.

Bohr's quote that there is no quantum world means that there are no Einsteinian hidden ontic states. It is a firmly positivist view. The XX century has proved the Bohr view to be correct (whether he said it exactly that way or not).

Update: A comment says of Bohr:
He invariably made ontologically neutral statements, such as "The formalism is to be regarded as a tool for deriving predictions, of definite or statistical character...".
That is how I interpreted "there is no quantum world", but I guess two views are possible: (1) there is no underlying ontology; or (2) quantum mechanics does not rely on an underlying ontology. The latter is the more positivist view, and presumably Bohr's view as well.

The possibility of these two interpretations may explain why Mermin had trouble confirming the quote.

Positivism means talking about what the theory can do for you. Positivists avoid metaphysical speculations. So a positivist would not say that there can be no other description of the world. I take Bohr's statement as a statement about quantum theory, and not a denial that other theories are possible. Quantum mechanics does not have a world of hidden variables with values for unobserved physical quantities.


  1. The Bohr "quote" about "no quantum world" actually came from Aage Peterson, who recalled that Bohr said that to him in private conversation. So it is a second-hand quote, and we don't know how accurate it is. In Bohr's direct quotes, he was actually very careful to avoid making any definite assertions about whether there is an objective reality underlying our (or his) observations. He invariably made ontologically neutral statements, such as "The formalism is to be regarded as a tool for deriving predictions, of definite or statistical character...". His philosophy of complementarity is unclear on whether there is some external objective reality underlying the observations. We do know, however, that Bohr did not espouse solipsism, i.e., he was not a pure positivist.

  2. Roger,
    You can describe the rolled outcome of a six sided die probabilistically, and still have absolutely no clue of what a six sided die actually is, how it functions mechanically, or even how it generates its 'probabilities'. This is exactly what quantum mechanics is doing.
    In reality, there is no such thing as a probability without someone to calculate it, as that is all a probability is. A calculation. Nothing more, nothing less. A calculation is not a cause of anything, it can carry no forces, it can provide no existence for anything any more than any second hand calculation can independent of the party that calculates it. The question quantum mechanics has failed miserably to answer is what in the hell is actually generating the probabilities...the basis for the calculations.
    The whole nonsense of quantum computers is completely predicated on the belief that quantum mechanics is actually how reality works, rather than how it is nothing but a math of probability being used to describe reality with very limited information of its actual structure.
    If you measure mass with the metric system, your units are in metric.
    If you speak French and answer questions, most likely your answer will be in French.
    If you describe reality with probabilities, with little to no real understanding of what is going on, your answer will be in probabilities.
    All that this can tell you with certainty is: your answer is always going to be in the format/language you used to ask the question. This doesn't actually mean the truth IS the language/format you asked the question with.

  3. CFT, Excellent! There are those who must be reminded that a map of something is not the thing itself, and even our best descriptions of things quantum, regardless of language used, are but maps.