Monthly Archives: March 2015

What can the quantum world teach us about reality?

Robert Henderson

If  physicists  are to be believed  the quantum world is a bewilderingly odd place where  the  common-sense rationality of  cause and effect holds no sway.  Particles can be linked at potentially any distance (a state called entanglement) so that altering the state of one results in the same alteration in the other instantaneously.  There is quantum tunnelling whereby a particle can move  itself through an obstacle which it does not have the energy to move over or around (akin to something changing its nature to go through a brick wall rather than over it) and superposition of states where an entity such as an electron or atom can be in different states and positions  at the same time.

Perhaps  oddest to the human mind is the idea  that an entity such as an electron or proton can exist simultaneously in two forms, as a wave and a particle and that when the entity is not observed it displays wave properties,  but  when measured (in this case measured meaning  to be observed) then it immediately assumes its particle form, viz: .

“When a quantum “observer” is watching Quantum mechanics states that particles can also behave as waves. This can be true for electrons at the submicron level, i.e., at distances measuring less than one micron, or one thousandth of a millimeter. When behaving as waves, they can simultaneously pass through several openings in a barrier and then meet again at the other side of the barrier. This “meeting” is known as interference.

Strange as it may sound, interference can only occur when no one is watching. Once an observer begins to watch the particles going through the openings, the picture changes dramatically: if a particle can be seen going through one opening, then it’s clear it didn’t go through another. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings”. Science Daily

This is as disorientating for physicists as for anyone else:

“Nothing is real until it has been observed! This clearly needs thinking about. Are we really saying that in the ‘real’ world – outside of the laboratory – that until a thing has been observed it doesn’t exist? This is precisely what the Copenhagen Interpretation is telling us about reality. This has caused some very well respected cosmologists (Stephen Hawking for one) to worry that this implies that there must actually be something ‘outside’ the universe to look at the universe as a whole and collapse its overall wave function. John Wheeler puts forward an argument that it is only the presence of conscious observers, in the form of ourselves, that has collapsed the wave function and made the universe exist. If we take this to be true, then the universe only exists because we are looking at it. As this is heading into very deep water I think we will have to leave it there and move on to the next experiment.”

The idea that nothing is real unless it is observed is worrying enough, but it also raises the difficult question about who or what constitutes an observer. Is it only human beings who qualify or can any organism? Would a bacteria or even a virus qualify or would the observer have to have a degree of self-consciousness and intelligence, for example, say all the great apes plus humans?

It would be interesting to conduct  the  double slit experiment  –  in which a single  electron is sent through two slits  in a board at the same time  when acting as a wave when  unobserved but only through one slit whilst acting as a particle  when observed –  with different organisms  present but no humans.

The question of who or what counts as an observer  has further difficulties.  Suppose human beings are the only observers who activate reality or what we think of as reality. Human beings frequently suffer the loss of faculties such as sight and hearing.  Does someone who is blind not act as a reality  activating observer?   Those who  have lost a sense  still have a solid idea of what they perceive to be the external world. Any sighted person can test the proposition by closing their eyes. They still experience what they believe to be reality through their other senses.  Not only that, but if the sighted person has an object before them which they have seen before closing their eyes,  very often they can touch it and recognise the shape of the object even if it is shifted to another position.   It is also possible for  a sighted person whose eyes are covered to correctly  identify objects they have not seen using their other senses. Moreover, those  who have lost sight  will say that they experience  the same type of sensory perception  the sighted with closed eyes experience, although  probably   with a heightened non-visual perception.

There is also what might be termed the partial perception of something problem.  We hear what we believe is a  door banging but cannot see the door,  a smell coming from a kitchen suggests bacon is frying although we cannot see inside the kitchen,  we hear voices down a telephone. What exactly is being brought into existence here if we accept that  nothing actually exists as we perceive it until we perceive it?  Does the voice at the other end of a phone call actually exists or are we simply calling into being a personality by either answering a ringing phone or making a call?

But observation/measurement is not simply a question of organisms measuring according to physicists.  They also tell us that if the observation/measurement is made by inorganic means such as a machine which detects particles  without any human involvement  the unobserved/measured wave  still collapses into a particle.

Where does this leave us? If humans can experience reality without a full set of senses this implies one of three things: that the senses operate individually as a trigger to bring reality into existence  within the limits of the senses operating at a given moment,  that the existence of a human  perceiving a situation  is what counts regardless of how the perception is made or  human minds are simply projectors  of information from an external source in the same way that a video file  plays in  Realplayer or a reel of film plays on a screen. If nothing exists until we attempt to measure/observe it any of these scenarios  is plausible.

To add to the intense  intellectual discomfort  which descriptions of  and theories about  the quantum world generates, physicists are far from agreeing  how  the quantum world operates, for example, there is disagreement over whether the wave function is a statistical tool or a physical reality and the no man’s  land between the textbook  quantum world (that is molecules, atoms and  subatomic particles)  and the arena of classic physics of Newton is undecided territory with no definite understood interaction and the  way that quantum effects bleed over into the macro world which we experience with our senses. There is also a school of thought which favours the many worlds theory in which the wave-function does not collapse but possible states, for example,  there is or is not a sleeping cat,  are realised in different universes.  Nonetheless, there is a general acceptance  by physicists  that the quantum world does not play by the rules of Newtonian physics ,  even if the weirdness is given different interpretations.

To all that weirdness can be added the general strangeness of  atoms being  comprised almost entirely of empty space. The lay human  mind naturally boggles  at how atoms which have so little physical substance  can produce  objects which are so solid and real to the human senses.

A virtual reality universe 

All this may seem to be utterly nonsensical to the human mind, but there is a rational and plausible explanation for what seems absurd from our own experience.    Ask yourself what  it is that  humans have created which  most resembles our perceived reality? The answer is beautifully  unambiguous, namely the virtual realities created by digital means,  whether they be games or simply experiential programmes.

Imagine an entity  in a virtual reality  generated by  a very advanced form of artificial intelligence (AI) which possessed something similar to the  consciousness  and intelligence  humans possess . Such an entity would be unaware that  it was  no more than a  character created  from energy living in a seeming reality which existed simply as a computer program. The character would be in exactly the same position as ourselves. Let us further imagine this artificial intelligence began to investigate the nature of the  perceived realm in which they existed  and  performed the type of experiments humans perform to look at the sub-atomic world and found that when they looked beyond the perceived reality they discovered the machine code. Would that not be the equivalent of humans discovering the weirdness of the quantum world we exist in?

if we are in a created reality akin to human created artificial realities the AI generated self conscious entity in a computer generated and hosted world would only be activated as and when the purpose of the virtual world required the activation and the entity’s  perception of its surroundings would only be necessary for when it was needed. (That is exactly what happens in a human controlled virtual reality).    Such an entity would  have a sense of time passing , but what  that would represent would not be time in an absolute sense of  immutable duration. Rather  it would   be the  totality  of the experiences  which the entity encountered.   If these experiences  were linked in seeming chronological order then the entity would have the experience of  linear time as we do, although all that would be experienced would be a series of existential episodes . That is precisely what quantum mechanics suggests is happening in our perceived reality.

If a reality is created rather than arising without any creative agent bringing it into existence, any  such reality must of necessity have the nature of  an artificial construct when viewed from outside.  The relationship between the creator and the created reality will always be the same, in general terms,  as that of  the virtual reality created by humans.

It could be that by seeing beyond the Newtonian world  of common-sense  cause and effect,  what humans are seeing is the equivalent of  machine code  for  the reality we live in and that the explanation for the reality we perceive is that we are part of a computer  generated virtual reality or something similar.  If that is accepted the quantum world becomes  far less absurd and mysterious. For example, entanglement  does not pose a problem because if we are part of a computer simulation anything can be achieved. All we have to do is believe that it is real. Billions of galaxies with countless stars  and unimaginable distances between them become only figments of perception rather than realities. If we are living in the equivalent of a computer programme then space as we perceive it would  merely be a projected illusion on to our consciousness. Our different senses of the rate  at which  time passes could be simply the consequence  of  the computer program we are operating at different rates  of event perception. Indeed, anything can be explained if it accepted that we are existing in something similar to a computer generated world.  Just as humans can  create fantastical computer generated worlds which break all the laws of Nature, so could our reality contain whatever a creator wished.

Even at the level of our perception of the universe about us there are some distinct oddities. Take the question of  the possibility of life, and especially intelligent life, existing somewhere else in the universe. Despite the fact that that  there are unimaginably immense, possibly infinite,  numbers of  galaxies  in what we perceive as our universe, we have absolutely no  meaningful  evidence of any sort of life existing anywhere but Earth.   Our natural inclination is to think that there must be life elsewhere because of the seemingly colossal opportunities for it to exist.   But if that is the case why  have no intelligent aliens been encountered, either though their  intrusion into our solar system or through messages sent  remotely? There is a plausible argument that the reason is because the age of the universe is so immense that it would be most improbable that any alien visitor would coincide with the minute  period humans have existed who could have recorded the visit. But if the universe is so vast, even infinite,  the opportunities for such an encounter would be fantastically large or even infinite.  Looked at from that viewpoint the absence of any other life in the universe showing themselves to us or simply being found seems improbable.

Infinity is the trickiest of intellectual constructs  because once infinity is brought into the picture all concepts of number, size, density, duration  or any other measurable quality become irrelevant in the context of what the totality of  measurements of a particular quality in an infinity because by definition the total cannot be calculated. For example, it would be impossible to know the combined weight of an infinite number of one pound lead weights . Claims that there are different size infinities, for example, an infinite series  of ones is smaller in total  than an infinite series of twos or an infinite number of rooms ten feet square is larger in floor area than a infinite number of rooms five feet square simply misunderstand what infinity is. What infinity does do is make anything possible although the probability of possibilities will vary tremendously.

Created and uncreated worlds

If our world is the product of a creator we are not that much further forward to what is our ultimate existential cause  because the question of who created our creator  and who created the creator’s creator and so on in an infinite vicious regression with no ultimate answer.  But what of the alternative explanation for our existence that our perceived reality simply came in existence?   There is no means of proving that this is what happened because  there could be no evidence that our reality had occurred  without any conscious creator which would not be defeated by  the question , yes, that happened but what caused it to happen?  It would be impossible even in principle to show that any event or phenomenon was without a first cause.

Why would anything  exist if there is no creator ? I suggest this. There are an infinite number of chances that something might exists and only a single chance that nothing might exist.  Perhaps there is existence simply because Nature abhors a vacuum.

What could be the motives of those who create realities if in fact they are created? It could be :

  1. a simulation to test an hypothesis.
  2. an experiment, for example, to see how human beings would evolve.
  3. a game, for example, to see  who can get their player in the  in the game to solve problem of why their perceived reality exists.
  4. An aesthetic creation akin to what we call art.
  5. Most undignified from the human point of view would be that we are simply an unintended consequence of the created reality which we inhabit like rust on a horseshoe.

Why would a creator make the structure  of the quantum and classical physical worlds  so different?

  1. Because that is simply the way things have to be if a human were to perceive the virtual reality as reality. .
  2. Because that is the most efficient way to produce a human perceived reality.
  3. Because it is the only way known to the creator to produce a human perceived reality.
  4. To hide the nature of the reality from human beings to make the working of the reality more efficient or more pleasing to the creator.
  5. Because to understand the quantum world would interfere  with the function or purpose of the created reality.
  6. As a catalyst to increase the intelligence and understanding of the intelligences within the created reality either as an experiment or as a game, the end product of which is for humans to understand the quantum world.
  7. To disguise the nature of the creator.

Solipsism and dreams

It is possible that everything we think we are experiencing is simply a product of our minds with nothing existing outside our mind.

Humans, either individually or collectively could be the product of another’s being’s mind, either consciously or in a dreaming state.

Is there anything definite we can say about existence?

I can think of only two things which are  certain:

  1. any dynamic universe, that is a universe which experiences change, has of necessity the nature of a machine and everything thing in it, whether animate or inanimate, must share that nature. That does not mean it must be run on a basis of linear cause and effect, merely that it experiences change.  Nor does it mean that the mechanical nature of a dynamic universe is predictable. Machine-like behaviour operates at the quantum level even if it is probalistic rather than certain.  Moreover, even in the macro world we experience , our definition of a machine no longer includes a predetermined result because computer programs, especially those using AI, do not give a certain result.
  2. Free will is a logistical impossibility both because of the mechanical nature of dynamic universes and as a matter of simple logic. Imagine the most powerful possible being, an all powerful, all knowing creature such as the  most awesome God of whom we can conceive. Such a being still does not have free will because any being exercising conscious choice must of necessity have a discrete mind  and a mind must be  limited by its own desires.

The temptation for humans is to simply say quantum theory  is nonsense, but nonsense when applied to facts rather than logic is what is impossible. However unsettling the quantum world is it is not in principle impossible. The weirdness of the quantum world does not mean it is not a conceivable system. It plays by its own rules but they are still rules. The collapse of the wave function is a perfectly understandable and coherent idea if it is allowed that that is how the quantum world works. In its own way it is even a form of cause and effect, the wave is observed (cause)  and collapses to a particle (effect).

I offer these thoughts merely as a possibility. I am not saying modern physics is wholly or even partially correct. What I am doing is to say that if the underlying fabric of our perceived reality is as seemingly irrational as physicists  say, even if they squabble over the details, then we and our perceived reality can be explained as being akin to a computer generated human created virtual world.

The  more I read myself into quantum physics the more rational it becomes in the sense that I can see it is a coherent physical system. I have recently finished reading a book Life on the Edge which deals with quantum behaviour within organisms. More than any other book on the quantum world I have read this explains clearly for the layman both quantum physics in general and its fascinating role in the Natural; World. Well worth a read). The fact that it seems more and more like a coherent system makes it seem less and less alien. There is as much about atoms, protons and so on  which is as seemingly fantastic as quantum ideas such as entanglement and the collapse of the wave function, for example, the that atoms are 99.99% empty space and photons have no mass. (If they had mass they would not be able to travel at the speed of light).  If we can accept that weirdness then there is no reason in principle why the weirdness of quantum theory cannot be true.

My last thought is this, I am drawn to the idea that we are living in something similar to a  human created virtual reality because it is the most economical explanation  for quantum weirdness.

American Sniper misses  the target – film review

Robert Henderson

Main cast

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle

Max Charles as Colton Kyle

Luke Grimes as Marc Lee

Kyle Gallner as Goat-Winston

Sam Jaeger as Captain Martens

Jake McDorman as Ryan “Biggles” Job

Sammy Sheik as Mustafa

Mido Hamada as The Butcher

Director Clint Eastwood

This is a frustrating film.  Eastwood as the director  guarantees that it is technically well made. It moves at a good pace, taken individually the action scenes in Iraq are dramatic  and  the subject  (the role of the sniper) is interesting in itself  and has novelty because  it is  not often extensively examined in film. And yet, and yet ….American Sniper has an emptiness, the sum of its parts being decidedly less than the parts.  The film ends up teetering on the edge of boring.

The large  majority  of the film is devoted to Kyle’s four tours of Iraq, with much of that screen time devoted to sniping and house-to-house searches.   Therein lies the first problem with the film as drama. The action  scenes become  repetitive because there is not that much difference from watching Kyle shoot one person from the top of a building and him doing the same thing to quite a few people.  Similarly, the house to house searching has a sameness about it when the streets look the same and the outcome is always  either dead bodies after an exchange of gunfire or the taking of prisoners.

There are attempts to vary the emotional content of  the sniping , for example the first people Kyle  shoots are a young boy and  his mother who are attempting to use a grenade against US soldiers. There are  also subplots involving an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha  who is portrayed  as having a  duel with Kyle  (which Kyle wins)  and a search to find the  al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which involves track of   al-Zarqawi’s second in command who known as the Butcher for his delightful habit of torturing people with an electric drill.

But all this generates a  most curious lack of tension because the events are rarely develop into  more than snapshots. Nor is there any sense that anything Kyle or his  comrades has any real purpose beyond the immediate end of preventing American troops from being harmed.  Ironically, what the film unintentionally does  is to provide  a depressing essay on  exactly how futile not only the Iraq war but any war fought by Western Armies in Third or Second world countries is fated to be.

The sniping action scenes are rather strange. Often Kyle is shown shooting from the same position on more than one occasion. This is a no no for a sniper unless he really cannot help it. Understandably snipers are both hated and feared by the other side for the constant threat they offer not only in reality but in their enemy’s mind.  Consequently, the enemy will  make great efforts to locate and kill snipers and the most likely way of doing that is if a sniper stays in the same position and shoots more than once. Modern sniper rifles come with equipment to dull and distort the direction of  sound  and suppress the flash of a round being fired but it is not a complete solution to the problem of giving away your position. To remain in the same position and fire other shots after the first round has been fired is just asking to be located and killed.  There is also an absurd episode towards the end of the film when Kyle shoots the sniper Mustapha at well over 1,000 yards range and in doing so alerts Iraqi insurgents to Kyle and his fellow soldiers’ whereabouts who immediately attack the building in which Kyle and his comrades are hiding.

Another baffling part of Kyle’s behaviour in the film was when he left his sniping position on his own initiative to join in the house to house searching and suffered no disciplinary action. I would have thought that going from his sniper’s position without orders and leaving the soldiers without sniper protection would have been a court martial offence.  (The idea of sniper protection in this situation is that a sniper is put on a high building overlooking the area  being searched by troops and shoots anyone who appears to be ready to attack the soldiers).

Because the film is trying to pack so many  action scenes in there is little opportunity for character development  even of Kyle who is rushed from one action scene to another  with breaks every now and then for a return to the States for leave with his wife. Apart from Cooper the only other character with an extensive part is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya.  She is adequate in the part but it really does not demand much of her beyond  her agonising over how Kyle “isn’t here”  even when he is home.  The rest of the cast does what it has to do well enough  in the very  limited and unvaried scenes  in which they appear.

There is also a frustrating   lack of  context  for Kyle being in Iraq. Kyle’s motivation is ostensibly a simple unquestioning God-fearing  patriotism built upon the Bush Administration’s  line that the USA was in Iraq to protect Americans in America. That is reasonable enough  for Kyle’s character but there is nothing to balance that mentality, no character to challenge his imple faith.

Finally, then there is the problem of Cooper as Kyle.  Cooper  strikes me as one of those actors who can only play himself. That is not necessarily a problem as many film stars have shown, but the person must have a quality which makes them interesting such as  charm, menace, sexual  attraction.   For me Cooper lacks any exciting or engaging quality.  In American  Sniper he is seriously wrongly cast for this requires not only a convincing tough guy but a character with some emotional hinterland.  Cooper is unconvincing as a hard man  and displays  as much psychological subtlety as a brick wall. His limitations are  particularly exposed   in those parts  of the film where Lyle is home on leave. These   are designed to variously show Kyle’s detachment from ordinary life and addiction to living in a warzone, but these are very cursory and unconvincing.   Ryan Gosling in the role would have made the film much more interesting because he has both psychological depth and is a convincing hard man.

The ending of the film is deeply unsatisfactory from a dramatic point of view.  Originally the ending  was going to be centred around Kyle’s shooting to death by a disturbed ex-marine Eddie Ray Routh who has just been found guilty of murder and sentenced  to life in prison without parole. But Kyle’s wife asked them to drop the scene  and the director substituted a tepid ending showing Kyle leaving with Routh  to travel to the shooting range where the killing took place with a very  anxious Sienna Miller looking on as if she had a premonition of what was to happen, something which must  surely have been a post hoc addition to the real-life  story.  One can understand the wife’s reluctance to have the murder scene  removed but presumably she must have originally given it the thumbs up.

Judged by  the box office takings American sniper has been immensely  in the USA and criticism  of the film’s subject matter  has generated violent responses in the mainstream and social media . In particular, there has been ill-judged criticism from the likes of Michael Moore that snipers are cowards because they kill without putting themselves in dange. This is double-dyed nonsense. To begin with snipers are always having to guard against being spotted and shot themselves.  In a war such as that in Iraq the risk and fear of being seen and killed is  enhanced  because it is a war fought in towns and cities where there is no readily recognised enemy who may be anywhere and come in any human form from  a young child to trained soldier.

To that rebuttal of the charge of coward can be placed a  more general  exculpation of snipers.  War has never been anything but ugly and unchivalrous.  When the crossbow was introduced in mediaeval times it was condemned  as illegitimate by the nobility because the armoured knight was vulnerable to its bolts. The weapon  also had a range   much greater than that of a conventional bow which introduced death meted out from a serious distance. Later the same sorts  of complaint were levelled at firearms.  Long before modern breech loading artillery was devised muzzle loading guns could send their shot miles.  By the late 19th century the machine gun had arrived with the capacity to mow down dozens of men quickly.  By the middle of the twentieth century  bombers were delivering  huge payload from a great height onto  civilian populations. Sniping is no more or less cowardly, no more or less brutal than war is generally.

More pertinent perhaps  are the criticisms that the Kyle of the film is a sanitised version of  what Kyle was, that Kyle was far from being the simple God-fearing patriot of the film. Indeed there are strong reasons that he was both a braggart and a fantasist who made up stories such as claiming to have gone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed many of the  “bad guys” who were looting.  Yet in the film he is shown as being intensely  embarrassed when an veteran of Iraq who has post a leg stops him in a store and praises him effusively for what has  done in Iraq.

Overall the film has a nasty whiff of being a propaganda film, not intentionally but in effect.   If you go to see it bear that in mind and treat it a primer for an understanding  of the ordinary American’s mind these days.


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