Friday, June 08, 2018

Myths of Copenhagen

Discussing the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics with Adam Becker and Jim Baggott makes me think it would be worthwhile setting down how I see it. I don’t claim that this is necessarily the “right” way to look at Copenhagen (there probably isn’t a right way), and I’m conscious that what Bohr wrote and said is often hard to fathom – not, I think, because his thinking was vague, but because he struggled to express it through the limited medium of language. Many people have pored over Bohr’s words more closely than I have, and they might find different interpretations. So if anyone takes issue with what I say here, please do tell me.

Part of the problem too, as Adam said (and reiterates in his excellent new book What is Real?, is that there isn’t really a “Copenhagen interpretation”. I think James Cushing makes a good case that it was largely a retrospective invention of Heisenberg’s, quite possibly as an attempt to rehabilitate himself into the physics community after the war. As I say in Beyond Weird, my feeling is that when we talk about “Copenhagen”, we ought really to stick as close as we can to Bohr – not just for consistency but also because he was the most careful of the Copenhagenist thinkers.

It’s perhaps for this reason too that I think there are misconceptions about the Copenhagen interpretation. The first is that it denies any reality beyond what we can measure: that it is anti-realist. I see no reason to think this. People might read that into Bohr’s famous words: “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description.” But it seems to me that the meaning here is quite clear: quantum mechanics does not describe a physical reality. We cannot mine it to discover “bits of the world”, nor “histories of the world”. Quantum mechanics is the formal apparatus that allows us to make predictions about the world. There is nothing in that formulation, however, that denies the existence of some underlying stratum in which phenomena take place that produce the outcomes quantum mechanics enables us to predict.

Indeed, what Bohr goes on to say makes this perfectly clear: “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.” (Here you can see the influence of Kant on Bohr, who read him.) Here Bohr explicitly acknowledges the existence of “nature” – an underlying reality – but doesn’t think we can get at it, beyond what we can observe.

This is what I like about Copenhagen. I don’t think that Bohr is necessarily right to abandon a quest to probe beneath the theory’s capacity to predict, but I think he is right to caution that nothing in quantum mechanics obviously permits us to make assumptions about that. Once we accept the Born rule, which makes the wavefunction a probability density distribution, we are forced to recognize that.

Here’s the next fallacy about the Copenhagen interpretation: that it insists classical physics, such as governs measuring apparatus, works according to fundamentally different rules from quantum physics, and we just have to accept that sharp division.

Again, I understand why it looks as though Bohr might be saying that. But what he’s really saying is that measurements exist only in the classical realm. Only there can we claim definitive knowledge of some quantum state of affairs – what the position of an electron “is”, say. This split, then, is epistemic: knowledge is classical (because we are).

Bohr didn’t see any prospect of that ever being otherwise. What’s often forgotten is how absolute the distinction seemed in Bohr’s day between the atomic/microscopic and the macroscopic. Schrödinger, who was of course no Copenhagenist, made that clear in What Is Life?, which expresses not the slightest notion that we could ever see individual molecules and follow their behaviour. To him, as to Bohr, we must describe the microscopic world in necessarily statistical terms, and it would have seemed absurd to imagine we would ever point to this or that molecule.

Bohr’s comments about the quantum/classical divide reflect this mindset. It’s a great shame he hasn’t been around to see it dissolve – to see us probe the mesoscale and even manipulate single atoms and photons. It would have been great to know what he would have made of it.

But I don’t believe there is any reason to suppose that, as is sometimes said, he felt that quantum mechanics just had to “stop working” at some particular scale, and classical physics take over. And of course today we have absolutely no reason to suppose that happens. On the contrary, the theory of decoherence (pioneered by the late Dieter Zeh) can go an awfully long way to deconstructing and demystifying measurement. It’s enabled us to chip away at Bohr’s overly pessimistic epistemological quantum-classical divide, both theoretically and experimentally, and understand a great deal about how classical rules emerge from quantum. Some think it has in fact pretty much solved the “measurement problem”, but I think that’s too optimistic, for the reasons below.

But I don’t see anything in those developments that conflicts with Copenhagen. After all, one of the pioneers of such developments, Anton Zeilinger, would describe himself (I’m reliably told) as basically a Copenhagenist. Some will object to this that Bohr was so vague that his ideas can be made to fit anything. But I believe that, in this much at least, apparent conflicts with work on decoherence come from not attending carefully enough to what Bohr said. (I think Henrik Zinkernagel’s discussions of “what Bohr said” are useful here and here.)

I think that in fact these recent developments have helped to refine Bohr’s picture until we can see more clearly what it really boils down to. Bohr saw measurement as an irreversible process, in the sense that once you had classical knowledge about an outcome, that outcome could not be undone. From the perspective of decoherence, this is now viewed in terms that sound a little like the Second Law: measurement entails the entanglement of quantum object and environment, which, as it proceeds and spreads, becomes for all practical purposes irreversible because you can’t hope to untangle it again. (We know that in some special cases where you can keep track, recoherence is possible, much as it is possible in principle to “undo” the Second Law if you keep track of all the interactions and collisions.)

This decoherence remains a “fully quantum” process, even while we can see how it gives rise to classical-like behaviour (via Zurek’s quantum Darwinism, for example). But what the theory can’t then do, as Roland Omnès has pointed out, is explain uniqueness of outcomes: why only one particular outcome is (classically) observed. In my view, that is the right way to put into more specific and updated language what Bohr was driving at with his insistence on the classicality of measurement. Omnès is content to posit uniqueness of outcomes as an axiom: he thinks we have a complete theory of measurement that amounts to “decoherence + uniqueness”. The Everett interpretation, of course, ditches uniqueness, on the grounds of “why add an extra, arbitrary axiom?” To my mind, and for the reasons explained in my book, I think this leads to a “cognitive instability”, to purloin Sean Carroll’s useful phrase, in our ability to explain the world. So the incoherence that Adam sees in Copenhagen, I see in the Everett view (albeit for different reasons).

But this then is the value I see in Copenhagen: if we stick with it through the theory of decoherence, it takes us to the crux of the matter: the part it just can’t explain, which is uniqueness of outcomes. And by that I mean (irreversible) uniqueness of our knowledge – better known as facts. What the Copenhagenists called collapse or reduction of the wavefunction boils down to the emergence of facts about the world. And because I think they – at least, Bohr – always saw wavefunction collapse in epistemic terms, there is a consistency to this. So Copenhagen doesn’t solve the problem, but it leads us to the right question (indeed, the question that confronts the Everettian view too).

One might say that the Bohmian interpretation solves that issue, because it is a realist model: the facts are there all along, albeit hidden from us. I can see the attraction of that. My problem with it is that the solution comes by fiat – one puts in the hidden facts from the outset, and then explains all the potential problems with that by fiat too: by devising a form of nonlocality that does everything you need it to, without any real physical basis, and insisting that this type of nonlocality just – well, just is. It is ingenious, and sometimes useful, but it doesn’t seem to me that you satisfactorily solve a problem by building the solution into the axioms. I don’t understand the Bohmian model well enough to know how it deals with issues of contextuality and the apparent “non-universality of facts” (as this paper by Caslav Brukner points out), but on the face of it those seem to pose problems for a realist viewpoint too.

It seems to me that a currently very fruitful way to approach quantum mechanics is to think about the issue of why the answers the world gives us seem to depend on the questions we ask (à la John Wheeler’s “20 Questions” analogy). And I feel that Bohr helps point us in that direction, and without any need to suppose some mystical “effect of consciousness on physical reality”. He didn’t have all the answers – but we do him no favours by misrepresenting his questions. A tyrannical imposition of the Copenhagen position is bad for quantum mechanics, but Copenhagen itself is not the problem.