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Illusion and Reality in Quantum Mechanics

Casey Blood

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How are we to tell illusion from reality in the physical world? Perhaps the most logical place to turn for an answer is quantum mechanics, the extremely successful theory physicists use to describe our world. What we find is that this undoubtedly correct, but still somewhat mysterious, theory implies there are two layers of illusion in our perceptions of the world around us.

The first illusion has to do with what matter is made of. The conventional, almost universally held view is that the physical universe it is made up of particles-electrons, protons, atoms and so on. But in quantum mechanics, the world is made from waves-or technically, wave functions, where the wave function for an electron or any other particle can be pictured as an undulating mist of matter spread out over atomic dimensions.

Experiments reflect this puzzling wave-particle duality. In some experiments, matter appears to have wavelike properties, like those of water waves and sound waves. But in most experiments, matter appears to be made up of particles. If you look at the theory closely, however, you find that not only can the wavelike properties of matter be explained by the wave function, but so can all the particlelike properties! Because of its special properties, the wave function has created the illusion that matter is made from particles! Particles don't really exist; the wave function just behaves like particles under certain circumstances.

The second illusion is even more astonishing. When we look at the world, it appears solid, objective, actually there. There appears to be a single version of the world in general and of each of us in particular. But that is not true in quantum mechanics; instead its mathematics implies there are many versions of the physical world-and of each of us.

To understand this, we visit Schrödinger's cat. Schrödinger devised a thought experiment that clearly shows the radical nature of quantum mechanics. (Even though Schrödinger invented quantum mechanics, he never fully trusted it. You can see why from this argument. ) He imagined putting his cat and a vial of cyanide in a closed box. Outside the box was a Geiger counter used to detect radiation from a nearby radioactive source. The Geiger counter was turned on for one minute. If it detected 100 or more counts, an electrical signal was sent to the box, the vial of cyanide was broken, and the cat died. But if it detected fewer than 100 counts, nothing happened and the cat stayed alive.

In the usual way of looking at things, this experiment is not so extraordinary. At the end, we will either see a live cat or a dead cat. The surprise comes when we look at the mathematics. In the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time! In addition, if you are watching the experiment, there are two versions of you!-one seeing an alive cat, and, at the same time, one seeing a dead cat. Illusion with a vengeance.

Well, you say, the problem is that this is taking the mathematics too seriously. Quantum mechanics is only a way of calculating. It is only describing an actual, objective, unique reality. The mathematics is not on a par with the actual reality.

The problem is that this reasoning doesn't work. If there is an actual reality besides the wave function, there must be, according to the rules of physics, some mathematical connection between the two. But the mathematics of quantum mechanics is so restrictive that it doesn't allow a connection to any other type of reality. Hence nothing besides the wave function can exist.

One other possibility is that the wave function collapses down to just one version of reality. The “dead" wave function version of Schrödinger's cat might collapse to zero, for example, leaving just the wave function of a live cat. But this potential solution to the many-version problem also encounters apparently insurmountable problems.

Thus we are stuck with many versions of reality, many versions of each of us. It is an illusion that there is a unique physical version of the world.

Why then do we perceive what appears to be an actual, single-version, objective world? The only possible explanation is that we each have a nonphysical soul that looks in from outside physical reality and perceives just one version of our brain-body. Physics implies the soul. The illusion of a real physical world comes about because of the way our soul perceives the world. It perceives just one version of the wave function, and so “we"-this combination of multi-reality physical body and unique, nonphysical soul-are aware of what seems to be an actual, objective, one-version reality.

Two final comments. First, the reality, what is actually perceived, is the wave function. It is not a description of the real world; it is the real physical world-even though we don't fully understand its true nature.

And second, our soul perceives the wave function, and then, with the aid of the brain, constructs a “model" of the world-time, three-dimensional space, particles and so on. The model-the illusion-is not the basic reality, but it allows us to live in this world and attain the goal our souls came here for.

See the web site for the technical details.


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