Guest Post: David Wallace on the Physicality of the Quantum State

By Sean Carroll | November 18, 2011 9:46 am

The question of the day seems to be, “Is the wave function real/physical, or is it merely a way to calculate probabilities?” This issue plays a big role in Tom Banks’s guest post (he’s on the “useful but not real” side), and there is an interesting new paper by Pusey, Barrett, and Rudolph that claims to demonstrate that you can’t simply treat the quantum state as a probability calculator. I haven’t gone through the paper yet, but it’s getting positive reviews. I’m a “realist” myself, as I think the best definition of “real” is “plays a crucial role in a successful model of reality,” and the quantum wave function certainly qualifies.

To help understand the lay of the land, we’re very happy to host this guest post by David Wallace, a philosopher of science at Oxford. David has been one of the leaders in trying to make sense of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in particular the knotty problem of how to get the Born rule (“the wave function squared is the probability”) out of the this formalism. He was also a participant at our recent time conference, and the co-star of one of the videos I posted. He’s a very clear writer, and I think interested parties will get a lot out of reading this.

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Why the quantum state isn’t (straightforwardly) probabilistic

In quantum mechanics, we routinely talk about so-called “superposition states” – both at the microscopic level (“the state of the electron is a superposition of spin-up and spin-down”) and, at least in foundations of physics, at the macroscopic level (“the state of Schrodinger’s cat is a superposition of alive and dead”). Rather a large fraction of the “problem of measurement” is the problem of making sense of these superposition states, and there are basically two views. On the first (“state as physical”), the state of a physical system tells us what that system is actually, physically, like, and from that point of view, Schrodinger’s cat is seriously weird. What does it even mean to say that the cat is both alive and dead? And, if cats can be alive and dead at the same time, how come when we look at them we only see definitely-alive cats or definitely-dead cats? We can try to answer the second question by invoking some mysterious new dynamical process – a “collapse of the wave function” whereby the act of looking at half-alive, half-dead cats magically causes them to jump into alive-cat or dead-cat states – but a physical process which depends for its action on “observations”, “measurements”, even “consciousness”, doesn’t seem scientifically reputable. So people who accept the “state-as-physical” view are generally led either to try to make sense of quantum theory without collapses (that leads you to something like Everett’s many-worlds theory), or to modify or augment quantum theory so as to replace it with something scientifically less problematic.

On the second view, (“state as probability”), Schrodinger’s cat is totally unmysterious. When we say “the state of the cat is half alive, half dead”, on this view we just mean “it has a 50% probability of being alive and a 50% probability of being dead”. And the so-called collapse of the wavefunction just corresponds to us looking and finding out which it is. From this point of view, to say that the cat is in a superposition of alive and dead is no more mysterious than to say that Sean is 50% likely to be in his office and 50% likely to be at a conference.

Now, to be sure, probability is a bit philosophically mysterious. It’s not uncontroversial what it means to say that something is 50% likely to be the case. But we have a number of ways of making sense of it, and for all of them, the cat stays unmysterious. For instance, perhaps we mean that if we run the experiment many times (good luck getting that one past PETA), we’ll find that half the cats live, and half of them die. (This is the Frequentist view.) Or perhaps we mean that we, personally, know that that the cat is alive or dead but we don’t know which, and the 50% is a way of quantifying our lack of knowledge. (This is the Bayesian view.) But on either view, the weirdness of the cat still goes away.

So, it’s awfully tempting to say that we should just adopt the “state-as-probability” view, and thus get rid of the quantum weirdness. But This doesn’t work, for just as the “state-as-physical” view struggles to make sense of macroscopic superpositions, so the “state-as-probability” view founders on microscopic superpositions.

Consider, for instance, a very simple interference experiment. We split a laser beam into two beams (Beam 1 and Beam 2, say) with a half-silvered mirror. We bring the beams back together at another such mirror and allow them to interfere. The resultant light ends up being split between (say) Output Path A and Output Path B, and we see how much light ends up at each. It’s well known that we can tune the two beams to get any result we like – all the light at A, all of it at B, or anything in between. It’s also well known that if we block one of the beams, we always get the same result – half the light at A, half the light at B. And finally, it’s well known that these results persist even if we turn the laser so far down that only one photon passes through at a time.

According to quantum mechanics, we should represent the state of each photon, as it passes through the system, as a superposition of “photon in Beam 1” and “Photon in Beam 2”. According to the “state as physical” view, this is just a strange kind of non-local state a photon is. But on the “state as probability” view, it seems to be shorthand for “the photon is either in beam 1 or beam 2, with equal probability of each”. And that can’t be correct. For if the photon is in beam 1 (and so, according to quantum physics, described by a non-superposition state, or at least not by a superposition of beam states) we know we get result A half the time, result B half the time. And if the photon is in beam 2, we also know that we get result A half the time, result B half the time. So whichever beam it’s in, we should get result A half the time and result B half the time. And of course, we don’t. So, just by elementary reasoning – I haven’t even had to talk about probabilities – we seem to rule out the “state-as-probability” rule.

Indeed, we seem to be able to see, pretty directly, that something goes down each beam. If I insert an appropriate phase factor into one of the beams – either one of the beams – I can change things from “every photon ends up at A” to “every photon ends up at B”. In other words, things happening to either beam affect physical outcomes. It’s hard at best to see how to make sense of this unless both beams are being probed by physical “stuff” on every run of the experiment. That seems pretty definitively to support the idea that the superposition is somehow physical.

There’s an interesting way of getting around the problem. We could just say that my “elementary reasoning” doesn’t actually apply to quantum theory – it’s a holdover of old, bad, classical ways of thinking about the world. We might, for instance, say that the kind of either-this-thing-happens-or-that-thing-does reasoning I was using above isn’t applicable to quantum systems. (Tom Banks, in his post, says pretty much exactly this.)

There are various ways of saying what’s problematic with this, but here’s a simple one. To make this kind of claim is to say that the “probabilities” of quantum theory don’t obey all of the rules of probability. But in that case, what makes us think that they are probabilities? They can’t be relative frequencies, for instance: it can’t be that 50% of the photons go down the left branch and 50% go down the right branch. Nor can they quantify our ignorance of which branch it goes down – because we don’t need to know which branch it goes down to know what it will do next. So to call the numbers in the superposition “probabilities” is question-begging. Better to give them their own name, and fortunately, quantum mechanics has already given us a name: amplitudes.

But once we make this move, we’ve lost everything distinctive about the “state-as-probability” view. Everyone agrees that according to quantum theory, the photon has some amplitude of being in beam A and some amplitude of being in beam B (and, indeed, that the cat has some amplitude of being alive and some amplitude of being dead); the question is, what does that mean? The “state-as-probability” view was supposed to answer, simply: it means that we don’t know everything about the photon’s (or the cat’s) state; but that now seems to have been lost. And the earlier argument that something goes down both beams remains unscathed.

Now, I’ve considered only the most straightforward kind of state-as-probability view you can think of – a view which I think is pretty decisively refuted by the facts. It’s possible to imagine subtler probabilistic theories – maybe the quantum state isn’t about the probabilities of each term in the superposition, but it’s still about the probabilities of something. But people’s expectations have generally been that the ubiquity of interference effects makes that hard to sustain, and a succession of mathematical results – from classic results like the Bell-Kochen-Specker theorem, to cutting-edge results like the recent theorem by Pusey, Barrett and Rudolph – have supported that expectation.

In fact, only one currently-discussed state-as-probability theory seems even half-way viable: the probabilities aren’t the probability of anything objective, they’re just the probabilities of measurement outcomes. Quantum theory, in other words, isn’t a theory that tells us about the world: it’s just a tool to predict the results of experiment. Views like this – which philosophers call instrumentalist – are often adopted as fall-back positions by physicists defending state-as-probability takes on quantum mechanics: Tom Banks, for instance, does exactly this in the last paragraph of his blog entry.

There’s nothing particularly quantum-mechanical about instrumentalism. It has a long and rather sorry philosophical history: most contemporary philosophers of science regard it as fairly conclusively refuted. But I think it’s easier to see what’s wrong with it just by noticing that real science just isn’t like this. According to instrumentalism, palaeontologists talk about dinosaurs so they can understand fossils, astrophysicists talk about stars so they can understand photoplates, virologists talk about viruses so they can understand NMR instruments, and particle physicists talk about the Higgs Boson so they can understand the LHC. In each case, it’s quite clear that instrumentalism is the wrong way around. Science is not “about” experiments; science is about the world, and experiments are part of its toolkit.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Guest Post, Philosophy, Science, Top Posts
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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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