Escaping the Black Iron Prison...
With the underappreciated mind-traveling interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.
In my essay Why Has Our World Gone So Crazy, I opened by noting:
Our contemporary consensus is materialist monism. Nature is purely physical, and that pure physicality extends to human consciousness. Neither cosmos or humanity has any teleology. Free will is an illusion and consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain-matter. Human thought is merely computation, and will be replaced by machine thought as AI improves…
Our contemporary consensus is not just wrong here and there, not just mildly out of step on reality. It is wrong on the fundamentals.
It’s one of my most popular essays, so if you haven’t read it in full, I recommend you do so now before returning to this essay. I ended Why Has Our World Gone So Crazy with the following thoughts:
The contemporary consensus forms what Philip K Dick called a Black Iron Prison, a system of control over thought. The bars of that prison should now be clear. The… escape from the black iron prison is less clear… But the tracings of the framework are dimly visible…
Contemporary materialist-monism must be countered with an alternative philosophy that properly accounts for the teleology of nature, the irreducibility of mind, the non-computational nature of thought, and the freedom of the will. Natural philosophers are working to develop alternatives ranging from idealistic monism (Amit Goswami), dualism (Henry Stapp), or neo-hylomorphism (Edward Feser).
Now, when it comes to developing alternatives to materialist-monism, quantum mechanics is the natural philosopher’s favorite science. In conventional fields like optics, molecular chemistry, or astronomy, scientists are able to rely on methodological naturalism for all of their philosophical answers and, as such, can ignore metaphysical matters. But in quantum mechanics, it is (philosophically speaking) all up for grabs.
The philosophical uncertainty arises from the apparent existence of what physicists call wave function collapse. As Infogalactic explains:
In general, quantum systems exist in superpositions of those basis states that most closely correspond to classical descriptions, and, in the absence of measurement, evolve according to the Schrödinger equation. However, when a measurement is made, the wave function collapses—from an observer's perspective—to just one of the basis states, and the property being measured uniquely acquires the eigenvalue of that particular state. After the collapse, the system again evolves according to the Schrödinger equation.
But what is the wave function? We’re not sure. Is it ontologically real or simply a mathematical function? We’re not sure. What is a measurement? We’re not sure. What is an observer? We’re not sure. So then why would observers making observations cause material changes to a physical system? Again, we’re not sure. A set of answers to these queries is called an interpretation of quantum mechanics.
There are over a dozen interpretations listed on Infogalactic, and at present there is no scientific consensus as to which (if any) interpretation is correct. They all work with the math of quantum mechanics, and to date no experiments have been able to falsify any of them.
You are currently in a superposition of both subscribing and not subscribing to Contemplations on the Tree of Woe. In order to reduce this superposition to a defined eigenvalue, you must enter your email address below. I will be notified via nonlocal means.
A Few Interpretations You’ve Probably Heard Of
Of the various interpretations developed to date, the most widely-known is the Copenhagen interpretation developed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the wave function is a positivist representation of what is known about a quantum system before an observation, an observer is simply a laboratory device, and a measurement is simply an observation of the system by the device that produces a result. Because it was the interpretation adopted by quantum mechanic’s early leaders and remains the most widely taught interpretation, the Copenhagen interpretation is often called the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The critics of the Copenhagen interpretation complain that it dismisses as meaningless any questions about what’s really going on; its mantra is “shut up and calculate.” I’me one of them. I’ve always found the Copenhagen interpretation to be philosophically unsatisfying, and have actively sought alternatives since first studying quantum mechanics at West Point.
Of the alternatives, John Von Neuman and Eugene Wigner’s interpretation and Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt’s interpretation have been the two I’ve studied most closely.1
According to the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation, the wave function is ontologically real, an observer is a conscious being, and a measurement is an observation by consciousness. This interpretation is often called the consciousness causes collapse interpretation. However, its chief present-day proponent, Dr. Henry Stapp, prefers to call it the realist interpretation of orthodox quantum mechanics (RIO). (Stapp would describe the Copenhagen position as the positivist interpretation of orthodox quantum mechanics). Stapp explains:
From the point of view of the mathematics of quantum theory it makes no sense to treat a measuring device as intrinsically different from the collection of atomic constituents that make it up. A device is just another part of the physical universe... Moreover, the conscious thoughts of a human observer ought to be causally connected most directly and immediately to what is happening in his brain, not to what is happening out at some measuring device... Our bodies and brains thus become...parts of the quantum mechanically described physical universe. Treating the entire physical universe in this unified way provides a conceptually simple and logically coherent theoretical foundation.
The critics of the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation complain that it introduces interactive dualism into the world of physics, suggesting that physics is not causally closed.2
According to the Everett-DeWitt interpretation, there is only one wavefunction, the superposition of the entire universe, which never collapses. With no collapse, there is no measurement problem. However, this creates a different problem. If there is no collapse, why does there appear to be one? Why do observers always observe precise eigenvalues of particular states? The Everett-DeWitt interpretation answers that the mind of the observer is split by the measuring process, with each observer experiencing a different world state. Since measurement is essentially continuous and ubiquitous, splitting at each measurement implies that an infinite number of world states exist, each with its own observers believing they are experiencing “the” world. For this reason, this interpretation is commonly called the many-worlds interpretation (MWI).
The critics of the Everett-DeWitt interpretation are legion and their complaints are many. Of these, the most serious criticism is probabilistic. The Schrodinger equation yields probabilities of particular eigenvalues upon measurement. But the MWI requires that everything that could happen does happen even if it is highly improbable. For instance, imagine that an experimenter is about to measure a quantum system in which he has a 5% chance of measuring X and a 95% chance of measuring Y. According to the MWI, when he makes the measurement, the world splits in two, with both results occurring. But what could it possibly mean for an observer to have a 5% chance of one outcome and 95% of the other if there is a world in which every possible result happened, with an observer in each of them? I agree with the critics of MWI that this problem is fatal to the interpretation. However, the debate is ongoing.
With these basics in mind let us now turn to…
An Interpretation You’ve Probably Never Heard About
The traveling minds interpretation (TMI) was first developed by Euan Squires in his 1990 book Conscious Mind in the Physical World and re-developed by Jeffrey A. Barrett in his 1995 article “The Single-Mind and Many-Minds Versions of Quantum Mechanics,” Erkenntnis 42: 89-105. It was elaborated into an Neo-Aristotelian system by Alexander R. Pruss in his article “A Traveling Forms Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics,” for the 2017 book Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science. The version of the traveling minds interpretation I’m going to focus on is Squires’, but I commend all three sources above as worthwhile.
Squires admires the the many-worlds interpretation for its simplicity and coherency. However, he acknowledges the probabilistic problem as fatal to the MWI. To get around the problem, he takes an unusual approach:
We begin by calling the world described by wavefunctions changing only in accordance with the Schrodinger equation, i.e. as in Everett, the world of (quantum) physics. Then we suppose that, in addition to the world of physics, there are things we might call selectors. These have the power to select results for particular observations (eigenvalues of particular observables)… If we suppose that the selections are made at random, then.. the selector will automatically select a result in accordance with the probability rule of quantum theory.
To help us understand this concept, Squires suggests we imagine a TV set controlled by a remote with a large number of buttons for channels numbered 1 to 10. We sit on the couch in the dark holding this remote and randomly press a button to choose a channel. Let’s imagine we randomly hit 7. We now observe channel 7 appearing on the TV set. In this analogy, the world of physics corresponds to the channels being transmitted and to the television set itself, which are not altered by the operation of the selector. The selector is, of course, the human consciousness. Squires explains:
If we wish to describe what is happening here using the many-worlds language, we would say that the world separates into two branches. In what I think is the original version of the [MWI], “I”, that is my conscious mind, would go into both. Instead we are now claiming that “I” go into one or the other branch, selected probabilistically according to the relative magnitudes of the appropriate components of the wavefunction.
That is, the wave function never collapses, but the mind selects only one path to travel within it. Squires thus bypasses the probabilistic problem of the Everett-DeWitt interpretation by hybridizing it with something like Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation. Now, however, consciousness plays the role of a selector rather than a collapser. Consciousness has no effect on the physical world (which is solely the domain of the wave function), but it does effect what is observed of the physical world.
Unfortunately, this elegant solution presents another problem:
[W]hat happens if, following my observation, you make a measurement of the same quantity? Normally, it would be expected that you will obtain the same result. Indeed, if you do not, we would attribute the difference to faulty experimental techniques, or to the fact that one of us is misreading the data… The question this, How does the theory ensure that you will obtain the same result?
That is, if my observations do not alter the wave function, why do your observations correspond to them, too? Here’s Squires’ answer:
[T]he answer must lie in some sort of “universal” nature of consciousness… [W]hen I have made my observation, then Consciousness has decided where it goes. Here I have used a capital “C”, because I am not referring to the consciousness of an individual but to something else that presumably contains individual consciousness. The non-locality, which we know is part of total reality, is now not contained in physics, but in the universal consciousness.
If you’re a hardnosed materialist you’ve probably already cancelled your subscription to Tree of Woe in disgust. (Thank you for your past patronage.) But if you’re still with me, read on.
Benefits of the Traveling Minds Interpretation
Although only a few scientists have adopted it, the traveling minds interpretation has several benefits for a philosopher seeking to escape the Black Iron Prison of the materialist-monist consensus.
Traveling Minds Entails Free Will
The contemporary materialist-monist consensus affords no place to free will, deeming it an epiphenomenon or illusion. This denial of free will has pernicious consequences, transforming us from moral agents to meat robots. Escaping the Black Iron Prison requires that we be able to exercise free will.
Can the traveling minds interpretation grant us free will? Here’s what Squires has to say:
At first sight the answer to this question is that it cannot, since the role of the selector is merely to make some branch of the wavefunction into the experienced world according to the probabilistic laws of quantum theory; in no sense does it exercise any control. All this, however, depends upon the selector making a random choice. Why can it not be possible that in some cases the choice is not random but deliberate? Is the choice normally random simply because we do not try to choose deliberately?…
We are here suggesting the following model for the experience of free-will. A particular choice of action is to be determined. The process of realizing that there possible choices, and thinking about their relative merits, will have set up in the brain a quantum state described by a wavefunction… Lack of conscious choice means that this happens statistically; conscious choice means that the selector actually determines the outcome, rather than leaving it to chance. It is the act of “observation” of a particular brain state that makes the corresponding action happen in the world of which we are aware.
From my own subjective experience of consciousness, I would posit that this is an empirically accurate description. In the absence of attentive deliberation, I find myself making decisions randomly, albeit within probabilities defined by the existing patterns in my brain (e.g. I am more likely to pick chocolate gelato than peanut butter gelato). But with attentive deliberation, I become able to make decisions volitionally, exercising free will.
Traveling Minds Entails God, or Something Very Like God
For most of the 20th century, both scientists and theologians saw faith and science as “non-overlapping magisterium,” with little to say to each other. To the extent that theologians defended the existence of God in light of science, they treated him as the God of the Gaps, existing in those spaces that science had not explained. In the late 20th century and 21st century, however, evidence of a Designer of the universe has begun to accumulate — at least according to those who do not presuppose His nonexistence. Stephen C. Myer’s book The Return of the God Hypothesis is the best compendium of this evidence to date.
For those who welcome this return, the traveling minds interpretation is a natural choice because it requires the existence of a Universal Consciousness. The exact nature of the Universal Consciousness is not defined. Squires (quoting Erwin Schrodinger) suggests that the Universal Consciousness might be the same one that appears in the perennial philosophy:
[The universal consciousness] gives rise to the feeling that there is a unity in the world of consciousness, a feeling for which… there is a miraculous agreement between humans of different race, different religion, knowing nothing about each other’s existence, separated by centuries and millennia, and by the greatest distances that there are on our globe…
The Universal Consciousness might be the a principle of absolute unity, such as the Hindu Brahman. It might be a cosmic consciousness of which we are part, similar to the Platonic Anima Mundi or Stoic Logos. Or it might be the God of classic theism. The interpretation doesn’t specify which, allowing us ample room for faith.
Traveling Minds Reconciles God’s Omniscience with Mankind’s Volition
Although Squires does not himself make this point, it is my belief that the traveling minds theory offers a unique solution to the problem of free will in theology. The problem entails the apparent contradiction between God’s omniscience and mankind’s free will. Moses Maimonides offers the most succinct formulation of the problem:
… "Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest 'He knows', then it necessarily follows that [that] man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand he would act, otherwise God's knowledge would be imperfect.
So intractable has the problem of free will been that even today, Christian denominations remain divided over it, with followers of Aquinas, Calvin, Arminius, and Boyd all ready to darn their adversaries to heck over it.
But the traveling minds theory solves the problem. Remember, under the traveling minds theory, the entire world exists as a universal wavefunction which never collapses. Observation by consciousness causes one outcome of measurement to be experienced; it does not affect the wavefunction itself. The outcome experienced is then universalized to all others who make the same observation by the Universal Consciousness.
Let us put that into theological terms. God, as the universal consciousness, observes every possible outcome of the entire universal wavefunction. He is omniscient with respect to the physical world. God also knows the experiences of every observer, because He is responsible for guaranteeing that each one’s experiences are nonlocally shared with others who have the same observation. He is therefore omniscient with respect to human experience. Since consciousness can acts as a selector, and God is the universal consciousness, then He is also the universal selector. He can decide the result of every observation, no matter how improbable! He is therefore omnipotent with respect to our experience of the physical world.
However, in any case where God chooses not exercise His omnipotence as the universal selector, He leaves the selection up to the individual consciousness that makes the measurement - to us. In short, God can delegate to us a free choice of what we experience in the world without compromising His omnipotence over the physical world or His omniscience about physical reality or past and present human experience. The only thing of which He is “unaware” is the specific experiences that humans will choose in the future; although even these choices are still subject to His control should He wish to exercise it.
Of course, to the hardnosed materialist-monist, all of the above will be seen as disastrous to the scientific merits of the traveling minds interpretation, flaws that render the interpretation a form of “quantum woo” that can only distract us from the urgent necessity of shutting up and calculating in all trillion^trillion^trillion worlds of the quantum multiverse.
To those critics, I can only shrug and say: I don’t argue with meat robots. As for the rest of you, I look forward to your comments!3 Tell me your own preferred interpretations of quantum mechanics, and what philosophically motivates you to favor them.
I subscribed to the Everett-DeWitt interpretation for most of my 20s and 30s, when I was a physicalist and skeptic. Being now of the judgment that there is “something more” to the cosmos than materialist-monism, the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation has captured my attention in recent years.
From my point of view, of course, the interactive dualism of the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation is a virtue, not a flaw. It only seems like a flaw because physicists have wrongly rejected dualism with circular reasoning: “Dualism has been discredited because physics has been proven to be causally closed.” “No, the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation shows physics might not be causally closed.” “That doesn’t matter, because the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation has been discredited.” “And why has it been discredited?” “Because it implies dualism!” This form of argument would be laughable if it weren’t so widespread. It’s depressing. I am contemplating starting a blog to let you all know how much despair the modern world induces in me. It would have footnotes.
Any and all errors in this article are mine, and should not be ascribed to the scholars whose work I have cited. I apologize in advance for mistakes I have made in attempting to translate the complexities of quantum mechanics into my lightweight and easy-to-read writing style.