“Numerous assaults on our conception of reality are emerging from modern physics. . . . [But] I find none more mind-boggling than the recent realization that our universe is not local.” -- Brian Greene, physicist
As we saw in Part 1, the conception of reality underwent a seismic shift when investigators popped the lid on the quantum world. Instead of finding a substructure consisting of orderly, well-defined building blocks, early pioneers peered into a microcosm of wraithlike objects that were fuzzy and erratic. On the forefront was Werner Heisenberg.
Heisenberg discovered that in nature’s deep regions, our investigative probes have a pronounced effect on what we actually observe. For example, if we measure the velocity of an electron, we will disturb its position, and if we measure its position, we will alter its velocity. The result is that we can know where it is, but not what it’s doing, or we can know what it’s doing, but not where it is.
But here’s the real kicker: We can refine our experiment so that the disturbances are reduced, but there is a point beyond which, no matter how skillful and meticulous we are, the precision of our measurement cannot be improved. Indeed, there is an inbuilt limit that is neither the fault of the experiment, the experimenter, or his experimental apparatus, a limit that forms a boundary to what can be known.
This imprecision, popularly known as the “uncertainty principle,” was a main feature of the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI) associated with Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr. Wave-particle duality and wave function probability, introduced earlier, were also a part of CI.
All of this was so alien to prevailing understanding that Neils Bohr remarked, “The quantum world cannot be fully understood nor can physical meaning be applied to its wave-function description . . . quantum mechanics only explains the external observations. It tells us nothing about the internal structure.”
Bohr’s sentiment reflected a growing unease with the quantum world, a world whose secrets appeared locked to human investigation, leaving final explanations a mystery never to be solved.
We’ll see just how much a mystery, shortly. But right now, let’s examine some more mind-numbing repercussions of the Copenhagen Interpretation.
The Source of Reality
According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the description of a particle is handled entirely by its wave function, a mathematical formulation of all the potential states of a particle (including its position, speed, and direction). When a particle is “observed,” the wave function “collapses,” thereby transforming one of its potential states into an actual one. In essence, the particle is created by the observer in his act of observing!
The suggestion of an observer-created reality was reminiscent of the Kantian Turn in philosophy, which regarded nature and nature’s laws as mind-dependent. Expectedly, critics were quick to challenge this fantastic claim with some creative thought experiments. One of the most famous was Schrödinger’s Cat.
The thought experiment involves a hypothetical feline confined in a box with a sealed vial of poison. Inside is a contraption that will the release the poison and kill the cat if a sensor is struck by an electron traveling in random flight. Following the logical consequence of CI, until an observer takes a peek in the box, the cat is neither dead nor alive, but in a superimposed state of life-death!
Schrödinger’s Cat demonstrated the absurdity of observer-created reality. Or did it?
Einstein and Co.
CI advocates were quick to suggest that large, complex objects -- like a cat -- are subjected to constant bombardment of subatomic elements in their environment. The continual impingement of light waves, cosmic rays, and a host of other fundamental particles amounts to billions of “observations” that cause the wave state to promptly coalesce into a single value. Thus, well before an anxious observer checks in on the cat, it is either dead or alive, not in some limbo of half-existence.
But what about simple, micro-sized objects like an electron? Einstein and a couple of his colleagues, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, proposed another thought experiment in which a sub-atomic particle splits off into two smaller particles of equal mass.
According to the laws of conservation, the total spin of the “daughter” particles must equal that of the “parent.” For example, if the spin of the parent was 0, then the spin of one daughter must be +1 and the other -1.
Einstein and company reasoned that if daughter A was measured with a spin of +1, the spin of daughter B could be determined as -1 without actually measuring daughter B. But according to CI, daughter B has no spin until it is measured. And if daughter B was affected by the measurement on daughter A, the measurement would generate an instantaneous signal to daughter B in violation of special relativity (which sets the cosmic limit of travel at the speed of light.)
This was sufficient in the minds of Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen to invalidate CI. But were they right? We’ll see in a moment. First let’s take a look at an alternate explanation of these strange goings-on.
Many Worlds and Parallel Universes
Other researchers sought to avoid the absurdities of observer-induced reality with a Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum behavior.
Many Worlds begins commonsensically enough, maintaining that an electron exists whether it is observed or not. But that is where common sense ends.
According to Many Worlds, an electron’s wave function does not collapse upon observation, but continually “splits off” with each split creating two parallel universes where the electron exists in mirror states. The wacky upshot is that every possible state of the electron is realized, somewhere!
Problems with this interpretation are many, including where these parallel universes exist and how an entire universe can be created by an infinitesimal change in a particle’s state.
But perhaps the clincher is the endless stream of universes being created by every object in the cosmos at every moment in time. Pondering this ramification, theorist David Lindley speaks for many when he says, “When you think about how many of these parallel universes you have to provide, the whole idea begins to seem cumbersome, to say the least.”
One could say that the Many Worlds has avoided one kind of absurdity, only at the expense of a much grander one.
A Non-Local Universe
The thought experiment of Einstein and company (known as EPR) was rooted in classical thinking; namely, that objects possess real properties whether we observe them or not, and that actions cannot proceed faster than the speed of light -- the latter defining what is called local action. But were these conditions operative in the innermost region of nature?
In 1964, Irish physicist John Bell devised a theorem whereby such speculations could be tested. In the 1970s and 80s, investigators applied Bell’s theorem to a range of experiments, and what they found was nothing short of breathtaking.
Contrary to the contention of Einstein, the experimenters discovered that a particle “over here” does care about what happens to a particle “over there.” And not only does the particle “care,” but it responds in an instantaneous -- that is, non-local -- manner.
Also remarkable is what they did not find. They did not find that quantum-space consists of objects with actualized properties, as was argued by Einstein. Their findings confirmed the notions of a fuzzy, ethereal -- some would say, “spooky” -- realm of nature.
The astonishing verification of Bell’s theorem suggests a substructure of nature that is vastly counterintuitive. In contrast to the familiar macroworld of physical things governed by orderly laws, the obscure and unexpected microworld appears populated by spectral objects exhibiting chaotic behavior -- objects that are lawless, operating “on their own,” and yet maintaining a visceral connectedness.
Quite frankly, this should blow your socks off. For the staggering revelation at the edge of nature’s horizon, it is that there is something not quite natural about the “natural” world.
C. S. Lewis insinuated this over 50 years ago when he remarked, “If the movements of the individual units [of Nature] are events ‘on their own,’ events which do not interlock with all other events, then these movements are not a part of Nature.”
Could the scientific enterprise be leading us ever closer to solving the Riddle of Reality? Stay tuned . . .
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.