Sunday, April 24, 2016

Can a biologist deepen the foundations of quantum mechanics?

In this case, it doesn't look so to me.

I have finally found fifteen minus to devour "biologist of perception" Donald Hoffman's thoughts in the Quanta Magazine,
The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality
It seems to me that he just says that the reality doesn't exist and natural selection punishes those who see the truth or the reality. Do you see anything more well-defined, a more convincing argument, or an entirely new additional idea in the article that isn't summarized by the previous sentence?

At several places, he suggests that he defends this "reality doesn't exist" viewpoint because he takes quantum mechanics seriously and much of this philosophy probably sounds similar to my comments about quantum mechanics to many people's ears. The only problem is that I think that the quantum beef is either entirely missing or seriously distorted in Hoffman's remarks. Instead, what I see is some superficial, partially wrong, and partially trivial philosophizing about the world that many people completely misunderstanding everything about quantum mechanics like to say, too.

If you expect the Quanta Magazine article to tell you something quantitative about qualia – how perceptions are linked to the apparatus of quantum mechanics – you're bound to be disappointed.

It's hard to decide where to start. But let me start with the "truth". Hoffman thinks that the claim that the "reality doesn't exist" is equivalent to "we were driven to zero probability to see the truth". But the truth and the reality are completely different things in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics says that one can't describe Nature by a description based on an objective reality; or that the truth about observables is intrinsically subjective i.e. observer-dependent.

What is declared obsolete by quantum mechanics isn't really the truth or reality itself; it's the idea that they are objective. In fact, according to a quote by Bohr, the truth is more important in quantum mechanics than it was in classical physics. Classical physics is about "what exists in Nature"; quantum mechanics is about "what true statement we can make about Nature".

But that doesn't mean that the truth doesn't exist. If we observe an observable \(L\) and we get \(L=\lambda\), the statement \(L=\lambda\) is a part of the truth. It's a true proposition according to the standard rules of mathematical logic. One may treat such true statements as axioms and logically derive other statements by the rules of logic (combined with the probabilistic predictions of statements about observables in the future from those in the past, using the complex Hilbert space formalism of QM). Quantum mechanics only says that the truth is observer-dependent. It doesn't say that the "truth doesn't exist" which is nothing else than a logically self-contradicting nonsense.

Second, the examples presented by Hoffman as would-be proofs of the unusually sounding statements don't seem to have anything to do with quantum mechanics, either. At a few places, he says that the organism optimized for fitness has a higher chance to survive than the organism optimized to accurately see the truth. What a shock.

This statement by Hoffman is clearly just a totally worthless tautology – just like the statement that the greenest tree is greener than the bluest tree. Fitness is the quantity defined as accurately as possible to predict the survival chances. So it's obvious that if someone maximizes the fitness, he's doing better than others who do something else (even if the "something else" is impressive and deserving praise, like searching for the truth or studying string theory).

The survival isn't just about the truth – just like the green color isn't just the blue color even though they may look similar to many folks. The survival skills are not equivalent to the skills in searching and identifying the truth. But that doesn't mean that they are negatively correlated let alone opposite to each other, as Hoffman basically says. He says it but his evidence supporting this "oppositeness" is obviously wrong.

He says that animals are rewarded for distinguishing objects whose size is comparable to their body's size even though they completely fail to distinguish objects at length scales much shorter or much longer than their body size (he doesn't say it as clearly as I do but I do believe that it was the purpose of several of his somewhat muddled sentences). That's supposed to be a proof that there are "incentives not to see the truth".

That's complete rubbish, of course. This is just an example showing that the truth relevant for the survival isn't the same truth as the most fundamental truth about the Universe. But true statements about the shape of other animals at the decimeter scale are still true statements. Just because a physicist wouldn't consider every detail about the shape of a shell in which a soft organism lives to be "a fundamental truth" doesn't mean that it's not the truth at all.

Even dumber is Hoffman's example involving the Windows icons. He noticed that the Windows icons look different than the content of the folder or application (or computer) that they represent. Let me congratulate Hoffman to his groundbreaking discovery. ;-) Again, all his claims that the Windows icon example shows that people are "discouraged from seeing the truth" are just plain bogus.

The statement that the Windows icon must look identical to the content of the folder or application etc. is just untrue. The icons (or other symbols) and the things they represent are just different entities so there is no reason for them to be "exactly the same". Their being different isn't a proof that the truth is a loser; on the contrary, the claim that they're different is a part of the truth.

But there are many other true things and the Windows icon may be better if it is optimized to make the user quickly imagine what he may get if he clicks at it. Resemblance to the true content is surely an advantage of a Windows icon in average. The reason why the Windows icon doesn't look identical as everything inside isn't that Microsoft or Nature find it great for users to see something else than the truth. The reason is that only a limited space exists for the Windows icon and only some amount of information may be squeezed that given the limited resolution of the screen and the users' eyes. And the finite speed of the computer's CPU and the human brain make it (and especially made it) useful to simplify the icons, too.

But as the screen resolutions, CPU power, and other things were going up, icons were actually getting more representative of the content, not less. For a decade or two, Windows has been showing the thumbnails of several pictures in a folder, at least assuming certain (default) settings. So none of these examples shows an active "encouragement of the humans to see something else than the truth". All these differences between the underlying objects and their symbols show that only some aspects of the truth are really important for the human user (and his work if not survival) and that the information channels (on the Internet but also between the computer screen and human eyes etc. etc.) have a limited capacity (and there are other, similarly technical, reasons why symbols aren't exact replicas). And these differences also mean that we just shouldn't be sloppy. We shouldn't automatically assume that two "related" objects are exactly the same; or that two "similar" propositions are equivalent. But if we're careful, it doesn't mean that we turn the truth into a loser. It means that we care more about the truth.

Hoffman's story is "intrinsically non-quantum" for another simple reason. Everything he says can be considered reasonable by a person with common sense who thinks entirely within the framework of classical physics. There is some objective world and animals are trained to see it but in some distorted way. But that's not what quantum mechanics allows you to say. And the observations about the inaccuracies of our eyes or Windows icons have nothing to do with the novelties that quantum mechanics actually forces upon us.

Also, this biologist doesn't even seem willing to think about the basic arguments of his colleagues that are actually scientifically meaningful. Neuroscientists say that they ignore quantum superpositions because the decoherence is fast for the degrees of freedom describing individual brain or nerve cells. That's why the classical description becomes a basically flawless approximate description for their discussion of these cells. They ignore "what's going inside" – how atoms work etc. (you surely need quantum mechanics for those things) – so they may pick the simplest description that is good enough and the classical reasoning seems OK for them.

This is a perfectly non-vacuous and sensible argument. It's important to know which effects are important for which phenomena and it seems rather sensible that the quantum interference may be neglected for the function and cooperation of cells in the human body at room temperatures. Hoffman doesn't seem to have any response to this actual scientific argument. Not only that. He seems to deliberately ignore it. He suggests that this is not how science should work at all.

But science has to work like that. It has to care how theories differ from others and when they become indistinguishable. And it's a provable fact that in some extreme conditions or situations (limits), quantum mechanical theories become indistinguishable from their limiting cases, from their classical limits – theories less accurately called the classical counterparts. The validity of the classical limit is something we may verify in many everyday situations. It's possible that this simplification isn't possible for the brain cells and quantum interference and nonzero commutators etc. are existentially important for the communication between the brain cells but if that's so, there must exist an explanation why the simple argument "decoherence seems fast enough" is invalid. Hoffman hasn't offered such an argument. He's just pushing some philosophical memes, without any real evidence or nontrivial logic.

As explained at the beginning when I discussed the survival of the concept of the "truth" in quantum mechanics, I also happen to agree with Sean Carroll who wrote (on Twitter) that Hoffman's thoughts rely on a specious definition of an illusion. Let me add that we use the word "illusion" for something that misleads us – something that leads us to make verifiably wrong predictions about the world. But a bare actual observation we make just can't be an illusion. Within the framework of quantum mechanics (but more informally, everywhere in science), what we observe is a part of the truth by definition (quantum mechanics says that the truth is always evaluated relatively to an observer's perspective).

Only the interpretations of it may be misleading. We do observe the same angular size of the Moon and the Sun but the "lesson" that they are equally large physical objects (in the absolute sense) is wrong. In this sense, the "equal size" of the two celestial bodies may be called an illusion. But what it means is that two statements that a sloppy person could identify are really different and it's important that one of them is true and the other is not. These comments about "illusions" and the "ability to distinguish finer details" seem absolutely obvious – but I can't get rid of the feeling that Hoffman genuinely misunderstands them, too. It amounts to a basic misunderstanding of the logical reasoning. Well, anyone who claims that "the truth is false" is guaranteed to be logically inconsistent according to my understanding of basic logic.

So I believe that he is an example of people who say something would-be clever but when you analyze what the content of the "wisdom" is actually saying, it's something similar to "people read" or "greenest is greener than bluest" or "the Windows icon for 'your computer' isn't a perfect photograph of your computer", things that are not deep at all and that most children in the kindergarten would (rightfully) find too simple and too obvious.

Nevertheless, I do believe that some biologists who study consciousness know some things that quantum physicists could consider extremely interesting, perhaps a deepening of their understanding how quantum mechanics works at some level and what's the actual relationship between "observations" at abstract elementary or irreducible events in quantum mechanics; and "observations" (as described from another, external perspective) as the underlying complex processes involving brain cells. But I am afraid that this essay by Hoffman contains nothing of the sort – that it's just some would-be philosophical and provoking but scientifically empty pop science.

Off-topic: Last year, I was explaining that most Czechs consider the Eurovision music contest to be the ultimate musical PC kitsch which is why almost no one has ever cared about it or watched it here. (Yes, I liked the theme song already 30 years ago, however.) But yes, one of the reasons always is the failure of all Czech participants in the past – and others. For many years, Czechia opted out of the contest.

Gabriela Gunčíková [Goon-cheekaw-vah] (born 1993) may severely change the latter reason. I find her Eurovision 2016 song "I Stand" a bit boring (sort of optimized for the "Eurovision genre" of ultimate mediocre ballads) but she and the song are getting amazingly good ratings and I think she is likely to be the most successful Czech participant so far; and she has a chance to win it.

She won the silver medal in the 2011 Czecho-Slovak Superstar (our "American Idol"), the winner was a Slovak male (see their duet). Listen to some covers she sang for the contest (e.g. Queen and ABBA and Tina Turner and Europe), or her Black Angel or her and Marta Jandová's Santa Superstar or her remake of Metallica and Miley Cyrus recorded when she wanted a job in a band or what was that (she stars as two girls hating the genres of one another). Or Love Hurts.

She looks hot and as the recent Eurovision interviews suggest, her English is incredibly good relatively to almost everyone in Czechia (including myself and most singers). In the Czech and Slovak song market, people actually get heavily punished if they sing in English (yes, she sings in Czech – and stars in musicals (e.g. Cleopatra), too, but in fact, I wouldn't say that her Czech is flawless). But you may help her outside her homeland.


On Sunday night, leader FC Viktoria Pilsen (my hometown) has humiliated Sparta Prague, for decades the best Czech team, 0-to-3 on the stadium in Prague. Pilsen is 11 points ahead of Prague – 4 matches remain. It means that Pilsen has to lose everything and Prague has to win everything (4 matches are left) which is extremely unlikely (0.0001% or so) but not quite impossible. Pilsen is likely to be certain about the title – about 4th title in recent years – next week.

Anti-migrant candidate wins 1st round in Austria

Austria, our Southern neighbor, had the first round of the presidential elections. The campaigns for the largely ceremonial post (like in Czechia) were dominated by the talk about migration. Norbert Hofer of the FPÖ (anti-immigrant party – if you remember the name of Haider...) has collected around 35% of the votes, the largest nationwide success of the party in its history so far, ahead of two left-wing candidates with 21 and 19 percent, respectively. The two traditional centrist parties that have controlled the Austrian politics since the war got (twice) 11% for their candidates – a debacle that makes the term "Grand Coalition" for their union sound a bit silly. The second round (runoff) is most likely to see Hofer against an old independent candidate who is actually a member of the Green Party.

If Hofer wins, anti-immigrant statements may be heard from the top places of all the 4 main countries of Austria-Hungary (plus Poland). You may see that the political mood in Austria is significantly different than the mood in Germany. A much more moderate AfD (I would call it in this way) gets less than 20% in any elections in the politically correct Germany. Well, in isolated incidents, AfD may shock and look more radical. For example, I was stunned to hear that AfD wants to exclude France+PIGS from the Eurozone.

No comments:

Post a Comment