Monday, June 04, 2018

Steven Pinker vs quantum mechanics

An evolutionary psychologist cannot be as smart as a good theoretical physicist, otherwise he would be one

I've praised Steven Pinker many times. I don't think that he was the first one to discover something important. But he has wonderfully accumulated common sense on evolution – and evolution of psychology, societies, memes, and stuff like that. He knows why certain behavioral patterns have evolved and where we can expect them to drift in the future. He's right on the freedom of speech in the Academia and lots of other things.

But I have used the term "common sense". All of this is just common sense that is elaborated upon in the ivory tower. The discipline isn't really particularly intellectually demanding. And his books that are extremely close to the experts' writing on the same issues may also be classified as popular books. So he's good at some stuff that lots of rather ordinary, albeit much less famous and usually much less articulate people, may be equally good at. Sadly, it's easy to find a proof of Pinker's limitations. Luke has pointed out the following tweet:

Pinker has basically endorsed an embarrassing, supportive review by Tim Maudlin of the painful anti-quantum book by Adam Becker. It's no coincidence that the title of Maudlin's reason describes quantum mechanics (plus, less importantly, Kuhn's views about the evolution of science as a human enterprise) as a "defeat of reason". I am convinced that an undergraduate student who is getting As at courses close enough to theoretical physics simply has to see that Maudlin's diatribe can't be good enough physics.

Maudlin screams and uses strong words but screaming can't replace actual valid arguments, and Maudlin hasn't presented any.

Pinker apparently doesn't make it to the level of undergraduate students of physics who understand these basic matters. He may be one of the smartest people in the social sciences but his is still not high enough IQ to become a good undergraduate student of theoretical physics. My estimate for his IQ dropped from the vicinity of 145-150 to the vicinity of 130-135. No doubt, some commenters would object that there are different kinds of IQ. Well, yes and no. There are surely different ways to measure it, they produce different results, and none of them is really accurate or reliable. But there's only one kind of underlying skills that deserves to be called the real IQ or the g factor. Claims that the "diversity of IQs" may be a good enough excuse for huge blunders such as Pinker's support for Maudlin's rant are just politically correct fairy-tales.

It's hard to say who is more deluded – whether Adam Becker, the author of the "What Is Real" book, or Tim Maudlin, the would-be "philosopher" who wrote the review of the book, not to mention hundreds of similarly misguided texts (Maudlin was also the main troll fighting against my PhD adviser as I discussed in 2011). They're about the same. Maybe we haven't criticized Becker's thinking because he primarily wrote it in a book that you have to buy if you want to read it in its entirety. And maybe it's partly because Becker is more handsome than Maudlin, so it's harder to call him an obnoxious troll. And there are other illegitimate reasons behind the different treatment of the two men.

In reality, Becker and Maudlin are at the same frequency. Maudlin clearly believes that a lie repeated 100 times becomes the truth. So he repeats the lies that Bohr introduced chaos and all his metaphysical ideas are wrong, unacceptable, and unprecedentedly so; he has lost all battles against Einstein; nonlocality of the world has been proven, and so on.

Here's a representative example of Maudlin's review:
[Quote from Becker's book:] ...After 1925 Bohr and his associates introduced a new and unprecedented lowering of critical standards for scientific theories. This led to a defeat of reason within modern physics and to an anarchist cult of incomprehensible chaos.

[Maudlin's review:] ...Strong words. It is Becker’s burden, and Becker’s triumph, to show that every word is true...
Sure, all of modern physics is an anarchist cult of incomprehensible chaos and Bohr should be blamed.

Copy this hysterical whining by these two crackpots some 100 times, make some edits so that the 100 copies aren't exactly the same, add some ludicrously wrong statements about 50 conceptual issues of quantum mechanics, and you will get a diatribe that is basically indistinguishable from Maudlin's review.

In reality, it is equally painful to attack the foundations of quantum mechanics in 2018 as it was to attack heliocentrism when Kepler was formulating his laws. For over 90 years, the new framework has been the foundation of almost all the natural sciences. You need quantum mechanics with its, "Copenhagen" interpretation scheme to understand atoms, molecules, and macroscopic pieces of materials such as metals, superconductors, gases with the new statistics of molecules, biophysics with proteins, nerves, all other organs,...

You need quantum mechanics basically everywhere in science and there only exists one quantum mechanics. That theory has passed all the tests, including the most difficult ones – while some of its verified predictions have the accuracy of "one part per quadrillion" – and at the same moment, all the proposed alternatives fell basically immediately.

Quantum mechanics says that only probabilities of outcomes of experiments are calculable from the first principles. These probabilities are calculated by Born's rule – the probability is the squared absolute value of a complex probability amplitude – and the complex probability amplitudes are calculated as matrix elements of linear operators on a complex Hilbert space of states.

Everytime an observer wants something to be predicted, he must isolate the observable \(\hat L\) that will be measured (and perceived), he must decompose the state vector \(\ket\psi\) to the linear superposition of eigenstates of \(\hat L\), and the complex coefficients are the probability amplitudes. Once the observer learns about the value of \(\hat L\), he must adjust his state vector \(\ket\psi\) to a new one so that \[

\hat L \ket \psi = \ell \ket\psi

\] where \(\ell\) is the newly measured value of \(\hat L\). The new \(\ket\psi\) is therefore the eigenstate of the observable matching the actual observed eigenvalue that is closest to the pre-measurement one – or a projection to a subspace of the Hilbert space, if you prefer that equivalent formulation.

The adjustment of \(\ket\psi\) is nothing else than the quantum counterpart of the transition from prior to posterior probabilities in Bayesian inference. The observer has learned something new about the world around him so he had to adjust his expectations – subjective probabilities that he will see something or something else in the future. The "collapse" therefore occurs in the observer's mind and is tautologically inseparable from the measurement. The measurement means an event in which the observer learns about something, and the wave function quantifies what the observer knows or believes about the world, so it simply has to abruptly change when the measurement takes place.

In the quantum mechanical case, he adjusts the whole complex probability amplitudes that also remember the relative phases. These phases wouldn't affect the probabilities for \(\hat L\) itself but they influence the probabilities of outcomes of measurements of other observables \(\hat M\) that don't commute with \(\hat L\) – and for almost all pairs of observables \(\hat L\) and \(\hat M\), it's true that \([\hat L,\hat M]\neq 0\).

These principles may be basically proven right one by one. When this formalism is properly applied and the adequate Hamiltonian is picked to describe the evolution in time, he will get particular theories that agree with all observations. These theories are perfectly local – at least that's true within the framework of quantum field theory where the locality is guaranteed by the vanishing of the (graded) commutator of spacelike-separated field operators.

There's nothing chaotic about these matters. Reason hasn't been defeated; instead, reason has triumphed. An observer who picks what he wants to be predicted is needed and the choice is non-unique, at least in principle. That's what Bohr and pals have figured out, that's what his complementarity meant, and it's unquestionable in 2018 that he was right. The quantum revolution was a big leap, perhaps the biggest leap in the 20th century science, and such a big leap shows the power of reason.

(Incidentally, Pinker's tweet describes complementarity as "influential relativism". The word "influential" is a standard propaganda tool to say that Bohr's ideas were just a fad – Maudlin makes the same untrue and offensive claim; and "relativism" is supposed to be bad as well. But Bohr's ideas were only influential within the community of smart enough physicists who could have gotten those things – perhaps thousands of people as of 1960. And while these ideas represent a "relativism" of a sort – complementarity is synonymous with "relativism of possible views [what to measure]", it's simply how modern physics works. Einstein has contributed his own "influential relativism" as well, it's called the theory of relativity.)

Maudlin gets every single point about the foundations incorrectly. He also says that there's nonlocality in Nature – there is no nonlocality. He claims that Einstein has won the Bohr-Einstein debates. Bohr has won every single one of them. The Bohr-Einstein debates had several stages. In the first stage, Einstein was designing gedanken experiments in an effort to prove that quantum mechanics gave either logically inconsistent predictions or those that disagreed with observations. Einstein was basically trying to directly disprove the uncertainty principle. Every single one of these attempts was proven wrong. In one of them, described as "Bohr's triumph" e.g. at the Wikipedia page I just linked to, Bohr pointed out that Einstein forgot to take the gravitational redshift – something Einstein discovered himself during the work on the general theory of relativity – into account. When taken into account, Einstein's "paradox" evaporated and quantum mechanics regained the consistency and control over the situation.

The result of these debates was so unambiguous and uniform – every particular objection by Einstein was shown demonstrably wrong and quantum mechanics was right – so that Einstein surrendered the efforts to prove that quantum mechanics actually contradicted anything. Instead, he began to claim that it might have been an incomplete description. By the mid 1930s, he was already in that new stage. Well, the claim that there's a "more psychologically satisfactory" theory replacing quantum mechanics is a wishful thinking. And whenever Einstein or someone else tried to be more specific about "what kind of a more pleasing theory" we should study, it failed miserably.

OK, it is hard to accept that an overwhelming majority of the people has no chance to understand the foundations of modern physics. It is hard but I have mostly accepted this lesson. It's even harder to accept that even intellectual "leaders" such as Steven Pinker don't have much chance and they will always prefer incoherent attacks against modern physics by shallow crackpots such as Maudlin and Becker. But I am getting reconciled with that assumption, too.

Even intellectual leaders of social sciences – and perhaps logical if not quantitative social sciences – such as Pinker are just far too dumb to understand modern physics. People who surround Pinker and who make him an important thinker are far dumber than Pinker still. So he doesn't have a real motivation to notice how dumb his support for the anti-quantum-mechanical crackpots is.

The harmful development was the moment when physically illiterate idiots such as Becker and Maudlin started to get away with the claim they're writing about physics – in fact, about something important in physics. At that moment, the public views about modern physics have been "democratized" and because most people are much dumber than Pinker, and maybe even dumber than Becker or Maudlin, the society has entered a vicious circle in which the people who actually understand modern science will be suppressed, bullied, and de facto eradicated. That's a gloomy prediction of mine in evolutionary psychology. When I look at the uncritical reception of Pinker's tweet by his followers – where only Luke and one black lady named Janet Mpofu (5 percent?) dare to suggest that philosophers such as Maudlin really don't talk meaningfully about cutting-edge physics – my optimism doesn't get revived easily. The silver lining is that the black lady's tweet is the most upvoted reply to Pinker's tweet.

Incidentally, Maudlin has also reviewed another book, one directed against Thomas Kuhn, my former colleague as another Harvard Junior Fellow.

The author is Errol Morris – whom I met as a famous filmmaker at Harvard in 2005 when he was recording some interviews at the Sidneyfest.

I don't find Kuhn to be as important as quantum mechanics, of course, and because of the intrinsic vagueness and subjectivity of the claims, it's much less clearcut to say who is right in "philosophy of science" than it is to find the winner in hard sciences, but Kuhn is mostly right and Morris – and Maudlin – are mostly wrong. Kuhn studied and emphasized the political aspects of the spreading opinions about scientific questions – recall that he loved to talk about the paradigm shift. I think that there's nothing original about the very existence of the paradigm shift and the intrinsically political, power-based mechanisms that decide whether and when it happens (and about the critical mass above which it becomes easier to spread a view; even e.g. Marx has talked about all these things as well). But Morris and Maudlin seem to completely deny the political dimension of the persuasion of the public and the scientific community – which means that they don't understand these matters at all. So Morris ends up being One Man Who Denies the Reality – well, there was one man who rated Morris in the same way as I did, namely his onetime ex-boss Kuhn himself, and the offended Morris has used the phrase as a part of the title of his book.

The truth about science is surely not just about politics and power. There's some more or less objective core. But what these arrogant people don't understand is that they aren't guaranteed to get the right answer so what they believe isn't the same thing as the hypothetical objective truth. People may be wrong and the likes of Mr Maudlin – who are dumb as a doorknob; who just plain deny the 20th century worth of physics; and who are happy to get away with all of this arrogant garbage because they're surrounded by people who are equally moronic as they are if not more so – are much more likely to be wrong than some other people. So while the truth about the laws of Nature may be assumed to be objective, the mankind is imperfect and is only getting closer to the objective truth through a process that has an important political dimension.

There's no way to persuade Mr Maudlin that he is wrong about everything that is related to quantum mechanics – he's just too stupid, stubborn, and dishonest for that (and he is probably too invested in the promotion of the falsehoods that he wouldn't admit his life worth of claims has been wrong even if he understood that fact) – so if the real physicists will succeed against the propagation of this Maudlin-style mess and lies, of course they will have to use some intrinsically political tools. You know, a professor's refusal to give a topic for a thesis to a student who wants to do stuff like Maudlin is partly meritocratic but partly political, too. It's not the same politics as the competition between the Democratic and Republican Party. But it's a kind of politics, anyway, because the number and influence of the people on both sides decides which side grows.

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