I’m sitting at the dining room table eating lunch, when I get the feeling of being watched. I look around, and see the dog across the room, curled up on her pillows staring at me. She’s quietly chanting to herself “I get stuff. I get stuff. I get stuff.”
“You’re not trying that hypnosis thing again, are you?” I ask. “You know it won’t work.”
“No. I’m manipulating the wavefunction of the universe to bring me good things. Such as, for example, that cheeseburger you’re eating.”
“Really. Manipulating the wavefunction of the universe?”
“Really. You see, all conscious beings are surrounded by an energy field that can be manipulated to attract good fortune. If you just focus your mind on good things, you can get good things, by collapsing the wavefunction through spooky action at a distance.”
“That’s ridiculous. No more late-night tv for you.”
“But it’s scientifically proven! Because of quantum.” She pouts.
“That’s not quantum mechanics, that’s just gibberish.”
“Are you denying that consciousness plays a role in quantum physics?”
That catches me a little off guard. “Well…”
“Ha!” she says, “I knew it!” She wags her tail smugly.
“I’m not admitting to anything. It’s just that the relationship between consciousness and quantum physics is complicated.”
“Everything in quantum physics is complicated.”
“OK, sure, but consciousness is especially complicated. There are people who hold that our consciousness originates with quantum phenomena in the brain, and other people who would say that it’s pretty much incidental to the whole thing. There’s essentially no evidence either way, so it’s a very fluid thing.”
“It requires consciousness to collapse a wavefunction, though, right? I read that in one of your books.”
“You’re not going to win any debates by citing Greg Egan novels to support your position. And, anyway, the answer to that depends on who you ask. There are multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics that hold that there’s no such thing as the collapse of the wavefunction.”
“Oh, right. Many-Worlds and that stuff.”
“Exactly. Now, consciousness still plays some role in that theory, in that our brains become entangled with the various measurement outcomes, and thus we perceive different results in different branches of the wavefunction. But the heavy lifting is really done by decoherence.”
“The tricky part of any interpretation of quantum theory is coming up with an explanation for why we don’t see quantum effects for macroscopic objects. In most modern theories, that’s done through the process of decoherence, in which unmeasured interactions with the environment cause shifts between the different parts of the wavefunction so that we can’t see macroscopic objects interfering with each other. They do interfere, but we can’t build up an interference pattern through repeated measurements, because environmental interactions are always shifting things around, so there’s no way to tell.”
“Well, ok, but what if the collapse people are right?”
“Even in an interpretation with collapsing wavefunctions, decoherence takes care of most of the problem. Decoherence explains how you get a system from a superposition of being both here and there, to a mixture of either here or there. That’s most of the work right there– the problem of choosing which outcome we actually see is a small detail compared to that.”
“Okay, I guess. But what about quantum causing consciousness? How do you explain that?”
“I don’t, because it’s not really a mainstream theory. There are people here and there who believe that what we perceive as consciousness is the result of quantum processes taking place in the brain. The most famous proponent of this is Sir Roger Penrose, a famous British mathematical physicist.”
“Well, there you go. If he’s famous, he must be right.”
“He’s famous for other stuff, not this. Really, the notice he gets for the brain stuff is probably closer to ‘notoriety’ than ‘fame.'”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, my impression of his argument is that there’s not much to it beyond saying ‘We don’t really understand quantum physics, and we don’t really understand how consciousness works, therefore, the two must be related.'”
“That sounds convincing to me.”
“Yeah, but you’re a dog. You probably think cats have something to with it, because you don’t understand cats.”
“Cats are tricksy. We don’t like cats.”
“Yes, I know. The point is, that’s not a very convincing argument. There’s some stuff about small structures in the brain that might be on the right scale to have quantum processes, but that’s awfully thin. I don’t know anybody who takes it all that seriously.”
“Oh.” She looks disappointed. “So, what’s left? How is consciousness related to quantum physics?”
“Beats me. I suspect it isn’t, at least not in any grand, universe-changing way. My personal pet metaphysical theory is that quantum mechanics accounts for free will, by adding a tiny element of randomness to our brains and preventing us from being wholly deterministic biological automata. But then, I don’t have any more evidence for that than Penrose has for his stuff. I just like the sound of it.”
“Yeah, whatever. Very poetic.”
“Look, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but all that ‘Law of Attraction’ stuff is a bunch of crap. There’s no mystical quantum energy field permeating the universe that you can manipulate through the power of positive thinking. You can’t cause the universe to bring you cheeseburgers just by wanting them badly enough. Anyone who says differently is a scam artist.”
“And we shouldn’t give money to scam artists.” She perks up a little, God knows why.
“That’s right. You’re a very good dog.” I turn back to my burger, which is starting to get cold.
“It’s good that I didn’t give them money, then.”
“Pardon?” I say, with my mouth full.
“The people from The Secret. I didn’t give them money.”
“OK,” I say, still chewing. And then, just as I start to swallow…
“I used your credit card,” she says. “It’s free for a month!” I choke on the burger. As I reach, coughing, for a glass of water, I fumble the half of the burger still in my hand, and it falls on the floor. Like a flash, she pounces on it.
“I get stuff!” she announces, happily chewing.
This post is a much-delayed pay-off for a DonorsChoose donation back in October. Thanks again, Ewan. I hope this was worth the wait.