Entities in Some Popular Quantum Physics

2016-8-6

Describing discoveries in quantum physics to laypeople (such as myself) is a difficult task, requiring some creativity on the part of the journalist. At the same time, through popular science reporting on quantum physics a group of lay quantum physicists is created. In this context, it is interesting to discover the kinds of entities that journalists come up with and deploy. I was particularly interested by an article on the BBC entitled Organisms might be Quantum Machines. This is a highly speculative article that considers some of the ways in which quantum physics might be implicated in biological phenomena.

The entities considered range from the impossibly vast (nature) to the incredibly small (electrons). Let's look at each of these in turn and try and figure out what kind of metaphysics we are being committed to.

In fact, quantum effects could be something that nature has recruited into its battery of tools to make life work better, and to make our bodies into smoother machines.

In this passage, we can easily swap 'nature' with 'God'. This nature-god is a benevolent craftsman who makes the most of the tools he can pick up at the cosmic hardware store. Unfortunately, they were out of the part he really needed, but he managed to cobble something together using quantum effects.

Even though we are talking about cutting edge science, we are still resorting to a Clockmaker God to explain it (even if we are a bit too nervous to name God). I have two issues with this. Firstly, it's a top down approach to the cosmology. A cosmic entity ('nature' being the totality of existence) tinkers with the smallest processes to achieve its desires. This prevents us from thinking about a nature that is built up from its smallest components, and (like God) requires a nature that exists before anything else.

My second issue is with the benevolence of the clockmaker that comes along with this view. It's difficult to take nature-god seriously when he's basically got our collective back. In my view, this inhibits us from fully appreciating our existence as humans (bleakly, our cosmic insignificance). At the same time, it's not necessarily incorrect to hold that nature (as a totality) has agency, but this agency must remain inscrutable. That doesn't mean that science can't tell us anything about how nature works, but we should avoid trying to grasp nature's motivations. It would be like putting God on the analyst's couch.

Moving from cosmic totality to the scale of subatomic particles, lets consider the electron.

One quantum effect is the ability to exist in many places at the same time – a property known as quantum superposition. Using this property, the electron could potentially explore many routes around the biological pinball machine at once. In this way it could almost instantly select the shortest, most efficient route, involving the least amount of bouncing about.

In this passage, an electron is given the capacities to 'explore' and 'select'. Selection requires choosing, exploration involves generating knowledge. It's quite an interesting way of thinking about electrons. Allowing them to generate their own knowledge and their own preferences borders on a kind of animism. I'm actually quite in favor of giving electrons this type of capacity, but only to the extent that we are clear that the preferences and knowledge that an electron has are completely alien to our own logics.

How does this view of electrons fit in with the nature-god described earlier? It is as if nature is somehow able to perfectly anticipate the desires of electrons, in which case, are electrons really free to choose? It seems to me that the view of electrons which gives them the kind of agency just described is at odds with the description of nature given earlier.

I appreciate that describing discoveries and speculations from quantum physics in an entertaining way is challenging. However, what this article seems to show is that while quantum physics has made a lot of progress, improvements in our ways of describing that progress has been much more modest.


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