Quantum Mechanics, Plato’s Cave and the Blind Piranha


My quantum experiment, which has consumed me for greater than a 12 months now, has dredged up a creepy, long-buried reminiscence. It dates again to the late 1970s, after I was a housepainter residing in Denver. In the future I discovered myself in a grungy saloon on Denver’s dusty japanese outskirts. Behind the bar was an aquarium with a single, nasty-looking fish hovering in it. A silver, saucer-sized, snaggle-toothed, milky-eyed, blind piranha.

At times, the bartender netted a number of minnows from a fishbowl and dropped them into the piranha’s cubicle. The piranha froze for an immediate, then darted this manner and that, jaws snapping, because the minnows fled. The piranha stored bumping, with audible thuds, into the glass partitions of its jail. That defined the protuberance on its snout, which resembled a tiny battering ram. Eventually the piranha devoured all of the hapless minnows, whereupon it returned to its listless, suspended state.

What does this poor creature should do with quantum mechanics? Right here’s what. Our fashionable scientific worldview and far of our expertise—together with the laptop computer on which I’m writing these phrases—is predicated on quantum rules. And but a century after its invention, physicists and philosophers can’t agree on what quantum mechanics means. The idea raises deep and, I’m guessing, unanswerable questions on matter, thoughts and “actuality,” no matter that’s.

Greater than a half century in the past, Richard Feynman suggested us to just accept that nature is senseless. “Don’t hold saying to your self … ‘However how can [nature] be like that?’” Feynman warns in The Character of Bodily Legislation, “as a result of you’ll get ‘down the drain,’ right into a blind alley from which no one has but escaped. No person is aware of how it may be like that.” Most physicists have adopted Feynman’s recommendation. Ignoring the oddness of quantum mechanics, they merely apply it to perform numerous duties, equivalent to predicting new particles or constructing extra highly effective computer systems.

One other deep-thinking physicist, John Bell, deplored this example. In his basic 1987 work Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, Bell chides physicists who apply quantum mechanics whereas blithely disregarding its “elementary obscurity”; he calls them “sleepwalkers.” However Bell acknowledges that efforts to “interpret” quantum mechanics in order that it is smart have failed. He likens interpretations such because the many-world speculation and pilot-wave principle to “literary fiction.”

Right now, there are extra interpretations than ever, however they deepen somewhat than dispel the thriller on the coronary heart of issues. The extra I dwell on puzzles equivalent to superposition, entanglement and the measurement downside, the extra I determine with the piranha. I’m blindly thrashing about for insights, epiphanies, revelations. Now and again I feel I’ve grasped some slippery reality, however my satisfaction is at all times fleeting. Eventually, I find yourself crashing into an invisible barrier. I don’t actually know the place I’m or what’s happening. I’m at nighttime.

The principle distinction between me and piranha is that it’s contained in the aquarium, and I’m on the surface, trying in. I can take solace from the truth that my world is far greater than the piranha’s, and that I do know many issues that the fish can’t. Nevertheless it’s all too straightforward to think about some enlightened, superintelligent being standing exterior our world, us with the identical pity and smug superiority that we really feel towards the piranha.

Plato presents himself as this enlightened being in his well-known parable of the cave, which I make my freshman humanities courses learn each semester. The parable describes individuals confined to a cave for his or her whole lives. They’re prisoners, however they don’t know they’re prisoners. An evil trickster behind them has constructed a fireplace, by the use of which he initiatives shadows of every part from aardvarks to zebras onto the cave wall in entrance of the prisoners. The cave dwellers mistake these shadows for actuality. Solely by escaping the cave can the prisoners uncover the sensible, sunlit actuality past it.

We’re the benighted prisoners within the cave, and Plato, the enlightened thinker, is attempting to tug us into the sunshine. However isn’t it doable, even possible, that Plato and different self-appointed saviors, who say they’ve seen the sunshine and need us to see it too, are charlatans? Or loons? Given our profound capability for self-deception, isn’t it seemingly that once you suppose you’ve left the cave, you’ve really simply swapped one set of illusions for an additional? These are the questions with which I torment my college students. Listed below are a few of their responses:

  • Clearly, some individuals are ignorant and deluded, like flat-earthers, and others are well-informed. So sure, we are able to and do escape the cave of ignorance by going to varsity and finding out physics, chemistry, historical past, philosophy and so forth. We are able to scale back our ignorance nonetheless additional with the assistance of dependable information sources, such because the New York Occasions and Fox Information, and touring to different nations to learn the way different individuals see the world.
  • Sure, we are able to escape the cave by finding out physics and different fields, however we solely find yourself in one other cave, with equations projected on the partitions as a substitute of silhouettes of aardvarks and so forth. The brand new cave could also be extra fascinating, snug and better-illuminated than the cave we had been in earlier than, however it’s nonetheless a cave. Only some uncommon souls expertise final actuality, like Buddha, Jesus and Einstein.
  • Plato wasn’t actually speaking about worldly information, he was speaking about religious information, or enlightenment. So sure, we are able to go away the cave and see the sunshine of reality, however solely by accepting the teachings of nice sages equivalent to Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, and maybe by working towards religious disciplines equivalent to prayer and meditation.
  • With the assistance of philosophy, artwork, meditation and psychedelics, we are able to develop into extra conscious that we’re in a cave, in a state of phantasm; we are able to know, type of, what we don’t know. However no mere human ever escapes the cave, not even the best sages and scientists. Not even Plato, Stephen Hawking or L. Ron Hubbard. Solely God, if there’s a God, can understand absolute reality. And possibly not even God.
  • Who cares if we’re in a cave or not? If we’re having enjoyable, that’s all that issues. (Though only some of my college students have the braveness to voice this selection, I believe it’s what a lot of them suppose, particularly the enterprise majors.)

To be trustworthy, the fourth choice—that not even God can escape the cave, plus the references to psychedelics, Stephen Hawking and L. Ron Hubbard—is mine. However my college students provide you with the opposite choices on their very own, with minimal prodding from me. By the point we’re completed with this train, I begin feeling responsible about rubbing the younger, harmless faces of the non–enterprise majors on this planet’s inscrutability. To make them really feel a little bit higher, I carry up one other risk that often doesn’t happen to them:

If we understand we’re within the cave, isn’t that the identical, type of, as escaping from it? Truly, if “final actuality” is inaccessible to us, isn’t that the identical, type of, as saying that it doesn’t exist? And therefore that the cave, the world by which we reside each day, is the one and solely actuality? And therefore that the enterprise majors are proper, and we should always simply relax and luxuriate in ourselves?

Perhaps. On good days, I look out the window of my condo on the shining Hudson River, crisscrossed by boats, and on the Manhattan skyline, an emblem of humanity’s ever-growing information of and energy over nature, and I feel, Sure, this is actuality, there’s nothing else. However then I keep in mind the quantum mist on the core of actuality, which not even the neatest sages can penetrate, and to which most of us are oblivious. And I keep in mind the piranha, bumping again and again into the partitions of its world, blind to its personal blindness.

That is an opinion and evaluation article; the views expressed by the writer or authors aren’t essentially these of Scientific American.

Additional Studying:

Is the Schrödinger Equation True?

Quantum Mechanics, the Chinese language Room Experiment and the Limits of Understanding

Quantum Mechanics, the Thoughts-Physique Drawback and Unfavourable Theology

I discover the bounds of data in my two most up-to-date books, Thoughts-Physique Issues, obtainable totally free on-line, and Pay Consideration: Intercourse, Loss of life, and Science.

See my latest chat with Russian author/artist Nikita Petrov, by which we discuss concerning the blind piranha, Plato’s cave and psychedelics.


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