My “Big Three” 2017

Here’s my attempt to answer my own Big Three question “Describe three concepts that you feel you have some exceptional insight into that shape your understanding of the world.” These are the three concepts that come to mind immediately. Two skirt the bounds of science and philosophy. The third is human behavior. I have a fourth “Effective Theory” but that’s kind of cliche and I adopted it based on the article that triggered this idea. I’m sure I’d choose different topics every time I thought about it.

Concept 1: Counterfactual Definiteness

I chose the concept of counterfactual definiteness (known as CFD in the field of quantum physics) because it is an extremely useful and revealing way to understand the world. It explains so much that people would otherwise describe as unknowable or mysterious. Yet it is very provocative to most people and misunderstood by nearly everyone (maybe everyone). I feel like most people would call it a fringe idea, yet I feel it is at the heart of nearly everything we observe and could very well define the underpinnings of our universe. And it presents a far more palatable and likely explanation for some of the oddest observations in quantum mechanics. For example, you can dismiss Schrodinger’s dead and alive cat!

The name for this idea is unfortunate. It’s really just a firmer belief in cause and effect than most people will admit. The idea is that everything that happens is determined by real and explicable forces. Thus there is some degree of super-determinism operating on our universe, there is no true randomness, and the generous interpretation of human free will is an illusion, at some level.

The name comes from the realization that an observed event is the one and only one that could have been possible given the initial conditions. Obviously, consideration of what those conditions were, or how they came about, is a vast area for further discussion.

Consider for example a great simplification. We observe a tree fall. Ignoring for now the nearly infinite details that we may not know. In simplification, we understand the reason the tree fell. It was a combination of the wind and gravity for example. It is not valid to ask what if the tree fell upwards, because that scenario is not a valid option in our world. It’s also not valid to ask what if the tree chose to fall in a different direction. We know of no way that a tree can choose it’s method of falling. We stick to the causes and effects we do understand and we concede that from what we know only that which did happen could have happened. Any other scenario would require different conditions. It’s possible to extend this thought process to everything that resulted in the tree falling, all the way back to the initial conditions, perhaps to the start of the universe. This idea is often called super-determinism.

Where super-determinism and counterfactual definiteness meet resistance is when human free will is considered. It’s very difficult to consider that our conscious decisions are influenced by the universe we live in. We like to think of our mind as being supernatural, as not being a machine made up of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. But from every scintilla of evidence we know about, the human body and mind are made up of the same particles, atoms, and molecules, as everything else in the universe and are influenced by the same fundamental forces.  I find it bizarre that we even consider otherwise. Such wishful thinking feels to me just like all the other egocentric assumptions the human race has made in the past about its special place in the cosmos. We thought we were the center of the solar system, that we were specially created in the image of a supreme being, that the sun and the stars and the animals and even the races that we subjugated in our history were made for our benefit or pleasure. In the post-Copernican world we’ve had to accept a much more humble and rational place in the cosmos, one in which we are truly a part. That life as we know it is not a mystical exception, but rather a wonderful complexity of our reality-based physical universe.

A reasonable counter to super-determinism is the scientifically accepted argument that quantum physics is inherently random, that the quantum world is governed by true complete chance. We can certainly observe apparent randomness at quantum scales, and our quantum theories and their mathematical underpinnings are well proven. However, we also know that the greatest degree of deterministic complexity is indistinguishable from randomness. We can’t measure every particle in the universe and determine how every other would react. So we cannot as a matter of principle prove that randomness exists at all, no more than we can prove that determinism is absolute. But what we do know is that every physical law we discover and prove IS deterministic, or if you include quantum physics, is truly random. But even if the randomness embodied in our ideas of quantum mechanics is more than a shadow of complexity, it does not ‘save’ the idea of free will anyway. (I think the Sabine Hossenfelder article covers that better.)

Now that’s not to say that we cannot make choices and decisions. Even if our world is deterministic and some sort of physical fate dictates every event in our future, we still live and think and inhabit a world of free will in which the illusion is plenty real enough. For example, we would not use the explanation of a deterministic world to excuse bad behavior just because we believe that a person had no choice on some root physical level (in my opinion, others do). In the very real world we live in, choices are also real and consequences follow. It seems this complex dichotomy will doom almost everyone to reject the idea because it’s just too radical or complex for people to consider. But it makes sense to me.

To appreciate the simplifications that super-determinism offers in understanding the world, consider the implications to Bell’s Inequality and Schrodinger’s Cat. As abhorrent and complex as a deterministic world seems at first, it’s far easier to swallow than some alternatives that are otherwise inescapable.

John Bell himself made this statement in 1985:

There is a way to escape the inference of superluminal speeds and spooky action at a distance. But it involves absolute determinism in the universe, the complete absence of free will. Suppose the world is super-deterministic, with not just inanimate nature running on behind-the-scenes clockwork, but with our behavior, including our belief that we are free to choose to do one experiment rather than another, absolutely predetermined, including the “decision” by the experimenter to carry out one set of measurements rather than another, the difficulty disappears. There is no need for a faster than light signal to tell particle A what measurement has been carried out on particle B, because the universe, including particle A, already “knows” what that measurement, and its outcome, will be.

I don’t take Bell’s views lightly. After all his proof of non-locality represented by Bell’s Theorem and supported by experimental evidence is perhaps the single greatest physical insight into our universe to date! (IMHHO of course) To be honest Bell himself admitted that although this deterministic loophole could in principle never be eliminated, it was also implausible. Perhaps it IS a matter of philosophy as some suggest because it is untestable and therefore may be beyond the realm of science. But if so, then so too is the presumption of non-determinism. I’ll commit a minor sin here and declare that Einstein would agree – these issues were at the heart of his lifelong resistance to quantum theory.

But let’s suppose that we started by presuming the simplest physical explanation, one consisting only of cause and effect. And from that basis we set out to either prove or disprove whether there IS free will or any non-deterministic effects. Such an experiment might look exactly like the entanglement experiments and the tests of Bell’s Inequality. Would they not? And wouldn’t the experimental results of those experiments that we’re now familiar with be exactly the form of evidence we’d expect if the world was super-deterministic? For example, two entangled particles would have initial conditions that persisted and how we measure them was predetermined as well. If we exclude faster than light communication (between entangled particles) and hidden dimensions and so on, then determinism is all that’s left!

One nice consequence of this belief is that it can free you from second-guessing yourself and being mired in regrets. Whatever factors went into making a choice were real and final and there’s no use in wringing your hands over what-ifs. Personally, I find that many people are completely miserable because all they do is dwell on what they should have done despite having no way at all of knowing what it was in advance!

I continue to try to learn more about this. I’m no expert on quantum physics. I wonder if the debate between determinism and quantum chance can ever be tested. I don’t know. I wonder if I’ll ever see a functional quantum computer in my lifetime that can execute a non-trivial example of Shor’s Algorithm – if so I may need to rethink.

Concept 2: Pilot Wave Theory

De Broglie–Bohm pilot wave theory is a concept I learned about only recently. It makes an incredible amount of sense to me and offers an alternative to the things that disturb me most about our conceptual understanding of quantum physics. I can deal with the weirdness of the quantum and I can handle not being able to visualize things. But the Copenhagen Interpretation (the part about human observation affecting reality) is not something I can easily swallow. It too closely resembles the long history people have of judging the world as simplistic and human-centric. And the Many Worlds interpretation also seems phony and contrived as being too expansive and ridiculous. Other concepts like waves that travel backwards in time, and hidden dimensions are far beyond my understanding to even judge. But when I heard of Pilot Wave Theory and gave it some thought, I found it attractive, realizing of course that being palatable is not evidence. I include it in my list because it’s on the cusp of my current attempt to comprehend quantum physics.

Some sources:

Concept 3: Intractable Confirmation Bias

I feel there is something (a glimpse of understanding) that I have attained about human behavior and psychology that is deeper than most, but it is particularly hard to describe. I use it to understand people, and I constantly test it when I’m competing in trivia, pool, or any measurable competition. So I have a huge personal database of evidence that it works time and again and proof that adequately reflects human conditioning and is responsible for more human intellectual foibles, including my own. Yet it’s very hard to articulate and will probably sound oversimplified and trite when expressed by a writer of my ability. But I’ll try my best.

I’ll start with a quote:

“Everyone believes very easily whatever he fears or desires.”
– Jean de La Fontaine.

It ties in with the idea of Cognitive Ease. Some references:

Confirmation bias, the instinctual disposition to favor confirming evidence over contradictory evidence, is obviously powerful. I feel it controls our thoughts like a drug and subjects even the smartest people to poor judgement. It’s tied in with our inclination to jump to a conclusion. In fact, we seem to feel pressured by society to jump quickly to a conclusion as a sign that we’re smart and our thoughts are valuable. Note how we seem to value strong opinions (Fox News) over careful consideration (maybe Walter Cronkite) – don’t hold me to these examples, I’m sure there are much better ones.

I am constantly amazed at how people, even those who are conventionally “smart”, jump to conclusions that are ridiculously wrong just because they have failed to consider, or even imagine, an unlikely but correct alternative.

So that sounds like a thin complaint. Fair enough for the reader to judge it as the normal criticism that a frustrated scientific-type person might express about the ignorant masses. That’s partly what it is. But what I mean to highlight is deeper and better supported by experience. I have used my understanding of this idea to defeat opponents at sports (pool and bags), trivia competitions (thousands including clear state championships against arguably better opponents), and some testy business situations. The problem is that describing specific examples would come across as overly confrontational. I will have to work on a good presentation…