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Sunday, October 01, 2017

Quantum mysteries dissolve if possibilities are realities Spacetime events and objects aren’t all that exists, new interpretation suggests | Science News

Photo: Tom Siegfried
"Spacetime events and objects aren’t all that exists, new interpretation suggests" argues Tom Siegfried, Editor at Large and author of the Context blog

Physicist Werner Heisenberg (right) believed that quantum mechanics implied an aspect of reality similar to the concept of “potential” advocated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (left). A new paper suggests that the mysteries of quantum mechanics might be resolved by incorporating such “potential” elements of reality in a complete picture of nature.  

When you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s more than one way to explain quantum mechanics. Quantum math is notorious for incorporating multiple possibilities for the outcomes of measurements. So you shouldn’t expect physicists to stick to only one explanation for what that math means. And in fact, sometimes it seems like researchers have proposed more “interpretations” of this math than Katy Perry has followers on Twitter.

So it would seem that the world needs more quantum interpretations like it needs more Category 5 hurricanes. But until some single interpretation comes along that makes everybody happy (and that’s about as likely as the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl), yet more interpretations will emerge. One of the latest appeared recently (September 13) online at, the site where physicists send their papers to ripen before actual publication. You might say papers on the arXiv are like “potential publications,” which someday might become “actual” if a journal prints them.

And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much the same as the logic underlying the new interpretation of quantum physics. In the new paper, three scientists argue that including “potential” things on the list of “real” things can avoid the counterintuitive conundrums that quantum physics poses. It is perhaps less of a full-blown interpretation than a new philosophical framework for contemplating those quantum mysteries. At its root, the new idea holds that the common conception of “reality” is too limited. By expanding the definition of reality, the quantum’s mysteries disappear. In particular, “real” should not be restricted to “actual” objects or events in spacetime. Reality ought also be assigned to certain possibilities, or “potential” realities, that have not yet become “actual.” These potential realities do not exist in spacetime, but nevertheless are “ontological” — that is, real components of existence.

“This new ontological picture requires that we expand our concept of ‘what is real’ to include an extraspatiotemporal domain of quantum possibility,” write Ruth Kastner, Stuart Kauffman and Michael Epperson.

Considering potential things to be real is not exactly a new idea, as it was a central aspect of the philosophy of Aristotle, 24 centuries ago. An acorn has the potential to become a tree; a tree has the potential to become a wooden table. Even applying this idea to quantum physics isn’t new. Werner Heisenberg, the quantum pioneer famous for his uncertainty principle, considered his quantum math to describe potential outcomes of measurements of which one would become the actual result. The quantum concept of a “probability wave,” describing the likelihood of different possible outcomes of a measurement, was a quantitative version of Aristotle’s potential, Heisenberg wrote in his well-known 1958 book Physics and Philosophy. “It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.”

In their paper, titled “Taking Heisenberg’s Potentia Seriously,” Kastner and colleagues elaborate on this idea, drawing a parallel to the philosophy of René Descartes. Descartes, in the 17th century, proposed a strict division between material and mental “substance.” Material stuff (res extensa, or extended things) existed entirely independently of mental reality (res cogitans, things that think) except in the brain’s pineal gland. There res cogitans could influence the body. Modern science has, of course, rejected res cogitans: The material world is all that reality requires. Mental activity is the outcome of material processes, such as electrical impulses and biochemical interactions.

Kastner and colleagues also reject Descartes’ res cogitans. But they think reality should not be restricted to res extensa; rather it should be complemented by “res potentia” — in particular, quantum res potentia, not just any old list of possibilities. Quantum potentia can be quantitatively defined; a quantum measurement will, with certainty, always produce one of the possibilities it describes. In the large-scale world, all sorts of possibilities can be imagined (Browns win Super Bowl, Indians win 22 straight games) which may or may not ever come to pass.
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Additional resources > quant-ph > arXiv:1709.03595

Source: Science News (Blog)

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