There’s an interesting post over at Dailykos today on misconceptions about quantum mechanics, pseudo-science, and confusions about the role played by human activity in quantum phenomena. From the post:

This is the one quantum-mechanical property that’s relevant to this discussion, which is that in quantum mechanics, things can exist in several states at once. (called a superposition) Objects don’t have definite locations; rather they’re ‘smeared out’ over space. The lighter they are, and the faster they move, the more ‘smeared out’ they can be. (those who’ve read about QM before know I’m referring to the famous Uncertainty Principle)

But if a measurement is carried out on the object, it will have a certain value. Which is part of the ‘weirdness’. QM cannot predict what value will be measured, but it can predict the probability of all the possible measurement results. It can predict the average of a large number of measurements. For instance, the electron of a hydrogen atom is most likely to be 53 picometers away from the nucleus. But a single measurement could give any result from zero to infinity.

Heavier, bigger, things on the other hand, get less and less ‘smeared out’, and you end up with the ‘classical’ situation, where things assume definite values for their location and speed and other things.

Chopra (and many, many others) misinterprets what ‘measurement’ means here, assuming that it has something to do with human activity, drawing not only the erroneous conclusion that human (or sentient) perception is what’s meant by ‘measurement’, but indeed that things don’t even exist if they’re not being ‘measured’. Stating: “In fact, everything you are looking at right now depends upon you to exist.”

This is a basic misconception which has been debunked repeatedly (no doubt several times a week on physics newsgroups and message boards). Quantum mechanical measurements have nothing to do with ‘measurement’ per se, and especially not with human activity. It’s also at the basis of the Schrödinger’s cat ‘paradox’, as well as many of the early confusion about quantum mechanics.

In short, it’s a process known as decoherence. It’s not fully understood yet (although a lot of progress has been made since the early days and early confusion of QM). Decoherence is the process whereby quantum systems go from a superposition of different states to a single, definite state, through interactions with their environment. It’s ‘locked’ into this state because there’s an increase in entropy (disorder) associated with that change, making it irreversible (2nd law). It’s not fully understood yet, but it certainly doesn’t resemble the Berkleyian idea Chopra seems to have adopted.

A number of these claims have been advanced in the realism/anti-realism debates, as well as some of the debates between object-oriented ontologists and other speculative realists, so the post is worth a read. The author’s understanding seems to support something like object-oriented ontology in my view.

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