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How to Turn the World Upside Down- Without Making it Weird

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy summarises the principle of locality as “the condition that any correlations between distant events be explicable in local terms”. “Outcome Determinism” is defined in the same article as a principle which entails that “outcomes of experiments are predetermined by the complete specification of state”- or in other words, that the elements making up a certain state fully and certainly determine the results of any progression of that state. Put together, these two make up the idea often referred to as “local realism”, which can roughly be understood as: the physical world exists in a definite state whether we have knowledge of it or not, and changes in that state occur through local interactions.

It is this duo of ideas that is challenged by Bell’s Theorem, a set of different results of experiments which suggest that the findings of quantum physics violate our received understanding of the universe that physical science examines. In a nutshell, certain experiments have given results that violate predictions, called Bell Inequalities, that would have to hold true if our previous notion of so-called “local realism” were true. These violations have been pointed to by some as proof that our understanding of the universe must change to make sense of quantum physics.

Though these are fascinating discussions, this post isn’t so much about quantum physics as it is about our understanding of it. Quantum physics is often presented as a weird and inscrutable field of study. Richard Feynman once said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” in a lecture in 1964; decades later publications still present the quantum realm as “strange and confusing”. To be fair, even one of the quarks that operate on the quantum scale is named strange!

This presentation of the quantum as counter-intuitive has itself become an intuition of its public presentation, so much so that adding “quantum” to anything is a way of mystifying it. Bell’s Theorem, in this sense, seems odd and as a portal into a world of some chaos and incomprehension. Really, to challenge local realism as described above can seem “crazy”, and not without reason. That combination seems so intuitive to anyone considering such ideas, that there are even those who question whether the human brain can be capable of understanding such strange corners of existence.

What’s perhaps an interesting point to consider here, however, is how we compartmentalise our intuitions and our common sense. The standards and the bases we use for different fields of our understanding are entirely different. A neuroscientist may see human consciousness as simply deterministic signals running through a blob of grey matter, but when they go to a supermarket they will still pick up their favourite brand of pasta sauce and stop to consider what chocolate bar to get this time. We might harshly judge a politician for flaunting their wealth, but be against that being used in a court case where we see the information as legally irrelevant. This compartmentalisation is a useful tool since it is perfectly reasonable to have different standards for different subjects. But our division of such subjects, and the standards we build or receive to form our “common sense” within these, can at times determine where we get stuck.

Bell’s Theorem seems, pretty clearly, to challenge local realism. One option around this is to study it further, and see whether the violations of Bell Inequalities can be explained in some other way. Another option, however, is to abandon one or both of the elements of local realism. What do we get then? Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance”, and from one point of view it breaks our understanding of the universe itself.

From another standpoint, however, it is completely capable of fitting in our intuitions. Unless you are explicitly a “scientific” person, injecting the principles and axioms of physical science into every aspect of your life, there are many situations where your standards and common sense allow for spooky action at a distance. If you have ever prayed, if you have ever even slightly believed in an astrological reading, if you have had a stroke of good or bad “luck”, if you’ve crossed your fingers or if you’ve “manifested” anything, at any point, you’ve shown yourself as capable of intuiting a world that violates local realism. Even if you haven’t done any of these things, that others can nonchalantly slip into such thinking should show that the barrier put between the various interpretations of quantum physics and human “intuition” is only true within the compartmentalised common sense of pre-quantum physics. Human intuition taken at large is perfectly capable of accommodating the “weirdness” that quantum seems to bring.

The limit for a layperson here is not that they are incapable of understanding quantum interactions intuitively- rather, since the information and interpretations of it come from the specific context of “physics”, their apprehension of it is filtered through their understanding of the “common sense” and bases of physics as a science. This filter has allowed them to take in and use aspects of physics in their own lives, serving as a foundation on which any relevant new information can be placed. Full understanding down to the roots of the issue takes time and education on the issue, so for those who have neither, this foundation helps them through assumption and summary. As findings and resultant ripples through society in the form of technology and explanations provide us with benefits, we more readily take certain foundations on authority, and face new results and findings with these as given[1].

So, when something comes along that seemingly challenges these, this entire project seems at risk. And, on top of this, since we see the products of physics through this lens of received common sense, we find ourselves unable to understand not only what is truebut how it could be true. One response, then, is to call the incoming information “weird”.

Another is to see this disturbance as an opportunity, and attempt to supersede the authority of one field with another. The horde of “new age” thinkers exploiting the weirdness of quantum physics to prop up their own philosophies is an example of this. Books with titles like “Quantum Healing” attempt to overthrow the strictures of “rational” science and bring to the fore ideas of interconnectedness, inner divinity, spiritualism and more. The findings of “science” at once grant authority and reliability to the very schools of thought that seek to overturn the sources that provide “science” with its authority. This cyclical usurpation is flatly denied and ridiculed by scientists themselves, of course.

If the violations of Bell’s Inequalities cannot be explained away, it seems that local realism as a package must be done away with, for sure. But to see this either as the invitation of a completely incomprehensible world, or a call to give ourselves over to another ready realm of explanation is, I think, missing the point. The authority that pushed us to take the “filter” of scientific common sense in the first place is based on the benefits and demonstrations of the discipline we grew to trust. The challenging of certain principles within this realm may be counter-intuitive from the perspective of its received common sense, but a rehashing of that common sense seems nothing but intuitive- and human intuition has many more tools to reconstruct the common sense of science than those it already contains.

Setting aside the example for a second, the broader lesson here is that we need to understand not only the “logical” foundations of any subject we are trying to understand, but also the “pre-logical” foundations. That is- if there are certain standards to something, then there has to be some reason for those standards being adopted, and some capacity to understand standards outside of that, which for some reason were rejected. This is often a road that leads us to consider our motivations, which is not only important practically, but also descriptively[2]. Why we ask a question can help us restructure it to better fit the information we are seeking- indeed, it can often contain the root of a paradox or misunderstanding. Why we find ourselves “re-examining” something is also important to consider- it is a choice, in the end, to neither persist with that thing nor discard it entirely. Again, we should also consider why certain ideas are common sense from more than just a historical perspective[3]– we also need to understand the function the ideas play when placed within the form of “common sense”. Why were we willing/seeking to understand certain principles as true for this field of understanding?

When faced with a challenge to the fundamental principles holding up a set of valued tools, modes of thought or products, we need to be ready to understand how to balance the vectors of our motivations and intuitions as they interact both with the foundational principles, and with what we took to be their derived products. Both don’t need to be thrown out or taken wholeheartedly in every case- to see this, we only need to remember how we ourselves adopted them. Nobody comprehends the entirety of science in one go- certain aspects seem compelling, and on that motivational basis of persuasion, other aspects are learned as results or as foundations. In altering our understanding, we need to be ready to retrace and recreate that process.

The new does not need to start either bottom-up or top-down. It can, and often does, start from the middle.  

[1] The same could be said about specialised professionals. Many physicists work within a very specific range of issues, and so deeper study and an ability to rehash philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings to their understanding of the universe may not come so easily to them either.

[2] This also speaks to the common focus in Western thought over the last two centuries on “objectivity”. It has become something of an intuition now that any good description or treatment of a topic is disconnected from subjectivity, often equated with individual motivation.

[3] By historical here I mean a narrative of causal links- A happened that led to B that led to our subject of inquiry. This is contrasted with a functional or logical understanding, which is less to do with the phenomena that led to our subject’s occurrence, and more the ambient preconditions and exertions of the subject, the understanding of which is, to some degree, context-independent when it comes to time. A piece of fruit have reached my kitchen through a set of definite actions (a seed was planted, the sun shone rays on photosynthesizing leaves, a truck moved a cart of fruit, etc.), but its existence/presence can also be explained by the requirements of its physical properties (certain air pressure, the presence of certain chemical compounds, etc.), or the motivations that interact with its functions (the need to make money, the need for sustenance, the pattern of insect pollination, etc.).


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