Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Consciousness, Quantum Mechanics, and Pseudoscience

The study of consciousness is not currently “fashionable” in the physics community, and the notion that there might be any relationship between consciousness and quantum mechanics and/or relativity truly infuriates some physicists.  For instance, the hypothesis that consciousness causes collapse (“CCC”) of the quantum mechanical wave function is now considered fringy by many; a physicist who seriously considers it (or even mentions it without a deprecatory scowl) risks professional expulsion and even branding as a quack.

In 2011, two researchers took an unprovoked stab at the CCC hypothesis in this paper.  There is a fascinating experiment called the “delayed choice quantum eraser,” in which information appears to be erased from the universe after a quantum interference experiment has been performed.  The details don’t matter.  The point is that the researchers interpret the quantum eraser experiment as providing an empirical falsification of the CCC hypothesis.  They don’t hide their disdain for the suggestion that QM and consciousness may have a relationship.

The problem is: their paper is pseudoscientific shit.  They first make a massive logical mistake that, despite the authors’ contempt for philosophy, would have been avoided had they taken a philosophy class in logic.  They follow up that mistake with an even bigger blunder in their understanding of the foundations of quantum mechanics.  Essentially, they assert that the failure of a wave function to collapse always results in a visible interference pattern, which is just patently false.  They clearly fail to falsify the CCC hypothesis.  (For the record, I think the CCC hypothesis is likely false, but I am reasonably certain that it has not yet been falsified.)

Sure, there’s lots of pseudoscience out there, so why am I picking on this particular paper?  Because it was published in Annalen der Physik, the same journal in which Einstein published his groundbreaking papers on special relativity and the photoelectric effect (among others), and because it’s been cited by more than two dozen publications so far (often to attack the CCC hypothesis), only one of which actually refutes it.

What’s even more irritating is that the paper’s glaring errors could easily have been caught by a competent journal referee who had read the paper skeptically.  If the paper’s conclusion had been in support of the CCC hypothesis, you can bet that it would have been meticulously and critically analyzed before publication, assuming it was considered for publication at all.  But when referees already agree with a paper’s conclusion, they may be less interested in the logical steps taken to arrive at that conclusion.  A paper that comes to the correct conclusion via incorrect reasoning is still incorrect.  A scientist that rejects correct reasoning because it results in an unfashionable or unpopular conclusion is not a scientist.

Here is a preprint of my rebuttal to their paper.  Since it is intended to be a scholarly article, I am much nicer there than I’ve been here.

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