Attempts to interpret the results of quantum mechanics in ways people can understand can themselves lead to confusion.

Some physicists and philosophers conspire to waste intellectual resources on pseudoproblems with no empirical consequence — notoriously, quantum interpretations. In the process, it is perhaps not surprising that some more ancient conceptual cul-de-sacs put in an appearance.

Some of the words that get thrown around often are “determinism”, “causality”, “reality” and so forth. Some pictures, like Bohmian hidden variable interpretations, are best seen as attempts to preserve the viability of certain labels, though empirically the whole enterprise remains vacuous. However, since interpretations are useful only as conceptual tools if at all, certain conceptual perversities introduced can be grounds for criticism of an interpretation beyond its inconsequentiality.

Bohmian pictures typically preserve a classical-like sense of reality, universality of causation (there are no fundamentally uncaused events), and, provided standard quantum mechanics is retained, determinism. Note, however, that these terms refer to nothing of any possible empirical consequence, and are but descriptive of a particular language used to describe the physical content. The conceptual perversity enters in confusing idiosyncratic features of descriptive language with information content.

To illustrate, let us go back to some venerable theology (actually quite an apt comparison for some pathologies of theoretical physics). One of the classical “proofs” of God invokes the notion that everything must have a cause. This would appear to be a perfectly good generalization from our experience, and we would of course like to extend this to a universal statement instead of having unseemly exceptions to the picture. Even if all in the universe is in a causal chain, it as a whole cannot be explained by causes internal to it.

So, instead of leaving the totality of everything uncaused, we declare it to have an external cause, and equate this to God. To terminate the potentially infinite causal series there, we call on the total self-sufficiency or self-causedness of God. This is basically the classical cosmological argument. There are many reasons for its failure, one being that no coherent self-sufficient God-concept can be found.

Is “God” Useful?

But let us ignore such problems for a second, and ask if any information is being conveyed by the God explanation for “it all”. The answer is none: the whole argument is driven by the principle that everything must have a cause, and “God” merely serves as an empty label to provide us with a cause, within this argument. Instead of inventing spurious entities to save principles, it is better to acknowledge the notion of uncausedness. It is intimately related to patternlessness, i.e., randomness, and it is inescapable. The cosmological argument merely points to a deficiency in our conceptual equipment.

It is not only theology that ties itself into knots over causes, but philosophy as well. Interpretations of quantum mechanics that have no empirical consequence whatsoever, but restore the notion of full causality by invoking permanently hidden variables and non-communicative superluminality, similarly convey no information while preserving the universality of causation.

The necessity of causation is a conceptual deficit that has been embodied in theology, which has regularly offered pseudo-explanations for cases where no pattern existed. Randomness is one of our psychological blind spots, in areas having little to do with religion as well; even a so-called “hard” science has its troubles with it (not only in QM, but in statistical mechanics also).

It is in this sense that interpretations can be pernicious, beyond being a waste of time. Taking them seriously as anything but inessential conceptual tools dictated by convenience leads to the pretense that predictions of consequence can be obtained from them.

Consciousness or holistic connectivity can be invoked in consequence-free ways, but it is regularly stretched to the point where one can pretend that empirically relevant forms of these words naturally have a place in the physics. They do not, unless some very important modifications are made in quantum mechanics. It will not do to propose revolutionary ideas merely by resorting to information-free, obfuscatory philosophizing.

In his Minority Report (1956), H.L. Mencken summed it up well:

“Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians … of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology.”

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