The problem with the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics

The Schrodinger equation is the formula that describes the dynamics of quantum systems – how small stuff behaves.

One fundamental feature of quantum mechanics that differentiates it from classical mechanics is the existence of something called superposition. In the same way that a particle can be in the state of “being at position A” and could also be in the state of “being at position B”, there’s a weird additional possibility that the particle is in the state of “being in a superposition of being at position A and being at position B”. It’s necessary to introduce a new word for this type of state, since it’s not quite like anything we are used to thinking about.

Now, people often talk about a particle in a superposition of states as being in both states at once, but this is not technically correct. The behavior of a particle in a superposition of positions is not the behavior you’d expect from a particle that was at both positions at once. Suppose you sent a stream of small particles towards each position and looked to see if either one was deflected by the presence of a particle at that location. You would always find that exactly one of the streams was deflected. Never would you observe the particle having been in both positions, deflecting both streams.

But it’s also just as wrong to say that the particle is in either one state or the other. Again, particles simply do not behave this way. Throw a bunch of electrons, one at a time, through a pair of thin slits in a wall and see how they spread out when they hit a screen on the other side. What you’ll get is a pattern that is totally inconsistent with the image of the electrons always being either at one location or the other. Instead, the pattern you’d get only makes sense under the assumption that the particle traveled through both slits and then interfered with itself.

If a superposition of A and B is not the same as “A and B’ and it’s not the same as ‘A or B’, then what is it? Well, it’s just that: a superposition! A superposition is something fundamentally new, with some of the features of “and” and some of the features of “or”. We can do no better than to describe the empirically observed features and then give that cluster of features a name.

Now, quantum mechanics tells us that for any two possible states that a system can be in, there is another state that corresponds to the system being in a superposition of the two. In fact, there’s an infinity of such superpositions, each corresponding to a different weighting of the two states.

Now, the Schrödinger equation is what tells how quantum mechanical systems evolve over time. And since all of nature is just one really big quantum mechanical system, the Schrödinger equation should also tell us how we evolve over time. So what does the Schrödinger equation tell us happens when we take a particle in a superposition of A and B and make a measurement of it?

The answer is clear and unambiguous: The Schrödinger equation tells us that we ourselves enter into a superposition of states, one in which we observe the particle in state A, the other in which we observe it in B. This is a pretty bizarre and radical answer! The first response you might have may be something like “When I observe things, it certainly doesn’t seem like I’m entering into a superposition… I just look at the particle and see it in one state or the other. I never see it in this weird in-between state!”

But this is not a good argument against the conclusion, as it’s exactly what you’d expect by just applying the Schrödinger equation! When you enter into a superposition of “observing A” and “observing B”, neither branch of the superposition observes both A and B. And naturally, since neither branch of the superposition “feels” the other branch, nobody freaks out about being superposed.

But there is a problem here, and it’s a serious one. The problem is the following: Sure, it’s compatible with our experience to say that we enter into superpositions when we make observations. But what predictions does it make? How do we take what the Schrödinger equation says happens to the state of the world and turn it into a falsifiable experimental setup? The answer appears to be that we can’t. At least, not using just the Schrödinger equation on its own. To get out predictions, we need an additional postulate, known as the Born rule.

This postulate says the following: For a system in a superposition, each branch of the superposition has an associated complex number called the amplitude. The probability of observing any particular branch of the superposition upon measurement is simply the square of that branch’s amplitude.

For example: A particle is in a superposition of positions A and B. The amplitude attached to A is 0.8. The amplitude attached to B is 0.4. If we now observe the position of the particle, we will find it to be at either A with probability (.6)2 (i.e. 36%), or B with probability (.8)2 (i.e. 64%).

Simple enough, right? The problem is to figure out where the Born rule comes from and what it even means. The rule appears to be completely necessary to make quantum mechanics a testable theory at all, but it can’t be derived from the Schrödinger equation. And it’s not at all inevitable; it could easily have been that probabilities associated with the amplitude rather than the amplitude squared. Or why not the fourth power of the amplitude? There’s a substantive claim here, that probabilities associate with the square of the amplitudes that go into the Schrödinger equation, that needs to be made sense of. There are a lot of different ways that people have tried to do this, and I’ll list a few of the more prominent ones here.

The Copenhagen Interpretation

(Prepare to be disappointed.) The Copenhagen interpretation, which has historically been the dominant position among working physicists, is that the Born rule is just an additional rule governing the dynamics of quantum mechanical systems. Sometimes systems evolve according to the Schrödinger equation, and sometimes according to the Born rule. When they evolve according to the Schrödinger equation, they split into superpositions endlessly. When they evolve according to the Born rule, they collapse into a single determinate state. What determines when the systems evolve one way or the other? Something measurement something something observation something. There’s no real consensus here, nor even a clear set of well-defined candidate theories.

If you’re familiar with the way that physics works, this idea should send your head spinning. The claim here is that the universe operates according to two fundamentally different laws, and that the dividing line between the two hinges crucially on what we mean by the words “measurement and “observation. Suffice it to say, if this was the right way to understand quantum mechanics, it would go entirely against the spirit of the goal of finding a fundamental theory of physics. In a fundamental theory of physics, macroscopic phenomena like measurements and observations need to be built out of the behavior of lots of tiny things like electrons and quarks, not the other way around. We shouldn’t find ourselves in the position of trying to give a precise definition to these words, debating whether frogs have the capacity to collapse superpositions or if that requires a higher “measuring capacity”, in order to make predictions about the world.

The Copenhagen interpretation is not an elegant theory, it’s not a clearly defined theory, and it’s fundamentally at tension with the project of theoretical physics. So why has it been, as I said, the dominant approach over the last century to understanding quantum mechanics? This really comes down to physicists not caring enough about the philosophy behind the physics to notice that the approach they are using is fundamentally flawed. In practice, the Copenhagen interpretation works. It allows somebody working in the lab to quickly assess the results of their experiments and to make predictions about how future experiments will turn out. It gives the right empirical probabilities and is easy to implement, even if the fuzziness in the details can start to make your head hurt if you start to think about it too much. As Jean Bricmont said, “You can’t blame most physicists for following this ‘shut up and calculate’ ethos because it has led to tremendous develop­ments in nuclear physics, atomic physics, solid­ state physics and particle physics.” But the Copenhagen interpretation is not good enough for us. A serious attempt to make sense of quantum mechanics requires something more substantive. So let’s move on.

Objective Collapse Theories

These approaches hinge on the notion that the Schrödinger equation really is the only law at work in the universe, it’s just that we have that equation slightly wrong. Objective collapse theories add slight nonlinearities to the Schrödinger equation so that systems sometimes spread out in superpositions and other times collapse into definite states, all according to one single equation. The most famous of these is the spontaneous collapse theory, according to which quantum systems collapse with a probability that grows with the number of particles in the system.

This approach is nice for several reasons. For one, it gives us the Born rule without requiring a new equation. It makes sense of the Born rule as a fundamental feature of physical reality, and makes precise and empirically testable predictions that can distinguish it from from other interpretations. The drawback? It makes the Schrödinger equation ugly and complicated, and it adds extra parameters that determine how often collapse happens. And as we know, whenever you start adding parameters you run the risk of overfitting your data.

Hidden Variable Theories

These approaches claim that superpositions don’t really exist, they’re just a high-level consequence of the unusual behavior of the stuff at the smallest level of reality.  They deny that the Schrödinger equation is truly fundamental, and say instead that it is a higher-level approximation of an underlying deterministic reality. “Deterministic?! But hasn’t quantum mechanics been shown conclusively to be indeterministic??” Well, not entirely. For a while there was a common sentiment amongst physicists that John Von Neumann and others had proved beyond a doubt that no deterministic theory could make the predictions that quantum mechanics makes. Later subtle mistakes were found in these purported proofs that left a door open for determinism. Today there are well-known fleshed-out hidden variable theories that successfully reproduce the predictions of quantum mechanics, and do so fully deterministically.

The most famous of these is certainly Bohmian mechanics, also called pilot wave theory. Here’s a nice video on it if you’d like to know more, complete with pretty animations. Bohmian mechanics is interesting, appear to work, give us the Born rule, and is probably empirically distinguishable from other theories (at least in principle). A serious issue with it is that it requires nonlocality, which is a challenge to any attempt to make it consistent with special relativity. Locality is such an important and well-understood feature of our reality that this constitutes a major challenge to the approach.

Many-Worlds / Everettian Interpretations

Ok, finally we talk about the approach that is most interesting in my opinion, and get to the title of this post. The Many-Worlds interpretation says, in essence, that we were wrong to ever want more than the Schrödinger equation. This is the only law that governs reality, and it gives us everything we need. Many-Worlders deny that superpositions ever collapse. The result of us performing a measurement on a system in superposition is simply that we end up in superposition, and that’s the whole story!

So superpositions never collapse, they just go deeper into superposition. There’s not just one you, there’s every you, spread across the different branches of the wave function of the universe. All these yous exist beside each other, living out all your possible life histories.

But then where does Many-Worlds get the Born rule from? Well, uh, it’s kind of a mystery. The Born rule isn’t an additional law of physics, because the Schrödinger equation is supposed to be the whole story. It’s not an a priori rule of rationality, because as we said before probabilities could have easily gone as the fourth power of amplitudes, or something else entirely. But if it’s not an a posteriori fact about physics, and also not an a priori knowable principle of rationality, then what is it?

This issue has seemed to me to be more and more important and challenging for Many-Worlds the more I have thought about it. It’s hard to see what exactly the rule is even saying in this interpretation. Say I’m about to make a measurement of a system in a superposition of states A and B. Suppose that I know the amplitude of A is much smaller than the amplitude of B. I need some way to say “I have a strong expectation that I will observe B, but there’s a small chance that I’ll see A.” But according to Many-Worlds, a moment from now both observations will be made. There will be a branch of the superposition in which I observe A, and another branch in which I observe B. So what I appear to need to say is something like “I am much more likely to be the me in the branch that observes B than the me that observes A.” But this is a really strange claim that leads us straight into the thorny philosophical issue of personal identity.

In what sense are we allowed to say that one and only one of the two resulting humans is really going to be you? Don’t both of them have equal claim to being you? They each have your exact memories and life history so far, the only difference is that one observed A and the other B. Maybe we can use anthropic reasoning here? If I enter into a superposition of observing-A and observing-B, then there are now two “me”s, in some sense. But that gives the wrong prediction! Using the self-sampling assumption, we’d just say “Okay, two yous, so there’s a 50% chance of being each one” and be done with it. But obviously not all binary quantum measurements we make have a 50% chance of turning out either way!

Maybe we can say that the world actually splits into some huge number of branches, maybe even infinite, and the fraction of the total branches in which we observe A is exactly the square of the amplitude of A? But this is not what the Schrödinger equation says! The Schrödinger equation tells exactly what happens after we make the observation: we enter a superposition of two states, no more, no less. We’re importing a whole lot into our interpretive apparatus by interpreting this result as claiming the literal existence of an infinity of separate worlds, most of which are identical, and the distribution of which is governed by the amplitudes.

What we’re seeing here is that Many-Worlds, by being too insistent on the reality of the superposition, the sole sovereignty of the Schrödinger equation, and the unreality of collapse, ends up running into a lot of problems in actually doing what a good theory of physics is supposed to do: making empirical predictions. The Many-Worlders can of course use the Born Rule freely to make predictions about the outcomes of experiments, but they have little to say in answer to what, in their eyes, this rule really amounts to. I don’t know of any good way out of this mess.

Basically where this leaves me is where I find myself with all of my favorite philosophical topics; totally puzzled and unsatisfied with all of the options that I can see.

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