Is the double slit experiment evidence that consciousness causes collapse?

No! No no no.

This might be surprising to those that know the basics of the double slit experiment. For those that don’t, very briefly:

A bunch of tiny particles are thrown one by one at a barrier with two thin slits in it, with a detector sitting on the other side. The pattern on the detector formed by the particles is an interference pattern, which appears to imply that each particle went through both slits in some sense, like a wave would do. Now, if you peek really closely at each slit to see which one each particle passes through, the results seem to change! The pattern on the detector is no longer an interference pattern, but instead looks like the pattern you’d classically expect from a particle passing through only one slit!

When you first learn about this strange dependence of the experimental results on, apparently, whether you’re looking at the system or not, it appears to be good evidence that your conscious observation is significant in some very deep sense. After all, observation appears to lead to fundamentally different behavior, collapsing the wave to a particle! Right?? This animation does a good job of explaining the experiment in a way that really pumps the intuition that consciousness matters:

(Fair warning, I find some aspects of this misleading and just plain factually wrong. I’m linking to it not as an endorsement, but so that you get the intuition behind the arguments I’m responding to in this post.)

The feeling that consciousness is playing an important role here is a fine intuition to have before you dive deep into the details of quantum mechanics. But now consider that the exact same behavior would be produced by a very simple process that is very clearly not a conscious observation. Namely, just put a single spin qubit at one of the slits in such a way that if the particle passes through that slit, it flips the spin upside down. Guess what you get? The exact same results as you got by peeking at the screen. You never need to look at the particle as it travels through the slits to the detector in order to collapse the wave-like behavior. Apparently a single qubit is sufficient to do this!

It turns out that what’s really going on here has nothing to do with the collapse of the wave function and everything to do with the phenomenon of decoherence. Decoherence is what happens when a quantum superposition becomes entangled with the degrees of freedom of its environment in such a way that the branches of the superposition end up orthogonal to each other. Interference can only occur between the different branches if they are not orthogonal, which means that decoherence is sufficient to destroy interference effects. This is all stuff that all interpretations of quantum mechanics agree on.

Once you know that decoherence destroys interference effects (which all interpretations of quantum mechanics agree on), and also that a conscious observing the state of a system is a process that results in extremely rapid and total decoherence (which everybody also agrees on), then the fact that observing the position of the particle causes interference effects to vanish becomes totally independent of the question of what causes wave function collapse. Whether or not consciousness causes collapse is 100% irrelevant to the results of the experiment, because regardless of which of these is true, quantum mechanics tells us to expect observation to result in the loss of interference!

This is why whether or not consciousness causes collapse has no real impact on what pattern shows up in the wall. All interpretations of quantum mechanics agree that decoherence is a thing that can happen, and decoherence is all that is required to explain the experimental results. The double slit experiment provides no evidence for consciousness causing collapse, but it also provides no evidence against it. It’s just irrelevant to the question! That said, however, given that people often hear the experiment presented in a way that makes it seem like evidence for consciousness causing collapse, hearing that qubits do the same thing should make them update downwards on this theory.

One thought on “Is the double slit experiment evidence that consciousness causes collapse?

  1. Thank you for sharing! I’ve heard of this experiment several times and always found it fascinating. As far as my understanding of the phenomenon goes (ie not that far), it’s still mysterious to me!

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