Tag Archives: interpretations

Professional Jealousy

As some of you know, my alter ego works on quantum information and computation (I’ll leave you to decide which of us is Clark Kent and which is Superman). My foundations personality sometimes feels a twinge of professional jealousy and I’ll tell you why.

In quantum computation we have a set of criteria for evaluating proposed experimental implementations, known as the diVincenzo criteria. These tell you what is required to implement the circuit model of quantum computation, and include things like the ability to prepare pure input states and the ability to perform a universal gate set. Of course, you might choose to implement an alternative model of computation, such as the measurement based models, and then a different set of criteria are applicable. Nevertheless, talks about proposed implementations often proceed by explaining how each of the criteria is to be met in turn. This makes it very clear what the weak and strong points of the implementation are, since there are usually one or two criteria that present a significant experimental challenge.

In contrast, there is no universally accepted set of criteria that an interpretation of quantum mechanics is supposed to meet. They are usually envisioned as attempts to solve the nefarious “measurement problem”, which is actually a catch-all term for a bunch of related difficulties to which different researchers attach different degrees of significance. The question of exactly what an interpretation is supposed to do also varies according to where one is planning to apply it. Is it supposed to explain the emergence of classical mechanics, help us understand why quantum computation works, give us some clues as to how to construct quantum gravity, or simply stand as a work of philosophical elegance?

It seems to me that the foundations community should have, by now, cracked their heads together and come up with a definitive list of issues on which an interpretation has to make a stand, before we are prepared to accept it as a viable contender. Then, instead of reading lots of lengthy papers and spending a lot of time trying to work out exactly where the wool has been pulled out from under our eyes, we can simply send each new interpreter a form to fill in and be done with it. Of course, this is bound to be slightly more subjective than the di Vincenzo criteria, but hopefully not by all that much. For what it’s worth here is my attempt at the big list.

The first six criteria would probably be agreed upon by most people who think seriously about foundations.

  • An interpretation should have a well-defined ontology.
    • To begin with, you need to tell me which things are supposed to correspond to the stuff that actually exists in reality. This can be some element of the quantum formalism, e.g. the state vector, something you have added to it, e.g. hidden variables, or something much more exotic, e.g. relations between things without any definite state for the things that are related, correlations without correlata etc. This is all fine at this stage, but of course the more exotic possibilities are going to get into trouble with the later criteria.
    • At this stage, I am even prepared to allow you to say that only detector clicks exist in reality, so long as you are clear about this and are prepared to face the later challenges.
    • As a side note, some people might want to add that the interpretation should explicitly state whether the quantum state vector is ontological, i.e. corresponds to something in reality, or epistemic, i.e. something more like a probability distribution. I am inclined to believe that if you have a clear ontology then it should also be clear what the answer to this question is without any need for further comment. I am also inclined to believe that this fixation on the role of the state vector is an artifact of taking the Schroedinger picture deadly seriously, and ignoring other formalisms in which it plays a lesser role. For instance, why don’t we ask whether operators or Wigner functions are ontological or epistemic instead?
  • An interpretation should not conflict with my direct everyday experience.
    • In everyday life, objects appear to be in one definite place and I have one unique conscious experience. If you have adopted a bizarre ontology, wherein this is not the case at the quantum level, you have to explain why it appears that it is the case to me. This is a particularly relevant question for relationalists, Everettistas and correlationalists of course. It is also not the same thing as…
  • An interpretation should explain how classical mechanics emerges from quantum theory.
    • Why do systems exist that appear to have states represented by points in phase space, evolving according to the classical evolution equations?
    • Note that it is not enough to give some phase space description. It must correspond to the description that we actually use to describe classical systems.
    • Some people might want to phrase this as “Why don’t we see macroscopic superpositions?”. I’m not quite sure what it would mean to “see” a macroscopic superposition, and I think that this is the more general issue in any case.
    • Similarly, you may be bothered by the fact that I haven’t mentioned the “collapse of the wavefunction” or the “reduction of the wavevector”. Your solution to that ought to be immediately apparent from combining your ontology with the answer to the present issue.
    • Some physicists seem to think that the whole question of interpretation can be boiled down to this one point, or that it is identical with the measurement problem. I hope you are convinced that this is not the case by now.
  • An interpretation should not conflict with any empirically established facts.
    • For example, I don’t mind if you believe that wavefunction collapse is a real physical process, but your theory should be compatible with all the systems that have been observed in superposition to date.
  • An interpretation should provide a clear explanation of how it applies to the “no-go” theorems of Bell and Kochen Specker.
    • A simple answer would be to explain in what sense your interpretation is nonlocal and contextual. If you claim locality or noncontextuality for your interpretation then you need to give a clear explanation of which other premises of the theorems are violated by your interpretation. They are theorems, so some premise must be violated.
  • An interpretation should be applicable to multiparticle systems in nonrelativistic quantum theory.
    • Some interpretations take the idea that the wavefunction is like a wave in real 3d space very seriously (the transactional interpretation comes to mind here). Often such ideas can only be worked out in detail for a single particle. However, the move to wavefunctions on multiparticle configuration space is very necessary and needs to be convincingly accomplished.

The next four criteria are things that I regard as important, but probably some people would not give them such great importance.

  • An interpretation should provide a clear explanation of the principles it stands upon.
    • For example, if you claim that your interpretation is minimal in some sense (as many-worlds and modal advocates often do) then you need to make clear what the minimality assumption is and derive the interpretation from it if possible.
    • If you claim that “quantum theory is about X” then a full derivation of quantum theory from axioms about the properties that X should satisfy would be nice. Examples of X might be nonstandard logics, complimentarity, or information.
  • No facticious sample spaces.
    • OK this is a bit of a personal bugbear of mine. Some interpretations introduce classical sample spaces (over hidden variable states for instance) or generalizations of the notion of a sample space (as in consistent histories). Quantum theory is then thought of as being a sort of probability theory over these spaces. Often, however, the “quantum states” on these sample spaces are a strict subset of the allowed measures on the sample space, and the question is why?
    • I allow the explanation to be dynamical, in analogy to statistical mechanics. There we tend to see equilibrium distributions even though many other distributions are possible. The dynamics ensures that “most” distributions tend to equilibrium ones. Of course, this gets into the thorny issues of the foundations of statistical mechanics, but provided you can do at least as good a job as is done there I am OK with it.
    • I also allow a principle explanation, e.g. some sort of fundamental uncertainty principle. However, unlike the standard uncertainty relations, you should actually be able to derive the set of allowed measures from the principle.
  • An interpretation should not be ambiguous about whether it is consistent with the scientific method.
    • Some interpretations seem to undermine the very method that was used to discover quantum theory in the first place. For example, we assumed that experiments really had outcomes and that it was OK to reason about the world using ordinary deductive logic. If you deny any of these things then you need to explain why it was valid to use the scientific method to arrive at the theory in the first place. How do you know that an even more radical revision of these concepts isn’t in order, perhaps one that could never be arrived at by empirical means?
  • An interpretation should take the great probability debate into account.
    • Quantum theory involves probabilities and some interpretations take a stand on the fundamental significance of these. Is the interpretation consistent with all the major schools of thought on the foundations of probability (propensities, frequentism and subjectivism), at least as far as these are themselves consistent? If not, you need to be clear on what notion of probability is actually needed and address the main arguments in the great probability debate. Good luck, because you could spend a whole career just doing this.

The final three criteria are not strictly required for me to take your interpretation seriously, but addressing them would score you extra bonus points.

  • An interpretation should be consistent with relativistic quantum field theory and the standard model.
    • Obviously, you need to be consistent with the most fundamental theories of physics that we have at the moment. However, the conceptual leap from nonrelativistic to relativistic physics is nontrivial and it has implications for ontology even if we forget about quantum theory. Therefore, it is OK to just focus on the nonrelativistic case when developing an interpretation. QFT might require significant changes to the ontology of your interpretation, and this is something that should be addressed eventually.
  • An interpretation should suggest experiments that might exhibit departures from quantum theory.
    • It’s good to have something which can be tested in the lab. Interpretations such as spontaneous collapse theories make predictions that depart from quantum theory and these should be investigated and tested.
    • However, even if your interpretation is entirely consistent with quantum theory, it might suggest novel ways in which the theory can be modified. We should be constantly on the lookout for such things and test them wherever possible.
  • An interpretation should address the phenomenology of quantum information theory.
    • This reflects my personal interests quite a bit, but I think it is a worthwhile thing to mention. Several quantum protocols, such as teleportation, suggest a strong analogy between quantum states (even pure ones) and probability distributions. If your interpretation makes light of this analogy, e.g. the state is treated ontologically, then it would be nice to have an explanation of why the analogy is so effective in deriving new results.

Vaxjo Meeting

I returned this weekend from the meeting on Foundations of Probability and Physics at the University of Vaxjo in Sweden. There were many interesting talks, so I'll just mention a few of them that I found particularly inspiring.

Giacomo Mauro d'Ariano explained his axiomatization of quantum theory, inspired by observations from quantum state and process tomography. One of the nice features of this is that he gives an operational definition of the adjoint. Why the observables of QM should form an algebra from an operational point of view has been a topic of recent debate amongst foundational people here at Perimeter, so this could be a piece of the puzzle.

Rüdiger Schack explained what it might mean for quantum randomness to be "truly random" from a Bayesian point of view, using the concept of "inside information" that he has developed with Carlton Caves.

Philip Goyal gave another axiomatization of quantum theory. I'm not sure whether the framework he uses is that well-motivated (especially the sneaky way that complex numbers are introduced). On the other hand, one of his axioms has the flavor of an "epistemic constraint", which gels nicely with ideas that have been expressed earlier by Chris Fuchs and Rob Spekkens.

Joseph Altepeter gave another excellent talk about the state of the art Bell inequality experiments currently going on in Paul Kwiat's group.

John Smolin outlined speculative ideas that he and Jonathan Oppenheim have developed that applies the concept of locking quantum information to solve the black hole information loss problem. 

Rovellifest 2

I thought it was about time I got around to finishing my comments on Rovelli’s “Relational QM” programme.

Relational QM (RQM) has a lot in common with the Everett/many-worlds interpretation, so it should be no surprise that it shares some of the same difficulties. In my opinion, the “basis problem” also applies to RQM, and one cannot appeal to decoherence in order to solve it as one does in many-worlds. Before discussing this, let me summarize the main differences between RQM and many-worlds:

  • In Everett, the state-vector of the universe is the full description of reality. It always evolves unitarily, but different observers can have different subjective impressions of reality depending on how they are described within this state.
  • In RQM there is no state-vector of the universe. State-vectors always describe the point of view that one subsystem has about another system. State vectors are therefore always subjective descriptions of reality.
  • In Everett, the concept of measurement is an emergent phenomenon that applies when a macroscopic system interacts with a microscopic one. The theory of decoherence is used to explain why measurement results appear to be stable.
  • In RQM, Rovelli states explicitly that he doesn’t want to treat microscopic systems any differently from microscopic ones. For example, if two electrons interact, then it is valid to think that one of the electrons acts as a measuring device on the other and vice versa. One description is valid from the point of view of one of the electrons and the other is valid from the point of view of the other electron.

The appeal to decoherence in Everett is designed to address the “basis problem”, which arises due to the ambiguity over which baisis the states are decomposed in. For example, suppose two qubits start in the (unnormalized) state

(|0> + |1>)|0>

and interact so that they end up in the state

|00> + |11> .

This is a typical example of a “measurement” interaction and we might want to say that the second qubit has measured whether the first qubit is in the state |0> or |1>. In Rovelli’s formulation, the state of the first qubit is definitely either |0> or |1>, relative to the second qubit, with 50/50 probabilities of each being the case.

However, we could equally well write the final state as

(|0> + |1>)(|0> + |1>) + (|0> – |1>)(|0> – |1>).

If the qubits are actually spin-1/2 particles and |0> and |1> are spin up and spin down in the Z-direction, then this is a decomposition of the state in the spin-X basis. Therefore, we might equally well say that the second qubit has measured whether the first qubit is in the state (|0> + |1>) or (|0> – |1>). In Rovelli’s formulation, we ought to be able to say that the first qubit is either in the state (|0> + |1>) or the state (|0> – |1>) with 50/50 probabilities.

Note that, this is not only an issue with the particular state |00> + |11>. Any bipartite state can be decomposed according to any basis for one subsystem, although the relative states of the other system will not generally be orthogonal.

I have seen no discussion of this issue from Rovelli. He seems to assume that there just is some natural basis in which to do the decomposition. I think the possible solutions are:

  • Accept multiple descriptions: The state of one subsystem is not only relative to another subsystem, but it is also relative to an arbitrary basis choice. The problem with this is that it does not explain why our subjective experience is always according to one particular basis. I always feel like I am in one particular location, observing one particular thing, and I am incapable of regarding myself as being in a superposition of two locations, despite the fact that such a decomposition of the wavefunction almost certainly exists.
  • Stipulate a basis: For example, the position basis might be a natural choice, since it generically corresponds to our everyday subjective experience. The question then arises as to why this basis is chosen rather than some other. What is there within the formalism of QM that compells us to make this choice?
  • Appeal to decoherence: Decoherence theory usually supplies a “pointer basis” in which the results of measurement outcomes are almost exactly stable. This is the usual solution of the Everettians. However, if Rovelli takes this option then he has to back away from the position that microscopic systems are to be treated in exactly the same way as macroscopic one. It would no longer make sense to talk of a single electron acting as a measuring device.
  • Use the biorthogonal decomposition: Most bipartite states have a unique decomposition of the form \sum_j a_j | phi_j> |psi_j>, where <phi_j | phi_k> = \delta_{jk} and <psi_j | psi_k > = \delta_{jk}. We could simply stipulate that this basis is the correct one to do the decomposition in. This is the solution advocated in some variants of the modal interpretation. Problems include the fact that there are special states like the one above (admittedly they form a set of measure zero) for which the decomposition is not unique. Also, the biorthogonal basis does not always correspond exactly to our subjective experience, e.g. it may be close to, but not exactly equal to, the position basis.

    My impression is that none of these solutions would completely appeal to Rovelli, so it would be interesting to see what he says about the matter. However, if we combine this issue with the previous comments I made, then I have a hard time seeing how the Everettian/many-worlds ontology can really be avoided in this sort of approach.

    Realists on the counter attack

    Martin Daumer, Detlef Duerr, Sheldon Goldstein, Tim Maudlin, Roderich Tumulka and Nino Zanghi, a collection of scholars noted for their advocacy or realist interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Bohmian mechanics in particular, have posted an article on quant-ph that attacks the idea that quantum theory is “fundamentally about information”. The article is a response to a recent essay in Nature by Anton Zeilinger, and is mainly a criticism of his particular viewpoint.

    Most of their argument is based on the fact that interpretations like Bohmian mechanics offer a clear counterexample to various claims, such as that QM shows nature is fundamentally indeterministic and that the Bell and Kochen-Specker no-go theorems rule out realism. I think this is all fair enough, and I agree that it is well worth taking the time to become familiar with the Bohm interpretation if one is at all interested in foundations. It is quite amazing how often it can be used as an example to clear up confusion and misunderstandings about what we can infer from QM. On the other hand, this is a far cry from saying that Bohmian mechanics should be taken seriously as a description of reality. There are several arguments against doing so, which would take too long to go into right now. Perhaps I will do so in another post when I have more free time.

    In any case, Zeilinger’s Nature essay seems a rather easy target to me. It was a short article, and there was clearly not enough space for any detailed arguments. Whether or not you think that Zeilinger in fact has any compelling arguments, there are many other contemporary approaches that also claim QM is about “information” in some sense, and it would be good to see a more in depth response to all of these from the realist camp. Examples include the quantum Bayesianism of Caves, Fuchs and Schack; the axiomatic approach of Bub, Clifton and Halvorson; and Hardy’s axiomatics.

    Those of you who are waiting for Rovellifest 2 – fear not, for it is coming within the next week or so. For now, I feel like I need to write something on a topic I feel positive about, to aviod this blog descending into a sea of negative criticisms.

    Rovellifest 1

    Carlo Rovelli has recently put 3 papers on the arXiv, which have attracted some attention within the blogsphere (see here, here, here and here). The one that concerns us here at QQ is the paper about EPR in the relational approach to QM. I don't want to comment on the particular argument in that paper, which seems fine as far as it goes, but I do want to say a couple of things about Rovelli's approach in general, since it seems to be a popular topic at the moment. The main ideas of the approach can be found in Rovelli's original paper.

    Here is an (admittedly cartoonish) summary:

    1. We should shift attention from things like the measurement problem and instead try to derive QM from the idea that it is a theory of the information about one system that is available relative to other systems.

    2. Quantum states are not absolute concepts and the state of a system is only defined relative to some other reference systems. Different reference systems do not have to agree on this state. If they do come to agreement it is only after the reference systems themselves interact with each other according to some Hamiltonian.

    3. The question of whether a system has some particular property has no absolute meaning. However, some property of a system can be well-defined relative to some other system, provided the systems happen to have interacted in such a way that the second system records the appropriate information about the first system.

    4. All the relational states just represent the subjective point of view that one system has about another. There is no absolute meaning to such states and no meaningful "wave-vector of the universe" can be constructed because there is no external system for it to enter into relations with.

    5. This is all just a twist on the usual kind of relationalism that we have in other physical theories, e.g. special and general relativity.

    In my opinion, there is a good deal wrong with relational QM as formulated by Rovelli, although I am not particularly opposed to relationalism in general. In this post, I'll make some comments about 4 and 5. A forthcoming "Rovellifest 2" post will point out a problem with 3, which I believe is more serious.

    To address 5, it is worth noting a striking disanalogy between relational QM and other sorts of relational theories in physics. For example, in Newtonian mechanics we are very used to the idea that that there is no absolute meaning of the position of a particle A, but you can define its distance to a reference system B. This is generally different from the distance of A relative to another reference system C. Similarly, there is no absolute notion of when two events are simultaneous in special relativity, but this is well defined relative to any inertial reference frame.

    However, in these cases it is always possible to find some transformation that relates the descriptions relative to different reference frames, provided you know the relations between the frames themselves, e.g. the Lorentz transformations in special relativity.

    Now consider a quantum system composed of a subsystem A and two observers B and C. Suppose both B and C separately interact with A, possibly measuring different observables on A. Relative to B, A is supposed to have some definite property after this interaction and similarly for C. However, you generally can't convert between B and C's description of the situation if you only know the state of B relative to C. You can if they happened to measure the same observable, but that's a very special case.

    In fact, the only way to relaibly convert between different observers relative states of the same system is to know the entire "wave-vector of the universe", something that is meaningless for Rovelli due to 4.

    So, it seems we are left with two options:

    1. Add in a "state of the universe" so that one can reliably transform between different descriptions of the same subsystem.

    2. Abandon the classical notion that one can reliably transform between different descriptions of the same system.

    Adopting 1 would essentially entail accepting an Everettian/many-worlds type scenario, something that Rovelli is keen to distance himself from. Therefore, I conclude that he must accept 2.

    Abandoning reliable transformations is not a completely absurd thing to do, but it is important to note that this is a departure from what we usually mean by the term "relational". I am still not entirely convinced that it is consistent, although I haven't managed to think up a scenario where it would cause a problem yet. My suspicion is that it might be attacked by a "Wigner's Enemy" type of argument of the sort that was levelled against Chris Fuchs' Bayesian approach by Amit Hagar, which seems much more relevant to the relational approach than to its original target.

    N.B. "Wigner's Enemy" is a new name I just thought up for the argument.  I figure he must be an enemy rather than a friend because friends don't usually try to erase your memory. 

    The Church of the Smaller Hilbert Space

    This is supposed to be a balanced blog, but my nonexistent readership may wish to know exactly what I do believe about quantum mechanics. The document below explains everything.

    WARNING: The document below contains geek humor that also parodies the style of a certain well-known religious text. If you don't find jokes about density operators funny and/or you are a devout religious person then you may find its contents offensive. The document below does not necessarily represent the opinions of its author, or indeed any person, animal, alien or sentient artificial intelligence, living, dead or yet to be born.

    Ten Commandments of the Church of the Smaller Hilbert Space
    Update:  The link is now working.  Apologies for the delay.