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.

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