The Teddington Interpretation

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I went to Teddington last week to have coffee with a friend who works at the National Physical Laboratory. While I was in Teddington's Broad Street, I bought a copy of Werner Heisenberg’s book ‘Physics and Philosophy’ from the local charity shop. It’s a dry but interesting read. I haven't finished it yet but as I read through its first chapter, while sitting in a Teddington cafe, it got me thinking about the Copenhagen Interpretation in quantum physics. After my second biscuit, I thought of a really interesting idea…

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The Copenhagen Interpretation was developed in the 1920’s by a Danish quantum physicist, Neils Bohr, and his colleagues at Bohr’s Institute for physics in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has become the standard, modern way to view the behaviour of reality at its most fundamental levels; the world of atoms, protons, electrons et al.

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At the time of its creation, the Copenhagen Interpretation was seen as a bizarre idea. Albert Einstein hated it and refused to accept it during his entire life. For Einstein, the Interpretation's most annoying feature was that it made it clear that there was no possible way to know what was happening in between scientific observations. In other words, the Copenhagen Interpretation made it clear that a scientist might measure the location of an electron at a certain point, but outside of that measurement, the electron wasn’t actually anywhere in particular between measurements. All that could be said about the electron's location was that there was a probability of it being in any particular place. The only time when it was definitely somewhere was when a measurement was made. Einstein hated this idea and it prompted him to make his famous comment ‘God does not play dice’. He also famously complained to his biographer, ‘do you really think the moon ceases to exist if we don’t look at it?’

Since that time, the Copenhagen Interpretation has become the orthodox way to view the subatomic world. It is so dominant that I’ve never actually read or encountered another interpretation of how the subatomic world works, or at least one that fits with experimental evidence.

But on my way back from Teddington, I realised that there was another away to interpret the same phenomena that non one, to my knowledge, as stated, so I thought I’d write it down here. I'm calling it the Teddington Interpretation. (Nice!) I thought of calling it the ‘Hampton Interpretation’, since I was heading back to Hampton, but I thought ‘Teddington’ worked better. ;-)

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The Copenhagen Interpretation transformed scientists’ view of reality because it destroyed two key existing ideas that had been the mainstay of Classical Physics. Before the twentieth century, scientists thought the physical world was something that existed for all eternity. Not only that, but they believed that it was possible to know exactly what was going on in reality if one observed it in enough detail. This belief in an absolute knowledge of reality had its own problems, exemplified by Laplace’s Demon, but it was still the accepted view. It was, and still is, a beguiling idea; a universe like a great machine or billiard table, one that we can observe and tinker with, but one that will chug along by itself even if none of us are observing it. Definitely one for clock and model-railway enthusiasts.

Quantum physics blew that idea out of the water because it showed, mathematically and in-line with experimental evidence, that it was impossible to know exactly what was going on in reality. Reality isn't fully knowable, however clever or advanced we get. Quantum physics and the Copenhagen Interpretation also killed the idea of reality 'existing' in any real sense outside of measurement, a point discussed above. The Interpretation made it clear that between measurements, there is no ‘definite’ reality, only a probability that something is real.

But the Copenhagen Interpretation didn't abandon all the concepts present in Classical Physics. Historians tend to focus on how different it was from what had gone before and fail to mention the facets of Classical Physics thinking that it kept. One key element of Classical Physics thinking that the Interpretation kept was the assumption that a physical particle must either exist or not exist. In other words, just as with Classical Physics, there was no attempt to include the possibility that a particle can ‘half exist’; it either has to be there or not there. The Copenhagen Interpretation makes it clear that, in between measurements, a particle’s location is unclear, but only in the sense of the probability that the particle exists, not how much it exists.

But what if that’s not true? What if a particle doesn’t have to either exist or not exist? What if a particle can partly exist?

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That idea sounds hard to believe, but that may be down what we're used to believing. The standard view is that our universe is made of physical particles. It is regarded as self-evident and never questioned, but it may not be true. As I’ve explained in my Reality is Light article, all our experimental observations come to us as light emissions, all of them. As a result, it’s quite possible that there are no particles at all in existence. Instead, reality is a complex pattern of electromagnetic energy whose quantum vertices or energy nodes exhibit behaviour that scientists have been calling 'particles'. This might sound a bit facetious, or pointless philosophical noodling, but it does have an important consequence. Here's the rub; If there are no particles, but just quantum energy nodes, then it is much easier to imagine that these nodes can be fully real or only partly real. In other words, by accepting reality is only energy, in free or bound-up form, it's easy to imagine that some of its constituents can, at times, only partially exist.

With this idea in mind, let's look at the Copenhagen Interpretation again. It says that in between measurements, all we can say about a particle is the probability that it might be any particular place. But if all particles are really energy nodes, in between measurements, we could say that the maths isn't about the probability that these energy nodes in any particular place, but how real they are in any particular place.

In this way, reality no longer consists of tiny, physical things whose position we pin down with measurements. Instead, reality is more like an energy net whose nodes we ‘focus into full reality’ with our observations at particular locations, almost like a crystal solidifying out of a solution. In this way, observation or measurement isn’t a ‘check-up’; it’s more of a creation or birth.

Just to recap, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the location of fundamental physical particles are beyond our knowledge between measurements but they still ‘exist’ somewhere and their location is described by a probability ‘map’. In the Teddington Interpretation, there are no particles. Instead, there are energy nodes. Between observations, these nodes are partly real things whose existence ‘map’ is smeared out to the ends of the universe. An energy node only becomes fully real in one spot when it’s brought into ‘full reality focus’ by an observation. The end product of both Interpretations is the same, and the maths is the same, but the concept is very different.

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At this point, I’m going to include the idea that minds create reality from the quantum realm. This is known as the Neumann-Wigner hypothesis, after the brilliant scientist John Von Neumann and the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Eugene Wigner. I’ve talked about this hypothesis at length in the Influence Idea and, as far as I can tell, it is not only logically elegant and sound, it’s also never been refuted, so I’m sticking with it. It also helps solve some other gnarly problems in physics. For those who think that the observations that create particles don’t need the influence of minds, please read Wigner’s Friend. For those who think that multiple realities or 'many worlds' hold the answer, be aware that without something causing the event to take place, we’re left with Hard Determinism, in other words that there’s no free will and reality is no more than watching a 4D movie, if you like that sort of thing.

Returning to the Teddington Interpretation, if it is true that the act of observation ‘crystallises’ an energy node ‘particle’ in one spot out of its ‘partially real’ soup, then we've got a tricky problem. It is; who gets to be the decisive observer? For example, if two scientists observe a photon emerging from a hot filament, why doesn’t the photon emerge in two different places, one for each of its observers? Do the scientists’ minds compete to decide where the photon is observed? Also, why doesn’t everyone end up in their own personal reality, because their observations are unique to them? As far as we all can tell, we share a single reality with each other and that reality is a consistent thing, which is great, but if the Teddington Interpretation is correct, how does Reality stay as a single reality, even though a multitude of different minds are observing it and creating 'particles' out of the quantum realm?

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There is a possible answer to this. There isn't a problem with minds creating their own versions of reality if all minds are connected at a fundamental level. In the modern, Western World, we like to think of ourselves as individuals, fundamentally separate from each other, but this may be a delusion. Instead, we may be more like flowers on a plant. When you see a flower on a plant, you think of it as a separate thing, a meaningfully individual object. What’s more, you can see that each flower is a unique thing due to the tiny aberrations it experienced as it grew, the damage it may have personally suffered while in existence, the presence of mould or parasites and so on. But we also know that that flower is part of the plant it grew from and that its existence is entirely down to its connection with its parent plant. In this way, flowers are not individuals at all, but just a continuous extension of a single plant. Their individuality is purely down to how we perceive them.

In this way, individual minds may be like the flowers of a plant; each has a unique experience and shape but they are not fundamentally separate and spring from a single, 'total mind' organism. In this way, the single, ‘total mind’ creates our single reality. We may personally experience reality as individuals, and think of ourselves as separate to each other, but that’s only true above a certain level. Beneath that, we are all part of a single mental and spiritual organism. Our reality is that which our ‘organism of minds’ perceives. Reality's multifarious facets reflect the multifarious facets of the offshoots of our ‘total mind’ organism that we refer to as our ‘individual’ minds, i.e. you and me.

I think it's a fun idea. If you'd like to read more of my musings on this topic, feel free to read The Influence Idea and Reality is Light. When I eventually finish Chloë's Quantum Quest, I'll probably also include these ideas in the final version. Until then, have a good week!