Philosophical Implications of Quantum Mechanics

Since its inception, the many counter-intuitive aspects and results of quantum mechanics have provoked strong philosophical debates and many interpretations. The arguments centre on the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, the difficulties with wavefunction collapse and the related measurement problem, and quantum nonlocality. Perhaps the only consensus that exists about these issues is that there is no consensus. Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”[42] According to Steven Weinberg, “There is now in my opinion no entirely satisfactory interpretation of quantum mechanics.”[43]

The views of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and other physicists are often grouped together as the “Copenhagen interpretation”.[44][45] According to these views, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics is not a temporary feature which will eventually be replaced by a deterministic theory, but is instead a final renunciation of the classical idea of “causality”. Bohr in particular emphasized that any well-defined application of the quantum mechanical formalism must always make reference to the experimental arrangement, due to the complementary nature of evidence obtained under different experimental situations. Copenhagen-type interpretations remain popular in the 21st century.[46]

Albert Einstein, himself one of the founders of quantum theory, was troubled by its apparent failure to respect some cherished metaphysical principles, such as determinism and locality. Einstein’s long-running exchanges with Bohr about the meaning and status of quantum mechanics are now known as the Bohr–Einstein debates. Einstein believed that underlying quantum mechanics must be a theory that explicitly forbids action at a distance. He argued that quantum mechanics was incomplete, a theory that was valid but not fundamental, analogous to how thermodynamics is valid, but the fundamental theory behind it is statistical mechanics. In 1935, Einstein and his collaborators Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen published an argument that the principle of locality implies the incompleteness of quantum mechanics, a thought experiment later termed the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen paradox.[note 6] In 1964, John Bell showed that EPR’s principle of locality, together with determinism, was actually incompatible with quantum mechanics: they implied constraints on the correlations produced by distance systems, now known as Bell inequalities, that can be violated by entangled particles.[51] Since then several experiments have been performed to obtain these correlations, with the result that they do in fact violate Bell inequalities, and thus falsify the conjunction of locality with determinism.[11][12]

Bohmian mechanics shows that it is possible to reformulate quantum mechanics to make it deterministic, at the price of making it explicitly nonlocal. It attributes not only a wave function to a physical system, but in addition a real position, that evolves deterministically under a nonlocal guiding equation. The evolution of a physical system is given at all times by the Schrödinger equation together with the guiding equation; there is never a collapse of the wave function. This solves the measurement problem.[52]

Everett’s many-worlds interpretation, formulated in 1956, holds that all the possibilities described by quantum theory simultaneously occur in a multiverse composed of mostly independent parallel universes.[53] This is not accomplished by introducing a “new axiom” to quantum mechanics, but by removing the axiom of the collapse of the wave packet. All possible states of the measured system and the measuring apparatus, together with the observer, are present in a real physical quantum superposition. While the multiverse is deterministic, we perceive non-deterministic behavior governed by probabilities, because we don’t observe the multiverse as a whole, but only one parallel universe at a time. Exactly how this is supposed to work has been the subject of much debate. Why we should assign probabilities at all to outcomes that are certain to occur in some worlds, and why should the probabilities be given by the Born rule?[54] Everett tried to answer both questions in the paper that introduced many-worlds; his derivation of the Born rule has been criticized as relying on unmotivated assumptions.[55] Since then several other derivations of the Born rule in the many-worlds framework have been proposed. There is no consensus on whether this has been successful.[56][57]

Relational quantum mechanics appeared in the late 1990s as a modern derivative of Copenhagen-type ideas,[58] and QBism was developed some years later.