Quantum Mechanics, Plato’s Cave and the Blind Piranha

My quantum experiment, which has consumed me for much more than a yr now, has dredged up a creepy, extended-buried memory. It dates back to the late 1970s, when I was a housepainter residing in Denver. One particular working day I identified myself in a grungy saloon on Denver’s dusty eastern outskirts. Powering the bar was an aquarium with a one, terrible-wanting fish hovering in it. A silver, saucer-sized, snaggle-toothed, milky-eyed, blind piranha.

Now and then, the bartender netted a few minnows from a fishbowl and dropped them into the piranha’s cubicle. The piranha froze for an instantaneous, then darted this way and that, jaws snapping, as the minnows fled. The piranha saved bumping, with audible thuds, into the glass partitions of its prison. That explained the protuberance on its snout, which resembled a small battering ram. Quicker or afterwards the piranha gobbled all the hapless minnows, whereupon it returned to its listless, suspended point out.

What does this poor creature have to do with quantum mechanics? Here’s what. Our modern-day scientific worldview and a great deal of our technology—including the laptop computer on which I’m creating these words—is based on quantum ideas. And however a century just after its invention, physicists and philosophers simply cannot concur on what quantum mechanics signifies. The principle raises deep and, I’m guessing, unanswerable questions about issue, mind and “reality,” whatsoever that is.

Far more than a half century back, Richard Feynman recommended us to accept that mother nature makes no sense. “Do not continue to keep stating to oneself … ‘But how can [nature] be like that?’” Feynman warns in The Character of Actual physical Regulation, “because you will get ‘down the drain,’ into a blind alley from which no person has nevertheless escaped. No one is aware of how it can be like that.” Most physicists have adopted Feynman’s suggestions. Ignoring the oddness of quantum mechanics, they simply just apply it to carry out various tasks, these types of as predicting new particles or making much more potent computer systems.

A different deep-wondering physicist, John Bell, deplored this predicament. In his classic 1987 get the job done Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, Bell chides physicists who apply quantum mechanics whilst blithely disregarding its “fundamental obscurity” he calls them “sleepwalkers.” But Bell acknowledges that efforts to “interpret” quantum mechanics so that it tends to make feeling have failed. He likens interpretations this kind of as the a lot of-planet hypothesis and pilot-wave principle to “literary fiction.”

These days, there are much more interpretations than at any time, but they deepen instead than dispel the secret at the heart of issues. The additional I dwell on puzzles these types of as superposition, entanglement and the measurement difficulty, the more I establish with the piranha. I’m blindly thrashing about for insights, epiphanies, revelations. Every now and then I assume I’ve grasped some slippery truth of the matter, but my gratification is usually fleeting. Faster or later, I conclude up crashing into an invisible barrier. I don’t truly know in which I am or what’s heading on. I’m in the darkish.

The principal difference in between me and piranha is that it is inside of the aquarium, and I’m on the exterior, on the lookout in. I can acquire solace from the reality that my entire world is considerably bigger than the piranha’s, and that I know many matters that the fish cannot. But it’s all far too quick to think about some enlightened, superintelligent currently being standing outdoors our entire world, looking at us with the exact pity and smug superiority that we experience toward the piranha.

Plato presents himself as this enlightened being in his popular parable of the cave, which I make my freshman humanities classes browse each and every semester. The parable describes people today confined to a cave for their overall lives. They are prisoners, but they really don’t know they are prisoners. An evil trickster behind them has designed a fire, by suggests of which he initiatives shadows of everything from aardvarks to zebras onto the cave wall in front of the prisoners. The cave dwellers miscalculation these shadows for reality. Only by escaping the cave can the prisoners explore the brilliant, sunlit reality outside of it.

We are the benighted prisoners in the cave, and Plato, the enlightened thinker, is hoping to drag us into the light-weight. But is not it probable, even possible, that Plato and other self-appointed saviors, who say they’ve observed the light-weight and want us to see it also, are charlatans? Or loons? Given our profound potential for self-deception, is not it very likely that when you assume you’ve remaining the cave, you’ve actually just swapped a person set of illusions for one more? These are the questions with which I torment my college students. Below are some of their responses:


  • Clearly, some individuals are ignorant and deluded, like flat-earthers, and some others are perfectly-informed. So certainly, we can and do escape the cave of ignorance by going to college or university and finding out physics, chemistry, background, philosophy and so on. We can reduce our ignorance however additional with the assist of trusted information sources, these kinds of as the New York Times and Fox News, and traveling to other international locations to learn how other individuals see the globe.
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  • Indeed, we can escape the cave by researching physics and other fields, but we only stop up in one more cave, with equations projected on the partitions alternatively of silhouettes of aardvarks and so on. The new cave may possibly be far more exciting, comfortable and improved-illuminated than the cave we were in just before, but it’s even now a cave. Only a couple of rare souls experience ultimate actuality, like Buddha, Jesus and Einstein.
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  • Plato was not seriously speaking about worldly understanding, he was speaking about religious expertise, or enlightenment. So certainly, we can go away the cave and see the mild of truth, but only by accepting the teachings of good sages these as Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, and possibly by practicing religious disciplines this sort of as prayer and meditation.
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  • With the enable of philosophy, art, meditation and psychedelics, we can turn out to be a lot more mindful that we are in a cave, in a state of illusion we can know, form of, what we don’t know. But no mere human at any time escapes the cave, not even the biggest sages and scientists. Not even Plato, Stephen Hawking or L. Ron Hubbard. Only God, if there is a God, can perceive complete truth. And possibly not even God.
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  • Who cares if we’re in a cave or not? If we’re possessing fun, that is all that matters. (Despite the fact that only a number of of my learners have the braveness to voice this choice, I suspect it is what quite a few of them imagine, especially the business majors.)
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To be genuine, the fourth option—that not even God can escape the cave, additionally the references to psychedelics, Stephen Hawking and L. Ron Hubbard—is mine. But my students come up with the other options on their have, with negligible prodding from me. By the time we’re carried out with this exercising, I commence sensation guilty about rubbing the younger, innocent faces of the non–business majors in the world’s inscrutability. To make them feel a very little greater, I carry up one more probability that generally doesn’t occur to them:

If we recognize we’re in the cave, is not that the similar, form of, as escaping from it? Truly, if “ultimate reality” is inaccessible to us, is not that the very same, form of, as saying that it doesn’t exist? And for this reason that the cave, the planet in which we stay every and each and every working day, is the a single and only fact? And consequently that the organization majors are suitable, and we should really just chill out and take pleasure in ourselves?

Perhaps. On good times, I search out the window of my apartment at the shining Hudson River, crisscrossed by boats, and at the Manhattan skyline, a symbol of humanity’s ever-escalating expertise of and energy above nature, and I assume, Certainly, this is actuality, there is very little else. But then I try to remember the quantum mist at the core of truth, which not even the smartest sages can penetrate, and to which most of us are oblivious. And I don’t forget the piranha, bumping more than and about once again into the walls of its environment, blind to its have blindness.

This is an viewpoint and examination short article the sights expressed by the creator or authors are not automatically these of Scientific American.

Further Looking through:

Is the Schrödinger Equation Accurate?

Quantum Mechanics, the Chinese Room Experiment and the Limits of Understanding

Quantum Mechanics, the Brain-System Challenge and Detrimental Theology

I take a look at the limitations of information in my two most latest textbooks, Thoughts-Human body Challenges, out there for no cost on the internet, and Fork out Awareness: Sex, Death, and Science.

See my modern chat with Russian author/artist Nikita Petrov, in which we discuss about the blind piranha, Plato’s cave and psychedelics.

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