Quantum Mechanics, Plato’s Cave and the Blind Piranha

My quantum experiment, which has consumed me for much more than a 12 months now, has dredged up a creepy, extensive-buried memory. It dates again to the late 1970s, when I was a housepainter living in Denver. Just one day I uncovered myself in a grungy saloon on Denver’s dusty japanese outskirts. Driving the bar was an aquarium with a one, awful-looking fish hovering in it. A silver, saucer-sized, snaggle-toothed, milky-eyed, blind piranha.

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

What does this very poor creature have to do with quantum mechanics? Here’s what. Our present day scientific worldview and much of our technology—including the laptop on which I’m producing these words—is primarily based on quantum concepts. And nonetheless a century just after its creation, physicists and philosophers are unable to concur on what quantum mechanics usually means. The theory raises deep and, I’m guessing, unanswerable questions about matter, thoughts and “reality,” regardless of what that is.

More than a 50 percent century ago, Richard Feynman recommended us to accept that nature makes no sense. “Do not retain stating to yourself … ‘But how can [nature] be like that?’” Feynman warns in The Character of Physical Regulation, “because you will get ‘down the drain,’ into a blind alley from which nobody has nevertheless escaped. No one is aware of how it can be like that.” Most physicists have adopted Feynman’s information. Ignoring the oddness of quantum mechanics, they simply use it to achieve several tasks, this kind of as predicting new particles or building additional strong pcs.

A further deep-pondering physicist, John Bell, deplored this scenario. In his typical 1987 perform Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, Bell chides physicists who utilize quantum mechanics while blithely disregarding its “fundamental obscurity” he phone calls them “sleepwalkers.” But Bell acknowledges that efforts to “interpret” quantum mechanics so that it can make perception have failed. He likens interpretations these kinds of as the many-planet hypothesis and pilot-wave theory to “literary fiction.”

Now, there are more interpretations than at any time, but they deepen fairly than dispel the mystery at the heart of points. The extra I dwell on puzzles such as superposition, entanglement and the measurement problem, the much more I detect with the piranha. I’m blindly thrashing about for insights, epiphanies, revelations. Each individual now and then I assume I’ve grasped some slippery truth of the matter, but my fulfillment is normally fleeting. Quicker or later on, I conclusion up crashing into an invisible barrier. I don’t genuinely know the place I am or what’s going on. I’m in the darkish.

The principal difference among me and piranha is that it is within the aquarium, and I’m on the exterior, seeking in. I can acquire solace from the fact that my planet is significantly even bigger than the piranha’s, and that I know numerous items that the fish can not. But it is all as well simple to think about some enlightened, superintelligent getting standing outside our earth, seeking at us with the similar pity and smug superiority that we feel toward the piranha.

Plato provides himself as this enlightened being in his renowned parable of the cave, which I make my freshman humanities classes examine each individual semester. The parable describes men and women confined to a cave for their full life. They are prisoners, but they do not know they are prisoners. An evil trickster guiding them has developed a fireplace, by usually means of which he assignments shadows of every thing from aardvarks to zebras on to the cave wall in front of the prisoners. The cave dwellers mistake these shadows for actuality. Only by escaping the cave can the prisoners learn the brilliant, sunlit truth past it.

We are the benighted prisoners in the cave, and Plato, the enlightened philosopher, is hoping to drag us into the light-weight. But isn’t it achievable, even probable, that Plato and other self-appointed saviors, who say they’ve found the mild and want us to see it too, are charlatans? Or loons? Offered our profound capability for self-deception, isn’t it likely that when you think you have remaining the cave, you have truly just swapped just one established of illusions for a different? These are the queries with which I torment my pupils. Right here are some of their responses:


  • Clearly, some people today are ignorant and deluded, like flat-earthers, and other individuals are effectively-knowledgeable. So yes, we can and do escape the cave of ignorance by likely to higher education and researching physics, chemistry, history, philosophy and so on. We can reduce our ignorance even now further with the assistance of reputable information resources, this kind of as the New York Situations and Fox Information, and traveling to other international locations to understand how other people see the entire world.
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  • Yes, we can escape the cave by learning physics and other fields, but we only finish up in a different cave, with equations projected on the partitions alternatively of silhouettes of aardvarks and so on. The new cave may perhaps be a lot more intriguing, comfy and much better-illuminated than the cave we had been in before, but it is however a cave. Only a few rare souls practical experience final reality, like Buddha, Jesus and Einstein.
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  • Plato was not truly chatting about worldly expertise, he was conversing about spiritual understanding, or enlightenment. So yes, we can leave the cave and see the mild of truth, but only by accepting the teachings of great sages this sort of as Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, and maybe by training non secular disciplines these kinds of as prayer and meditation.
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  • With the help of philosophy, artwork, meditation and psychedelics, we can become additional knowledgeable that we are in a cave, in a condition of illusion we can know, sort of, what we really do not know. But no mere human at any time escapes the cave, not even the best sages and researchers. Not even Plato, Stephen Hawking or L. Ron Hubbard. Only God, if there is a God, can perceive complete truth of the matter. And it’s possible not even God.
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  • Who cares if we’re in a cave or not? If we’re acquiring pleasurable, that’s all that issues. (Although only a several of my students have the braveness to voice this alternative, I suspect it is what several of them consider, in particular the business majors.)
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To be truthful, the fourth option—that not even God can escape the cave, in addition the references to psychedelics, Stephen Hawking and L. Ron Hubbard—is mine. But my pupils appear up with the other alternatives on their very own, with small prodding from me. By the time we’re carried out with this exercising, I start emotion guilty about rubbing the younger, harmless faces of the non–business majors in the world’s inscrutability. To make them sense a very little superior, I deliver up a different probability that usually doesn’t manifest to them:

If we understand we’re in the cave, is not that the similar, type of, as escaping from it? Basically, if “ultimate reality” is inaccessible to us, isn’t that the very same, form of, as stating that it doesn’t exist? And as a result that the cave, the world in which we are living every single and every single working day, is the just one and only actuality? And that’s why that the business majors are ideal, and we should really just chill out and delight in ourselves?

Perhaps. On excellent days, I glimpse out the window of my condominium at the shining Hudson River, crisscrossed by boats, and at the Manhattan skyline, a symbol of humanity’s at any time-increasing know-how of and power in excess of mother nature, and I believe, Sure, this is truth, there is nothing at all else. But then I recall the quantum mist at the core of actuality, which not even the smartest sages can penetrate, and to which most of us are oblivious. And I recall the piranha, bumping above and about once more into the partitions of its environment, blind to its individual blindness.

This is an belief and analysis write-up the sights expressed by the creator or authors are not always all those of Scientific American.

Even further Looking through:

Is the Schrödinger Equation Accurate?

Quantum Mechanics, the Chinese Room Experiment and the Limits of Being familiar with

Quantum Mechanics, the Intellect-Entire body Difficulty and Negative Theology

I explore the limits of information in my two most current publications, Thoughts-Body Complications, accessible for cost-free online, and Pay back Consideration: Sexual intercourse, Death, and Science.

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