Disputed Foundations of Quantum Mechanics

A Snapshot of Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics by Schlosshauer, Kofler & Zeilinger presents 33 academics – physicists, philosophers, mathematicians – attending a 2011 conference on the foundations of quantum mechanics with 16 questions on the subject. Fascinatingly, there was no complete consensus on any question. On the contrary, there was a roughly even split (or at least significant dissent) on basic topics such as these:

  • Whether physical objects have their properties well defined prior to and independent of measurement.
  • Whether the measurement problem is solved, a pseudoproblem, or a severe difficulty.
  • Meaning of observed violations of Bell’s inequalities (i.e. quantum entanglement).
  • Whether the interpretation of quantum states should be epistemic, ontic, or both.
  • Whether the observer is a complex quantum system and/or plays a fundamental role.
  • Favorite interpretation of quantum mechanics: Copenhagen (42%), many worlds (18%), information-based (24%), etc.
  • Whether the respondent has a favorite interpretation, and how often it changed.

Regarding the much-hyped quantum computers, 15% flat-out state that we’ll never have a working and useful specimen. Over 70% don’t expect one in less then ten years, with 30% putting the lower bound at 25 years. The authors classify this outlook as “cautious optimism,” but it seems quite a bit more negative to me than what one might expect based on science reporting.

At any rate, the next time you see someone claiming to explain the meaning of quantum mechanics, remember the authors’ conclusion:

Quantum theory is based on a clear mathematical apparatus, has enormous significance for the natural sciences, enjoys phenomenal predictive success, and plays a critical role in modern technological developments. Yet, nearly 90 years after the theory’s development, there is still no consensus in the scientific community regarding the interpretation of the theory’s foundational building blocks. Our poll is an urgent reminder of this peculiar situation.

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