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Wednesday 12 January 2011

Quantum Consciousness is Market Uncertainty

Reality's an Illusion

However odd or downright contradictory we may find financial markets they’re absolutely nothing compared to the bizarre nature of nature itself, which at the sub-microscopic level doesn’t so much defy the application of logic as positively thumb its nose at it. The world of quantum physics is, it seems, quite literally unimaginable.

Yet there’s an implication in the physics of the infinitesimal that has profound implications for everything, not the least of which are the random meanderings of investment securities. The science suggests that there is no objective state of reality outside the confines of our own heads. We are, it seems, the ghosts in our own machines.

The Correspondence Principle

The utter incomprehensibility of the quantum world so far defies belief that it’s a wonder anyone ever figured it out – if the strange babblings of the quantum mechanists can be classified as such. Because, down at the level of sub-atomic particles, the universe does not behave in the way we observe it at the macroscopic level. Figuring out how to construct the macroscopic from the microscopic is one of the critical successes of quantum physics, enshrined in the so-called Correspondence Principle of Niels Bohr.

This states that the world as we know it, as encapsulated by the physics of everyday objects, must be possible to derive from the basic principles of quantum mechanics. No matter how bizarre, how strange and how counterintuitive these may be it’s an absolute requirement that macroscopic phenomena can be derived from quantum ones. As we’ll see this idea runs into an iceberg of a problem in human consciousness yet, to a point, it makes no sense because the world of the quantum is by definition made up of discrete steps, with no intervening continuity.

Einstein's Photons

So, photons – particles of light – possess levels of energy which are quantised in terms of something called Plank’s constant, named after Max Plank who discovered it and who actually didn’t believe that quanta were real. He regarded them as a useful way of making the equations work at sub-atomic level. Anyway, applied at our sizes quantization is like stating that cars can only appear at hundred yard intervals on the road and somehow disappear from one point and appear at another instantaneously.

If this doesn’t make much sense you’re in good company. To figure it out you’d have needed to be an Einstein, which was fortunate because Isaac Einstein was. Remarkably, though, for a very long time Einstein was about the only person who actually believed that photons and quanta were real. Like Plank, most scientists reckoned that they were a useful mathematical model that allowed the equations to work, but were otherwise a figment of physicists' imaginations.

At the heart of the conundrum is that light usually appears to act like a wave, diffracting through prisms to cause those delightful rainbow type effects that so entrance spaced out poets. It certainly doesn't seem to bounce around like an array of tiny particles. But in 1922 Einstein’s particle theory of light was confirmed when Arthur Compton showed that X-rays bounced off targets like tiny billiard balls. Yet still sometimes light did behave like a wave and thus scientists ran hard up against wave-particle duality. Sometimes our cars drive smoothly and continuously down the street as though they’re riding a wave and at others they bounce around between different points like particles.

God Does Play With Dice

The eventual resolution to the conundrum was a profound and strange one. Whereas classical physics predicted that it was, at least in theory, able to predict the future from the present this was impossible under quantum laws. This provided an answer to the question of whether light was a wave or a particle: the answer depended on what the observer was looking for. So if you went looking for wave like behaviour you found it, and it you went looking for particle like behaviour you found this too. But you can never, ever, create an experiment that can show both at the same time. This is the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg.

This means that reality itself is dependent on the observer – unless we observe there is, at the quantum level, no definition of what exists. This is so mindbendingly counterintuitive that many great minds have simply refused to accept it. It seems less like science and more like some bizarre manifestation of a drug induced vision. You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up. Although, of course, that’s exactly what Bohr and Werner Heisenberg did. This formulation is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation.

Schrödinger's Cat's Anger Problem

This leads to a bunch of curious attempts to explain the concept of which the most famous is Schrödinger's cat. A cat is shut in a box with a radioactive isotope that has precisely a 50% chance of decaying in any 24 hour period. If it decays it will trigger the release of a poison gas which will kill the cat. While the box is closed the cat’s state is represented by a wave equation – it’s neither alive nor dead. When it’s opened and the observer reluctantly checks on the status of the cat then the wave collapses and the cat is particulate – either dead or alive. And if it’s the latter you’d better stand well back, ‘cos it’s likely pretty pissed.

Given the eclectic nature of economics it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that there are researchers out there who are trying to model human behaviour based on quantum principles. Leaving aside, for the moment, the strange idea that you can use sub-atomic theories to model human behaviours Busemayer and Wang, for instance, describe why quantum effects are useful for modelling human probabilistic choices. They point out that if you present a person repeatedly with the same choice then they’ll make the same decision. If you intersperse the choice with other questions then they’ll sometimes change their minds. They think quantum probability models this:
“According to quantum principles, prior to the first measurement on a choice problem, the individual is in a supposition state, and the choice is inherently unpredictable. However, following the observation of a choice, the measurement causes the supposition state to collapse, and subsequent choices remain identical”.

They also show that the quantum principle of non-commutability – A*B does not equal B*A at the quantum level – can be related to order effects on choice, which seem to be random and are generally disregarded by researchers investigating human decision making processes. Whether or not this translates into actual quantum effects within the brain is a question the authors are cautious on, although others are less reticent.

Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have developed a theory of consciousness based on quantum computation known as Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR). This postulates that the brain is not a computer based on algorithms, but exhibits quantum processing in which decision making occurs through the collapse of wave functions on an orchestrated – and therefore objective – basis. Essentially consciousness emerges from this collapse rather than being the cause of it, as postulated by the Copenhagen Interpretation.

Causality in Consciousness

If this all seems too bizarre to be true it’s fair to say a lot of scientists would agree. But still, there’s enough in the idea to cause a fairly constant stream of debate about whether these quantum mechanical effects are observable at the macroscopic level through brain structures. And it does at least explain why human behaviour in financial decision making is so damn strange – it’s because we’re continually letting the macroscopic cat out of the quantum mechanical box. Let's leave the last word to Roger Penrose:
“ Yet there is at least one glaring omission in present physical theory. This is how small-scale quantum processes can add up, for large and complicated systems, to the almost classical behaviour of macroscopic bodies. Indeed it is not just an omission but a fundamental inconsistency, sometimes referred to as the measurement paradox (or Schrödinger's’s cat). In my view, until this paradox is resolved we must necessarily remain very far from a physical theory of everything – whether or not such a theory exists”.

Related articles: Physics Risk Isn't Market Uncertainty, Econophysics, Consciousness and Cosmic Karma, Science, Stocks and Superstition


  1. Interesting, post. A little dense today, particularly for non-native english speakers, but very good indeed!

  2. You really are a superb writer, Timmar. I've read about Quantum Mechanics 100 times, yet I don't think I've ever read the main principles so swiftly, clearly and entertainingly explained.