The Uncertainty Principle and Us

It’s difficult to discuss physics if you aren’t a physicist or don’t understand the math involved. Nevertheless, what physicists tell us about the world is so strange that it’s hard not to discuss it sometimes, whether we understand it or not. (The brilliant physicist and all-around cool guy Richard Feynman once said that nobody understands quantum mechanics, but some understand it better than others.)

There are philosophers who specialize in the philosophy of physics and aren’t shy about discussing physics at all, among themselves and with physicists. One of these philosophers, Craig Callender, has recently written two interesting articles for the New York Times. In these articles, Callender argues that Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, probably the best-known part of quantum mechanics, shouldn’t be as famous as it is. 

Heisenberg was one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He published the uncertainty principle in 1927. If you look up “uncertainty principle” now, you’ll find statements like this: “The position and momentum of a particle cannot be simultaneously measured with arbitrarily high precision” and “The uncertainty principle is at the foundation of quantum mechanics: you can measure a particle’s position or its velocity, but not both.”

Well, here is Callender on quantum mechanics:

[Quantum mechanics is] a complex theory, but its basic structure is simple. It represents physical systems – particles, cats, planets – with abstract quantum states. These quantum states provide the chances for various things happening. Think of quantum mechanics as an oddsmaker. You consult the theory, and it provides the odds of something definite happening….

The quantum oddsmaker can answer … questions for every conceivable property of the system. Sometimes it really narrows down what might happen: for instance, “There is a 100 percent chance the particle is located here, and zero percent chance elsewhere.” Other times it spreads out its chances to varying degrees: “There is a 1 percent chance the particle is located here, a 2 percent change it is located there, a 1 percent chance over there and so on.”

According to Callender:

The uncertainty principle simply says that for some pairs of questions to the oddsmaker, the answers may be interrelated. Famously, the answer to the question of a particle’s position is constrained by the answer to the question of its velocity, and vice versa. In particular, if we have a huge ensemble of systems each prepared in the same quantum state, the more the position is narrowed down, the less the velocity is, and vice versa. In other words, the oddsmaker is stingy: it won’t give us good odds on both position and velocity at once.

Callender then points out that he hasn’t said anything about measurement or observation:

The principle is about quantum states and what odds follow from these states. To add the notion of measurement is to import extra content. And as the great physicist John S. Bell has said, formulations of quantum mechanics invoking measurement as basic are “unprofessionally vague and ambiguous.” After all, why is a concept as fuzzy as measurement part of a fundamental theory?

Callender later shares another quote from J. S. Bell (considered by some to be the greatest physicist of the second half of the 20th century):

What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of “measurer”? Was the wavefunction [the quantum state] of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system … with a Ph.D.? If the theory is to apply to anything but highly idealized laboratory operations, are we not obliged to admit that more or less “measurement-like” processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere?

When physicists use their instruments to measure a subatomic particle’s position or momentum, the instruments affect the particle. It’s the interaction at the subatomic level between the instrument and the particle that’s important, not the fact that the interaction has something to do with measurement, observation, mental energy or human consciousness. We aren’t that important in the vast scheme of things.

Viewing the theory of quantum mechanics as a cosmic oddsmaker may seem unhelpful. We want to know what’s going on at the subatomic level that results in the theory calculating certain odds. Heisenberg thought physicists shouldn’t even think about an underlying reality — they should simply focus on the results of their observations. But some (many?) physicists working today believe that quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory that will eventually be replaced by a more fundamental theory, possibly one that explains away the apparent randomness that exists at the subatomic level (that’s what Einstein thought too). Their hope is that uncertainty will one day be replaced by certainty, or something closer to it.

If you do a Google search for “uncertainty principle consciousness”, you’ll probably get more than 8 million results. If you search for “uncertainty principle measurement”, you can get more than 32 million. Professor Callender thinks those numbers should be much, much smaller.


This is Callender’s first article in the Times:

Here he responds to questions and criticisms from readers:

3 thoughts on “The Uncertainty Principle and Us

    • Walter has definitely turned into one tough cookie. Did the writers give him the name “Heisenberg” to emphasize his dual nature? Wave/particle, doing good by doing bad, etc? And then there’s the controversy about Werner H. himself: building a bomb for Hitler or purposefully slowing down the project?

  1. Yes. Very well said, I agree wholeheartedly. There are some interesting embedded in the script. It’s the little things too like the editing, which is sharp and retro, but I just love Walter. Watching his dualistic psychology unravel is spellbinding. The hunted become the hunter, but at what cost.

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