Why can't I move shit with my mind?
March 29, 2008 6:18 AM   Subscribe

On what grounds does one draw the line between quantum physics/mechanics and pseudoscientific claims about the powers of consciousness?

I'm naturally skeptical of claims like the following that purport to be supported by quantum physics/mechanics:

- Telekinesis.
- Telepathy.
- Healing yourself with your mind, etc.

I don't know enough about quantum physics to understand where the reasoning goes south, though. When I read skeptical articles, they usually dismiss the claims by saying "they misunderstand the science," but they don't go into detail. That's what I'm looking for.

If it's helpful, these sort of things tend to take the idea that your consciousness acts on everything it observes and extrapolates from there.

Does it have something to do with the idea of a "conscious observer" not necessarily meaning "a human being with a conscious," depending on your interpretation of quantum mechanics? Is it conflating superposition with observer effect? Something else?

Are these claims actually possible in some "legitimate" interpretations but we're doubtful those interpretations are true? Or are all the claims based on misunderstanding?

I feel like I have a very vague grasp of these concepts, and whenever I try to pinpoint the flaw in reasoning my mind can't process it.
posted by Nattie to Science & Nature (37 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
IANAS (I am not a scientist)

However, I do think I can answer this one.

Generally, the consensus is that quantum behavior occurs only at the quantum level. This means that anything larger than atomic particles, atoms themselves, or some molecules cannot exhibit quantum-level behavior.

In that sense, in the Schroedinger cat experiment, the cat is a perfectly adequate observer of a quantum state, and while we may scratch our heads and ponder on the half-deadness of a cat, the cat itself has no such illusions on that point.

On the other hand, the idea that the observer affects the observed is still a valid claim to some extent. The idea is basically this: if in the observation you send a signal to the observed that they are being observed, they will behave differently. On the quantum level, particles are sufficiently tiny that doing something like shooting a photon at them is going to have a measurable effect. However, simply looking at a tiger (assuming it cannot see you) is not going to change its behavior because you do not need to shoot photons (or anything else for that matter) in order to passively observe it. However, if you went up and poked it I guarantee you its behavior would be affected by this form of observation. On a social level, if you have a researcher sit in on a classroom to observe unruly behavior, they may be disappointed as the class might behave better since they know they are being observed.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:44 AM on March 29, 2008

And on the social level, I think that there can be effects by "changing your consciousness" but they have nothing to do with quantum physics. If you are more cheerful, this can rub off on people. When you smile, they may feel better and act more positively towards you than if you were frowning.

The fact that these effects occur, and that there are sort of similar things going on in quantum physics, does not mean that there is any relationship between the two.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:48 AM on March 29, 2008

IAAP so I'll have a go at this.

The idea of requiring a 'conscious observer' is nonsense. It is the act of observing a quantum system that causes its state (its wavefunction) to "collapse" into one of a number of possible states.

Take the following Gedankenexperiment: imagine that you are a blind man and you are standing in front of a pool table upon which a number of balls are moving about at random.

In order for you to know the position of a ball you would have to use your hand to find it, but in doing so, you would have to touch it and therefore change its speed. To know its position precisely you would in fact have to stop it and cause the probability of it being "somewhere" to collapse into a probability of it being in your hand of 100%. This is one statement of the uncertainty principle.

I'm not sure if I understand your question properly, so post follow up or e-mail me if you think I can help.
posted by alby at 6:59 AM on March 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Experimentation. See the James Randi Educational Foundation.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 7:03 AM on March 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

P.S. Before any of my fellow physicists tell me that I've confused the observer effect with the uncertainty principle, I'm aware of this but in this context the distinction is not particularly important.
posted by alby at 7:07 AM on March 29, 2008

This question could be poked at from several angles.
IANAS either, but I can open three avenues.

First, "tele" (-pathy, -kninesis) means "effect done at a distance". It is very different from "healing yourself with your mind" where there is no distance at all.

As far as I know, there is no evidence of any kind of any "tele" effect, although a lot of experiments have been funded over the years, especially by the military. Science is based on evidence. No evidence = no science. You can invoke "quantum mechanics" if you like, or "power of demons" or "magical powders", it's all the same: without evidence of any effect, everything is just fiction.

But there is ample evidence of "Healing yourself with information" (which may or may not be equal to "your mind"): placebos work. As far as I know, nobody knows how it works. But at least it works. I have not read anything about placebo effect being "quantum related", but why not? We'd just need facts, experiments, data.

Then again, IANAS, but what you call "powers of consciousness" may be an impossibility. We know now that the conscious decisions that we take everyday may not have been decided by consciousness: scientists have measured that the consciousness of everything we are doing arises after the action signals have been sent. So consciousness is a construct, a show, a rationalization after the fact. Can it have any power?
posted by bru at 7:16 AM on March 29, 2008

On what grounds does one draw the line between quantum physics/mechanics and pseudoscientific claims about the Here--->powers of consciousness?
posted by Mblue at 7:19 AM on March 29, 2008

claims ... that purport to be supported by quantum physics/mechanics:

I suspect that in all but a tiny minority of cases these claims are just using the fact that "quantum mechanics" is counterintuitive and makes statements which seem impossible (tunneling being a prime example) to justify other claims which are nonsensical. Do you have any examples of how quantum theory is used in these cases?

Does it have something to do with the idea of a "conscious observer" not necessarily meaning "a human being with a conscious," depending on your interpretation of quantum mechanics?

As alby says: it doesn't matter what is doing the observing. The point is that any observation will have an effect. Consciousness or otherwise doesn't come into it.

Cases I can think of where one of these claims is actually linked to quantum mechanics are faster-than-light information transfer (the EPR paradox) and quantum entanglement. The latter is useful, among other things, for Ekert's quantum cryptography scheme.
posted by katrielalex at 7:48 AM on March 29, 2008

I Was A Physicist. (Maybe it's like being an addict; you never stop being a physicist.) Helpful Example: Let's say we're using quantum mechanics to describe the position of an electron. Our experiments show us that it doesn't move through space like a billiard ball. The theory which best describes it's motion (in say, slit experiments) treats it as a potential moving through space. The "observer" in that video isn't the necessity of some guy looking at the results (that happens in either case), it's that the electron had a very space-dependent interaction with something else. With the double slit, it could be going through either empty space until it hit the detector at the back of the room. When they put the "camera" next to one slit, it could only be in one place to interact with the camera. Consciousness does not come into this. Nobody is suggesting that the results of the experiment that the camera printed out were in some weird superposition until somebody looked at them.

In QM the "observer" that you always hear about is anything that needs to interact with the particle in a very location-dependent way, not a human brain. The weird effects described are only directly relevant to objects on the smallest possible scale and typically very short-in-time interactions. In the pseudo-science that you're looking at, the human brain is somehow special. Also, they are suggesting that very large collections of things which have no clear interaction or which occur over a long time effect each other.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:50 AM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I won't even pretend to understand the science. But I can tell you that many frauds and misguided believers in telekinesis, etc. use the "quantum mechanics" explanation precisely because it lend plausibility, and is difficult to understand.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:19 AM on March 29, 2008

Do not -- I repeat -- do not pay any attention to any grand claims made about quantum phenomena made by anyone who is not a physicist. Consciousness and the mind (if you believe that these are rooted in interactions between networks of cells in your skull) function on a scale much larger and slower than the "quantum world" and as others have noted, it's not the conscious observer that affects the result in quantum experiments. It's the observation -- in other words, by whatever means you choose to measure or capture the phenomena, you are going to disturb the system and collapse a probability into a measured outcome.

Disclosure: I have an undergraduate degree in physics. I've first authored articles on computational quantum chemistry. I still have lots of trouble wrapping my head around quantum mechanics in an intuitive way. But like you, I can smell bullshit when I hear it. Quantum mechanics and even its birth and history as a theory are fascinating. You sound like someone who would really enjoy learning about it so consider picking up a decent primer on the subject. Here are a number of other good prior AskMe's on the subject:

What do quantum physicists mean when they say observer?
quantum physics. what am i not getting?
What are some of the best layman's books on the latest advances in physics?
What is the most direct way I can learn all about quantum physics?
More here.
posted by drpynchon at 8:40 AM on March 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

Nattie: If you could provide a few examples of the kind of argument you are sceptical of, we could point out where the argument goes off the rails. It is fairly hard to take apart an argument when you don't actually know what they argument is. If we can show you a few examples, you'll probably be able to apply the same principles in the future.
posted by ssg at 8:56 AM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

As far as I know (which is not that far) alby gets it right. The "Observer" in QM is simply any type of measurement. You can't measure anything without interacting with it, and at the Quantum scale the interaction becomes overwhelming, and actually alters the state of things, just like a blind man using his hand to find things.

What's important to remember is that an observer can't do anything just by thinking about it. They need to use the laws of physics to measure things. So if you want to measure the speed of a subatomic partial, you need to physically build a device to emit photons or electrons or whatever in order to measure it. You can't do those things without building the machines.

Someone who claims that Telekinesis is possible will say I can move objects around my desk with my mind, and lo, I can do that. However I have to use my arms, which are ultimately controlled by my mind.

Similarly as far as Telepathy goes, people have built pretty impressive devices to read blood flow in the mind ad figure out what parts of the brain are being used at the time. And doctors can heal people by performing surgery. All of those things are directed by the mind, but they are all within the bounds of science.
posted by delmoi at 9:33 AM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

- Telekinesis.
- Telepathy.
- Healing yourself with your mind, etc.

Are these claims actually possible in some "legitimate" interpretations?


Or are all the claims based on misunderstanding?

They're based on "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit". For hundreds of years, quacks have been appropriating words from whatever science seems new and mysterious at the time (electricity, magnetism, radioactivity).

Here's a video on YouTube where homeopathy is declared to work thanks to Einsteins work, using the following reasoning:

"All the mass in the universe can be compressed into a small space, so there's hardly any mass, which means that you can omit the 'm' from E=mc2, so the formula ends up being 'energy equals the speed of light', and that's why the vision system is so important".

Also -- see the Wikipedia page on Quantum mysticism:
posted by martinrebas at 10:21 AM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out the film called "What The Bleep Do We Know?" I downloaded it off Mininova a year or so ago and it honestly changed my perception of reality.

Their site, http://www.whatthebleep.com/ has a trailer as well. Try to ignore the crappy site design though...

It does a great job of explaining a lot of the more difficult quantum mechanics with easy to understand metaphors and great visuals.

Not sure why they chose the random bipolar deaf girl (nothing against deaf people) as the main character...but a good mind-expanding watch nonetheless.
posted by Elminster24 at 11:22 AM on March 29, 2008

Sorry, but What the Bleep is a prime example of getting it wrong. It waves its hands around some QM issues, explains them poorly and in misleading ways, and then makes unfounded attempts to extend QM to the everyday world.
posted by xil at 11:33 AM on March 29, 2008

Yeah that terrible What the Bleep thing is to be avoided unless you're looking for a prime example of bad wooey borrowing from QM. It's not entirely crap -- there are some kernels of corn too in there, but...
posted by drpynchon at 11:45 AM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I dont believe there is an answer to the question you are asking, and here is why.

1.) We dont yet know all the answers/specifics about quantum mechanics.

2.) We also dont yet know all the answers/specifics about paranormal occurances such as telepathy, telekinesis, remove-viewing, UFO's, Bigfoot,etc.

There may be some connection between certain specific QM properties and certain specific paranormal occurances, but we wont know until further research is tested and independently verifiable. Until that happens, the paranormal field will most likely continue to be polluted by fakes and con-artists looking to make a buck. Unfortunately, that "noise" distracts from potential legitimate science breakthroughs, and that is very sad.
posted by jmnugent at 12:07 PM on March 29, 2008

I dont believe there is an answer to the question you are asking, and here is why.

Respectfully, this reasoning falls in line with the notion that we can't answer any questions because we don't "know" anything, as well as the logical fallacy inherent in proving a negative. Though in a sense tautologically true, it's also completely useless and moot.

To date, there has never, ever been a well designed, reproducible experiment that validates anything that is so-called "paranormal," let alone experimentally linked such a thing with anything relating to quantum theory. What is paranormal via its very definition, has failed to be reliably reproduced and as a result falls outside of the boundaries of science (ie QM).
posted by drpynchon at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2008

Yes, please do not watch What the Bleep. That movie was terrible. It is chock-full of the sort of pseudo-scientific mysticism that makes real scientists cringe. It has a couple of barely adequate explanations of real quantum phenomena, but many, if not most, of the 'experts' that they interview in that movie seem like they're tripping out. I could barely make myself finish that movie.
posted by number9dream at 1:18 PM on March 29, 2008

"Respectfully, this reasoning falls in line with the notion that we can't answer any questions because we don't "know" anything,..." - drpynchon

I didnt mean to imply by my comment that things are "un-knowable". My point was that due to our limited knowledge of quantum mechanics or various paranormal events, its currently impossible to prove any causation/correlation/connection between the two. It probably is possible, we just havent figured it out yet. You might be right that paranormal events fall outside CURRENT boundaries of science, but that wont always be true. (meaning = at some point in the future we probably will be able to scientifically prove or disprove specific paranormal events.)
posted by jmnugent at 1:34 PM on March 29, 2008

May I play layman's devil's advocate for a second? So, a quantum computer does some funky science stuff to increase the probability that a random waveform of qubits will collapse into a correct answer to say, your RSA private key. "Funky science stuff" is my layman's placekeeper for, "take something that is improbable and make it more probable."

So, let's assume there is a sufficiently powerful quantum computer in my mind with sufficiently powerful algorithms. 300 qubits is more than enough to contain more states than there are atoms in the Universe, yes? Let's also assume that the Universe is deterministic, at least to some degree. Could not my super-duper powerful quantum computer brain conceivably model the Universe well enough to determine future events, or extrapolate your probable thoughts?

And where does the Many Worlds Interpretation fit into all this? What about all the dragons in the Large Hadron Collider?

I'm not sure if I'm serious or not anymore. I just really want my own Improbability Drive. Pretty please Mr. Scientist?

And the whole thing about the body's preparation for action preceding conscious recollection of that action. Why wouldn't we just take a step of abstraction and call whatever causes that prep action the consciousness?
posted by Skwirl at 2:04 PM on March 29, 2008

I'm also thinking of the similarities in what I understand from quantum computers and the parallel, subconscious processing of, say, chess masters. Minus a few priority ranking algorithms, Deep Blue computes all probable configurations of the chess board linearly. Kasparov has conscious access to the most probable configurations subconsciously. He doesn't algorithmically, consciously plow his way through millions of configurations. Something's happening in parallel and inaccessibly, whether it's due to quantum spookiness or just plain old super-redundant neuron mechanics.
posted by Skwirl at 2:19 PM on March 29, 2008

You don't need to come up with explanations for effects which do not exist. Since there is no shred of reproducible evidence for paranormal woo-woo, you don't need to worry about whether quantum mechanics, healing crystals, or the great lord Zod is responsible for it.

Since the premise is bogus, the explanation is nothing more than handwaving.
posted by jenkinsEar at 2:31 PM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know enough about quantum physics...

And you still won't unless you actually study physics. When someone name-drops the hard-to-understand theories to explain why their specific brand of magic could be real, admit that neither you nor (probably) that other person is an expert in quantum physics and therefore the two of you are not qualified to argue from that perspective.

But reality is something you both know a bit about. The proof that these things exist -- someone actually sliding a salt shaker across a table by thinking about it, for example -- would not be hard for anyone to understand. Ask to see even one scientific report of such an experiment conducted so measurements are accurate and fakery is ruled out, and where real scientists were able to reproduce the results. There isn't a scientist on earth who wouldn't love to be the one who proved that telekinesis is real. It would be huge. That single experiment would make someone's career and fortune. But no one has ever gone to any scientist anywhere with any evidence of the "paranormal" that didn't turn out to be the results of fakery or sloppy reasoning. Ask this person why, given this, he or she thinks this stuff must be real.
posted by pracowity at 2:58 PM on March 29, 2008

Just because there's uncertainty and all sorts of oddness on a very-very low level doesnt mean that the same effects happen on the macro-level. This is another classic case of taking a premise you want to believe in (magical powers) and shoe-horning a modern concept to explain it.

Its like 50s sci-fi where the aliens fly around in gasoline powered spaceships and build AI capable computers from mechanical components (gears and such).
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:57 PM on March 29, 2008

Skwirl: " Could not my super-duper powerful quantum computer brain conceivably model the Universe well enough to determine future events, or extrapolate your probable thoughts?

I don't think so...you might want to read Does God Play Dice: The New Mathematics of Chaos by Ian Stewart, which discusses how certain physical phenomena, even when behaving in a deterministic fashion, can have totally random and unpredictably behavior.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:13 PM on March 29, 2008

These answers have been very helpful, thank you so much! The "quantum isn't macro" argument is helpful in particular, because it's not difficult to understand.

On that same note, because people have been asking for specific examples of what I'm talking about, some of the pseudo-scientific things I've encountered seem to be saying that you could have enough of those quantum probabilities -- I guess here randomness comes into play? -- add up and crazy stuff would happen. (So I guess we're just supposed to, uh, believe really hard and it will? Or think that literally anything is possible?) I had a teacher once who said that something in quantum physics or other means that if they drop their chalk, it's possible that one day it could fall up instead of down. Now, he wasn't saying it in a pseudo-scientific way, or at least not intentionally so, because he was basically saying a whole lot of things would have to simultaneously be random in some way or other -- I'm terrible at explaining this -- and of course that wouldn't happen in reality. So he was saying it was technically possible, but practically impossible. I realize that's not really connected to the consciousness claims I was referring to, though, but I guess quantum stuff gets co-opted in a lot of weird ways since it's not easy to understand (as many of you pointed out).

So let me see if I can give an example of this "observer" argument. I've heard it in a lot of different forms. Please bear with me as I fumble around from here; by the very nature of being confused by this, it's hard to know if I'm correctly explaining what's confusing me. Talking myself through this will probably help some anyway.

In terms of what an "observer" means, I have heard what many of you say, that an "observer" just has to be a "measurer" and consciousness doesn't even matter. So an automated machine can be an observer and it can collapse probabilities. That makes sense to me. However, I have heard arguments over what an observer actually is... uh, I think in terms of what it means to collapse a waveform. And this is where I think the difference between the "observer effect" and "superposition" is supposed to matter, because it's my understanding that the "observer effect" means that by measuring something, the instrument of measurement actually impacts the system by interacting with it. It's my understanding that "superposition" is what Schroedinger's Cat is about; when you open the box it doesn't effect whether the cat is alive or dead, it just collapses the probability to one or the other. So then you start taking a step backward, saying, "Okay, but to people outside the room with the box, the probability of the room itself, and thus the cat in the box within it, hasn't collapsed," and so on further and further outward.

And so I've heard it said that it takes consciousness to collapse a waveform, because something has to "know" the outcome. I think this is conflating the "observer" in idealist philosophy with the "observer" in physics, but like I said, I have trouble juggling all this in my head. I'm not sure why a machine is considered inadequate to collapse a waveform, because it doesn't seem contradictory to me; from the perspective of the machine the waveform has collapsed, just not from the perspective of anyone who has not seen the reading... and so that's the same as a waveform being collapsed by one person's perspective and not by another, right? Wrong? This is where my understanding really turns nebulous. Is this part of the pseudoscience, that they misunderstand what an "observer" means and that, as far as science is concerned, things do happen regardless of whether there is a consciousness to witness them?

ANYWAY. So the pseudoscience tends to go a couple ways from here, depending on whether it grabs the observer effect or superposition.

If it grabs the observer effect, it usually goes like this: in order to observe something, your consciousness interacts with it through an exchange of particles. So, when you see something, the photons bounce from it to you, and when people see you, your photons are bouncing to them. (I don't actually know if that's an accurate description of what happens when you see something, that's just what this kind of thing says.) Other interactions, like hearing, smell, etc, are all exchanges of information through waves/particles. All the quantum interactions that go into observing something make tiny physical changes in the atoms and whatnot, both in you and whatever you're observing. Because of this, there are pathways (particles, waves) through which you could physically interact with and change objects using only your consciousness, if only you had the means/knowledge to do it.

Something nags at me here to say that the senses are passive, or something, but I can't really articulate it. I think their answer to that goes, "No, the particles/waves you give off when other people sense you are the way you interact with them," but I'm not sure. Also, I think this is supposed to be the link to telepathy, but I don't understand how something like telekinesis could work by this logic, because a rock has no means by which to sense you. I think that might be linked to the broader idea that your consciousness changes the world it's in.

Using the argument that "quantum is not macro" here, I guess we would say, "Yeah, some photons hit your eyes and interacted with some atoms... so what?" Yes/no?

Now, if the claim grabs superposition: your reality can be completely different and even contradictory to the realities of others because you have collapsed waveforms that they haven't and vice versa. Before you know something for certain, it can be anything you want it to be and it's as real as anything else. I think they also say that you can believe things contradictory to your experience if you want as well, and it's just as real, because there is some perspective from which it's still possible. These sort of ideas also tend to go on that randomness kick I talked about at the beginning of this post, too, as a sort of supporting argument, I guess? "Chalk can fall up, anything is possible, believe whatever," or something along those lines.

Now... I guess these claims are denying that there is a "fact of the matter" about anything. But that's not actually what superposition says, is it? I mean, there's a "fact of the matter" about Schroedinger's cat whether you open the box or not, right? And if one person has collapsed a probability, anyone who collapses it after them, or at the same time as them, is going to get the same answer they did, right?

Is this what the Copenhagen vs. Many-worlds interpretation is about? Because I've never really grasped that. If you believe in the many-worlds interpretation, does this claim make any sense? Or am I completely off-track here?

Note here that I'm not talking so much about more banal claims that naturally, if you're in a good mood life will be better, that your perspective "changes" your reality. I'm talking about thinking enacting physical change through some kind of particle interaction. Also, I'm not talking so much about the idea that the things you think can literally rewire your brain; that's more neuroscience and that does not seem far fetched to me, at least not on a basic level.

I am talking about stuff like The Secret -- the parts that aren't about merely living positively and having confidence -- and stuff like What the Bleep Do We Know, which I've never actually seen because a philosophy teacher I respected said it was full of crap. I've only seen it come up in articles that talk about this sort of thing -- the ones where I said they tended not to go into detail. I'm not averse to watching it just to see what it says, but, well, priorities and all that.
posted by Nattie at 11:46 PM on March 29, 2008

The books and links here are really great, by the way.

Then again, IANAS, but what you call "powers of consciousness" may be an impossibility. We know now that the conscious decisions that we take everyday may not have been decided by consciousness: scientists have measured that the consciousness of everything we are doing arises after the action signals have been sent. So consciousness is a construct, a show, a rationalization after the fact. Can it have any power?

I would love to read about how that was determined; stuff like that intrigues me. Does anyone have an article or any links about it?
posted by Nattie at 11:48 PM on March 29, 2008

I had a teacher once who said that something in quantum physics or other means that if they drop their chalk, it's possible that one day it could fall up instead of down.

I also had a physics teacher who alluded to this, but he was careful to mention that the likelihood of any individual event like this happening was so astronomically low (think once or twice in the course of our sun's lifetime) as to be indistinguishable from impossible at our level of experience.
posted by sophist at 5:21 AM on March 30, 2008

Sophist: The odds of something like chalk falling up are nowhere near close to once or twice in a sun's lifetime. Think of it this way. There are on the order of 1022 particles in a piece of chalk. For chalk to fall up, every single one of these particles would have to disobey the law of gravity at the same time. I don't know how likely that is, but I would wager that it's quite small. So, if the odds of them each doing this is independent of each other, a rough approximation is going to be on the order of


where ε is the probability of any one particle doing so. Even if this parameter is a 50-50 chance, this is a stupidly low probability and will, for all intents and purposes, never occur.

Anyhow, to Nattie: it might be interesting to read some Douglas Hofstadter if you're curious for views on how consciousness can arise as an emergent effect. I realize that this is a different topic, but if people are insisting that consciousness affects nature in a weird way, you not only have to ask what this weird way is, but also what consciousness is.
posted by vernondalhart at 8:53 AM on March 30, 2008

Regarding the observer, perspective, boxes, and rooms: Try this thought experiment. You have a large supply of Schroedinger cat-in-a-boxes on a conveyor belt. You build a machine that lifts the lid on the box, removes the cat-killing apparatus, determines if the cat is dead or alive, and then closes the box back up. If the cat was dead, it pushes the box over to a pile on the side, while if the cat is still alive, it puts it on a conveyor belt that goes into another room, where you sit, opening the boxes as they come through the wall. What will you observe?

Of course, every cat that you observe will be alive. Now, this is a silly thought experiment and doesn't tell you anything at all about quantum mechanics, but if you go read about the Stern-Gerlach experiment (this example is the same as the first sequential experiment), you'll see that you can do the same experiment with subatomic particles and achieve the same results. Thus we see that the observer need not be conscious.

Regarding pathways for information: Leaving aside the problems that come into play when you say that consciousness interacts with physical things in some way, the crux of the issue is that the act of observation doesn't send information. Suppose you are in one room with a cat in a box. You open the box and the cat is either alive or dead. You put the cat back in the box (minus the killing apparatus) and send it through a hole in the wall to your friend in the next room, who opens the box and sees either an alive cat or a dead cat. You haven't transmitted any information to your friend, because you can't decide to make the cat dead or alive. You can only observe the cat and see if it is dead or alive when you observe it.

I mean, there's a "fact of the matter" about Schroedinger's cat whether you open the box or not, right? And if one person has collapsed a probability, anyone who collapses it after them, or at the same time as them, is going to get the same answer they did, right?

The standard interpretation would hold that there is no "fact of the matter" about the cat before you open the box. Before you open the box, asking if the cat is dead or alive is nonsensical. Once you open the box, you collapse the wavefunction and observe that the cat is either dead of alive. Everyone else can observe the same thing.

you can believe things contradictory to your experience if you want as well, and it's just as real

If you open the box and find the cat dead and then decide the believe the opposite, you are wrong. You have a dead cat in your hands. Just because you didn't know beforehand that the cat would be dead when you opened the box, doesn't make it any less dead now.

Finally, this stuff is difficult and counterintuitive. You probably won't find it easy to see why a particular argument is wrong unless you are willing to put in some study to learn the basics first. Also, remember that these experiments are about subatomic particles, not cats in boxes. Don't get hung up on the details about cats.

If this isn't clear, feel free to ask for clarification.
posted by ssg at 9:35 AM on March 30, 2008

Several points to consider, Nattie:

It's true that if you look at our world under a quantum lens, you might conceive of a universe of interacting, subatomic wavefunction probabilities. But think about the scales of things and the statistics you're dealing with when you even consider things like telepathy or telekinesis. Let's wave our hands and accept the (likely false) presumption that the mind and consciousness are the cause rather than the effect of things going on at a cellular and perhaps subcellular and subatomic level.

Now go and look at the actual math of QM. Even the simple stuff -- say the "particle in a box" and the models of a hydrogen-like atom. The math looks complex (I suppose it is to the average joe) but the basic point is that we take the electromagnetic forces defined by Coulomb's law, and in the absence of anything other than a proton and an electron (modeled by just their mass and charge), we can define mathematically the wavefunctions for the electron as well as the various quantized energy states and quantum numbers. Then we go to the lab, look at the spectra for a hydrogen atom, any hydrogen atom, and our answer is pretty damn close to what we calculated each and every time. The point I'm making is that a model so simple as to include only two particles, a known electromagnetic force, and Schrodinger's equation remains highly predictive (and where it misses in its prediction there are known factors other than say telekinesis at play). The reason this is true is because at a distance beyond the subatomic or at least intranuclear, the contribution of the rest of the universe essentially approaches zero. The mind isn't factored into these models (how could it be?), and yet here we are.

Before you know something for certain, it can be anything you want it to be and it's as real as anything else.

See, this is why I hate that damn cat metaphor. Laypeople hear about Schro's cat, and they come to think that things like the states of being alive or dead can behave the same way subatomic position and momentum do. It's just a metaphor. It fails in this instance because if I told you the cat in the box is a probabilistic wavefunction that is either both or neither alive or dead and everything in between until you open the box, it doesn't register. You can't choose to think of it as dead or alive before you open the box as you see fit. The only way you can see it is as a wavefunction and people don't think in terms of cats behaving like wavefunctions. Again, I have a fair bit of background in quantum mechanics, and I can't nearly claim to intuit and see the world in those terms because the scale of the world in which I live just doesn't function that way, and is far more deterministic.
posted by drpynchon at 11:07 AM on March 30, 2008

'Generally, the consensus is that quantum behavior occurs only at the quantum level.'
This (and similar comments further up) are wrong. Quantum mechanics applies at all levels. It's just that above the extremely small scales you normally encounter it, it generally doesn't predict anything terribly surprising or out of line with everyday experience. This is the 'correspondence principle'.

I'd generally deal with these by pointing out that even if the observer has an effect, they do not have control. I might draw an analogy by pointing out that if I have a die in front of me I might choose whether or not to roll it, but choosing to roll it does not grant me some special ability to roll a 6. It grants no control to the observer over what state something collapses into. And if (and I think it's still a sizeable if, and the word 'sizeable' is an understatement) the observer has any effect it's not like you can generally go around choosing not to observe certain things anyway.
posted by edd at 6:25 AM on March 31, 2008

Check it: Quantum in the synapse.

posted by stungeye at 7:41 AM on April 4, 2008

Stungeye's site makes some pretty odd claims. I wouldn't put any faith in it.
posted by ssg at 8:59 AM on April 4, 2008

Hmmm, I guess I didn't know any better when I saw the movie, thanks for the feedback on it, I didn't realize how counterproductive it was to the question at hand. I'll be sure not to recommend it to anybody else.
posted by Elminster24 at 7:27 AM on April 30, 2008

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