BEYOND QUANTUM THEORY: A REALIST PSYCHO-BIOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF
PHYSICAL REALITY *
Michael Conrad
Computer Science Department, Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48202, U.S.A.
D. Home
Theoretical Nuclear Physics Division
Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics
Calcutta 700009, India
Brian Josephson
Cavendish Laboratory, Madingley Road
Cambridge CB3 0HE, England.
(c) Kluwer Academic 1988
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ABSTRACT
Stapp and others have proposed that reality involves a
fundamental life process, or creative process. It is shown how this
process description may be unified with the description that derives
from quantum physics. The methods of the quantum physicist and of
the biological sciences are seen to be two alternative approaches to
the understanding of nature, involving two distinct modes of
description which can usefully supplement each other, and neither on
its own contains the full story. The unified view explains the
major features of quantum mechanics and suggests that biological
systems may function more effectively than would be expected on the
basis of quantum mechanics alone.
BEYOND QUANTUM THEORY: A REALIST PSYCHO-BIOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF
PHYSICAL REALITY
1. INTRODUCTION
The thesis developed in this paper is that the quantum
domain and the domain of life processes are closely related and
indeed inseparable from one another, a relationship of which kind
has been suggested in a number of recent publications.(1-3) These
proposals depart from orthodoxy by postulating that a phenomenon
whose general nature is that of a life process underlies all natural
phenomena, and then attempt to account for certain features of the
quantum domain on such a basis. A related idea is developed in some
detail in what follows, to the effect that there exists in the
natural world a quantum mechanical/biological dualism, analogous to
the wave-particle dualism found in the ordinary quantum domain. The
methods of the quantum physicist and of the biological sciences are
seen as two alternative approaches to the understanding of nature,
involving two distinct modes of description which can usefully
supplement each other (cf. Leggett(4)), neither of which contains on
its own the full story. Our unified approach to the description of
natural phenomena shows how it may be possible that the apparent
advantage of the quantum mechanical approach, namely that it
provides predictions of a precise nature, may be offset by its
corresponding disadvantage of dealing with nature only in
statistical terms. In terms of a simple analogy involving a
classical fluid that we shall make use of in what follows, quantum
theory corresponds to statistical mechanics, while process-type
descriptions correspond to descriptions involving the
characteristics of individual atoms.
2. THE CHARACTERISTIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO CATEGORIES OF
DESCRIPTION
We discuss first the contrasting approaches of the two
disciplines, quantum-physical and biological. The characteristic
differences between the two approaches largely account for the fact
that these two distinct types of description of nature exist.
Quantum mechanics is a theory of nature founded on the
philosophy that one ought to be able to assign a precise,
quantitative description to the systems of interest. Such a view,
while satisfactory in the case of many kinds of systems studied in
the physics laboratory, does not seem to be suitable for the case of
biological systems. These have an intrinsic variability which
cannot be characterised in full in terms of any kind of measurement
or preparation procedure. It is impossible to give a biological
system a quantum-mechanically precise specification (in the way we
can write down the ground state of a molecule or a superconductor to
a good approximation), or to predict its properties with high
accuracy (a state of affairs already noted by Bohr).(5) What can be
done, however, as is normally done by biologists, is to specify
biosystems in descriptive terms involving variables of a more global
nature, and to determine what are the important processes relevant
to explaining some of the observed properties.
We note also that quantum mechanics is a highly formalised
theory in which all contact with actual phenomena has to go via the
quantum theory of measurement; this makes it very difficult to talk
in a technically correct way about what is actually happening in the
system of interest. Again, this is less of a problem with
biological descriptions in terms of processes, which being a looser
form of description circumvent the difficulties of principle which
are associated with precise descriptions.
In practice, biology and quantum mechanics work together and
complement each other. Biology borrows results from physics and
chemistry to obtain explanations for biological phenomena, thus
explaining them with some degree of quantitative accuracy.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that quantum mechanics is precision-
oriented and biology process-oriented, and that to some extent the
two goals are incompatible with each other.
3. WAVE-PARTICLE DUALISM AND QUANTUM MECHANICAL/BIOLOGICAL DUALISM
The meaning of the word dualism in the quantum mechanical
context is that in some situations we can find phenomena such as
diffraction which are well described by a wave picture, while in
other situations we find instead phenomena, such as the
photoelectric effect, which are best fitted by a particle picture.
The initial reconciliation of these two apparently incompatible
forms of description came in the first instance from de Broglie's
demonstration that the motion of an electron in an applied field
could be understood perfectly well in terms of a wave picture (i.e.,
in terms of wave packets), provided one made the appropriate
identification of wave and particle properties such as that given by
the de Broglie relationship connecting wavelength and momentum. This
situation (i.e. the one of the computation of trajectories) is one
where either description, wave or particle, may be used equally
well; the two descriptions are not, as is usually the case,
complementary in the sense of being mutually exclusive, and they are
related to each other in accordance with de Broglie's prescriptions.
Turning now to proposals such as those of Stapp(1) (and
especially his proposal that the phenomenon of state vector collapse
in the domain of quantum mechanics can equally be viewed as a
phenomenon in the field of mind, namely a decision process), we find
an analogous situation: that there is a domain of reality where some
phenomena can be viewed within two alternative frames of reference,
here the quantum mechanical and the biological.
In the wave-particle dualism case, a mathematical derivation
connecting the two pictures can be given. While we are unable to
provide a similar mathematical derivation for the situation of
interest here, we are able to make a consistent set of proposals
concerning which entities connect up with each other in the two
pictures. These proposals, which extend those of Stapp and the
other authors cited, are shown in Table 1.
LANGUAGE OF QUANTUM PHYSICS LANGUAGE OF BIOLOGY
quantum subsystem, describable <=> signal or form
by a state vector
particle type <=> type of signal or form
state vector representing a <=> signal representing a
specific possibility specific possibility
collapse of state vector <=> decision process
measuring instrument determining <=> structures which determine and
state of subsystem regulate signals or forms
Table 1. Proposed identification of entities described in terms of
the respective frames of reference of the quantum physicist and the
biologist.
In the proposed correspondence, we begin by assuming that a
quantum subsystem, such as an electron which is to a first
approximation isolated, translates into what in the biological
picture would be regarded as a signal. We note that signals in
biosystems are superposible in the linear regime, as are state
vectors of quantum subsystems. The motivation for choosing this
particular assignment in the correspondence is that signals in
biological systems and state vectors of quantum subsystems both
constitute indications, and in some cases very specific indications,
of possibilities for the future. For example, a peak in an electron
wave function is closely correlated with the possibility of
observing an electron in the region of the peak, while, in the
biological domain, the nervous system activity corresponding to the
planning process may implicate within itself a very specific action
in the future. We can go further with the correspondence by noting
(following Stapp) that the processes of collapse of a state vector
in a quantum system and decision in the field of mind share the
feature that they involve the selection of one alternative out of
many. There are specific contexts in which these processes are
particularly liable to occur; measurement in the quantum domain and
information processing in the biological domain. Hence we connect
measuring instruments in quantum mechanics, which shape the state
vector, with the structures in biosystems that determine and
regulate signals or forms.
We see that there is a scheme of connection between the two
regimes which preserves many or all of the essential
non-quantitative features and also links features of the quantum
domain which have to be simply postulated with features of living
systems which can be explained in detail in many instances. If such
a link could be shown to be in fact soundly based, it would then be
valid to state that these features of the quantum domain were
actually explained by the corresponding biological arguments. We
hypothesize that a theory based on a more comprehensive
understanding of the situation would validate the proposed
connections in a way analogous to the way in which de Broglie and
those who succeeded him demonstrated the connection between the wave
and particle pictures at the quantum level.
4. EMERGENCE OF BIOLOGICAL AND QUANTUM PROPERTIES FROM A SUBTLER
LEVEL
The picture we have developed so far is that certain aspects
of the domain which is described by the quantum theory may arise by
virtue of mechanisms found in biological systems. We now wish to
discuss the complementary features of the quantum and the biological
domains in more detail and in particular consider the question of
how both domains of description may emerge by somewhat different
mechanisms from a common substratum. We shall discuss first the
processes by which biological characteristics can emerge in the
context of the presumed deeper level. These are presumed to be
essentially identical to those by which the organisation
characteristic of ordinary living systems comes into existence. One
dominant feature of the domain of living systems is the existence of
information sources, such as DNA or neural impulses, which can have
a strong controlling influence on the nature of the forms that will
be created within or by a biological system, and on the general
activity of the system.
Two different mechanisms by which the information sources
come into being can be distinguished. One of these is mutation
combined with natural selection, which causes the evolution of
information sources that are particularly useful from the point of
view of survival to occur. The second category depends on rather
more subtle processes involving self-organisation, found, for
example, in processes of morphogenesis, development, and learning.
Typically, such a process involves assessment of the performance of
a particular function, with subsequent modification of the
controlling information source (or of the system being controlled
itself), in accordance with a specific appropriate procedure or
algorithm whose effect is to generate a corresponding improvement in
the performance of the given function. Such a feedback process
determines not the precise details of the structure, but instead the
functioning of the system at a general level (known as the
phenotype). There is even more variability at the more detailed
genotype level than is encompassed by the arguments given so far,
since different information sources (genotypes) may give rise to the
same general functioning (phenotype), as long as this general
functioning makes a sufficient contribution to the fitness of the
organism that natural selection can select for genotypes conducive
to this functioning. It was noted also by Bohr(5) that, in view of
the disturbances produced by measurement in the quantum mechanical
domain, one could not expect to measure the microscopic details of
biosystems without disturbing them in essential ways. These
arguments give a logical basis to our previous proposals to the
effect that biosystems are amenable to general descriptions but not
to precise ones.
The general features of biological organisation that have
just been discussed (which are the basis of such features as the use
of signals and the existence of planning and decision processes,
which feature on the right-hand side of Table 1) are independent of
the details of the underlying physics and could be present equally
well if there were an underlying physics deeper than that described
by quantum physics. We make the assumption that such a deeper level
exists, because it is then possible to account for the corresponding
features on the left side of Table 1, by assuming the situations
described by quantum mechanics to be a particular case of a more
general situation (just as particle trajectories are explained by de
Broglie's arguments as a special situation within a more general
picture in terms of waves). This assumption could not be made if we
were to take the usual view that all natural phenomena could be
accounted for on the basis of the axioms of quantum mechanics alone.
We now discuss in general terms how quantum mechanics might
arise as a special case. We interpret the state vector as a
description of a collective mode, whose existence is dependent on
the presence of a sufficiently regular substructure (in the way
that, for example, spin waves in ferromagnets depend on the
background being magnetically ordered). Hilbert space is
interpreted as the space of all such collective modes, which in a
biological context manifest as signals. The quantum vacuum state,
since it is represented by a specific vector in Hilbert space, is
interpreted as a specific collective mode of the system rather than
as no oscillation at all, and particles correspond to various kinds
of modulation of the special oscillation that corresponds to the
vacuum state, with the operators describing these modulations having
the same interrelations with each other (in terms of their
commutation relations, and transformations under symmetry
operations, for example) as do particle creation and annihilation
operators in quantum field theory.
In quantum mechanics the idea of a classical domain plays an
essential role, since only it is presumed to be knowable directly.
In the viewpoint of the present paper, the difference between the
classical domain and the quantum domain is considered to be one of
degree only. The significant differences between the quantum domain
and the classical domain follow from the fact that features at the
quantum level are very sensitive to disturbances, while those at the
classical level are not.
In accordance with the general scheme proposed in Table 1
for translating between the two languages, what is seen from the
biological view as a decision process is described in quantum
language as the collapse of the state vector. Quantum mechanics
describes the collapse process mathematically, but does not explain
the process in detail, as may be possible in the biological picture
which may be able to take into account factors not correctly
describable in the statistical formalism of quantum mechanics.
5. KNOWLEDGE AND MEASUREABILITY
The last remark brings us naturally to questions relating to
measurablity. Measurement is a process characterised by the fact
that some feature of a system of interest becomes correlated with a
feature of a system which is sufficiently macroscopic as to be
observable with the senses (via intermediate amplification processes
if necessary). In the quantum domain the measurement process
reflects back drastically on the system being measured. The
projection postulate of quantum mechanical measurement theory shows
that the measuring instrument acts as a filter whose setting depends
on the state of the measuring instrument after the measurement
interaction. The correlate of this assumption in the biological
language (cf. Table 1) is the registering by an information
processing system of the decision process that it has just carried
out.
It should be noted that in the current interpretation we do
not assert that such processes as the state vector collapse
associated with quantum measurement are purely formal or imaginary
and have no corresponding physical correlates. Instead we assume
the mathematical filtering operation to correspond to a real
physical process the detailed nature of which may become clarified
when the biological aspects of the unified theory are taken fully
into account. We remark also that the Aspect experiment, based on
the theoretical discussion of Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen,
suggests that this filtering process may act nonlocally, or at any
rate that some kind of distant physical connections must exist in
the quantum domain.
In science, measurement is the fundamental agency through
which knowledge is acquired. Quantum mechanical measurement theory
is one particular theory of measurement, which in the Copenhagen
school of quantum mechanics has been elevated to the status of a
theory of all conceivable measurement processes. However, the
formal apparatus of quantum mechanics imposes strong limitations on
its ability to describe experiment. We recall that, within the
framework of quantum mechanics, systems are specifiable only by
"quantum mechanical measurements", defined as measurements which can
be precisely associated with particular Hermitian operators. There
is no real reason why all information-gathering devices, and in
particular devices based on different concepts as to what kind of
information is being gathered, should fit into this particular
formal scheme. This theme may be illustrated with an analogy which
will prove useful later, consisting of a gas composed of classical
atoms or molecules. Because of the phenomenon of chaos, the
detailed behaviour of the gas is essentially unpredictable except
for very short time scales, but in certain regimes various phenomena
emerge which are practically predictable on the basis of the
appropriate scientific laws. The two regimes that are relevant in
the case of a gas are the one of macroscopic laws (such as those of
hydrodynamics) and the one concerned with the behaviour of
individual atoms in a collision-free situation.
From the viewpoint of macroscopic theories of gases,
measurement consists purely of measurements of macroscopic
quantities such as those of the local density, pressure, and
temperature; and one could imagine there existing on another planet,
where science developed differently, a Copenhagen-type school
expounding the doctrine that all possible measurements in gases were
of this type, and maintaining on this basis that the macroscopic
equations of gases (combined with phenomenological equations to
describe fluctuation phenomena) formed a complete description of the
outcome of all possible experiments. In accordance with this point
of view, all speculation concerning atoms could be dismissed as
being of philosophical interest only. In this fanciful analogy it
is presumed, naturally, that the other sources of evidence for the
existence of atoms, such as those based on chemistry, were unknown
to our hypothetical scientists.
This hypothetical example shows us clearly how a new concept
of what can be measured can change the content of science, as
happened historically when experiments focussing on the properties
of atoms as individual entities became technically feasible. We
shall take the view here, implicit in what has already been said, to
the effect that nature does not in general fit exactly into any
particular prescribed scheme of description or measurement:
describability is context-dependent, and it is only in special
circumstances (which may in some cases be created by the actions of
the experimenter) that phenomena emerge which fit into a particular
scheme.
6. AN ARGUMENT FOR BIOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS TRANSCENDING QUANTUM
MECHANICS
Biosystems are an area where the considerations of this
paper may be particularly relevant. Again we refer to the analogy
with a classical gas that was used to expound our proposed dualism
between quantum mechanical and biological descriptions. In
descriptions of a classical gas based on statistical mechanics,
quantities such as density fluctuations are described only in
statistical terms. In the framework of the atomic description, on
the other hand, they can in principle be described exactly. By
analogy, one might expect it to be possible to obtain more accurate
descriptions (and hence also predictions) of particular quantities
in biological systems using biological descriptions than using the
methods of quantum mechanics. Consider in particular the following
scenario: the level of performance of a skill depends on very
specific subtleties of structure that are individual to each system.
These subtleties are not of the kind that can be encompassed within
the descriptions of the quantum theory (which are assumed to relate
to simpler, collective behaviour). Quantum theory fails to describe
the subtleties for essentially the same reason that hydrodynamics
fails to describe the behaviour of individual atoms. It will
therefore equally fail to describe correctly any behaviour which is
critically dependent on these subtleties. Because the general
effect of evolution has been in the direction of modifying the
relevant parameters so as to optimise performance, the anticipated
effect of any inadequacies of the quantum theory is that biological
systems may function more effectively than would be predicted from
an exact quantum mechanical calculation.
It might be assumed that the successes achieved hitherto in
the domain of biology using theories based on quantum mechanics
would argue against such a state of affairs. In fact, current
applications of quantum mechanics to biosystems do not really test
for the existence of such effects, because of the degree of
approximation that is involved in the theories concerned. In
effect, in such calculations all physical systems above the
molecular level of organisation are normally treated in classical
terms. Level of performance in biosystems is therefore one area
where our ideas may have important implications for the future.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We are grateful to Drs. H. R. Nagendra, R. L. Thompson, H.
P. Stapp, and M. Mahesh Yogi for discussions and comments. B. D.
Josephson would like to thank the Computer Science Department of
Wayne State University and the Centre for Theoretical Studies of the
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore for their hospitality during
part of the period of this collaboration, and D. Home the British
Council for their financial support.
FOOTNOTE
* Published in Microphysical Reality and Quantum Formalism, Vol. I,
eds. G. Tarozzi, A. van der Merwe and F. Selleri, pp 285-93, Kluwer
Academic, 1988.
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