Saturday, February 10, 2018

What everyone gets wrong about Wigner's interpretation of QM

There's an interpretation of QM known as the "von Neumann - Wigner interpretation," aka the "consciousness causes collapse" interpretation.

Wikipedia says:
In the 1960s, Eugene Wigner[2] reformulated the "Schrödinger's catthought experiment as "Wigner's friend" and proposed that the consciousness of an observer is the demarcation line which precipitates collapse of the wave function, independent of any realist interpretation. 
There are other possible solutions to the "Wigner's friend" thought experiment, which do not require consciousness to be different from other physical processes.
This is true, but he also suggests the other way out of the paradox: consciousness is not something that other people have:
"It is not necessary to see a contradiction here from the point of view of orthodox quantum mechanics, and there is none if we believe that the alternative is meaningless, whether my friend's consciousness contains either the impression of having seen a flash or of not having seen a flash.

However, to deny the existence of the consciousness of a friend to this extent is surely an unnatural attitude, approaching solipsism, and few people, in their hearts, will go along with it."
(Remarks on the Mind-Body Question, from Symmetries and Reflections, p.180)

But a few pages later, he seems to have switched to the view that only he has it:
This takes place whenever the result of an observation enters the consciousness of the observer - or, to be even more painfully precise, my own consciousness, since I am the only observer, all other people being only subjects of my observations.
(From Two Kinds of Reality, from Symmetries and Reflections p.185)

This is presumably for rhetorical effect, but nonetheless it makes his model so much more sensible (at least, to my eye). It's not that consciousness is some magical property that lives inside human skulls and collapses wave functions. It's that (from your perspective, you might say) you are the only observer.

Even the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gets it wrong! 
Among these approaches, the one with the longest history was initiated by von Neumann in the 1930s, later taken up by Wigner, and currently championed by Stapp. It can be roughly characterized as the proposal to consider intentional conscious acts as intrinsically correlated with physical state reductions.
Wigner's view is actually a natural result of the Many-Worlds Interpretation. MWI claims to get away from the consciousness problem by explaining that each branch has a copy of you, with its own consciousness. But there remains a meaningful sense in which "I collapse the wave function," and it reduces to Wigner's view.

Specifically, before I come into contact with the world-eating superposition that is the natural evolution of any experiment, I should (in theory, though decoherence makes this impossible "for all practical purposes") model the system as evolving unitarily. In particular, this is because if I undid enough of the evolution, I should be able to run an interference experiment demonstrating that the original observable is in superposition. But once I come into contact with it, and I join the superposition, the copy of me on either branch is now free to model the entire universe with just his branch.

Sometimes people explain that different branches of the multiverse can "communicate" -- in the sense of interference. But it seems that I ought to be able to do this only before the superposition has spread to me. Once I make manifest the branch -- aka, collapse the wave function, or become conscious of the result -- there is no other universe, as far as it concerns me.

This is functionally indistinct from "I collapse the wave function."

Now, what is this "I" that collapses the wave function? I better pin it down if it plays such a crucial role in reality, right?

Well, the Vedantins and (some) Mahayana Buddhists covered the "locating the I" thing. And what do you find at the end? That I, as consciousness itself, am the very fabric from which the world is made. Of course the buck stops here. It's the only place that's real, so to speak.

I am that which does not undergo unitary evolution, like all of so-called "physical reality." In other words, I am not definable from within physical law.

What's particularly unfortunate is how many assume that Wigner's view is radically different from MWI (see, e.g. "Wigner's friend in Many Worlds"). In fact, he was sagely pointing out that any interpretation will run into something fishy with consciousness. He continues the quote above:
Alternatively, one could say that quantum mechanics provides only probability connections between the results of my observations as I perceive them. Whichever formulation one adopts, the consciousness evidently plays an indispensable role.
And in another piece:
it will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality.
As you try to pin down the point at which I am (in principle, not just FAPP) allowed to stop modeling the world as a superposition in MWI, you close in on the definition of "I," or that which seems to be looking out these eyes. I am not my toes, I am not my torso, ....

Hmm he also later says:
Solipsism may be logically consistent with present quantum mechanics, monism in the sense of materialism is not. The case against solipsism was given at the end of the first section. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Radical skepticism and the non-affirming negation: a summary

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." -- Philip K Dick

Radical skepticism

Young earth creationists believe that the earth was created in the past ten thousand years. The Omphalos Hypothesis points out that dinosaur bones and other seemingly old artifacts might have been planted there by God as a test of our faith.

As ludicrous as this may strike you, there is no logical contradiction in it. In fact, there is no way to disprove that the universe sprang into existence, fully-formed, last Thursday. Bertrand Russell takes it one step further:
"There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past."
Taken to its logical limit, this may all have appeared freshly in this very moment. But while such a claim is not logically impossible, it is certainly very improbable. Right?

Well, stop for a moment and consider how you might evaluate such a probability. Suppose you have two models to choose from: one in which everything suddenly appeared exactly as it is now (let's call this the Russell metaphysics), and the other is the default model of materialism. What evidence will you use to decide in favor of one or the other?

Any facts about the world are fully compatible with either model. As such, they should not bias you toward believing in one or the other. As an example, suppose you are trying to determine whether an unseen coin is a nickel or a quarter. If you are told that it was flipped and came up heads, this shouldn't cause you to favor either answer. Even if you were told it has been averaging 50% heads over the last thousand trials, then (assuming both coins are fair) you still have learned nothing. You need evidence that differs in the two cases, and we've purposely constructed Russell to be identical in appearance to the materialism.

You may try to use something like Occam's Razor to make a case, but even here you must be careful. If your argument takes into account anything from the past -- such as evidence demonstrating that Occam's Razor is valid -- then you are assuming your metaphysics in order to prove it. This is circular reasoning, and clearly invalid. If you use Occam's Razor in its aesthetic form (namely, that simpler models are more beautiful and thus preferable), then you are not stating a probability but a preference.

Nonetheless, it is such an incredibly strong preference that it may be hard to recognize as one. The existence of a past is an assumption with no logical justification. Doesn't that statement rankle you?

It almost certainly does, and this is itself enough to give you a good reason to stick to your default metaphysics. Russell himself refused to take radical skepticism seriously:
“Skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it.”
Same with Hume (whose brilliant Problem of Induction similarly destroys the supposed evidence for a sane-looking future):
"Should it be asked me whether I sincerely assent to this argument which I have been to such pains to inculcate, whether I be really one of those skeptics who hold that everything is uncertain, I should reply that neither I nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. I dine, I play backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends and when after three or four hours of amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strange and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further. Thus the skeptic still continues to reason and believe, though he asserts he cannot defend his reason by reason."
And finally, modern physicist Sean Carroll:
“There is no way to distinguish between the scenarios by collecting new data. 
What we’re left with is our choice of prior credences. We’re allowed to pick priors however we want—and every possibility should get some nonzero number. But it’s okay to set our prior credence in radically skeptical scenarios at very low values, and attach higher prior credence to the straightforwardly realistic possibilities. 
Radical skepticism is less useful to us; it gives us no way to go through life. All of our purported knowledge, and all of our goals and aspirations, might very well be tricks being played on us. But what then? We cannot actually act on such a belief, since any act we might think is reasonable would have been suggested to us by that annoying demon. Whereas, if we take the world roughly at face value, we have a way of moving forward. There are things we want to do, questions we want to answer, and strategies for making them happen. We have every right to give high credence to views of the world that are productive and fruitful, in preference to those that would leave us paralyzed with ennui.”
In other words, you should believe it because it is psychologically comforting. Leaving aside the obvious parallels with religion, we should consider whether there is an alternative that these great thinkers have missed.

Layers of thought

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book, only to discover that your eyes are still scanning the page but your mind is elsewhere? If you're interrupted mid-reverie, chances are you can recall the past few seconds of thought. Those thoughts were not really outside your consciousness and yet, somehow, you didn't notice them.

Chances are, you spend the vast majority of your day in a state where you're thinking without being fully present in your thoughts. The mind readily back-fills a sense of presence, so that you can easily convince yourself that you were present when you weren't. If you want to test this yourself, just sit down and pay attention to your breath. See how long it takes you to be distracted, and how long it takes you to notice that you are distracted. You probably won't catch it immediately, even when your whole being is engaged in the effort. What of the rest of the day?

If you decide to progress on the path of meditation, this starts happening less and less. As you become more present, you detect an undercurrent of more subtle thoughts between the big, coarse ones. When even these quieten, and you're sitting in a seemingly thought-free state, you might consider yourself basically free of thought.

But are you?

If you still feel like a self sitting in a world of space and time, it's because there's still a layer of your mind you have not yet penetrated.

If you look carefully enough, you will notice that your mind is taking experiences and subtly weaving a narrative from them. Memory implies a past; anticipation implies a future; together they imply time and a self. Vision and touch together imply space and matter. Etc. The sense that the past contained a physical world bolsters the certainty that this moment must, too, and that there will be moments to come, following a fairly predictable trajectory. This narrative becomes the "background" of your experience -- as though it were given to you, rather than you fabricating it.

In brief, the world feels mundane. These assumptions are so deep that they stop feeling like assumptions and start appearing as tangible, palpable, externally imposed structures. I mean, isn't it viscerally obvious that time and space are real, and not merely assumptions? Well, that feeling is there because you are continually reinforcing it (leaving aside for now the question of what "continuously" means in a world with no time). You do it because it's psychologically comforting. And like with distracted reading, it simply escapes your notice.
Hume's positive view is that the experience of constant conjunction [things happening together] fosters a “habit of the mind” that leads us to anticipate the conclusion on the occasion of a new instance of the second premise. The force of induction, the force that drives the inference, is thus not an objective feature of the world, but a subjective power; the mind's capacity to form inductive habits. The objectivity of causality, the objective support of inductive inference, is thus an illusion, an instance of what Hume calls the mind's “great propensity to spread itself on external objects”
It's true, reality is what remains when you stop believing. But why on earth do we think we're capable of stopping something as deeply embedded as belief when we can barely even notice the constant cacophony much closer to the surface?

The non-affirming negation

So is the solution to convince yourself of radical skepticism? No, for two reasons.

First, the layer of mind that is reinforcing your metaphysics is much deeper than the one you likely have access to when you try to consciously change your beliefs about the world. This results in a conflict between what you "know" (really, assume at a very deep level) and what you "believe." Obviously this will lead to painful cognitive dissonance.

Second, you don't actually have any more evidence for the past being unreal than you do for it being real. The certainty that it is unreal is just as delusional as the certainty that it is real. And yet it seems that those are the only two options: mustn't time be one or the other?

This is where we reach the non-affirming negation. An affirming negation is one that, while negating one thing, implicitly affirms another. "No, that's not true" generally implies that the thing is false. But it is possible to withdraw your belief in something without affirming something else. This is the non-affirming negation. You don't have to start believing in a crazy worldview to undo your belief in the default one. You can simply loosen your death grip on this worldview.

You may fear that letting go of those beliefs will make it harder to interact with the world in a sane way. But actually, folks like the Buddha are far more sane than the rest of us.

Taking existence for granted

So why is it worth releasing our metaphysical beliefs?

When you look around you right now, don't you feel something like "I've seen this all before (more or less)?" And don't you take it for granted that the next moment will offer something similar?

You're not paying attention to life because of the (completely unjustified, remember) assumption that you've experienced something very much like it before, and that you will continue to.

Yet there's actually something overwhelmingly glorious about existing at all. From time to time we may notice this, but our metaphysics typically swoops in and dampens it. No doubt it feels amazing to recognize something like "wow, we're made of star stuff," but concepts are always few steps removed from the primordial epiphany itself. You'll know you're getting closer when you're filled with gratitude, wonder, and awe beyond your wildest imagination. It's the most natural response to encountering the miracle of existence for the first time.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Does consciousness "exist"?

For the duration of this post I want you to forget about your model of reality and return to your raw experience of the world. If you hear a sound, for example, forget the idea that there's some object causing the sound, some subject ("I") receiving it, some sense organs and neurons mediating the experience, etc.

Okay, let's try this.

Silence is the absence of sound. Now, pay attention to any particular sound in your environment, and recognize it as the presence of sound. "A sound" is some particular presence of sound.

Now close your eyes and notice a (relative) absence of light/color. Now look at something, and recognize it as the presence of color.

You can do the same thing with your other senses. Compare the presence of a feeling (like pressing your fingers together) with an absence of feeling (in that location, at least).

The senses are all different modes of presence, but what they have in common is presence itself. Now spend a minute and see if you can intuit what I mean when I say that presence is the very "stuff" out of which all experiences are made. Presence, modulated in various ways, is the sole substance of your perceived world. Really take a moment and notice this.

It is also the sole substance of your thoughts, memories, emotions, etc. Every single thought you've ever thought, like every sound you've ever heard, is "made of presence." For the most part, we do not even notice the existence of our thoughts, let alone carefully inspect their texture. Beginning meditators can spend weeks or months, possibly requiring retreats with constant practice, before noticing just how busy their minds have always been.

This can be hard to believe, since it's so counterintuitive. But if you've ever been reading a book, only to discover "crap, I thought I was reading, but I was really daydreaming," then you have all the evidence you need: you're consciously doing tons of stuff that you just haven't realized yet. What secrets lie in that murky deep?

Slowly you may discover that even your sense of identity is just a cluster of thoughts. There's nobody there, sitting inside your head, looking out at a world. You may already know this from neuroscience, but now you experience it directly.

As this happens, you might start to reevaluate the belief that "I am conscious." Who, pray tell, is conscious, if there's nobody there?

And now, slowly, slowly, it occurs to you that "consciousness" is just another word for what we've here been calling "presence." It's not that there is some object called sound, and a subject called I, and some abstract property called "consciousness" that magically links the two. Or rather, that model of reality may be useful, but it's not your actual experience of the world -- even though it has always seemed like it due to unexamined conceptualization. Instead, this shimmering show you call "life" is all consciousness, all the time. In a sense, it has always only been experiencing itself.

So now what do you do with a belief like "consciousness exists" or "consciousness does not exist?" You discover, directly, that those beliefs are made of the very "stuff" they are questioning. Even the concept of "exists" or "real" are made of it. Any answer you might muster is also it.

The sweater begins to unravel. A remarkable charade is exposed.

In each moment, the luminous fabric of consciousness weaves itself into a dazzling array of sensual delights, as well as a thicket of mutually reinforcing beliefs that together form your conception of reality. Beliefs form, such as "there must be a real world out there, responsible for all of this glory," and "these memories and expectations must prove that time is real." Whether or not any of that stuff is true, it is astonishing to discover how these beliefs really form (and re-form) in each moment.

Remarkably, during this model-building phase, consciousness brilliantly hides itself from itself, taking on fiendishly clever forms such as "the stuff of the world (aka matter) is all that really exists; consciousness is just an illusion." And like a snake eating its own tail... poof!, the sole substance of your reality seemingly vanishes into itself.

But it's always hiding in plain sight. It is what the Tibetans call "self-secret." It's not that some yogis in an ancient cave have been hiding it from you. It is everything. Yet somehow you are continually hiding it from yourself. This game of hide-and-seek is known as Awakening, and it can go on for as many cycles (lifetimes) as you wish.

This isn't a physical or philosophical fact, but an experiential one. Of course it doesn't prove anything about the world, but it's not meant to. Instead, you can consider it as a pointer to a peculiar mental habit we all have -- or in a sense, that we all are.

So if you're called toward meditation, I encourage you to follow that thread. There may be something worth discovering there.

So close you can't see it
So simple you can't believe it
So deep you can't fathom it
So good you can't accept it
-- Tibetan Buddhist saying

(All that said, I still need a word to describe the fact that the organisms I experience are interacting with the world. I'm perfectly happy to use the word "consciousness" here, and study it scientifically. These things are probably, but not necessarily, related. That is, perhaps I can experience a world without being able to interact with it, or vice versa. The conflation of these two facts has led to no end of philosophical and scientific trouble.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Buddhism and QM

Many religions seem to want to believe that their ancient scriptures predicted modern scientific discoveries, such as the distance to the Sun, the speed of neural oscillations, etc. I think it's all nonsense.

So, without any trace of irony, I present three ways in which the Buddha predicted modern results from quantum mechanics, with a scoop of woo to go along.

1) The doctrine of Emptiness.

Emptiness is the very core of Mahayana Buddhism, and also its most misunderstood teaching. Rob Burbea, a teacher I love, puts it most simply: it's the fact that there is no way that things "actually" are. There is the way that things appear, but fundamentally they have no essence; no substance. It is not that there is a "real chair" lurking somewhere "out there," independent of our minds. What is the actual truth then? That's a much more complicated question. It's an interdependent play of causes and conditions.

What has QM taught us? That when we're not measuring things, they have no well-defined objective properties. What does it mean to measure things? We don't know (though surprisingly many physicists will tell you that we have nailed this problem). Yes, particles in a sense can "measure" each other, but not in a way that makes the system as a whole well-defined. I would be roundly mocked for suggesting that the ultimate point of measurement is "consciousness," so I'll stop short of doing so. But it is.

2) There is no self.

This is the foundation of Theravada Buddhism (and Buddhism as a whole, in some sense). There's nobody sitting at the center of your being; no soul. All of your properties (personality etc.) are incidental.

Here's a quote from Hugh Everett, who originated what is now called the "Many Worlds Interpretation" of QM:
“The price, however, is the abandonment of the concept of the uniqueness of the observer, with its somewhat disconcerting philosophical implications.”
The implication is that when the universe "splits" into multiple, it's not meaningful to say that either copy of "you" is actually you. In other words, your sense of personal identity is an illusion.

3) You choose which world manifests.

Wait, what? Neither Buddhism nor QM says anything like this. You're right; it's my own addition, extrapolated from both.

The point is that in any given moment, the question of "which particular objective properties will manifest" (i.e., which world will appear) is not dictated by anything external to consciousness itself. Perhaps it is not determined by consciousness either. Heck, in QM the statement is meaningless: all possible worlds are manifesting.

But here's something to explore. When consciousness is "constricted," the world appears to be constricting. When it is deeply relaxed and free, the world appears to construct itself in a way that justifies that, too.

It seems as though the "constricted" vs "free" quality belongs to the individual; i.e., the illusory being that is manifesting along with the world. That is, it cannot belong to consciousness itself, which is prior to the manifestation.

That may indeed be so. In that case, the "true" cause is something more subtle. The only option I see is this: it is the degree to which consciousness has woken up to itself. The more consciousness recognizes its own face, the less sense that it is bound by anything else, which manifests in the person as freedom, and in the world as justifications for experiencing freedom.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Why the measurement problem in QM won't just go away

The founders of quantum mechanics knew there was something funny about its relation to consciousness. It seems that lesson has been lost through the decades, with many modern researchers believing that approaches like decoherence have solved the problem. They'll tell you that the idea that there's any relationship between consciousness and QM is just flapdoodle. But it's far from solved; we've just kicked the can down the road to ever-more esoteric possibilities. If you don't believe me, here's the world's smartest physicist (Ed Witten) agreeing.

There's something fascinating in here that I think every human (with time and energy) ought to think about. So I want to give you a quick summary of the problem and why I think it won't be solved any time soon.

Suppose we have a particle that's in a superposition state: if we measure its spin, it might be up or down. In classical physics, this wouldn't be strange: we can just say it's actually one or the other but we don't know which. In quantum mechanics, we can do what's called an interference experiment to show that it's a different kind of beast. Somehow, both possibilities remain, and those possibilities can interfere with each other (much like in the two-slit experiment).

We can introduce a second particle and have it interact with the first in such a way that their properties become correlated: say, if the first particle is spin-up, the second will be too, and vice versa. This is a form of measurement (you can "read out" the second particle to learn the state of the first) and it works by a phenomenon known as entanglement. The key thing to note here is that an interference experiment on either particle alone will show no interference. Each particle by itself looks classical. But we can exhibit interference on the pair. That's how we know that two possibilities remain in the system. This is the essence of the loss of interference in the two-slit experiment when detectors are placed at the slits.

As more and more particles get in on the entanglement (for example, in a macroscopic measurement apparatus, or just the environment), it becomes harder and harder to do an interference experiment on the system as a whole. There are way too many degrees of freedom to control. This is known as "decoherence," and explains why macroscopic systems look classical (show no interference). But crucially, it does not explain why, when, or how two possibilities become one.

That is the heart of the measurement problem, and there are two broad approaches to solving it.

The first is to say that something special ("collapse") happens somewhere to make the two into one. This is problematic for aesthetic reasons (it introduces a law that's very much unlike the rest), technical ones (that law disobeys certain key assumptions like time-reversibility), and practical ones (as our technology improves, we're able to demonstrate in larger and larger systems that there is no collapse). As time goes on, this position gets harder and harder to maintain.

The second is to say that nothing special happens, and two possibilities remain. If that is the case, why do we see only one? We don't: we instead say that both happen, each in their own "parallel universe." Since there is one copy of you in each universe, you do see two possibilities, not one. As time goes on, the multiverse keeps branching and branching. There are infinitely many "copies of you" right now. This is called the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI).

As absurd as this may sound, it's perhaps the most straightforward explication of the results that we have. But it comes with a nasty problem -- depending on your views on consciousness.

Consider how things look to a single experimenter. From his perspective, the universe is obeying its usual reversible laws, right up until the point it interacts with him. He can even confirm this (in principle) with a sufficiently sophisticated interference experiment. But once he interacts with the system, he splits. From a God's-eye view, the reversibility is maintained, and everything is fine. But from the perspective of any individual "copy" of him on one of the branches, the "quantum-ness" has been suddenly lost. He can only see the outcome on his branch, and there's nothing left to interfere.

In other words, "collapse" has found its way back in, this time with a vengeance: instead of happening at random unspecified places, it happens only when things encounter him. By symmetry, of course, it would look this way for any object in the system that found itself in the unfortunate circumstance of "being conscious" or "having an inside view." Humans aren't necessarily special here, but consciousness somehow is. Thus MWI really cannot afford to have consciousness enter the picture in any meaningful way. Who wants to be a lone superman (and maybe lone conscious being?) in their journey through the multiverse?

Let's take a step back. What problem are we trying to solve? The problem is that the math and experiments seem to predict multiple outcomes, but we see just one. If we somehow didn't see just one, there would be no need for these competing frameworks. The math would predict everything, with no wiggle room for interpretations. Most MWIers will tell you that this is precisely why you should adopt MWI.

The problem is that some obnoxious people keep insisting on this parochial idea that they do experience just one universe. In other words, that they are "genuinely conscious." And as long as that keeps happening, the matter will not be so easily settled. Sure, it's possible that "collapse" will solve it, but I'm not sure anyone actually believes that.
"Most physicists, even those who use quantum mechanics every day in their research, get along perfectly well speaking the language of the Copenhagen interpretation, and choosing not to worry about the puzzles it presents. Others, especially those who think carefully about the foundations of quantum mechanics, are convinced that we need to do better."
"I suspect that a substantial majority of physicists who use quantum mechanics in their everyday work are uninterested in or downright hostile to attempts to understand the quantum measurement problem." -- Sean Carroll
If you're unsure of what I mean by "genuinely conscious," I leave you with an experiment to try. Really try it; don't just think about it.

Pause for a moment, and look around. Doesn't it sure seem like something is going on? I emphasize "sure" here. If you check very simply and straightforwardly, you will notice an immediate and unequivocal certainty before your intellect kicks in and explains it all away ("That's just a trick of my brain! Nothing to see here; move right along!"). This flawless certainty -- that something sure as hell seems to be happening -- is more profound than it may seem the first few times you encounter it. It's the only thing that doesn't depend on a worldview. You can't be nearly as sure that time or space (or brains or QM) exist as that ... consciousness ... and even that doesn't touch the profundity I'm hinting at. If you've ever been completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of life, it's just the tiniest whiff of this realization that you're brushing up against.

But we're not ready to face this possibility. You can confirm this yourself, as your mind generates one explanation after another to disprove the fact that you're "really" experiencing anything. If it doesn't fit your worldview, psychological tension forces you to discard it. Of course you could just check again (and boy do I encourage you to, as many thousands of times as necessary), but who has time to confront their own outrageously profound existence? Ain't nobody got time for that. It's so much easier to just let the intellect run amok.

The one thing you can actually be meaningfully sure of is the one thing we can't fit into the theory. And yet we continue to insist that the cart come before the horse. And that is why the problem won't go away -- not because we haven't figured out the appropriate math, or been willing to overcome our ape-like beliefs.

"I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that's what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness...

I'm not going to attempt to define consciousness, in a way that's connected with the fact that I don't believe it will become part of physics. ... And that has to do, I think, with the mysteries that bother a lot of people about quantum mechanics and its applications to the universe. ... Quantum mechanics kind of has an all-embracing property, that to completely make sense it has to be applied to everything in sight, including ultimately, the observer. But trying to apply quantum mechanics to ourselves makes us extremely uncomfortable. Especially because of our consciousness, which seems to clash with that idea. So we're left with a disquiet concerning quantum mechanics, and its applications to the universe. And I do not believe that disquiet will go away. If anything, I suspect that it will acquire new dimensions." 
-- Ed Witten

QM and consciousness

The founders of quantum mechanics knew there was something funny about its relation to consciousness. It seems that lesson has been lost through the decades, with many modern researchers believing that approaches like decoherence have solved the problem. They'll tell you that the idea that there's any relationship between consciousness and QM is just flapdoodle. But it's far from solved; we've just kicked the can down the road to ever-more esoteric ideas. If you don't believe me, here's the world's greatest physicist agreeing.

Why is there so much debate about the correct interpretation or formulation of QM? It's not just arcane maths. It centers around the measurement problem: why do we see only one result out of the sea of possibilities QM predicts?

This question is all too easy to conflate with a much more straightforward one: why does a spread-out wave function suddenly become localized (particle-like) when it interacts with measuring devices and/or the environment? For example, why does a light wave stop showing interference when a detector is placed at the two slits?

Well, when a particle encounters a measuring device, the device effectively works by becoming entangled with the particle. If it's a tiny measuring device (e.g., another single particle whose spin is made to match that of the first -- hence "measuring" it) the math is very straightforward, and clearly shows that the first particle won't exhibit "interference." Yet it also predicts that we can perform an interference experiment on the pair of particles. So the quantum-ness isn't gone; it can be found in the larger system, but requires that we are in careful control of all the involved particles.

So does the quantum-ness ever really disappear? Well, as our technology improves and we're able to do bigger and bigger (but still tiny) experiments, things keep looking quantum. But in a truly macroscopic system (such as one that includes an experimenter's body and brain) it is almost unthinkable to have control over all the relevant degrees of freedom that we'd need to confirm it. This is called "decoherence," and it's explained by roughly the same math before, showing that a system should "look quantum" as a whole if we could control everything, but we can't, and so we don't.

So is that it? Problem solved.

If you were following along, you might have noticed the sleight of hand I pulled on you. This whole thing is about measuring a particle. There could have been more than one outcome of that measurement. Everything I've told you so far is about why there's no interference between those outcomes, and nothing about why there's just one result instead of two (or many, depending on what property is being measured).

Here's where the different formulations collide. The orthodox ("Copenhagen") interpretation is that probably somewhere in that ill-defined micro-to-macro transition something magic happened and two became one. A genuine collapse, with each of the outcomes happening with 50% probability. And how could you disprove it? To show that there are still two, you need to do something like an interference experiment, and we already saw you can't at that scale. The system would be decoherent, and while there would still be two possibilities, each would behave basically like a collapsed result. So no experiment today can tell apart whether it collapsed or merely decohered.

This second approach can be extended such that a collapse never happens. Instead, every time there's more than one thing that can happen, the universe splits so that all the things happen. You know, each in its own parallel universe (this is called the Many Worlds Interpretation, or MWI). This neatly sidesteps the question of why we only see one outcome: we don't; we see all of them (in different universes).

Maybe that tickles your fancy, or maybe you'd rather retreat to the safe confines of Copenhagen, but in either case you've really cheated yourself.

Do you remember what question we were trying to answer? It was the measurement problem: why do we see only one outcome instead of many? Even if you have an answer ("we don't!"), it should make you think: why are we asking such a funny question? The easy answer is that we're wired to think primitively but I want you to look closer.

The reason we're asking this question is because the math predicted multiple results but we're seeing only one. We are experiencing only one world. If your solution to this conundrum is "you only think you're seeing one; that's just a trick," then I suspect I know your answer to the question: is consciousness a trick of the brain? Obviously the questions "are you really experiencing one world?" and "are you really experiencing something" are intimately related.

The reason the measurement problem won't go away is that it's intimately tied to the question of whether you "actually experience" anything.

What's the problem with just answering "yes?" Well, the math is supposed to describe everything that's happening. There's nothing there that could account for this strange idea that some real, external thing called "consciousness" somehow swoops into the equations at random points (human brains) and gives an "inside view."

Moreover, consider what things look like from the view of any embodied consciousness in this multiverse (if MWI is true): from his perspective, the rest of the world -- including other people -- obeys the "branching" laws of physics, but from his perspective it gets reduced to one. In other words, he's all alone with this magical power. Are the other people even conscious?

We can't have any of that.

But the problem is that you do really experience something. Pause for a moment, and look around. Doesn't it sure seem like something is going on? I emphasize "sure" here. If you check very simply and straightforwardly, you will notice an immediate and unequivocal certainty before your intellect kicks in and explains it all away ("This is just a trick of my brain! Nothing to see here; move right along!"). This certainty -- that something sure as hell seems to be happening -- is more profound than it may seem the first few times you encounter it. You can't be nearly as sure that time or space exist as that ... consciousness ... and even that doesn't touch the profundity I'm hinting at.

But we're not ready to face this possibility. You can confirm this yourself, as your mind comes up with one explanation after another to disprove the fact that you're really experiencing anything. Of course you could just check again, but who has time for confronting that they exist in an outrageously profound way?

And that is why the problem won't go away; not just because we haven't figured out the appropriate math, or haven't been willing to overcome our ape-like beliefs.

"I'm not going to attempt to define consciousness, in a way that's connected with the fact that I don't believe it will become part of physics. ... And that has to do, I think, with the mysteries that bother a lot of people about quantum mechanics and its applications to the universe. ... Quantum mechanics kind of has an all-embracing property, that to completely make sense it has to be applied to everything in sight, including ultimately, the observer. But trying to apply quantum mechanics to ourselves makes us extremely uncomfortable. Especially because of our consciousness, which seems to clash with that idea. So we're left with a disquiet concerning quantum mechanics, and its applications to the universe. And I do not believe that disquiet will go away. If anything, I suspect that it will acquire new dimensions." -- Ed Witten 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Theravada and Mahayana

Wanted to share some quotes from Kenneth Folk (who practiced Vipassana in the Mahasi tradition for many years, until he finished the path according to its teachers). This is just one perspective, but I find it intriguing.

Basically, he says there are two modes of practice: "developmental," which uses phenomena (such as sensations and thoughts) to develop toward a physio-energetic completion, and "awakening," which is primordial awareness coming to recognize itself. Those that just target the former will likely only lead to the former realization, whereas those that target the latter can result in both.


[I]t's unlikely that [Ramana Maharshi] became an arahat in the moment of his initial awakening. Awakening doesn't depend upon development; it is its own attainment. Arahatship, on the other hand, seems to be directly correlated with the kundalini phenomenon Ramana mentioned (see my essay above), and is the culmination of a developmental process. This is why I differentiate Awakening/Realization and development. The former is the noticing of that which is prior to the arising of time. The latter is completely dependent on time and the physical world.
If Ramana is correct, this is good news for pure Advaitists. They need not fear missing out on the fruits of development even if they never spend a moment on practices that specifically target development. All that is necessary is to dwell as primordial awareness. By the way, the common denominator between pure concentration practice and dwelling as the "I AM," is... concentration. Concentration, coupled with insight, leads to developmental enlightenment. Ramana's practice promotes both concentration and insight. All of this makes perfect sense when seen through the lens of the Buddhist maps. The non-dual aspect is, of course, not addressed in Theravada, which is why we have the Mahayana. If Hinayana were complete, there would be no need for Mahayana or Vajrayana.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm defining Awakened in a particular way. In this context, Awakened is not synonymous with arahatship. Rather, it refers to a perspective in which primordial awareness knows itself. Lot's of people who are not arahats have access to this perspective. And it appears, based on my observations of and conversations with some people who I believe are arahats, that not all arahats have access to this perspective. On the other hand, maybe they just don't value this perspective; but I would say that it amounts to the same thing, as this perspective is considered the highest understanding by virtually every school of enlightenment except Theravada. To know it is to love it. :-)

We are now at the very heart of the debate between "Hinayana" and "Mahayana." How is it possible that people can spend their whole lives meditating and not come to the same conclusions?

For me the answer is simple: If people would stop arguing long enough to actually master the other camp's practice, they would value both perspectives. Too often, people dig in and attempt to defend their own limited understanding rather than branching out and embracing multiple understandings. It takes a lot of work. You can't just say, "I'm enlightened and therefore anything I don't already know about doesn't matter." You have to keep practicing even after arahatship because there is always something you haven't yet understood.

So, to answer the question directly, there are arahats who are masters of vipassana and samatha but who have never committed themselves to the mastery of non-dual practice and thus do not understand the full implications of Awakening.


You could make the case that both Awakening and Arahatship are enlightenment--which gives us two distinct situations, both going by the name "enlightenment." I think that some people reject the idea of "two enlightenments" as aesthetically displeasing. I tend to agree that, as an aesthetic, the idea of two enlightenments fails to inspire. Reality, however, has rarely shown itself to be subordinate to my aesthetic concerns.


I don't think the Theravada ideal is both development and Awakening. I think it's just development as I'm defining it. The Bumese, for example, don't talk about "turning the light around," "awareness knowing itself," "realizing what has always been true," etc, all of which are recurring themes in Advaita, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. They seem to take enlightenment as an entirely linear process that fundamentally changes the practitioner over time. Theravada, notwithstanding the occasional instant-arahat story in the suttas, is about as far as you can get from a sudden-enlightenment school.

Among those who do talk about awareness knowing itself (see Mahamudra, for example), there is wide consensus that this Realization is by far the most important thing to have, and that pure developmentalists are somehow missing the boat.

I like Theravada, but I like to keep in mind that it is the little brother of the enlightenment schools in spite of its self-serving claims to greater authenticity.


I will say that someone who fully commits to the non-dual route and (accidentally) develops to the point of arahatship has completed the two-fold program. But someone who reaches arahatship by doing only developmental practices may or may not stumble hard enough on the non-dual to get hooked and explore it further. In that case it would take some outside influence to encourage that yogi to keep practicing, as s/he would intuitively feel done.


The thesis I'm offering is that by becoming absorbed in the awareness you will progress along the developmental path, thus killing two birds with one stone. This position seems to be supported by such luminaries as Ramana Maharshi and Jack Kornfield, among others. Mind you (and getting back to the point I made in the essay), pure non-dual teachers (e.g. Tolle, Adyashanti, Ganga-ji, Mooji) don't like to talk about development, presumably because they believe it is a distraction. (How can you become absorbed in the awareness now if you are planning your future awakening?) Nonetheless, I'm giving you the holistic understanding for better or worse: if you do the non-dual practice properly, you will develop just as efficiently as if you did pure vipassana.

The only down side to this is that to some people all this talk of awareness knowing itself is incomprehensible gibberish. Fine. For those people, I recommend vipassana. This is really a can't-lose situation. The important thing is to be committed to some kind of practice, to do it every day, and to take intensive retreats whenever possible and do it some more. The finite part of it will eventually be finished and the infinite part will keep you entertained for a lifetime.


My sense is that people who are Awake tend to talk about it a lot, at least when the conversation turns to mysticism. People talk about what they value. So if somebody talks for a half-hour about meditation but doesn't say anything about awareness, I suspect that awareness is either not known to them or not important to them. For concrete examples, compare the speech of a Mahasi master with the speech of a dzogchen master or a Mahamudra master. The dzogchen and Mahamudra guys are all about awareness knowing itself, whereas the Mahasi guy will talk about body sensations or noting mind states. These are two very different orientations and I think it would be wrong to conclude that these people are all having the same experiences but talking about them differently.


My response to a question from a friend about whether to combine vipassana and the "I AM:"

I like to use the source/river analogy. The Source is where things have not yet diverged into subject and object. One definition of enlightenment would be unfettered access to the Source. Both the "I AM" perspective and the vipassana perspective are downstream from the Source. That's fine, as most people will do a lot of downstream practice before they realize that the Source is always available. Your question is which practice to do, or if they should be combined.

"I AM" is so close to the Source that it does not admit the kind of investigation that is vipassana. Vipassana is slightly further downstream from "I AM." "I AM," because it is so far upstream, is upstream from suffering. What's not to like? To introduce vipassana to the "I AM" is to pull yourself further downstream than you need to be, into a perspective that admits suffering. Since the "I AM" does everything vipassana does (i.e. it efficiently develops the psychic anatomy toward arahatship), and has the added advantage of being upstream from suffering, there is no percentage in doing vipassana if you are able to become absorbed in the "I AM." It would be like stepping over dollars to pick up quarters.

So, anytime you are able to become absorbed in the "I AM," AKA the no-dog, just do that. If that isn't happening for whatever reason, downshift to vipassana. Just realize that although investigating the no-dog with vipassana or doing vipassana from the point of view of the no-dog are perfectly good and useful practices, they are in fact vipassana; once you introduce that level of investigation you have pulled yourself downstream from the pure no-dog for no good reason.


Actually, descriptions of stream entry/1st path, as defined in the Theravada tradition, are remarkably consistent across individuals. That's one of the things that really drew me to vipassana in the first place. My teacher told me that the Progress of Insight was so accurate, and that it described a process that was so hard-wired into the human body/mind, that a teacher could accurately pinpoint a student on the map and watch her or him go through the 16 insight knowledges one after another, just as if it were scripted. And this would happen irrespective of whether the student knew or had even heard of the map. I have since found this to be true again and again; first path is not at all nebulous. Same for second path. After that, it gets harder; teachers don't even agree on exactly where to put the dividing line between 2nd and 3rd path. But it gets easier at 4th path, which is a very easy call, as you know when your insight disease goes away. Post 4th path, it gets fuzzy again and there are all sorts of ways that enlightenment can manifest, which is why I started this discussion. I wanted do go deeper than the usual it-all-ends-up-in-the-same place talk and explore the reality of it.