Can Humans Observe the Quantum?

William C. Bushell and Maureen Seaberg think that human beings can directly “observe” the quantum (hat tip: Instapundit). Their evidence is a collection of experiments exploring the limits of human sensory abilities. Unfortunately, they are equivocating on the meaning of words like “observe”, “see” and “hear”, and this equivocation is then used to inflate the significance of the finding and to justify their pseudo-mystical proposals.

For example, they say that we can “see” light at the level of one quantum (essentially, that means one particle of light–you can’t have any less light than that), but owls and cats can see much lower levels of light than people can. Does that mean that owls and cats can see below the quantum level? Obviously, that makes no sense, so what could this mean? Well, when you “see” light at the quantum level, you don’t really see anything, at most you get a vague impression. What the experiments show is that if you ask people to stare into a device and push a button when they think they detect something, their button presses are a bit better than you would expect from random chance (and let’s note that there is similar statistical evidence for the existence of E.S.P).

So what this probably means is either that the photons are detected via E.S.P., or that every once in a while, a photon gets through all of the clutter in the eye, hits an optical cell, and the nerve impulse from that cell makes it into the sensory part of the brain neither of which is “observing” or “seeing”. At a stretch, you can call it “detecting”, but since our brains are not wired to process individual photons, even that is a stretch; a better word would be “responding”.

When we actually see, we don’t just get a faint impression, we get an image, complete with depth and color, populated with distinct objects (instead of just a smear of colors). An immense amount of processing goes on in the brain before we become conscious of all of that, and this processing is an integral part of the sense of sight. If we are’t consciously aware of an image, we aren’t seeing in the usual sense of the word.

This is what I meant when I said the authors are conflating meanings. They are using the word “see” in two senses:

  1. presentation of an image to the mind
  2. any response cause by light striking the optical nerves

They use the word in sense (2) when they talk about “seeing” a quantum, but the rest of the post–the main purpose of the post–relies on using sight as a better alternative to instruments, which relies on sense (1) because that is the only way that eyes would be better than instruments.

You can’t do scientific research with vague impressions, and even if you could, the eye is a much poorer instrument than electronic devices. The only reason to prefer human senses to devices is that human senses provide more detailed and relevant information to the mind–information such as images. Even if you train the eye and employ your senses in ideal conditions such as the authors suggest, the eye will never be as good as electronic detectors, so without the images–without the brain processing that makes vision such a useful sense, what is the point?

These ideas would be great fodder for science fiction, though. They remind me of A. E. van Vogt and other golden-age science fiction. For example, in Voyages of the Space Beagle, van Vogt had a science-fiction anthropologist (or maybe, xenopologist?) who could learn the psychology and behavioral patterns of a lost civilization by analyzing their buildings and other artifacts. In The World of Null-A, van Vogt posits a kind of non-Aristotelian logic that lets you figure things out and ultimately control the world in essentially magical ways. The idea of gaining insight to the quantum world by training the senses reminds me a lot of Null-A. Maybe once you can detect quantum particles, you can change their quantum properties!

Still, we need to distinguish science fiction from fact, and this is where Bushell and Seaburg have failed. I won’t be surprised if their efforts to start  a movement are successful, because scientists in general, despite their propaganda, are no more rational than other people, but let’s not kid ourselves that they are doing anything other than science-based fantasy.