We all tell ourselves stories about the world—stories to help us reduce the component parts into things we can understand. Sometimes those stories describe the world, and sometimes they describe what we wish the world could be. Usually, I think, they are a little of both.
The edges are always fuzzy, and the connections can be tenuous, and sometimes there are gaps in the stories we want to tell ourselves. Sometimes we just leave those gaps there, unanswered and honest. But sometimes we flail in the fuzzy gaps, and sometimes we try to fill them in.
It’s almost a meme, outside of scientific circles, to use quantum physics for this; after all, quantum physics is pretty cool, pretty attention-grabbing, and pretty unintuitive. Can’t quantum effects be that little bit of magic we secretly hope for?
The unintuitiveness of it is understandable—after all, at the quantum level, most of our learned patterns of the world don’t work. Can you have things in two places at once? Yup! Have things connected across vast distances? Sure! Have things both exist and not exist simultaneously? Why not? You can even use information you don’t have about a thing that hasn’t happened yet to predict information you can’t otherwise get about a thing that couldn’t happen in the same universe as the first thing. Just a few examples, and I’ve probably even mangled some of them in simplification.
But that doesn’t mean anything can happen. The rules in quantum physics are still rules; they’re just different rules than the ones we deal with in the big world. The two sets of rules are so different, though, that it’s hard to accept that both can be true.
So it’s understandable that we try to reduce the world back to making sense. Of course we want quantum effects to apply on the scale of our brains! That would smooth over the vast gap between the big world and the small world, and simultaneously open up new possibilities. For anyone who has ever wanted to be something more, the allure of hidden quantum effects in the big world is like adding that touch of magic.
It’s a great story. But it’s just a story. Like authors who write themselves into a corner, so are we when our stories fail to line up with reality. An author can summon a machine of the gods at will—as the author, they are the gods. And like those inventive authors, we can choose to fill our gaps with magic instead of looking for what’s actually in them.
Yet I think such revisionist reality is a bad choice with the stories of our lives. Appealing to the quantum doesn’t make our wishes magically true; I think instead that it cheapens the magic of the real world. There is magic in the world, but it isn’t magic without rules—its magic that leaves us impressed and humbled by rules beyond our easy comprehension. Magic says not “here’s the answer,” but instead “look how much more there is for you to learn.”
Image Credit: Aftab Uzzaman