Seven questions we should be asking about the probabilistic nature of quantum physics

Quantum physics has a terrible reputation for being difficult, if not impossible to understand. This reputation sometimes appears to be actively promoted by physicists. Feynman’s observation that “if you think you understand quantum physics you don’t understand quantum physics” has itself confused and deterred a whole generation of thinkers and critics who do not ‘do the math’. Brian Cox’s 60 second definition gives unusual and welcome clarity. Quantum physics, he says, “is the calculation of the probability of the whereabouts of sub-atomic particles”.

If we accept this as a working definition, we can deduce a number of questions we should be asking about some of the odder things that have become popularly accepted as ‘quantum truths’. And each of these questions appears to have a simpler answer than we might have been led to believe.

  1. Does everything have a wave nature?

It is generally accepted that ‘everything’ in the universe is made of the tiny particles Brian Cox refers to, and therefore we might conclude that everything is intrinsically probabilistic. It is also accepted widely that probability has a wave form – we ‘know’ this, as the likelihood of events rising and falling. But isn’t it the case that it is not things themselves that therefore have a wave nature but the probability of their position, cause and context? Surely it is the probabilistic nature of all events that therefore imparts a wave nature to everything? This would be a very important distinction, because the term ‘wave’ leads us to imagine a physical body of movement. Isn’t it the case that, in quantum physics, waves are always waves of probability and have no physical appearance at all?

2. Does the slit experiment show the wave motion of particles?

This question is closely related to the first. The slit experiment shows exactly what Brian Cox describes, the probability of the whereabouts of particles. So surely the characteristic bands we detect simply show us where the particles are most likely to be detected, and where they are least likely to be detected? If so, the wave motion is a ‘motion’ of this probability, and the experiment does not therefore show us wave movement of the particles themselves? The pattern shows us that the probability of their detection varies in a regular way as it rises and falls. The temptation is to ask, yes, but why are some positions more or less probable? But as probability is the means by which we understand – and view – them, the question is a circular one. The only answer we can give is “because they are”. So it seems that the characteristic bands do not therefore show us that particles ‘move in waves’. In fact, when the movement of the particles is measured – something which is extremely difficult due to their size – it appears that particles move in straight lines. The wave motion is then said to be collapsed. But surely what is in fact collapsed is the probability of their position, since it is now measured?

3. Is it really surprising that quantum energy always come in discrete amounts?

Once again, this is something that is often regarded as weird. To give an example, it is said that the total energy in a light field is always a whole integer multiple of a fundamental unit of energy. Isn’t the answer to this simple? It lies in the word ‘fundamental’. If we are dealing with the smallest possible particles, with the smallest possible, ‘fundamental’ amount of energy, it would make no sense to imagine 0.345 of it. Or multiply it by π. If we are dealing with a fundamental unit wouldn’t it be meaningless (and impossible) to calculate a fraction of it?

4. Does it matter if the wavefunction is ontological or epistemic?

Because everything is made of particles, and the position of particles is probabilistic, and because probability has a wave nature, it is said that the description of a quantum system takes the form of a wavefunction. This statement itself raise a lot of questions. For example, what is ‘a quantum system’ if ‘everything’ is probabilistic? (I will come back to this). However, the most common debate about the wavefunction is whether it is ontological (a real, physical thing ) or epistemic (simply an indication of our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about the underlying state of an object). But if we know everything is fundamentally probabilistic, surely it must follow that neither of these views are true, or that both are true, since there is no difference between an ontological and epistemic view if both are subject to probability? An object may or may not be real, and we may or may not have knowledge about it, and in either case the probability must be calculated before any other statement can be meaningful?

5. Is entanglement mysterious?

Entangled objects are related by interaction which determines the direction of spin of electrons, and each determines the other. Is it therefore a surprise that to understand the spin of one is also at that instant to understand the spin of the other?

6. Does quantum physics really only apply to very small things?

This is probably the biggest question of all. Clearly, for Brian Cox, quantum physics is a set of calculations relating to very small particles. Probability replaces observation because it must. But there are many things that cannot be observed. Quantum physics deals with things that are not observed directly by calculating probability, but why wouldn’t that apply to the whole of the world we imagine, which is not directly observed? The introduction of the idea that anything you can’t see (including events that are temporally ‘out of sight’ in the past or the future) can only be known or understood as a probability resolves many issues that have preoccupied thinkers (such as the ontological vs epistemic debate, for example). Equally, we can see that much of the world we live in is probabilistic, and can only be calculated for anything that is not singular, that is for everything that exists in dependence on cause or context as quanta. These ‘quanta’ might relate to a group of objects, or a group of temporal moments  (ie the journey of an object across a period of time). We constantly calculate the probability of such quanta to negotiate what we perceive to be reality, so why can’t the object which we contemplate be any object, rather than just than the tiniest particles in the universe (from which according to quantum physics all objects are in any case made)? Another way of framing this question would be to say that even in calculating the whereabouts of the tiniest things we talk about granularity and quanta in order for a probabilistic calculation to make sense, and if that calculation works for quanta at a tiny scale surely it must work for quanta at any scale? So it might easily be applied to the ‘existence’ of a table over a period of 100 years, or even to the existence of the moon over a period of several million years? It would seem that the granularity just changes in scale, and surely if it does so the wavelength is not diminished by that expanded scale but hugely expanded in direct relationship with the quanta under consideration?

7. Is the cat both alive and dead?

These six questions all seems to have clear and reasonably obvious answers, and they all spring from the principle that our observation of the fundament ‘units’ of the universe is probabilistic. So to the question of the cat. It is now an easy question to answer. If we follow logic, surely we have to say that the only meaningful consideration of these two states is to calculate the probability of each?

There is also a footnote to this question, however. Carlo Rovelli suggests that we should also consider the cat’s point of view, in which case the uncertainty vanishes whether the box is opened or not. But this takes us back to Brian Cox’s definition of quantum physics, which assume precisely that we cannot do this. Quantum theory is useful because humans are not gods. We cannot get into the heads of cats, unless we do so in fiction. Then, we can superpose the truth according to the cat. Human imagination is a superpower. But human observation is not. If we turn into an empty street, we can imagine a car coming towards us, but if we don’t see it coming we will die. Between these two extremities, we calculate probabilities.


I am a little bemused at some of the apparent nonsense I have read about entanglement, so in the hope of demystifying it I have devised a thought experiment not unlike the one Schroedinger proposed to demonstrate superposition.

In this experiment there are two cats, and the box is divided into two compartments linked by a single random device between them which can act only once and is equally likely to act towards one side or the other. The two compartments have two independent lids. They are white cats, and, since I am a cat lover I am not going to kill either of them. Instead, one of them will be dyed red by the random device between the boxes. This event will happen the instant the lids of both sides of the box are closed.

So I place my two beloved white cats into the box, one in each compartment, and close the lid. Now, I know for sure at that instant that I no longer have two white cats. But I don’t have a red cat or a white cat either. Instead, I have two cats that are both white and red, because according to the laws of probability there is an equal 50% chance that each will be either red or white. 

(This is not really a quantum experiment because the dimension of time is missing but the reason for this will become clear.)

Now, apparently, I am about to perform something akin to magic, and transmit information faster than the speed of light breaking all the laws of causality. I am going to open the right hand lid.

I will know the colour of the cat I am looking at at the speed of light of course, as the colour information is transmitted to my eye. But simultaneously I will know the colour of the other one too. Because if one cat is white I know instantly that the other one is red, and vice versa. I will know this faster than the speed of light. 

That’s entanglement.

Unless I have missed something fundamental the ‘entangled’ fate of the two cats is what all the fuss is about. The fact that I have received a piece of information faster than the speed of light will not seem mysterious or magical to anyone other than, perhaps, a mathematician. 

Now, you could take this thought experiment an unlikely stage further. You could have a much more sophisticated device between the two compartments that produced an interlinked result by an infinite number of degrees. So if the left hand cat were deep pink the right hand cat would be light pink. And vice versa. And equally for all shades of pink in between. There would be no shade of pink in cat that could not be instantly transmitted by cat A in this way.

Of course, a device that could produce such a result would take many years to develop, and it would cost a huge amount of money. But then, the machines that have been developed to test entanglement are far more complex than this and have cost millions of pounds too, so maybe someone somewhere would consider it an exercise worth doing. I hope not.

Superposition in fiction (WIP)

Superposition is the simultaneous and concurrent existence of conflicting states in probability. Schrodinger’s Cat is the most famous example of an hypothetical superposition. Schrodinger’s Cat was the famous physicist’s thought experiment, in which a cat is placed in a box with a poison and an unpredictable trigger release. The cat may or may not be poisoned at any time. The lid of the box is closed. In probability, the hidden cat is considered both alive and dead. These two concurrent and opposing states are considered to be a superposition of states.

But superposition was not invented by quantum physicists.

Fiction constantly uses superpositions to consider and resolve conflicts. Sometimes these are trivial – whodunnit? – but they are sometimes used to consider and attempt to resolve significant cultural change, and even to catalyse such change.(According to the laws of causality, fiction is also an event.) Fiction which undertakes this kind of superposition is highly regarded and is often written at considerable political and personal risk.

Much of our most famous and celebrated literature is driven by superposition. Disguise, mistaken identity, stories within stories  and dream states are all means of positing an alternative realities within narrative.

So it will be immediately apparent that Shakespeare’s comedies make an intriguing and delightful use of superposition by creating temporary worlds with a background narrative. This happens for instance via disguise, in Twelfth Night, and via a dream world, in Midsummer Night’s dream. In both instances the temporary transformation modifies the narrative and changes outcomes. They present us with fictions within fictions.

Hamlet does the same in a much more sophisticated way. Hamlet is the most significant literary artwork in the formation of modern secular world view because of the way Shakespeare questions reality through superposition. As I have written elsewhere the vehicle for Hamlet’s two worlds is the ghost of his father. The ghost is for Hamlet, a modern educated man, literally both alive and dead. It is used to propose an alternative reality in which Hamlet is obliged to intervene while he exists at the same time in an entirely different narrative. Hamlet tests the ghost with a ghost of his own, a play which he writes to portray the ghost’s version of events. But the proof of the ghost which it provides only confirms the unresolvable concurrence. Hamlet finds himself living in a superposition of two belief systems, one in which the King is the ordained instrument of God and one in which this world order is a palpable absurdity. The bloodbath at the end is the only possible outcome. The entire cast is both living and dead.

Clearly this is a superposition in which all subjects of the Tudors found themselves as Henry VIII usurped the Pope and dismantled the catholic church. It would have been hard to give the concept of divine authority much credence after that. But by what other right is a king a king?

The question is clearly revisited in Macbeth and the later history plays. But the later comedies are perhaps Shakespeare’s subtlest and most far reaching explorations of superposed realities. The Tempest, in particular, is entirely located in such a world, where the story is created and manipulated by Ariel, a fairy being captured and controlled by Prospero’s magic. Prospero’s plan is to reform his own story, which is again one of deposition, through the temporary authority of fiction, represented by magic. Shakespeare uses Prospero to tell the story of fiction – the whole narrative is a play within the suspended belief of the audience’s attention. The Tempest is possibly Shakespeare’s last play and I like to think of Prospero’s final speech as the last thing the great playwright ever wrote:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 

As I foretold you, were all spirits and 

Are melted into air, into thin air: 

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 

The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 

As dreams are made on, and our little life 

Is rounded with a sleep. 

The reality we inhabit, Prospero says, is a superposition in itself, analogous to the one we have just watched, as insubstantial, and as temporary. The permanent objects that appear so firm and reliable all dissolve as we do, and each conscious state is in a continual state of passing, always in its presence and absence both living and dead.

Of course, Prospero may have marked the end of Shakespeare’s fiction, but he does not conjure the end of fiction. On the contrary, he reveals the essential function of the superpositions of fiction within our culture. This is an end and a beginning. 

Superpositions are arguably the most important tool of serious literature to question, disrupt and assimilate cultural economic religious and political change into social consciousness. This is why all fiction uses superposition to create tension. Songs of Innocence and Experience is a work organised by the superposition of two concurrent states. Jane Austen and the Brontes use superposition to disrupt iseas of class and femininity by planting ‘disruptive’ rebellious or anti-conventional individuals into social norms. Dickens uses it markedly and  constantly throughout his novels’ successive attempts to assimilate the wildly unpredictable consequences of greatly increased social and economic mobility into an increasingly fragmented culture. 


Quantum entanglement is not wierd or crazy. 

Particles can become entangled when they interact with each other or are emitted from a common source. When electrons or particles are paired they become part of a system of which the net energy is zero. Let’s say two photons (particles of light) are emitted from a particle (say a pion) with zero angular momentum. The spins of the two particles must add up to zero. So if physicist A (call her Alice) measures the spin of one of the photons as +1, she knows instantly that if physicist B (for Bob) measures the other photon, its spin will be −1. But Alice’s measurement could be -1. And if Alice comes up with -1 she know that Bob will measure +1. The measurements coincide instantly, breaking the laws of causality which say that one event cannot cause another event by transmitting information faster than the speed of light.

Physicists have been reluctant to accept this and an exhaustive series of experiments have been conducted to show that it is true. They have been especially keen to show that ‘local effects’ – the action of the conventionally ‘real’ – make no difference.

How can this happen?

According to quantum laws particles are in undetermined states until measured, which means that they have to be considered as being in all states for which probability exists. Once measured the probability ‘collapses’ which in simple terms is to say that their state is now determined.  Once you know where a particle is, or which way it was spinning, it obviously ceases to be subject to probability. So if one electron is in an undetermined state so is the other. And once the state of one is known so is the state of the other, instantly, because it will be determined by the same measurement – because the net energy must be zero – wherever it is in the universe. 

So it is not the case that one particle is reacting to the other. Once measured, the unknown state of both particles is revealed.

The dual quantum state where the two particles are detected only through probability is mathematically real, but it is one which humans would normally consider to be imaginary – probability is like a mathematical way of talking about imagination. So we could say that quantum experiments prove the reality of the imagination. 

Einstein did not like it and called it ‘spooky’. However here you have to pause and realise that what he and other scientists have been balking at is the fact that this reality of imaginary states can be physically demonstrated. This is what the scientists have been amazed about, and this is the reason they have repeatedly tested it. This is the significance of the slit experiment.

When passed through two slits electrons and particles behave as if they travel in waves, as water does, and form bars on a detector screen. (There have been dozens of more recent and more robust versions of this experiment but the result is always the same.) However what freaks people out is that if you only fire one particle at the slits it still behaves like it’s in a wave and acts according to the interference pattern. It looks like it has gone through both slits and interfered with itself, and this is kind of what it’s done. This is because what we are observing is a probability. The probability that the particle will always pass through the same slit is clearly zero. We could say that we are watching our imagination observe the particle. The particle passes through both slits with more or less equal probability. This does sound weird. It is like we are watching an act of imagination, or observing ghosts of the particle. And that is why as soon as we try to measure it the wave collapses and the particle ceases to have wave motion. Probability becomes certainty. Why is the wave real? Because we can observe it as long as we don’t determine it.

The first problem here is not science but the way we assume that science and imagination are somehow unrelated. It does not require imagination to understand that our lives are lived in a world governed by probability, but it does require imagination to live in it. The other problem is that human beings tend to be intellectually and philosophically deterministic, even though reality clearly isn’t. As Einstein said, God doesn’t play dice. 

Space-time or time space?

Einstein called reality under the fourth dimension of time ‘space-time’, by which term he defined the four dimensional parameters of reality, being the three physical dimensions plus time. He showed that while time is not a constant, it is variable (curved) in a predictable and determined way.

Einstein talked about time as if it is an extra aspect of space. According to Einstein space is always discrete and intact, and time is a separate consideration which affects space only in generality. In Einstein’s formulation time does not change the local nature of space. In fact it reinforces that nature as reality.

Time space denotes something different because it is primarily a description of time and not primarily a description of space. It is in fact nothing to do with three dimensional space. It describes all the space that it is possible for time to occupy. This space may itself be space-time, so that ‘time space’ might be considered to be a further fifth dimension. Time space describes different states of space-time in all possible occurrences. Time space includes all space which time might have occupied and all space which it might occupy. It is neither a determinable nor a predictable dimension, and it renders all other dimensions indeterminate too. It is what makes the entire construct of space a series of superpositions – that is, an infinite number of coexisting variable four dimensional space-times. 

The space that time may take is never exact and is governed by probability. The scope of probable events is amplified with distance, with respect to both past and future. Our presence in consciousness is like that of a particle within the form of a wave. Only the moment is certain. While this is analogous it may be as precise a description as is possible of our relationship to what we could consider to be the spacial and temporal landscape of reality. 

We therefore exist in a fifth dimension which is the wave function of the probability of events calculated as the superposition of an infinite number of possible four dimensional events stretching out to the memorable past and perceived future. This results in many consciousnesses existing within and across  the wave function but not in many worlds, because the laws of the wave function are identical for all forms of consciousness. It acknowledges only that consciousness may exist in all possible forms. For the same reason all forms of consciousness can be said to be relatable to some possible degree across all organisms across all perceived time and space. 

This means that the wave function is a pervasive condition of experience within which we exist regardless of temporality. It does not defeat or revise our perception of time as living and dying organisms but it does describe a condition in which our notions of present and future are purely relational and not temporal. That is, the wave function acts regardless of our perception of time. This explains why we see the wave function acting on particles in the slit experiment and particles behaving as if they are doubling or interfering with themselves. In fact they are simply behaving beyond the four dimensions of space and time we normally perceive – and as soon as we restrict them to four dimensions through measurement they vanish. 

An Essay on Causality

Determination is the enduring mystery for the human imagination. We have very exact languages for describing causality but none of them can see a bus coming. We have constantly tried to fill the void that is our knowledge of the future, first by imagining gods, then by attempting to understanding the evolutionary physical and biological laws that govern our existence. We are no closer, however, to an understanding of what will happen next.

Everything happens for a reason, but each reason has many random consequences. This is why there is cause and effect but no determination. 

Every event has a cause. This simple fact leads you to believe that causality is linear and that there is an ongoing chain of events. But the cause of each event that happened could also have been the cause of many, if not an infinite number of other events that did not. And the event which in retrospect appears to have been determined by a cause, and therefore a certainty, was in reality a random event, which was only one possible event of many. The only thing we can say which makes any event a certainty was that it happened, but we mistake this for the idea that it was certain to happen. Before the event, it was only possible, as the next event will be, and the only predictive method we can use is probability. Some consequent events are likely, others less so – but as we know that does not mean that a less likely event will not happen. We are constantly surprised by the unexpected. 

This does not mean that causality is an illusion, but it does mean that it is not linear as we imagine. As is so often the case, our folk knowledge has a way of understanding how things happen. We often speak of events gaining or losing momentum. This is because if one less probable event happens it can make a subsequent event more likely, and then the occurrence of those two events may make a third event very highly probable and then the next, until we have a chain of events that looks almost determined for a while. What once looked a faint possibility can become a near certainty in this way. Events have gained a momentum which is explicable only by the fact that they have happened. We can however be absolutely certain of one thing, which is that no caused event is ever absolutely certain. All momentum will be time limited and fade, and it will be overtaken by a new surge which may be quite contrary to current expectation. If we accept that these surges of occurrences happen it is not a huge leap to image them as waves. Two factors make events wavelike. First, any event can occur at any time and is merely more or less probable; and second, the occurrence of one event influences and changes the probability others, so any one event causes a ripple as it were among all possible subsequent events, as it changes the probabilities attached to them.

What makes event waves very different to the waves we see crashing into the beach is simply that they are not immediately visible. They exist in an extra dimension, which confusingly makes them appear not to exist in the ones we are familiar with. They do not have a three dimensional existence. Waves of causality do of course govern physical events, but they exist across a fourth dimension of time space that includes the future. What is even more confusing is that this extra dimensional time is different from measured time. A wave rolling into a beach takes time, but the time unfurls with the wave, as we watch. Measured time is observed and always ends at the latest in the present. How can it end in the future? This kind of time is part of three dimensional existence. Time space is different to measured time. Time space is the whole of space that time occupies. Measured time is like a path on a huge landscape. It is a means of crossing and measuring a space but it is not the space. Time space is the entire landscape stretching across the perceived past and future. The space includes the time it might take for all possible future events to happen. It also includes the time it might have taken for all the things that might have happened in the past to happen. It is the broad landscape which meant that all those possible, probable and improbable events might have happened, across which we picked our linear and uncertain path. We are used to perceiving, understanding and trying to remember within this huge landscape. Nobody has arrived at the present by exactly the same path. It is the reason why we all remember differently, and why even our common histories have versions and interpretations which become more diverse and uncertain the further back we go.  

This is why causality is such a confusing concept. Present and past events do appear to be linear and causal. We perceive them like that because they are the path we walk. But like the path they are just a track across a landscape and they blind us to the space they cross. This is why in the famous quantum experiment particles that are actually travelling in waves appear when observed to travel in straight lines.

It is only when we consider future events that the wave form of events is revealed. We cannot see future events of course, but like travellers on the path we know that they lie all around us. We can feel them. We can feel them because they are of the same kind as present and past events. We can say with certainty that if the future is not determined by anything except probability and momentum it follows that all events and apparent chains of causality are indeterminate in the same way. Or that the future is determinate to the same degree as the present and past. It is a strange thought, but it is true. We have an indistinct sense of the paths we did not travel, a shaky knowledge of the path we are on, and a vague sense of the possible journeys of the future. We also have an understanding of where we are in movement of the waves of events that carry us. We might be on a roll, or at a low or high point. We constantly rise and fall. Whatever happens, we go with the flow. This is all familiar language. 

The landscape of time space too is more familiar to us than we might at first think. This is because we constantly explore it. We do this by telling and listening to stories. Time space is the land of fiction. In fiction we track other sometimes multiple paths of other selves. Fiction can be deceptive, manipulating, indulgent, alluring, challenging, provocative, hilarious, surprising and insightful in equal measures because it shows us these other paths, sometimes paths we had not considered and could not even previously imagine. Through stories, we have lived our whole lives surrounded by the waves of time space. We live among them. We can no more perceive this wave motion than the motion of the tiniest particles. But like them, the future exists nevertheless.


Gravity famously doesn’t respect the laws of quantum physics. The reason for this seems obvious if we look at it in terms of perception rather than science. If we think about an orchard of apples collectively, the question of which apple will fall, and when, and even if any will ever fall at all, is a quantum one, and the answers to all questions about the future behaviour of the apples is clearly governed by probability. Once an apple breaks its connection to the collective and falls, however, it infallibly obeys the trajectory set by gravity. We know how fast it will travel, and when it will strike the ground. It has, for a brief period of time, separated itself from the collective orchard. The difference between the falling object and the orchard is not one of physics but of attention. We consider the falling apple as a singularity. This individual consideration itself creates the apple’s teleological path, and the laws of gravity are the means by which we have defined our attention. This does not mean that the laws of gravity are invalid, or subjective. They explain the movement of the apple as it falls. It is vital knowledge. The trajectory of a spear, arrow or bullet can be considered in the same way. Failure to attend to the laws of gravity might mean no food. The certainty it offers however is short lived. Once the apple is on the ground the question of whether it will seed has to be considered as a probability alongside the germination prospects of all the other apples. It returns to the collective of the orchard. The singularity exists only during the fall. The question is then one of whether the laws governing the fall of the apple are consistent with the laws of probability and of course the answer must be that they are of a different order. Gravity is part of the condition of the apple hanging in the tree and as such although a falling apple might briefly be considered as a singular object in itself all the apples may or may not fall. Gravity has to be considered as part of the apple, as an aspect of the object. It is no more singular than the object itself.  Although it might seem a kind of reverse logic, we can say that gravity only exists because there are objects. It has no independent existence. Gravity is part of the perceived object. It is not therefore a physical law at all but a law of perception. This observation applies to all objects we perceive to have teleological movement, including the smallest particles. It has been proven by gate experiments where particles which appear to have linear movement  are shown in fact to be travelling in waves. Objects are transient and both their solidarity and linear movement are aspects of human observation, not of the physical world. The laws of gravity therefore don’t ‘fit’ because they are of this order of laws of the observation of  objects.

If then else


Artificial intelligence is driven by algorithms. An article by Andrew Smith in the Guardian points out that there is nothing mysterious about these. An algorithm is the basic process by which a computer makes simple binary decisions. If a happens then do b, else do c.

Computers can execute this process at unimaginable speed, which has led us to talk about them in terms of possessing intelligence.

But there is a fundamental and dangerous error in doing so. This is not intelligence, it’s just a computer process happening at speed. As Smith observes “On the micro level, nothing could be simpler. If computers appear to be performing magic, it’s because they are fast, not intelligent”. Computers are not thinking, in the human sense of the word, because, for the most part, human thought is not sequential in a computer’s ‘if then else’ way. This is not because we are irrational, or because we have some woolly capacity to respond to things emotionally, though it’s probably true that we do. It is because as George Dyson observes to Smith, if you are going to understand the world as a sequential entity, you have to have a complete model of everything. As Toby Walsh then says, also quoted in Smith’s article, this is evidenced in the most basic ways. “No one knows how to write a piece of code to recognize [sic] a stop sign”. In order to survive, humans, along with almost every other living organism, have had to evolve a completely different and more practical way of thinking. The human brain does not contain a complete model of everything, but is does contain a risk model which is designed to cover the gap between what is known and what isn’t. This produces something critically quicker than a series of rational calculations. It produces emotion, especially the one we call fear. We habitually step back and consider that everything that can happen does happen, but we do it without thinking. We use emotion to make an evaluation of what we think we are about to do based on risk and probability. This is a highly sophisticated task which means making a fluid and instant assessment of two infinite variables, timing and likelihood of occurrence – a task which would blow up a computer. Why? Well, first because both the variables are infinite, second because a computer has no means of assessing likelihood unless it can compare with other outcomes, and third because multiple outcomes have to be considered simultaneously. 

This radical deficiency in AI leads to events like the one Smith begins his article with, the killing of a cyclist by an AI driven vehicle. He also considers the Google DeepMind arcade game player which has reinforcement learning to work out how to gain points. As he observes, “the machine has no context for what it’s doing and can’t do anything else. Neither, crucially, can it transfer knowledge from one game to the next (so-called “transfer learning”), which makes it less generally intelligent than a toddler, or even a cuttlefish. We might as well call an oil derrick or an aphid “intelligent”. “ 

He also cites the world financial markets as an illustration of how unstable and unpredictable algorithm driven calculations are. He writes “A “flash crash” had occurred in 2010, during which the market went into freefall for five traumatic minutes, then righted itself over another five – for no apparent reason. I travelled to Chicago to see a man named Eric Hunsader, whose prodigious programming skills allowed him to see market data in far more detail than regulators, and he showed me that by 2014, “mini flash crashes” were happening every week. “

Humans can be beaten pretty easily by machines at defined linear tasks, like chess, or playing an arcade game, or the stock market, or any kind of gambling device. This is because humans mostly don’t even try to work things out in terms of sequential logic. Instead, we might say that they have a feel for what might or might not happen. This is dangerous when gambling but essential if avoiding tigers or cyclists. Smith calls this human resource “a broad accumulation of experience and knowledge” but that doesn’t really rule out the sort of knowledge a computer could acquire. If we want to be more scientific we can say that humans, along with most other evolved organisms, are brilliant at making multiple intuitive – or subconscious – calculations of probability simultaneously, and feeling them.

It seems bizarre, on the face of it, to state that a computer cannot calculate probability. Of course computers can do this. But in order to assess risk, humans weigh up and consider multiple probabilities, by degree, and when broken down into ‘if then else’ sequences this task is almost impossible. Any given set of probabilities is simultaneous. Probability at any one moment has to be considered in infinite variations, and however fast that calculation is made, at the next instant it may be different. Human brains are designed to cope with this, whereas ‘If then else’ processing works in the opposite way, and will never get close to human risk assessment.

It is because of this fundamental structural shortcoming in conventional computer technology that computer scientists have been attempting to build a quantum computer. Quantum mechanics is founded on the consideration of events as probabilities, working more like the human brain does. Quantum computing would render the entire architecture of even the fastest current computer completely redundant. A standard computer chip contains simple binary switches making then… else choices. So a number of laboratories have started the quest to make a quantum computer. A quantum chip would need to make decisions based on simultaneous calculations of probability in turn based on a model of previous outcomes. So far scientists have built a large random decision potato which is generously considered to be a 32 bit device. The chips are still in the kitchen. Quantum computing is not impossible but it appears to be a very long way off. 

Where we are meanwhile is a dangerous place, where we have begun to depend on a kind of intelligence that is not intelligent at all, but radically limited and restricted in its capability. Cyclists will continue to be killed. But more seriously if we allow it to develop beyond our control it will dominate all areas of our lives. We will increasingly be asked to inhabit an inhuman world. 

Article by Andrew Smith in the Guardian 30 Aug 2018

Religious science

It is often said that the principles of Buddhist philosophy are supported by the science of quantum physics, but I have never seen an explanation of why this is so.

Here is one.

The first principle of Bhuddist thinking usually encountered by Westerners is the idea that objects are not solid and concrete but are transient and impermanent. The belief that objects are permanent is a great illusion leading to attachment to material gain that in turn leads to unhappiness and discontent. The example often given is the simple one of a table. It looks solid, but in reality it is in a constants state of transition and flux and decay which will end eventually in its disappearance. It is not the reliable permanence it appears to be. The argument expands from this: no object is permanent and it is only our minds and expectations that make any thing so, and ideas of the self are included. The self is an imagined entity and not a concrete thing, and it is subject to the same rules of change and decay as any other thing we consider to be permanent and real.

This is why Buddhists set such a high value on meditation as a way of finding and existing in the present. While this is accorded a religious function the role of meditation can be understood in an entirely secular way, as a means of detachment from a world we construct which is illusory. Buddhists teach meditation as an act of concentration upon stillness, training the mind to stop unbidden wandering and spontaneous trains of thought. A much used analogy is with a bucket of muddy water. Like the water, the mind only clears as the water becomes still and the mud in it settles.

We can think of the illusion of permanence as the drawing of lines across time. This line drawing is the creation of simple narratives, where we connect series of apparently related objects and events causally in our minds. When we do so we take for granted their reality. Selves, relationships and desires are all imagined in the course of this storytelling. However, the fragility of our stories frequently strikes us. Lucky and chance events are perceived to be life changing. We are always insecure, and often discontented and unhappy because of the decisions and choices we feel we have made, or have been unable to make.

Causality is an aspect of Buddhist thinking that confused me for a long time. Buddhists insist on the truth of cause and effect, but the causality of events – the material arrival and departure of things – and the deduced determination of past and future must be illusory if the permanence of the objects linked is unreal. However Buddhists refer not to a causality of events but of actions. Right thinking and right action are the essential means of determining only the right path, not any specific event, and this kind of causality does not infer any control over objects and events, or any power to determine the future in any material way. The difference drawn between an action and an event is subtle, but all important. To take an action is an internal decision, determined yes, but determined by state of mind, attitude and critically by positive or negative feelings. Sympathy and empathy, which Bhuddist practice believes can be engendered by meditation, are critical factors in right thinking and right action. An  event, on the other hand, may be beyond control. Buddhists do not attempt to predict what might or might not happen, but believe that right thinking leads to right action, which will lead to happier outcomes for human beings. So an action is something organic and internal, and it depends on your feelings and disposition. It may have happened, be happening or be about to happen. An event is something that has happened. It is external, and can only be reported afterwards. Actions determine and are determined by karma, events do not and are not.

There is another famous Buddhist example which (indirectly) shows the perceived difference between an action and an event. You are asked to imagine standing by on open window on a high level of a tower block. The story is about determining choice, and is told to demonstrate that consideration of even extreme negative possibilities is only human, and not mad or harmful in itself. To think about jumping, the anecdote goes, is normal. You are only mad if you jump. Lying behind this story is the belief that no event is necessarily determined. What happens next is not yet an event. Every human being would think about jumping. To consider jumping is not the event of jumping. Some human beings might feel like jumping. To feel like jumping is not the event of jumping. Some people might actually decide to jump. To decide to jump is not the event of jumping. Finally, a person does jump, and dies upon impact with the ground. It is now an event because it has happened, but at no stage has it been exactly determined. Even if we have jumped, it could have been otherwise to the very last infinite fraction of a second.

This point about determination is where we get a disagreement within science. Many scientists would argue that the act of jumping out of a window would be a material event that could be regarded as genetically predetermined in the form of, say, a mental illness. The argument is often made that in fact human beings have no free will. As we have seen, Buddhists are curiously ambivalent about free will. There is cause and effect, but it is of a different kind that is not able to determine material events, only your disposition towards them. From here, we can get into an undecidable argument about whether an internal attitude would be genetically determined in any case (and Buddhists would respond that it doesn’t matter since all material outcomes – the events considered to be determined – are unreal)). More often, there is a stand off between nature and nurture which leaves us in a deterministic no man’s land. However, if we want to avoid this impasse science does have an alternative view: if we follow the principles of quantum physics, intentionality is not considered at all. Using the example above, we would have to consider both that we have jumped and that we have not jumped, and regard each in the light of probability. There is no absolute event, and if we were somehow made to stand by the open window inside a large box, hidden from observation and with a malevolent gene that will at some stage fire a fatal trigger to our brain, we might be considered, like Schrodinger’s cat, to be both alive and dead, with a probability attached to each degree of outcome. (Of course, Schrodinger’s cat is a goner – we might not have the fatal gene at all, but I think that the reduction of risk does not negate the application of probability, it just changes the odds.)

To consider events as probabilities radically changes our perception of them. When we think in terms of probability, it is impossible to imagine a fully determined event. No matter how exactly we define the timing of an event, there are always an infinite number of times at which the event might happen. And when we consider the likelihood of occurrence there are always an infinite number of possible degrees of probability between 0% and 100%. So in this way we are considering infinity times infinity and literally anything can happen at any time. Nothing can be determined or predicted. Any ‘story’ can only be retrospective, based upon observation. In other words, we have reached the Buddhist view of material events.

Of course, the Buddha never mentions probability or suggests that we might be both alive and dead. However, Buddhism does view the world as immaterial and materially undeterminable. Things, events and human control are all illusory. Equally, quantum physics does not take a moral stance and suggest a course of right action. But it does suggest that our endless quest to identify events in terms of certain material outcomes is futile unless we are willing to address them in terms of probability and risk. So to add values of empathy and love to this immaterial world view may well be sentimental, but it is not necessarily unscientific.