SocraticGadfly: Why Schroedinger was wrong about his cat

July 22, 2013

Why Schroedinger was wrong about his cat

Simple statistical mechanics.

He stacks the deck from his Hindu infatuation with his “superposition of eigenstates.”

NOTHING is being “superimposed.” It’s all classical statistical mechanics, from the way I see it.

And, there is no such thing as an “eigenstate” involved.

Let me up the ante on Schrödinger.

Put a cat in a closed box.

Restrain it, because I’m using guillotines, in the plural, rather than poison gas, in the singular.

Give me three radioactive elements with half-lives of X, 2X and 4X.

Give me three guillotines, attached to the cat’s tail, a paw, and its neck respectively.

At X, you have 50 percent chance the cat has lost its tail, 25 percent it has lost its paw and 12.5 percent chance it is dead.

At 2X, probabilities are 75, 50 and 25 percent, respectively.

At 4X, they’re 87.5, 75 and 50 percent.

NO “superposition of eigenstates.” I hope this thought experiment makes the whole idea look ludicrous.

When the lid is lifted of the box, ALL we are doing is checking which of the probabilities is the actuality. Nothing else is being done. The quantum events have happened independently of any observer.

What if a neo-Schrödinger says, lifting the box is itself an observation.

Well, first of all, that’s a “Newtonian” level observation, not a quantum-level one. Unless you try to nano-scale shrink box, cat and guillotines.

Second, I’ll accept the challenge and one-up it.

Give me radioactive element No. 4 with half-life of 8X. It controls a circuit that raises the lid on the box.


At 8X, we have 93.75 percent chance the cat has no tail, 87.5 that it’s lost a paw, 75 percent that it’s dead, and …

A 50 percent chance that we can see inside the box to determine these probabilities.

Again, all statistical probabilities.

In fact, like the turtles of Schrödinger's beloved Hinduism, it’s statistics all the way down.

Am I arguing there’s nothing “mysterious,” – as long as you append scare quotes – about quantum mechanics? No, of course not. The two-slit experiment with light rays is proof enough of that.

I AM arguing, though, that quantum mechanics is NOT “metaphysically mysterious.” Or anything on those lines.

I am suggesting that Erwin Schrödinger bears a certain amount of the blame for the rise of today’s Deepak Chopras of the world.

And, albeit for different reasons than Einstein, while I don’t believe that some “naïve realism” interpretation of quantum mechanics will win out, should the Holy Grain of a UFT ever be achieved, I do think there will be something more quasi-realistic than the consensus of today.

I think, per Wiki's article on Schrödinger and his damned cat, that the ensemble interpretation of quantum mechanics, while not the ending point, is a good starting point and certainly the best starting point we have right now. It's the one that, I think, does the best job of clearing the decks of mystical and semi-mystical mumbo-jumbo that have accumulated to many interpretations of quantum mechanics like barnacles. It offers the least confusion between physics and philosophy in cases where they define the same concept differently. And, it certainly seems to properly address Occam's Razor. On the probabilities and statistics issues, it squares exactly with what I've said all along. I just didn't realize there was an official theory for my version of understanding QM.

Part of the problem, related to this, is that full-on Copenhagians, or QM schools of thought in their vicinity, at least, seem to like their undiluted shot — or three — of mysticism.

I know that Schrödinger himself was, essentially, trying to "spoof" Copenhagianism. However, because of his own Hindu influences, I think he failed to see how his thought experiment would be co-opted. (That said, somebody else would surely have come up with a similar one.)

Schrödinger reportedly said, decades later, that he wished he had never "met" his cat. Again, interesting that it took him that long to see that.

And, he apparently never explained the "why" behind that. Was it because had lost control of "his" thought experiment?

After writing the original version of this post, I came upon a great book, "The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments." From it, I became more convinced than ever that what "collapses" is not any "superposition of eigenstates" but a "superposition" of multiple states of partial or obscured knowledge.

Per Richard Buller and others, I'm also more convinced than ever that things like Schrödinger's Cat show the need that scientists have for philosophers of science.

Or, to quote Stephen Hawking: "When I hear of Schrödinger's cat, I reach for my pistol."

And now, here's a good piece from the Stone, the New York Times' op-ed series about issues philosophical, that covers some of the same ground, about the mystical misuse of quantum mechanics. However, I'd qualify it a bit.
If anybody's to blame, it's Schrödinger and his damned cat, even more than Bohr, let alone Heisenberg, for the mystical misuse of quantum theory and mechanics. Schrödinger with his immersion in Hinduism. That said, as noted above, the cat was ... er, catnip! for the Copenhagians.

Anybody who buys into non-mystical versions of quantum mechanics knows 
Schrödinger's cat's all about probabilities and nothing else. A simple thought experiment, with multiple radioactive substances and guillotines attached to various appendages of the cat, underscores that.

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