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BOOK REVIEW: Quantum Enigma by Rosenblum & Kuttner

Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters ConsciousnessQuantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Consciousness remains a great mystery. While it has increasingly begun to look like consciousness is an output part of the brain, intriguing questions remain unanswered, and some of these unknowns are hard to reconcile with a materialist model (materialism says all phenomena are born out of matter.) It isn’t just pseudo-scientists and cranks that have a problem with the materialist approach. Major names in physics have pointed out that everything is not accounted for by a model that imagines consciousness as the computational product of the brain. Rosenblum and Kuttner address one such hiccup, the so-called Quantum Enigma that lends its name to the book. In brief, the quantum enigma reflects the fact that physical reality is created by observation. This may seem hard to believe, because it’s only been observed at the levels of the really small—i.e. primarily the atomic and subatomic, though the authors propose that there is theoretically nothing to limit the phenomenon to that level and experiments are being conducted at molecular level.

Rosenblum and Kuttner remind us that while the quantum world behaves oddly, quantum theory is exceptionally successful in scientific terms. Meaning that it has been validated by every single experimental inquiry, and the knowledge gained from quantum mechanics has made possible many of the advanced technologies that shape our world (laser, transistor, CCD, and MRI.) The oddness of Quantum Mechanics can be seen in several issues. One is the two-slit experiment in which atoms and photons behave like either a particle or a wave. Another is quantum entanglement, in which two atoms that have interacted become “wired” together such that changes in one are instantaneously reflected in the other—even if they have been separated by great distances.

The book is a bit repetitive, but perhaps this is necessary. People seem to have trouble grasping the nuances of the arguments being made, and this can lead to some wrong conclusions. For example, some people have leapt to the conclusion that ESP is supported by quantum entanglement, but the evidence doesn’t support the idea that one’s thoughts can control anything. Observation causes some physical reality to coalesce, but one has no influence over what reality displays itself. (In other words, with observation the wave function collapses and some state of being comes into existence from what was a field of probabilities.) Randomness remains. Physicists tell us that this is the problem with the idea of using quantum entanglement for instantaneous communications across light-years of space. A further example of a nuance that is hard to grasp is the notion that quantum probability doesn’t describe the likelihood an atom is a certain place, but rather it describes the likelihood you’ll find it there (and that that is a distinction with a difference.)

One may be wondering how consciousness is central the issue. If a non-intelligent entity observed, would the wave forms collapse? Consciousness doesn’t necessarily equate to intelligence as we know it. Consciousness can be thought of as merely the ability to observe and recognize significance in what is observed. So a thermostat is a very primitive form of consciousness. However, the authors do outline why a robotic observer wouldn’t end the controversy.

I found “Quantum Enigma” to be readable despite the challenging subject being explained. The authors to a good job of both describing the relevant phenomenon in terms the average person could understand (Ch.2 though which doesn’t reflect reality) before going on to explain the experiments in which the phenomena is actually observed (i.e. Ch. 7.) The authors use simple line drawings as graphics as necessary as well as staged dialogues to help make the concept clear by anticipating objections and dealing with them as they come.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the unresolved questions of science with respect to Quantum Mechanics. In particular, there is the issue of consciousness—though it might not seem as central to the book’s discussion as the subtitle would lead one to believe. The last few chapters do deal in consciousness, though in a way that creates more questions than they answer. (It often feels like another summation of the strangeness of quantum mechanics, but that may be because the issues regarding consciousness remain so unclear. Furthermore, a lot of background is necessary to make sense of these complicated issues.)

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