Quantum Physics Has a Language Problem

31jk3zyLsiL._UX250_I have become interested in theories of mind and all the new thinking at the intersection of physics and consciousness. So when I set out to read The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, I hoped to get a better sense of how quantum physics relates to mind.

Didn’t happen.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 1.00.25 AMI also didn’t get any major insights about “action at a distance“. And most of all, I did not get any deeper insights on the idea that the act of observation can change the physical world. I’ve known about quantum mechanics for a while – enough to have a casual conversation over beer – or more likely – over a joint. But I expected that Goswami would help me get to the next level of understanding. I read the words, I followed the logic…

…but nothing ever got much farther than a few centimeters into my brain. There was no gut feeling – no somatic resolution.

imagesNow, to be sure, I wasn’t expecting epiphanies to come tumbling out. After all, Richard Feynman famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

So, I was appropriately prepared for the difficulty of the subject matter.

What the Hell is a “Quantum Object” Anyway?

Sean Carroll says that physical theories:

“…aren’t supposed to have ambiguities … the very first thing we ask about them is that they be clearly defined. Quantum mechanics, despite all its undeniable successes, isn’t there yet.”

The main problem with explanations of quantum physics is the choice of words.

The terms “observation”, and “measurement” have particular meanings in the physicist’s lab, where a scientist might be trying to gather data on the behavior of a single photon.


Truly not something that most of us experience in daily life. Even the sight of a faint star in the night sky involves a hell of a lot of photons. And one second of this experience is actually a really long time.

But…a single photon?

I wonder if the scientist in the lab actually “experiences” a photon anyway. How does one “experience” a photon? And what does it mean to “measure” or “observe” something as fleeting and tiny as a subatomic particle?

Sean Carroll again:

“There is no consensus within the physics community about what really constitutes an observation (or “measurement”) in quantum mechanics, nor on what happens when an observation occurs.”

Another problematic term is “quantum object”. The word “object” is very familiar in classical physics. But it invites contradiction and cognitive dissonance when applied to phenomena on the quantum level.

niels-bohr-model-of-the-hydrogen-atomNiels Bohr said: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.”

While reading explanations on quantum physics, I become optimistic: I feel as if I am about to get a picture of why certain puzzling phenomena are true. Authors use familiar narratives and metaphors that I have direct experience with, but what they are illustrating are observations in a physics lab where fleeting subatomic particles exhibit paradoxical behaviors. These carefully-orchestrated observations that only happen in expensive laboratories are hardly the stuff of everyday experience.

And then they start talking about cats in boxes – right after telling us that cats and boxes are VERY DIFFERENT than subatomic particles.


By the way…apparently, it IS possible to experience the effects of quantum physics in your own home:

Labeler Setup2

I just love the fact that styrofoam cups were used in this experiment.

Can Quantum Physics Ever Really Be “Explained?”

Because our sense organs and brains are optimized to deal with things on a human scale, it’s difficult for us to think about things as small as atoms (where quantum physics really matters) or as big as galaxies (where relativity really matters).

As I set out to write this article, I did some searching and noticed right away that a lot of people have pointed out that quantum physics has a language problem. And so here is where I bow out, and let the real experts speak…

Is there a Language Problem with Quantum Physics?

The Copenhagen Interpretation 

So, You’re Not a Physicist…

Quantum Physics and Human Language

What If There’s a Way to Explain Quantum Physics Without the Probabilistic Weirdness?

Quantum Mechanics Made Easy

Maybe classical clockwork can explain quantum weirdness


One thought on “Quantum Physics Has a Language Problem

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