COLUMN: An Old Absolute Newly Discovered – (A continuing series) – SPECIAL REPORT ON QUANTUM MECHANICS. Is Physical Reality Rational? A Quantum Physicist Speaks Out. Much to my surprise, the publication of Part 7 of this series turned out to be an unusually eventful experience. One particularly interesting event that took place as a result of Part 7, which has now made imperative the immediate publishing of this special report, was my first personal encounter with one of the most learned and refined physicists I have personally met.

His name is Michael Raymer, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon.

A discussion I held with professor Raymer will be reported below. First, I consider it useful to list the following topics that will be addressed in this special report:

1. My discussion with quantum physicist Michael Raymer
2. My personal writing style
3. Clearing out a reader misunderstanding
4. Optimist and pessimist physicists and their differences
5. Is “non-rationality” synonymous with “mystery”?
6. Comparing sciences: Newtonian and Quantum
7. “Straw man” issues
8. Is the Enlightenment a “straw man”?


Following is a brief description of professor Raymer’s scientific credentials gathered from internet reporting sources:

Professor Michael Raymer has been at the University of Oregon since 1988. His field of specialization has been Experimental Optical Physics. His research interests are Quantum Information, Quantum Optics, Quantum Control, Semiconductor Optical Physics and Nonlinear Optics.

Professor Raymer received his PhD from the University of Colorado in 1979. After a tenure on the faculty at the Institute of Optics, University of Rochester, he moved to the University of Oregon in 1988, where he later served as founding Director of the Oregon Center for Optics. His research focuses on the quantum mechanics of light and its interaction with atoms, molecules, and semiconductors, with applications in nonlinear optics, communications technology, and quantum information. In 1993, his group reported the first instance of experimental quantum-state tomography of light. He has held visiting appointments in Colorado, Germany, and Norway. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Optical Society of America. He has served on the Committee on AMO Science, National Research Council, and on the Executive Committee of the Division of Laser Science, APS.

Professor Raymer has also recently developed a new university course and textbook for non-science students called “The Physics Behind the Internet” which covers the physical basis for information technology, at a level suitable for students with little or no physics background. The course teaches, at a conceptual level, the basics of information, communication, atomic physics, semiconductor device physics, and optical physics and technology. In support of this course, he authored a textbook, “The Silicon Web: The Physics Behind the Internet.”

This is not all that can be said positively about professor Raymer’s extraordinary scientific credentials. His curriculum vitae, accessible in the internet, is impressively loaded with more detail, including the titles of numerous scientific articles he has authored.

Here in the United States or abroad, there may be scientists just as brilliant or more so than professor Raymer. Nonetheless, I view Raymer, at this point at least, as second to none as an illustrious scientist. I also consider my opportunity to run into Raymer to have been a very happy event. I say this even though our initial meeting was not at all under cheerful circumstances due to a most regrettable misunderstanding between us. This arose from a failure on my part to clarify sufficiently a point I sought to make with respect to the nature of physical reality. For this, and for initially mistaking Raymer for someone other than he was, I do humbly apologize.

Happily though, all this has now been resolved between myself and professor Raymer. In a friendly and fruitful discussion we had during the process of clearing the misunderstanding, professor Raymer had a chance to tell me his views concerning what he knows about our physical world and whether he believes it is rational.

Based on what I had previously learned from the writings of other physicists, I had already concluded that physical reality (or the physical world) was NOT rational; thus, I have been referring to physical reality as being “non-rational.” But with the personal encounter I had with professor Raymer, I suddenly had the opportunity to converse over this issue with a real live quantum physicist who possesses one of the highest set of credentials a scientist of this type could have.

The discussions which Raymer and I carried on concluded with Raymer sending me an email which I cite below in its entirety. It is in this email that Raymer finally “guesses,” if I may properly so call it, the actual intent of my language in Part 7.

I debated whether I should cite here Raymer’s email in its entirety, especially in view of the fact that Raymer’s email does contain some brief references to highly technical “stuff” that would certainly overwhelm the average individual. But I chose to do so, reasoning that this, above all, would show one and all reading this series the unquestionably high scientific caliber of the man Michael Raymer.

But in addition, I reasoned that if someone of the prominence of professor Raymer became inclined to peruse my Part 7, as he did, there may be others of the same league with Raymer who will be reading this and who will be highly interested and appreciate reading the brief technical stuff that Raymer presents in his email to me; the rest of us non-technical folks can just skip over this very brief complex detail if we so choose and go on with what is more manageable. Hence, in its entirety, following is what the good and honorable professor Raymer wrote in his very substantive email:

Dear John,

“A thought occurred to me: Perhaps part of our disagreement lies in our use of the word rational, which according to a dictionary means ‘based on or derived from reasoning.’ My defense of physics [presumably Raymer’s original critique of Part 7] as a method of thought was in part a defense of physicists and their way of thought, which is one of the most rational of all human activities. On the other hand, perhaps you don’t dispute this; rather you are more interested in whether the physical world can be considered rational. That is a different matter.

“I would agree that before the quantum era many scientists viewed the world as being physically rational (to coin a phrase), that is to say that each specific event is the result of specific causes, and these causes can be understood by us through rational thinking (determinism). QM [i.e., Quantum Mechanics] has shown this view to be over simple; for example when a radioactive particle decays (causing a click in a Geiger counter), we cannot say that a specific cause made it do so at that time rather earlier or later. It just happens then, and we are pretty certain there is not an underlying impetus for it to happen just then. Einstein and we now call this spontaneous emission, to get the idea across. Even more interesting, as covered in the UCSC book [i.e., “Quantum Enigma” by UCSC professors Rosenblum and Kuttner] and in many other similar popular books (my favorite being the classic In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by Gribbin) is the whole business about the Bell inequalitites involving observations of two particles that are entangled: not only must we banish determinism, but must also abandon what is called “local realism.” LR is the combined assumptions that 1) physical properties of objects have definite values before the object is observed, and 2) no influences can travel faster than the speed of light. Most physicists agree that this conclusion is surprising, maybe even shocking, and that we do not fully understand the situation. (Not to say we will not in the future understand it.)

“One can define, or coin the phrase, ‘physical nonrationality’ to describe this, but I am afraid we are just dealing in semantics, not getting to the heart of what is really going on.

“Below I copy the introduction to a research paper that I recently co-authored. It is about something different from the above, but I think the intro is relevant. The paper is mathematical, but if you want to glance at it, it can be found at [the following site]:

“We are beginning to see in physics that the concept of Information might play an important role in physical theory, but we are the beginning of this development, so I cannot say a lot about it. If interested, you could read Seth Lloyd’s excellent introduction, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos by Seth Lloyd (2007).

Regards, Michael


“Title: Quantum Measurement Reliability versus Reversibility
Authors: S. J. van Enk, Michael G. Raymer

“A tension between the ideas of complete human knowledge (information) and the reversibility of physical dynamics played an important role in the development of the concepts of probability and the predictability (or lack thereof) of physical systems. To Pierre-Simon Laplace [1], in around 1800, the world was fully deterministic, and “Given an intelligence which could comprehend all […] for it, nothing would be uncertain, and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.” For Laplace, there were no nature-imposed limits to gaining complete information or to solving perfectly Newtons equations to predict future events. Only our human ignorance prevented us from doing so. “Probability is relative, in part to this ignorance, in part to our knowledge,” he wrote.

“Henri Poincar´e [2], in the late 1800s, argued instead that while there are no physical limits to gaining information, there are physical limits to solving Newtons equations accurately to predict future events. He wrote that “chance must be other than the name we give our ignorance […] It may happen that slight differences in the initial conditions produce very great differences in the final phenomena; prediction becomes impossible and we have the fortuitous phenomenon.” Poincar´e was the first to get a glimpse of deterministic chaos in Newtonian physics-the exponential sensitivity of outcomes to tiny changes of initial conditions. He also stressed the significance of being able to reverse (hypothetically) a systems dynamics:

“The laws of nature bind the antecedent [past] to the consequent [future] in such a way that the antecedent is as well determined by the consequent as the consequent by the antecedent.” Given a tiny amount of ignorance about the system, chaos would prevent one from perfectly reversing dynamics, even in principle. Therefore, according to Poincar´e, the absence of perfect reversibility is related to the need to use probability theory to describe experimental outcomes.

“Quantum theory changed all of that, of course, because now we know there does exist physical limits to gaining information. The quantum state of an object cannot be determined by any observations on that single object [3, 4]. Can we find a useful role for the idea of dynamical reversibility in the context of quantum physics similar to Poincar´e’s use in classical physics? In the insightful 1965 paper “Take a Photon” [5] by Otto Frisch, a measurement on a single photon traversing an interferometer is discussed in the form of a comedic dialogue between various fictitious persona. One character makes the statement “Irreversibility is the very essence of information […] To measure is to create information; and information is a state-in a machine or an organism-which extends from a certain time into the future.” Before that, Brillouin in his book [6] from 1956 had stressed the fundamental relations between observations and irreversibility, titling one of the sections “An Observation is an Irreversible Process.” Brillouin in his turn cites von Neumann [7] as a source of many examples illustrating tradeoff relations between measurements and irreversibility in quantum mechanics. This reasoning goes back to Niels Bohr [8] and his famous “A phenomenon is not yet a phenomenon until it has been brought to a close by an irreversible act of amplification,” as creatively quoted by John Wheeler [9].”


Very clearly, from what we see in Raymer’s email cited above, it is obvious that Raymer is no second-class scientist; he is “top of the heap,” no doubt about it. But the part in Raymer’s email that I see as most relevant to the issue at hand in this report is something Raymer said in the first paragraph of his email cited above:

“My defense of physics [again, presumably referring to Raymer’s original critique in response to what I said in Part 7] as a method of thought was in part a defense of physicists and their way of thought, which is one of the most rational of all human activities. On the other hand, perhaps you don’t dispute this; rather you are more interested in whether the physical world can be considered rational. That is a different matter.”

Yes, in the course of our discussion, professor Raymer finally arrived at a correct understanding that when I associated the non-rational with quantum or modern physics, I was not intending to say or imply that modern physics, or, for that matter, science generally as a whole, was itself non-rational. Raymer is correct when he says about physics and physicists and their ways of thought that this is “one of the most rational of all human activities” and I fully agree. So when he says at the end of his comment in Part 7 that “modern physics is anything but nonrational,” he does not have to twist my arm to convince me of this; I have never dis-believed or disputed this assertion and I never meant, intended or implied to contradict this belief that Raymer and I hold identically.

Given this, Raymer is then correct when he says, “On the other hand, perhaps you don’t dispute this; rather you are more interested in whether the physical world can be considered rational. That is a different matter.”

Yes, that is a different matter indeed; now we are hitting the real point at issue where the truth of what I meant really is; I have not believed and do not now believe that the physical world is rational; I believe it is non-rational, and in his email, Ramer seems to express essential agreement with this position. However, he makes clear at the end that while he agrees that physical reality is “surprising, maybe even shocking, and that we do not fully understand the situation,” he finds semantic misgivings about using the phrase “physical non-rationality” in reference to physical reality:

“One can define, or coin the phrase, ‘physical nonrationality’ to describe this, but I am afraid we are just dealing in semantics, not getting to the heart of what is really going on.” This issue of semantics is addressed below.

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