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Monday, June 10, 2013

Physicists Rediscover Sheldrake's Morphic Fields ... and my Morphic Pilot Wave ...

Today Damien Broderick pointed out to me an Edge interview with physicist Lee Smolin, which led me to a fascinating article by Smolin titled "Precedence and freedom in quantum physics."

Smolin's article is deep and thought-provoking -- and overlaps greatly with prior thinking by some other folks, such as Rupert Sheldrake and Charles Peirce and myself.


Smolin's Principle of Precedence


Smolin explores augmenting the standard axiomatic foundation of quantum physics with an additional axiom, namely the

Principle of precedence: When a quantum process terminating in a measurement has many precedents, which are instances where an identically prepared system was subject to the same measurement in the past, the outcome of the present measurement is deter- mined by picking randomly from the ensemble of precedents of that measurement. 

Or as he puts it in his Edge interview, "nature is developing habits as it goes along."

His goal is to explore the possibility that the laws of nature can be viewed as accumulating historically via the principle of precedence, rather than being fixed and immutable laws...



Sheldrake's Morphic Fields


But this principle is awfully reminiscent of Rupert Sheldrake's (highly controversial) notion of morphic fields...

I propose that memory is inherent in nature. Most of the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. 

The idea is that there is a kind of memory in nature. Each kind of thing has a collective memory. So, take a squirrel living in New York now. That squirrel is being influenced by all past squirrels."

The habits of nature depend on non-local similarity reinforcement. Through morphic resonance, the patterns of activity in self-organizing systems are influenced by similar patterns in the past, giving each species and each kind of self-organizing system a collective memory.


Sheldrake's core idea regarding morphic fields is that, once a pattern occurs somewhere in the universe, it is more likely to occur elsewhere.

The parallel between Smolin's and Sheldrake's ideas is fairly obvious, and Bruce Sterling notes it in a comment on Smolin's Edge article:  "If nature "forms habits," then that's very Rupert Sheldrake"....

Both Smolin and Sheldrake are positing that when something has occurred in the universe, this increases the probability of similar things occurring in the future -- in a nonlocal way, separate from ordinary processes of physical causation...

I have no idea whether Smolin will appreciate this parallel, though.   Sheldrake has developed his morphic field idea fairly extensively as an explanation for psi phenomena, which are widely viewed with skepticism within the scientific community, although they are broadly accepted by the general public, and in my own opinion the evidence for their reality in many cases is pretty strong (see my brief page on psi here).


Peirce's Tendency to Take Habits



The same core idea that Smolin and Sheldrake have articulated can be found considerably earlier in the philosophy of Charles S. Peirce, who spoke at the turn of the 19th century of the "tendency to take habits" as a key aspect of the universe, and opined that...

Logical analysis applied to mental phenomenon shows that there is but one law of mind, namely that ideas tend to spread continuously and to affect certain others which stand to them in a peculiar relation of affectibility. In this spreading they lose intensity, and especially the power of affecting others, but gain generality and become welded with other ideas.

...

Matter is but mind hide-bound with habit

...

The one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws. But before this can be accepted it must show itself capable of explaining the tridimensionality of space, the laws of motion, and the general characteristics of the universe, with mathematical clearness and precision ; for no less should be demanded of every Philosophy.

It seems that Smolin is now attempting to push in precisely the direction Peirce was suggesting in the final quote given above...



Goertzel's Morphic Pilot Wave


I also notice an interesting parallel between Smolin's paper and my own paper on Morphic Pilot Theory from a few years ago.   In that paper, I was trying to connect Sheldrake's morphic field idea with quantum theory, and I posited that one could look at the tendency to take habits as an additional property of the "pilot waves" that Bohmian theory posits to underly quantum reality.   Specifically, I argued that if one viewed pilot waves as being directed by simplicity, as quantified e.g. by algorithmic information (in which something is simpler if it can be computed by a shorter program), then one could derive a variant of the morphic field hypothesis as a consequence.

Lo and behold, reading Smolin's paper carefully, what do I find?   Smolin notes that, according to his theory:

  • Novel occurrences are in a sense maximally random
  • Occurrences that have happened many times before, are shown via the principle of precedence to simply obey good old quantum mechanics
  • Occurrences that have happened only a few times before, are not explained explicitly by his principle of precedence -- but may perhaps be explained by an additional principle stating that the universe is biased toward outcomes that are simpler in the sense of algorithmic information theory (he attributes this suggestion to some of his colleagues)

Well, well, well....   Obviously Smolin did not read my speculative paper on quantum theory and psi, but he and his colleagues independently arrived at a similar conclusion to that paper.   So science often goes.

All this, of course, is still preliminary and speculative.  For one thing, I find the axiomatic foundation for quantum mechanics that Smolin chose a bit inelegant, though probably better than the Bohmian pilot waves I used in my own paper; and I would love to see how an algorithmic simplicity assumption can be integrated into the much prettier and more fundamental symmetry based foundation for quantum mechanics recently articulated by Kevin Knuth and his colleagues.


But one does see, here, an interesting direction for bridge-building between quantum theory, morphic fields and psi phenomena.   The connection between psi and quantum mechanics has been discussed a lot, but I've never been convinced that quantum theory on its own can explain psi.  In my Morphic Pilot paper I suggested that augmenting quantum theory with an algorithmic information theory based morphic field type assumption might do the trick.   Without explicitly thinking about psi at all (so far as I can tell, anyway), Smolin has made an interesting move in the same direction.


Quantum Darwinism and State Broadcasting


After writing the above, another suggestion of Damien's led me indirectly to a paper by some different physicists (not collaborators of Smolin), which suggests that Quantum Darwinism (a recent addition to the pantheon of
foundations for quantum physics) may be derivable from a phenomenon called

state broadcasting—a process aimed at proliferating a given state through correlated copies
This appears to me much like a different way of looking at Smolin's Principle of Precedence...

Of course, to get morphic resonance out of this, one would still need some addition such as Smolin's & my suggestion of an Occam's (Aristotle's) Razor -like simplicity principle for the case where there are not that many correlated copies...

All this also makes me wonder about the findings of Aerts, Atmanspacher and others regarding the necessity, in some case, of modeling classical systems using quantum mathematics and logic.   Could it be the case that, whenever a system internally displays a morphic resonance type dynamic, it is best to model it using some variant of quantum math?



Lots of yummy food for thought!