In classical mechanics, every object has a definite position, even if we don’t know what the position is and can ascribe probabilities only to the various alternatives. The miracle of quantum mechanics was that there is no longer any such thing as “where the object is”; it’s in a true simultaneous superposition of the possible alternatives, which we know must be true via experiments that demonstrate the reality of interference. But if the quantum state describing the object is entangled with something in the outside world, interference becomes impossible, and we’re back to the traditional classical way of looking at things. As far as we are concerned, the object is in one state or another, even if the best we can do is assign a probability to the different alternatives—the probabilities are expressing our ignorance, not the underlying reality. If the quantum state of some particular subset of the universe represents a true superposition that is un-entangled with the rest of the world, we say it is “coherent”; if the superposition has been ruined by becoming entangled with something outside, we say that it has become “decoherent.” (That’s why, in the many-worlds view, setting up surveillance cameras counts as making an observation; the state of the cat became entangled with the state of the cameras.)

In the many-worlds interpretation, decoherence clearly plays a crucial role in the apparent process of wave function collapse. The point is not that there is something special or unique about “consciousness” or “observers,” other than the fact that they are complicated macroscopic objects. The point is that any complicated macroscopic object is inevitably going to be interacting (and therefore entangled) with the outside world, and it’s hopeless to imagine keeping track of the precise form of that entanglement. For a tiny microscopic system such as an individual electron, we can isolate it and put it into a true quantum superposition that is not entangled with the state of any other particles, but for a messy system such as a human being (or a secret surveillance camera, for that matter) that’s just not possible.

In that case, our simple picture in which the state of our perceptions becomes entangled with the state of Miss Kitty’s location is an oversimplification. A crucial part of the story is played by the entanglement of us with the external world.

Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here


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