The Quantum and the “Preternatural”

I recently was reminded of the somewhat archaic term ‘preternatural’ while watching the classic 1963 horror flick “The Haunting.” In this amazing film, a scientist interested in occult matters (including, especially, ghosts) decides to investigate Hill House, a nearly century-old mansion notorious for being cursed with untimely deaths and considered as undeniably haunted. He and several other hand-picked personnel take up residence in the house, and become subject to various terrifying experiences (I won’t include any spoilers here).

The remarkable feature of the film, from my standpoint as a philosopher of science, was the sophistication of the film’s treatment of scientific inquiry through the persona of the ‘ghost-hunting’ scientist. In his attempts to assuage their fears (on the one hand) or dislodge their skepticism (on the other), he engages his fellow residents/subjects in conversation about his goals and methods. He tells them that he is convinced that there is an understandable explanation behind the phenomena, even though that explanation might involve forces or entities previously unknown. These sorts of phenomena he refers to as preternatural. He notes that in ancient times, magnetic phenomena were viewed suspiciously in this way: they were either feared or denied, since no “natural” explanation was known for them. Yet eventually, science was able to account for magnetic phenomena in terms of the notion of a force that acts according to specific laws, and now it is viewed as perfectly “natural.” So the preternatural, in this context, means something at first disturbing and incomprehensible that nevertheless may become familiar and comprehensible once we better understand it through an expanded conceptual awareness. In that sense, the preternatural is distinguished from the supernatural (which means completely outside the domain of natural scientific explanation).

We have been face to face with a very similar situation ever since the discovery of quantum phenomena. Einstein famously called the nonlocal features of quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.”  Just as ancient people faced with magnetic phenomena often denied them because they had no “natural” explanation, many researchers want to deny that such nonlocal phenomena reflect anything that really exists. This is because such phenomena don’t have what many researchers can accept as a natural explanation, where what is currently viewed as “natural” is referred to as “local realism.”

Local realism boils down to the idea that all influences are conveyed from one well-localized object to another on a well-defined spacetime trajectory (like a baseball going from the pitcher to the catcher). In fact, progress was made in explaining magnetic (and also electric) phenomena when physicists could explain those in terms of what is called a ‘field of force’. This classical notion of a field of force is a ‘local realistic’ one, in that it accounts for the motions of objects under the influence of these forces in a local, spacetime-connected way: the force is carried by a kind of ‘bucket brigade’ through space and time at no more than the speed of light.

However, it is now well known (through Bell’s theorem) that quantum influences cannot be explained through this bucket brigate picture of classical fields. The influence due to a measurement on one member of an entangled pair of quanta is communicated apparently instantaneously  to the other, no matter how far away it is.

Many researchers, faced with these results, throw up their hands and say that there can be no natural explanation for the phenomena in terms of real things; that no realistic explanation is possible. Since no self-respecting scientist will dabble in the supernatural, such researchers turn to antirealism: they deny that there is anything physically real beneath these phenomena. In doing so, they assume that ‘natural’ or ‘realistic’ can only mean a ‘bucket brigade’ spacetime process, as described above for classical fields. But perhaps there is an alternative: recognize that these phenomena need not be viewed suspiciously as supernatural, but that they are merely preternatural; and that in order to understand them, we must expand our viewpoint concerning what counts as ‘natural’.

This expansion consists in the idea that there may be more to reality than spacetime, and that quantum theory is what describes that subtler, unseen reality. In this picture, quantum processes underlying the nonlocal entanglement phenomena (and other strange phenomena such as ‘collapse of the wavefunction‘) take place in a realm beneath and beyond the spacetime realm. In fact, collapse is what gives rise to spacetime events. For more on this expanded view of reality, see my new book:UOUR.cover

32 thoughts on “The Quantum and the “Preternatural”

  1. This helps my understanding of quantum mechanics, just as your book has. I was under the impression that ‘quanta’ were little atoms only tinier. Not so much. I like the term “preternatural.” PS: Your website is fantastic!!

    1. Thanks! Yes, the term ‘quantum’ is a little ambiguous because nobody really can visualize what they are. At the most basic level I think they are field excitations (vibrations), which are not spacetime entities. At a higher, emergent level they rise to a ‘transaction’ which is where we get a discrete chunk of energy going from one atom to another.

  2. I should add “in my opinion” a few times in every sentence, but that would be boring to read.

    Perhaps Everett’s many worlds interpretation is for physics something like Oedipus’ complex for psychology – an absurd idea (“Look at me, I am so brave and radical.”) hiding the real filth (two world wars at the dawn of psychoanalysis) or disturbing insights (too panpsychic to handle). Even the best among us seem to fall in that trap – Bohm trying forced coexistence of “hidden variables” and determinism and more recently constructor theory (David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto) as a good starting point to eliminate the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (quantum “handshake” as an inevitable part of construction of physical reality) that Deutsch likes so much ( Those many worlds folks even go so far to deny their own self-awareness (I am delusional when I think that I’m conscious just as, according to Freud, every man who claims that his mother isn’t the hottest woman alive isn’t honest).

    1. Yes, it’s become very fashionable in physics to deny our own basic experience as delusional. That seems to be less threatening than discarding some of our most treasured metaphysical preconceptions. Why not just admit that spacetime is not the whole story about reality? But apparently that is hard for many people to do.

  3. Dear Dr Kastner,
    I have read your book,”Understanding…”,and was amazed at the possibility that the mind is outside spacetime.Certanly,our most profound concepts,such as music,seem to inhabit another world,beyond any physical basis that may generate them!
    However,perhaps you could help me understand your concept of time.If we are constantly creating our individual pasts,through personal transactions,how can we possibly agree about our different histories?How does the transacional theory explain the relativistic concept of simultaneity,for example,if I walk,I walk into someone’s past or future in a galaxy far away?Doesn’t it mean that this past or this future is already there?
    Thanks a lot for your book!
    Lineu Miziara,from Brazil

    1. Thanks Lineu!
      Re your question: Actually in PTI spacetime facts are objective in a certain sense, so we can all agree on those that we know about. Whenever a transaction is actualized, it brings into spacetime two events: (1) emission; (2) absorption; and also the connection between them, which is the transferred quantum. For example, suppose Sue creates an entangled two-electron state and sends the 2 electrons off in opposite directions to Alice and Bob. Alice and Bob’s detectors will each respond with confirmations and we will get a two-particle transaction in which Sue’s emission event is actualized in spacetime, and Alice and Bob’s individual detection (absorption) events are actualized in spacetime. Those three events are part of the spacetime fabric and there can be no disagreement about them; whoever is within communication distance of the events will know about the same events.
      As to the compatibility of this picture with relativity:
      I think your concern is about what is called ‘chronogeometrical fatalism’– a fancy word that just means the idea that relativity implies a ‘block world’ in which all events must ‘already’ exist. I think this commonly accepted idea is wrong. Relativity does not really require this; it’s a case of mistaking the map for the territory. PTI involves a different picture of spacetime: a growing universe picture in which the past is ‘extruded’ from any individual Now. Each individual Now is still a part of spacetime and any observer associated with a changing Now will have his observations constrained by what has been actualized and what is being actualized elsewhere. Any event that becomes observationally accessible to him will be an event that objectively exists within spacetime. Try to remember the knitting analogy–all the stiches are ‘really’ there in spacetime, even though a given observer may not have access to some of them. But for those that are observationally accessible (through a light signal for example), there is no ambiguity about their existence.

      1. Every observer has (or is) an individual ‘now’? That seems consistent with relativity but doesn’t it also imply that consciousness is the source of this ‘now’ and the event sequence associated with it?

      2. Thanks for your question. It depends how we define the concept of ‘Now’. To the extent that ‘Now’ is an experiential notion, then yes, you could say that.

      3. How much are you familiar with Ilya Prigogine’s book “The End of Certainty”? It’s not some obscure work, but chemistry was his primary profession (I guess the only reason to give him the Nobel Prize in chemistry rather than physics). It’s also interesting that not many people are familiar with the weird side of Wolfgang Pauli.

  4. I read it a long time ago. I agree with his general observation that irreversibility has not been adequately explained in the standard approach to physics and QM. In the TI picture, you get irreversibility from collapse. So in that picture, collapse is going on all the time for example in a box of gas — the thermal interactions are collapses.

    1. Dear Dr Kastner,
      I recently read about Aaron O’Connell experiment,in which a macroscopic object is supposed to be in a superposition state.How does PTI explain it?Shouldn’t we expect that the atoms which constitute the lever have already made transactions that bring them to spacetime,therefore eliminating their ambiguity?

      1. Thanks. A nice experiment. There is no conflict here with PTI. The atoms of the resonator are cooled so that their ability to transact is greatly suppressed. In fact the reason they have to go to so much trouble to isolate and cool the resonator is because otherwise it will transact extraneously and therefore ‘decohere’. The more potential emitters and absorbers comprising an object, the harder it is to get it to show quantum superposition effects. This is all in accordance with PTI which gives a quantitative basis for the transition from ‘micro’ (quantum) to ‘macro’ (classical).
        Note also that one does not directly see the superposition — it has to be ‘measured’ to find out what state it’s in. That measurement is a transaction.
        The experiment is similar to seeing large-scale quantum effects such as superfluid He and superconductivity. Of course we can see a sample of superfluid He, but it’s still in a macroscopic quantum state. That is because it scatters photons from a light source to our eyes, so we get information about it. Such scattering is unitary so it’s not a transaction between our eyes and the superfluid sample itself. But it is a kind of indirect participation in a transaction (by influencing the outgoing offer wave that reaches an absorber).

      2. Aren’t the atoms that make up the resonator constantly exchanging waves,so that it becomes a classical object even before it is isolated?

  5. Atoms can participate in unitary-only interactions without becoming localized. A unitary-only interaction does not result in spacetime localization according to PTI. Only if the objects participate in a transaction (non-unitary process) do they become localized (i.e. classically describable), and only with respect to that transaction (they delocalize immediately after that).

    1. Put differently, what we mean by ‘in spacetime’ in this context is simply that a photon was emitted somewhere, reflected from the resonater, and absorbed by our eye. The energy and momentum received by the absorber in our eye gives us information about the resonator simply because the photon from the source scattered from it and thereby underwent a specific momentum change in order to be absorbed by our eye. ‘Spacetime’ is just a construct we use to coordinate our observations.

    1. For a long time l have been struggling with quantum mechanics and the nature of reality,and your book was greatly enlightening!You see,I’m not a physicist,not a mathemathician,but it is inconceivable to me how so many inteligent people can live their ordinary lives without delving into this really fundamental and amazing world!Actually,how can someone even begin to question the misteries of existence nowadays without quantum mechanics?That’s why your book and PTI have become so important to me.
      So perhaps you could help me one more time.This is the point I can’t get yet:Aren’t the inumerable atoms that make up the resonator exchanging not just unitary,but genuine offer and return waves between themselves?Isn’t this the very fact that makes the resonator (a macroscopic object)objectively real,part of spacetime,even when isolated,even when not being observed?And,if so,how can it still inhabit quantum world,and be in a superposition state?

      1. Thanks! Actually the atoms of the resonator are NOT exchanging offers and confirmations among each other when it is cooled to its lowest energy state. That is the key to letting it remain in a superposition of energies. So you ask a great question: how do we see it then? We see it only by way of reflected light from another light source. Its unitary participation in that kind of ‘external’ transaction allows it to remain in a superposition of energies while still yielding some information about its (relative) spacetime location, through the change in the momentum of the reflected photon. This is possible because energy/momentum is allowed to have uncertainty while position and time are more definite. This is a more sophisticated case that I did not address in my ‘Unseen Reality’ book, but I’ll address it in my next book.
        Observable spacetime phenomena are created from photon transactions. But often those transactions involve unitary photon reflections–where the photon reaching our eyes are coming in with a different momentum from what they had when they were emitted (e.g. from the Sun). Our brain infers that the photon did not come from the sun but from some other object, even though that (reflecting) object did not emit the photon. This allows us to create a ‘map’ of where objects are ‘located’ — that map is spacetime. But the objects ultimately live in Quantumland.
        It’s also good to keep in mind that a photon trajectory can itself be in a superposition of momenta– like in a two-slit interference experiment. So you can establish a spacetime interval between the emitter and absorber on the photographic plate, but there is still no fact of the matter about which slit the photon went through. Only the emitter and absorber are actualized events, not the ‘path’ in between. The path in between (established via the photon or other quantum exchanged) establishes the past/future relationship (in that the emission occurs before the absorption), but it is not a spacetime trajectory as is usually though of. The photon is not ‘traveling through spacetime’.
        Macroscopic objects do not have to be engaging in internal transactions, although that is usually the case. The main thing that makes them observable is their participation in transactions between photons emitted somewhere else and absorbers in our sense organs.
        I hope that clarifies it–thanks again for the question. If you’re still not sure, ask more questions!

  6. Hi, Ruth. I’ve been wanting to visit your blog to give you my new email. I chose this entry rather than a more current one, first of all because I liked it–but also because it relates very well to something I’ve been thinking about. Actually, it’s something we talked about back around Christmas, and I’ve thought on it a good deal more since then. I believe the fact that we have a single sense of self is a prime example of the preternatural–and your analogy of the ‘bucket brigade’ of force-fields applies equally well to the brain, which is a ‘bucket brigade’ of neurons (among other cells). So where does the self come from when all the information is compartmentalized in space and time? Even if we find a specific place in the brain where the information is ‘integrated’ (the claustrum, for instance), it will be just another ‘bucket brigade’ laboring in space-time. And while such a bucket brigade works quite well for a classical computer, I see no reason why it should result in a person’s life unfolding as a single narrative.
    This is, in my opinion, a separate problem from the binding problem, which I see as the question of how information is integrated by neurons in space-time, and which conventional neuroscience may someday answer. Actually, I think my problem may be a subpart of the Hard Problem, and, as you wrote above, both conventional wisdom and classical physics cannot resolve it. Personally, I think the solution might be (in addition to the proto-sentience of all energy), something similar to, but not necessarily synonymous with, quantum entanglement (for instance, might entangled electrons experience something like a single sense of self, their information undivided by space and time?). In other words, though each neuron possesses a VERY limited amount of information about the outside world, its ‘I’ information, its knowledge that it is part of me, is relayed to it by a substratum ‘quantum brain’, where all my information is integrated globally.
    Interestingly, I think people who insist that consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenal illusion’ are just being antirealist when it comes to consciousness (which is ironic, because many of them are physics realists). The problem with their insisting that the self is an illusion is that they then have to explain the illusion, which is impossible. Illusions are always the result of an underlying physical reality–like light on the desert-floor to produce a mirage lake–and information-processing…or, to borrow a term from Relativity and the Copenhagen Interpretation, some outside observer: some poor desert wanderer to see the light and interpret it to be a lake. But the brain they are proposing has no ‘light’, no ‘desert floor’ and no ‘Bedouin scanning the horizon’. The brain is a zombie, so there is no self-like processing to produce the illusion, and they have to put the illusion in by hand.
    As always, sorry about the long-windedness. :)

  7. Glad you found it interesting. :) I realize that something as warm as the brain is difficult to see as a quantum object, and I don’t think that’s what I’m suggesting–otherwise our brains wouldn’t always stay inside our skulls!! ;) But I’m thinking, everything in the brain ultimately emerges from QM, and even in the brain, lots of individual particles would be very quickly ‘fuzzing in and out’ of the substratum…and there’s a lot that we don’t know and could never observe. I also think this idea resolves a problem with the idea of universal sentience–namely, ‘Why do some things seem to be unconscious?’ For some reason, a stone doesn’t have the sort of ‘consciousness entanglement’ that exists in a brain (and perhaps in all living tissue), so it can be viewed as a sort of ‘colony’ of quantum ‘micro-minds’ (which I think would still be pretty cool!!)
    Incidentally, this problem we’ve discussed is one of what I think are five fatal problems for the idea of the ‘zombie brain’. 1) Why does consciousness exist? (the Hard Problem). 2) Why does there seem to be a single self? 3) How can I be having a conscious experience…when my brain is not? 4) Why, if my brain is unconscious, am I even able to examine consciousness, let alone care about whether or not I am a zombie? And 5) Why, if consciousness has no effect, did it evolve?
    Hope you’ve had a nice Memorial Day weekend! At the moment, I’m about to have a barbeque. :)

  8. Oh, Ruth–I meant to tell you…I think this ‘model’ of the mind renders an interesting interpretation of the Libet experiment. My favored interpretation is that a lower-level awareness exists well before W, and a version of the experiment indicates we could actually be aware of a simple movement decision roughly 1.5 seconds before movement. On its own, I prefer this to Aaron Schurger’s background-noise interpretation, yet I think the two interpretations may work better if they are combined. For instance, before 1.5 seconds, RP probably really is just background noise, and even the earliest stages of the actual decision (inside 1.5 seconds) might be the brain simply paying conscious attention to that background noise. The point is, a gradual, layered consciousness fits with my ‘model’. The sense of self depends on the nonlocal quantum level, and awareness of a decision begins there as well. All of that knowledge is then projected into space-time, where it is smeared out through all my classical neurons. In this process, the sense of self doesn’t get lost–it’s very ‘flexible’ information. Awareness of the decision, however, becomes much more fragmented (though it certainly isn’t gone). My neurons must then work to ‘rebuild’ the decision in space-time, and the moment when they catch up to what they already know–in other words, catching up with the ‘substratum brain’, is W. Essentially, our space-time brains are consciously working off of a blueprint drafted outside the space-time universe.
    Incidentally, this reminds me of the fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, and his less-famous masterpiece (less famous than The Lord of the Rings): The Silmarillion. In this book, the God of Tolkien’s alternate reality first creates his angels and the universe out of pure thought, and it all exists ONLY as pure thought. Then the angels are sent ‘into Time’ to make this world physical reality…yet when they set out to do so, they have to struggle to remember what the ‘pure thought universe’ looked like, because they lose much of their original knowledge by ‘entering into Time’. Again, sorry about the long-windedness. ;)

  9. Actually, (you’ll like this) Tolkien’s universe begins as music. The music of Illuvatar (God) and of the Ainur (angels). The music exists first, then the Ainur go into the physical realm to build the world from their memories of the music. Yet each one has incomplete knowledge of ‘the symphony’, and, it seems, an incomplete memory of even his or her own part in it. It sounds a bit like the above model of the mind, and even more like PTI and other ideas from modern science.
    I’m quite a fan of Tolkien, too, though not so much that I learned to speak Elvish. ;)

  10. Sorry for all the posts–I keep making mistakes. I’d say it was a senior moment, but I’m only 37. I’ve decided to ask you what I originally meant to ask when I typed ‘by the way’ but then deleted the rest of the sentence (so that you won’t think ‘BTW!!’ was me swearing). ;) I’ve just been wondering whether there’s a kind of chicken-and-egg quality to this ‘substratum brain’ ‘classical brain’ discussion. Is the fullest realization of the self inside or outside spacetime (I would say, ‘inside’…at least while we are alive…while I think you might say ‘outside’). I don’t think there’s too much doubt, at least, that the mind BEGINS outside, but then it actualizes itself, reaching (I think) a fuller realization, in space-time. What’s chicken-and-egg about all of it is that, yes, everything in spacetime emerges from QM, but then the QM possibilities are all possibilities ABOUT space-time. The two worlds seem to need each other, don’t they? Have a nice night…and sorry about the goof-ups above!!!

    1. I do think there’s an interplay, which I view as possibles>actuals>possibles (exploring this with some colleagues right now, who see the same sort of process)

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