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An interpretation of quantum mechanics is an attempt to explain how the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics might correspond to experienced reality. Although quantum mechanics has held up to rigorous and extremely precise tests in an extraordinarily broad range of experiments, there exist a number of contending schools of thought over their interpretation. These views on interpretation differ on such fundamental questions as whether quantum mechanics is deterministic or stochastic, which elements of quantum mechanics can be considered real, and what the nature of measurement is, among other matters.
Despite nearly a century of debate and experiment, no consensus has been reached among physicists and philosophers of physics concerning which interpretation best "represents" reality.
The definition of quantum theorists' terms, such as wave function and matrix mechanics, progressed through many stages. For instance, Erwin Schrödinger originally viewed the electron's wave function as its charge density smeared across space, but Max Born reinterpreted the absolute square value of the wave function as the electron's probability density distributed across space.: 24–33
The views of several early pioneers of quantum mechanics, such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, are often grouped together as the "Copenhagen interpretation", though physicists and historians of physics have argued that this terminology obscures differences between the views so designated. Copenhagen-type ideas were never universally embraced, and challenges to a perceived Copenhagen orthodoxy gained increasing attention in the 1950s with the pilot-wave interpretation of David Bohm and the many-worlds interpretation of Hugh Everett III.
The physicist N. David Mermin once quipped, "New interpretations appear every year. None ever disappear." As a rough guide to development of the mainstream view during the 1990s and 2000s, a "snapshot" of opinions was collected in a poll by Schlosshauer et al. at the "Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality" conference of July 2011. The authors reference a similarly informal poll carried out by Max Tegmark at the "Fundamental Problems in Quantum Theory" conference in August 1997. The main conclusion of the authors is that "the Copenhagen interpretation still reigns supreme", receiving the most votes in their poll (42%), besides the rise to mainstream notability of the many-worlds interpretations: "The Copenhagen interpretation still reigns supreme here, especially if we lump it together with intellectual offsprings such as information-based interpretations and the Quantum Bayesian interpretation. In Tegmark's poll, the Everett interpretation received 17% of the vote, which is similar to the number of votes (18%) in our poll."
Some concepts originating from studies of interpretations have found more practical application in quantum information science.
More or less, all interpretations of quantum mechanics share two qualities:
Two qualities vary among interpretations:
In philosophy of science, the distinction of knowledge versus reality is termed epistemic versus ontic. A general law is a regularity of outcomes (epistemic), whereas a causal mechanism may regulate the outcomes (ontic). A phenomenon can receive interpretation either ontic or epistemic. For instance, indeterminism may be attributed to limitations of human observation and perception (epistemic), or may be explained as a real existing maybe encoded in the universe (ontic). Confusing the epistemic with the ontic, if for example one were to presume that a general law actually "governs" outcomes—and that the statement of a regularity has the role of a causal mechanism—is a category mistake.
In a broad sense, scientific theory can be viewed as offering scientific realism—approximately true description or explanation of the natural world—or might be perceived with antirealism. A realist stance seeks the epistemic and the ontic, whereas an antirealist stance seeks epistemic but not the ontic. In the 20th century's first half, antirealism was mainly logical positivism, which sought to exclude unobservable aspects of reality from scientific theory.
Since the 1950s, antirealism is more modest, usually instrumentalism, permitting talk of unobservable aspects, but ultimately discarding the very question of realism and posing scientific theory as a tool to help humans make predictions, not to attain metaphysical understanding of the world. The instrumentalist view is carried by the famous quote of David Mermin, "Shut up and calculate", often misattributed to Richard Feynman.
Other approaches to resolve conceptual problems introduce new mathematical formalism, and so propose alternative theories with their interpretations. An example is Bohmian mechanics, whose empirical equivalence with the three standard formalisms—Schrödinger's wave mechanics, Heisenberg's matrix mechanics, and Feynman's path integral formalism—has been demonstrated.
Main article: Copenhagen interpretation
The Copenhagen interpretation is a collection of views about the meaning of quantum mechanics principally attributed to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. It is one of the oldest attitudes towards quantum mechanics, as features of it date to the development of quantum mechanics during 1925–1927, and it remains one of the most commonly taught. There is no definitive historical statement of what is the Copenhagen interpretation, and there were in particular fundamental disagreements between the views of Bohr and Heisenberg. For example, Heisenberg emphasized a sharp "cut" between the observer (or the instrument) and the system being observed,: 133 while Bohr offered an interpretation that is independent of a subjective observer or measurement or collapse, which relies on an "irreversible" or effectively irreversible process which imparts the classical behavior of "observation" or "measurement".
Features common to Copenhagen-type interpretations include the idea that quantum mechanics is intrinsically indeterministic, with probabilities calculated using the Born rule, and the principle of complementarity, which states that objects have certain pairs of complementary properties which cannot all be observed or measured simultaneously. Moreover, the act of "observing" or "measuring" an object is irreversible, no truth can be attributed to an object except according to the results of its measurement. Copenhagen-type interpretations hold that quantum descriptions are objective, in that they are independent of physicists' mental arbitrariness.: 85–90 The statistical interpretation of wavefunctions due to Max Born differs sharply from Schrödinger's original intent, which was to have a theory with continuous time evolution and in which wavefunctions directly described physical reality.: 24–33 
Main article: Many-worlds interpretation
The many-worlds interpretation is an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a universal wavefunction obeys the same deterministic, reversible laws at all times; in particular there is no (indeterministic and irreversible) wavefunction collapse associated with measurement. The phenomena associated with measurement are claimed to be explained by decoherence, which occurs when states interact with the environment. More precisely, the parts of the wavefunction describing observers become increasingly entangled with the parts of the wavefunction describing their experiments. Although all possible outcomes of experiments continue to lie in the wavefunction's support, the times at which they become correlated with observers effectively "split" the universe into mutually unobservable alternate histories.
Quantum informational approaches have attracted growing support. They subdivide into two kinds.
The state is not an objective property of an individual system but is that information, obtained from a knowledge of how a system was prepared, which can be used for making predictions about future measurements. ...A quantum mechanical state being a summary of the observer's information about an individual physical system changes both by dynamical laws, and whenever the observer acquires new information about the system through the process of measurement. The existence of two laws for the evolution of the state vector...becomes problematical only if it is believed that the state vector is an objective property of the system...The "reduction of the wavepacket" does take place in the consciousness of the observer, not because of any unique physical process which takes place there, but only because the state is a construct of the observer and not an objective property of the physical system.
Main article: Relational quantum mechanics
The essential idea behind relational quantum mechanics, following the precedent of special relativity, is that different observers may give different accounts of the same series of events: for example, to one observer at a given point in time, a system may be in a single, "collapsed" eigenstate, while to another observer at the same time, it may be in a superposition of two or more states. Consequently, if quantum mechanics is to be a complete theory, relational quantum mechanics argues that the notion of "state" describes not the observed system itself, but the relationship, or correlation, between the system and its observer(s). The state vector of conventional quantum mechanics becomes a description of the correlation of some degrees of freedom in the observer, with respect to the observed system. However, it is held by relational quantum mechanics that this applies to all physical objects, whether or not they are conscious or macroscopic. Any "measurement event" is seen simply as an ordinary physical interaction, an establishment of the sort of correlation discussed above. Thus the physical content of the theory has to do not with objects themselves, but the relations between them.
Main article: Quantum Bayesianism
QBism, which originally stood for "quantum Bayesianism", is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that takes an agent's actions and experiences as the central concerns of the theory. This interpretation is distinguished by its use of a subjective Bayesian account of probabilities to understand the quantum mechanical Born rule as a normative addition to good decision-making. QBism draws from the fields of quantum information and Bayesian probability and aims to eliminate the interpretational conundrums that have beset quantum theory.
QBism deals with common questions in the interpretation of quantum theory about the nature of wavefunction superposition, quantum measurement, and entanglement. According to QBism, many, but not all, aspects of the quantum formalism are subjective in nature. For example, in this interpretation, a quantum state is not an element of reality—instead it represents the degrees of belief an agent has about the possible outcomes of measurements. For this reason, some philosophers of science have deemed QBism a form of anti-realism. The originators of the interpretation disagree with this characterization, proposing instead that the theory more properly aligns with a kind of realism they call "participatory realism", wherein reality consists of more than can be captured by any putative third-person account of it.
Main article: Consistent histories
The consistent histories interpretation generalizes the conventional Copenhagen interpretation and attempts to provide a natural interpretation of quantum cosmology. The theory is based on a consistency criterion that allows the history of a system to be described so that the probabilities for each history obey the additive rules of classical probability. It is claimed to be consistent with the Schrödinger equation.
According to this interpretation, the purpose of a quantum-mechanical theory is to predict the relative probabilities of various alternative histories (for example, of a particle).
Main article: Ensemble interpretation
The ensemble interpretation, also called the statistical interpretation, can be viewed as a minimalist interpretation. That is, it claims to make the fewest assumptions associated with the standard mathematics. It takes the statistical interpretation of Born to the fullest extent. The interpretation states that the wave function does not apply to an individual system – for example, a single particle – but is an abstract statistical quantity that only applies to an ensemble (a vast multitude) of similarly prepared systems or particles. In the words of Einstein:
The attempt to conceive the quantum-theoretical description as the complete description of the individual systems leads to unnatural theoretical interpretations, which become immediately unnecessary if one accepts the interpretation that the description refers to ensembles of systems and not to individual systems.— Einstein in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. P.A. Schilpp (Harper & Row, New York)
The most prominent current advocate of the ensemble interpretation is Leslie E. Ballentine, professor at Simon Fraser University, author of the text book Quantum Mechanics, A Modern Development.
Main article: De Broglie–Bohm theory
The de Broglie–Bohm theory of quantum mechanics (also known as the pilot wave theory) is a theory by Louis de Broglie and extended later by David Bohm to include measurements. Particles, which always have positions, are guided by the wavefunction. The wavefunction evolves according to the Schrödinger wave equation, and the wavefunction never collapses. The theory takes place in a single spacetime, is non-local, and is deterministic. The simultaneous determination of a particle's position and velocity is subject to the usual uncertainty principle constraint. The theory is considered to be a hidden-variable theory, and by embracing non-locality it satisfies Bell's inequality. The measurement problem is resolved, since the particles have definite positions at all times. Collapse is explained as phenomenological.
Main article: Quantum Darwinism
Quantum Darwinism is a theory meant to explain the emergence of the classical world from the quantum world as due to a process of Darwinian natural selection induced by the environment interacting with the quantum system; where the many possible quantum states are selected against in favor of a stable pointer state. It was proposed in 2003 by Wojciech Zurek and a group of collaborators including Ollivier, Poulin, Paz and Blume-Kohout. The development of the theory is due to the integration of a number of Zurek's research topics pursued over the course of twenty-five years including: pointer states, einselection and decoherence.
Main article: Transactional interpretation
The transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics (TIQM) by John G. Cramer is an interpretation of quantum mechanics inspired by the Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory. It describes the collapse of the wave function as resulting from a time-symmetric transaction between a possibility wave from the source to the receiver (the wave function) and a possibility wave from the receiver to source (the complex conjugate of the wave function). This interpretation of quantum mechanics is unique in that it not only views the wave function as a real entity, but the complex conjugate of the wave function, which appears in the Born rule for calculating the expected value for an observable, as also real.
Main article: Objective-collapse theory
Objective-collapse theories differ from the Copenhagen interpretation by regarding both the wave function and the process of collapse as ontologically objective (meaning these exist and occur independent of the observer). In objective theories, collapse occurs either randomly ("spontaneous localization") or when some physical threshold is reached, with observers having no special role. Thus, objective-collapse theories are realistic, indeterministic, no-hidden-variables theories. Standard quantum mechanics does not specify any mechanism of collapse; QM would need to be extended if objective collapse is correct. The requirement for an extension to QM means that objective collapse is more of a theory than an interpretation. Examples include
Main article: Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation
In his treatise The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, John von Neumann deeply analyzed the so-called measurement problem. He concluded that the entire physical universe could be made subject to the Schrödinger equation (the universal wave function). He also described how measurement could cause a collapse of the wave function. This point of view was prominently expanded on by Eugene Wigner, who argued that human experimenter consciousness (or maybe even dog consciousness) was critical for the collapse, but he later abandoned this interpretation.
Main article: Quantum logic
Quantum logic can be regarded as a kind of propositional logic suitable for understanding the apparent anomalies regarding quantum measurement, most notably those concerning composition of measurement operations of complementary variables. This research area and its name originated in the 1936 paper by Garrett Birkhoff and John von Neumann, who attempted to reconcile some of the apparent inconsistencies of classical boolean logic with the facts related to measurement and observation in quantum mechanics.
Modal interpretations of quantum mechanics were first conceived of in 1972 by Bas van Fraassen, in his paper "A formal approach to the philosophy of science". Van Fraassen introduced a distinction between a dynamical state, which describes what might be true about a system and which always evolves according to the Schrödinger equation, and a value state, which indicates what is actually true about a system at a given time. The term "modal interpretation" now is used to describe a larger set of models that grew out of this approach. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes several versions, including proposals by Kochen, Dieks, Clifton, Dickson, and Bub. According to Michel Bitbol, Schrödinger's views on how to interpret quantum mechanics progressed through as many as four stages, ending with a non-collapse view that in respects resembles the interpretations of Everett and van Fraassen. Because Schrödinger subscribed to a kind of post-Machian neutral monism, in which "matter" and "mind" are only different aspects or arrangements of the same common elements, treating the wavefunction as ontic and treating it as epistemic became interchangeable.
Time-symmetric interpretations of quantum mechanics were first suggested by Walter Schottky in 1921. Several theories have been proposed which modify the equations of quantum mechanics to be symmetric with respect to time reversal. (See Wheeler–Feynman time-symmetric theory.) This creates retrocausality: events in the future can affect ones in the past, exactly as events in the past can affect ones in the future. In these theories, a single measurement cannot fully determine the state of a system (making them a type of hidden-variables theory), but given two measurements performed at different times, it is possible to calculate the exact state of the system at all intermediate times. The collapse of the wavefunction is therefore not a physical change to the system, just a change in our knowledge of it due to the second measurement. Similarly, they explain entanglement as not being a true physical state but just an illusion created by ignoring retrocausality. The point where two particles appear to "become entangled" is simply a point where each particle is being influenced by events that occur to the other particle in the future.
Not all advocates of time-symmetric causality favour modifying the unitary dynamics of standard quantum mechanics. Thus a leading exponent of the two-state vector formalism, Lev Vaidman, states that the two-state vector formalism dovetails well with Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation.
Main article: Minority interpretations of quantum mechanics
As well as the mainstream interpretations discussed above, a number of other interpretations have been proposed which have not made a significant scientific impact for whatever reason. These range from proposals by mainstream physicists to the more occult ideas of quantum mysticism.
The most common interpretations are summarized in the table below. The values shown in the cells of the table are not without controversy, for the precise meanings of some of the concepts involved are unclear and, in fact, are themselves at the center of the controversy surrounding the given interpretation. For another table comparing interpretations of quantum theory, see reference.
No experimental evidence exists that distinguishes among these interpretations. To that extent, the physical theory stands, and is consistent with itself and with reality; difficulties arise only when one attempts to "interpret" the theory. Nevertheless, designing experiments which would test the various interpretations is the subject of active research.
Most of these interpretations have variants. For example, it is difficult to get a precise definition of the Copenhagen interpretation as it was developed and argued about by many people.
|Interpretation||Year published||Author(s)||Deterministic?||Ontic wavefunction?||Unique
|Ensemble interpretation||1926||Max Born||Agnostic||No||Yes||Agnostic||No||No||No||No||No|
|Copenhagen interpretation||1927–||Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg||No||Some||Yes||No||Some||No||Yes||No||No|
|Louis de Broglie, David Bohm||Yes||Yes[a]||Yes[b]||Yes||Phenomenological||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Quantum logic||1936||Garrett Birkhoff||Agnostic||Agnostic||Yes[c]||No||No||Interpretational[d]||Agnostic||No||No|
|Many-worlds interpretation||1957||Hugh Everett||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No||Yes||Ill-posed||Yes|
|Consciousness causes collapse||1961–
|John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Henry Stapp||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Causal||No||No||Yes|
|Many-minds interpretation||1970||H. Dieter Zeh||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||Interpretational[e]||Yes||Ill-posed||Yes|
|Consistent histories||1984||Robert B. Griffiths||No||No||No||No||No[f]||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Transactional interpretation||1986||John G. Cramer||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes[g]||No||No[h]||Yes||No|
|Relational interpretation||1994||Carlo Rovelli||No||No||Agnostic[i]||No||Yes[j]||Intrinsic[k]||Possibly[l]||No||No|
|QBism||2010||Christopher Fuchs, Rüdiger Schack||No||No[m]||Agnostic[n]||No||Yes[o]||Intrinsic[p]||Yes||No||No|
Although interpretational opinions are openly and widely discussed today, that was not always the case. A notable exponent of a tendency of silence was Paul Dirac who once wrote: "The interpretation of quantum mechanics has been dealt with by many authors, and I do not want to discuss it here. I want to deal with more fundamental things." This position is not uncommon among practitioners of quantum mechanics. Others, like Nico van Kampen and Willis Lamb, have openly criticized non-orthodox interpretations of quantum mechanics.
The role of irreversibility in the theory of measurement has been emphasized by many. Only this way can a permanent record be obtained. The fact that separate pointer positions must be of the asymptotic nature usually associated with irreversibility has been utilized in the measurement theory of Daneri, Loinger and Prosperi (1962). It has been accepted as a formal representation of Bohr's ideas by Rosenfeld (1966).
This resolution of EPR, which Rosen later characterized as a stipulation that "[physical] reality is whatever quantum mechanics is capable of describing," was applauded for its clarity by Bohr's close associates. Heisenberg, Klein, and Kramers particularly liked the reduction of the EPR thought experiment to the familiar problem of the diaphragm with holes. Perhaps the most interesting responses came from Bohr's old friend, the physicist C. W. Oseen, and from his new ally, the physicist-philosopher Philipp Frank. Oseen had understood at last what he now recognized that Bohr had been saying all along: before a measurement an atom's state with respect to the quantity measured is undefined. Frank saw that Bohr had indeed transfixed EPR on an essential ambiguity. What Frank liked most was the implication that physicists should avoid the term and concept of "physical reality". He understood Bohr to mean that complementarity characterized measuring procedures, not the things measured. Bohr acknowledged that that was indeed what he had had in mind.
For a start, discussions of the Copenhagen interpretation in the literature are ambiguous between two different views of the wave function, both of which of course accept the Born interpretation. Sometimes the Copenhagen (and Bohr’s) interpretation is associated with the epistemic view of the quantum state, according to which the quantum state is but a representation of our knowledge of the physical system, and thus not a real existing entity in itself. On this view the ‘collapse’ of the wave function is not a physical process, and it just reflects an update of our information about the system; see e.g. Zeilinger (1999). By contrast, the Copenhagen interpretation has also been associated with an ontological view of the quantum state, in which the wave function somehow describes a real wave, and the collapse is a real physical process – presumably induced by the observer. This ontological view is usually attributed to von Neumann in his 1932 textbook exposition of quantum mechanics; see e.g. Henderson (2010). [...] Thus, for Bohr, the wave function is a representation of a quantum system in a particular, classically described, experimental context. Three important points need to be made regarding this contextuality: 1) When a measurement is performed (that is, when an irreversible recording has been made; see below), then the context changes, and hence the wave function changes. This can formally be seen as a "collapse" of the wave function, with the square quotes indicating that we are not talking about a physical process in which a real wave collapses.
Of course it is entirely justified to imagine this transition, from the possible to the actual, moved to an earlier point of time, for the observer himself does not produce the transition; but it cannot be moved back to a time when the compound system was still separate from the external world, because such an assumption would not be compatible with the validity of quantum mechanics for the closed system. We see from this that a system cut off from the external world is potential but not actual in character, or, as BOHR has often expressed it, that the system cannot be described in terms of the classical concepts. We may say that the state of the closed system represented by a Hilbert vector is indeed objective, but not real, and that the classical idea of "objectively real things" must here, to this extent, be abandoned.
The description of atomic phenomena has in these respects a perfectly objective character, in the sense that no explicit reference is made to any individual observer and that therefore, with proper regard to relativistic exigencies, no ambiguity is involved in the communication of information.
Almost all authors below are professional physicists.