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I’m relatively sure that this is reassuring news…

 

image: Paul Wesley Griggs

The quantum world defies the rules of ordinary logic. Particles routinely occupy two or more places at the same time and don’t even have well-defined properties until they are measured. It’s all strange, yet true – quantum theory is the most accurate scientific theory ever tested and its mathematics is perfectly suited to the weirdness of the atomic world. (…)

Human thinking, as many of us know, often fails to respect the principles of classical logic. We make systematic errors when reasoning with probabilities, for example. Physicist Diederik Aerts of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, has shown that these errors actually make sense within a wider logic based on quantum mathematics. The same logic also seems to fit naturally with how people link concepts together, often on the basis of loose associations and blurred boundaries. That means search algorithms based on quantum logic could uncover meanings in masses of text more efficiently than classical algorithms.

It may sound preposterous to imagine that the mathematics of quantum theory has something to say about the nature of human thinking. This is not to say there is anything quantum going on in the brain, only that “quantum” mathematics really isn’t owned by physics at all, and turns out to be better than classical mathematics in capturing the fuzzy and flexible ways that humans use ideas. “People often follow a different way of thinking than the one dictated by classical logic,” says Aerts. “The mathematics of quantum theory turns out to describe this quite well.” (…)

Why should quantum logic fit human behaviour? Peter Bruza at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, suggests the reason is to do with our finite brain being overwhelmed by the complexity of the environment yet having to take action long before it can calculate its way to the certainty demanded by classical logic. Quantum logic may be more suitable to making decisions that work well enough, even if they’re not logically faultless. “The constraints we face are often the natural enemy of getting completely accurate and justified answers,” says Bruza.

This idea fits with the views of some psychologists, who argue that strict classical logic only plays a small part in the human mind. Cognitive psychologist Peter Gardenfors of Lund University in Sweden, for example, argues that much of our thinking operates on a largely unconscious level, where thought follows a less restrictive logic and forms loose associations between concepts.

Aerts agrees. “It seems that we’re really on to something deep we don’t yet fully understand.” This is not to say that the human brain or consciousness have anything to do with quantum physics, only that the mathematical language of quantum theory happens to match the description of human decision-making.

Perhaps only humans, with our seemingly illogical minds, are uniquely capable of discovering and understanding quantum theory.

Read the article in its fascinating entirety at New Scientist (via Amira Skowmorowska’s Lapidarium Notes).

 

As we feel even more justified in agreeing with Emerson that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1692 that Giles Corey, a prosperous farmer and full member of the church in early colonial America, died under judicial torture during the Salem witch trials.  Corey refused to enter a plea; he was crushed to death by stone weights in an attempt to force him to do so.

Under the law at the time, a person who refused to plead could not be tried. To avoid persons cheating justice, the legal remedy was “peine forte et dure“– a process in which the prisoner is stripped naked and placed prone under a heavy board. Rocks or boulders are then laid on the wood. Corey was the only person in New England to suffer this punishment, though Margaret Clitherow was similarly crushed in England in 1586 for refusing to plead to the charge of secretly practicing Catholicism.

Corey’s last words were “more weight.”

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