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TobyBartels comments on Probability is in the Mind - Less Wrong

60 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 March 2008 04:08AM

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Comment author: TobyBartels 10 July 2011 01:01:14AM *  3 points [-]

Probability theory is the special case of quantum mechanics in which ones algebra of observables is commutative.

This is horribly misleading. Bayesian probability can be applied perfectly well in a universe that obeys MWI while being kept completely separate mathematically from the quantum mechanical uncertainty.

As a mathematical statement, what Baez says is certainly correct (at least for some reasonable mathematical formalisations of ‘probability theory’ and ‘quantum mechanics’). Note that Baez is specifically discussing quantum statistical mechanics (which I don't think he makes clear); non-statistical quantum mechanics is a different special case which (barring trivialities) is completely disjoint from probability theory.

Of course, the statement can still be misleading; as you note, it's perfectly possible to interpret quantum statistical physics by tacking Bayesian probability on top of a many-worlds interpretation of non-statistical quantum mechanics. That is, it's possible but (I argue) unwise; because if you do this, then your beliefs do not pay rent!

The classic example is a spin-1/2 particle that you believe to be spin-up with 50% probability and spin-down with 50% probability. (I mean probability here, not a superposition.) An alternative map is that you believe that the particle is spin-right with 50% probability and spin-left with 50% probability. (Now superposition does play a part, as spin-right and spin-left are both equally weighted superpositions of spin-up and spin-down, but with opposite relative phases.) From the Bayesian-probability-tacked-onto-MWI point of view, these are two very different maps that describe incompatible territories. Yet no possible observation can ever distinguish these! Specifically, if you measure the spin of the particle along any axis, both maps predict that you will measure the spin to be in one direction with 50% probability and in the other direction with 50% probability. (The wavefunctions give Born probabilities for the observations, which are then weighted according to your Bayesian probabilities for the wavefunctions, giving the result of 50% every time.)

In statistical mechanics as it is practised, no distinction is made between these two maps. (And since the distinction pays no rent in terms of predictions, I argue that no distinction should be made.) They are both described by the same ‘density matrix’; this is a generalisation of the notion of quantum state as a wave vector. (Specifically, the unit vectors up to phase in the Hilbert space describe the pure states of the system, which are only a degenerate case of the mixed states described by the density matrices.) A lot of the language of statistical mechanics is frequentist-influenced talk about ‘ensembles’, but if you just reinterpret all of this consistently in a Bayesian way, then the practice of statistical mechanics gives you the Bayesian interpretation.

I am saying that the wave function (to be specific) describes one's knowledge about position, momentum, spin, etc., but I make no claim that these have any ‘real' values.

What do you have knowledge of then? Or is there some concept that could be described as having knowledge of something without that thing having an actual value?

This is the weak point in the Bayesian interpretation of quantum mechanics. I find it very analogous to the problem of interpreting the Born probabilities in MWI. Eliezer cannot yet clearly answer these questions that he poses:

What are the Born probabilities, probabilities of? Here's the map - where's the territory?

And neither can I (at least, not in a way that would satisfy him). In the all-Bayesian interpretation, the Born probabilities are simply Bayesian probabilities, so there's no special problems about them; but as you point out, it's still hard to say what the territory is like.

My best answer is simply what you suggest, that our maps of the universe assign probabilities to various possible values of things that do not (necessarily) have any actual values. This may seem like a counterintuitive thing to do, but it works, and we have no other way of making a map.

By the way, I've thought of a couple more references:

Baez (1993) is where I really learnt quantum statistical mechanics (despite having earlier taken a course in it), and my first (subtle) introduction to the Bayesian interpretation (not made explicit here). Note the talk about the ‘post-Everett school’, and recall that Everett is credited with founding the many-worlds interpretation (although he avoided the term ‘MWI’). The Bayesian interpretation could have been understood in the 1930s (and I have heard it argued, albeit unconvincingly, that it is what Bohr really meant all along), but it's really best understood in light of the modern understanding of decoherence that Everett started. We all-Bayesians are united with the many-worlders (and the Bohmians) in decrying the mystical separation of the universe into ‘quantum’ and ‘classical’ worlds and the reality of the ‘collapse of the wavefunction’. (That is, we do believe in the collapse of the wavefunction, but not in the territory; for us, it is simply the process of updating the map on the basis of new information, that is the application of a suitably generalised Bayes's Theorem.) We just think that the many-worlders have some unnecessary ontological baggage (like the Bohmians, but to a lesser degree).

Bartels (1998) is my first attempt to explain the Bayesian interpretation (on Usenet), albeit not a very good one. It's overly mathematical (and poorly so, since W*-algebras make a better mathematical foundation than C*-algebras). But it does include things that I haven't said here, (including mathematical details that you might happen to want). Still (even for the mathematics), if you read only one, read Baez.

Edit: I edited to use the word ‘world’ only in the technical sense of an interpretation.

Comment author: endoself 12 July 2011 05:21:10AM *  1 point [-]

As a mathematical statement, what Baez says is certainly correct.

I definitely don't disagree with that.

Specifically, if you measure the spin of the particle along any axis, both maps predict that you will measure the spin to be in one direction with 50% probability and in the other direction with 50% probability.

They can give different predictions. Maybe I can ask my friend who prepared they quantum state and ey can tell me which it really is. I might even be able to use that knowledge to predict the current state of the apparatus ey used to prepare the particle. Of course, it's also possible that my friend would refuse to tell me or that I got the particle already in this state without knowing how it got there. That would just be belief in the implied invisible. "On August 1st 2008 at midnight Greenwich time, a one-foot sphere of chocolate cake spontaneously formed in the center of the Sun; and then, in the natural course of events, this Boltzmann Cake almost instantly dissolved." I would say that this hypothesis is meaningful and almost certainly false. Not that it is "meaningless". Even though I cannot think of any possible experimental test that would discriminate between its being true, and its being false.

A final possibility is that there never was a pure state; the universe started off in a mixed state. In this example, whether this should be regarded as an ontologically fundamental mixed state or just a lack of knowledge on my part depends on which hypothesis is simpler. This would be too hard to judge definitively given our current understanding.

What are the Born probabilities, probabilities of? Here's the map - where's the territory?

In MWI, the Born probabilities aren't probabilities, at least not is the Bayesian sense. There is no subjective uncertainty; I know with very high probability that the cat is both alive and dead. Of course, that doesn't tell us what they are, just what they are not.

We all-Bayesians are united with the many-worlders (and the Bohmians) in decrying the mystical separation of the world into ‘quantum’ and ‘classical’ and the reality of the ‘collapse of the wavefunction’.

I think a large majority of physicists would agree that the collapse of the wavefunction isn't an actual process.

How would you analyze the Wigner's friend thought experiment? In order for Wigner's observations to follow the laws of QM, both versions of his friend must be calculated, since they have a chance to interfere with each other. Wouldn't both streams of conscious experience occur?

Comment author: TobyBartels 13 July 2011 03:27:34PM 1 point [-]

They can give different predictions. [...]

I don't understand what you're saying in these paragraphs. You're not describing how the two situations lead to different predictions; you're describing the opposite: how different set-ups might lead to the two states.

Possibly you mean something like this: In situation A, my friend intended to prepare one spin-down particle, but I predict with 50% chance that they hooked up the apparatus backward and produced a spin-up particle instead. In situation B, they intended to prepare a spin-right particle, with the same chance of accidental reversal. These are different situations, but the difference lies in the apparatus, my friend's mind, the lab book, etc, not in the particle. It would be much the same if I knew that the machine always produced a spin-up particle and the up/down/right/left dial did nothing: the situations are different, but not because of the particle produced. (However, in this case, the particle is not even entangled with the dial reading.)

A final possibility is that there never was a pure state; the universe started of in a mixed state.

I especially don't know what you mean by this. The states that most people talk about when discussing quantum physics (including Eliezer in the Sequence) are pure states, and mixed states are probabilistic mixtures of these. If you're a Bayesian when it comes to classical probability (even if you believe in the wave function when it comes to purely quantum indeterminacy), then you should never believe that the real wave function is mixed; you just don't know which pure state it is. Unless you distinguish between the map where the particle is spin-up or -down with equal odds from the map where the particle is definitely in the fullymixed state in the territory? Then you have an even greater plethora of distinctions between maps that pay no rent!

How would you analyze the Wigner's friend thought experiment?

For Schrödinger's Cat or Wigner's Friend, in any realistic situation, the cat or friend would quickly decohere and become entangled in my observations, leaving it in a mixed state: the common-sense situation where it's alive/happy/etc with 50% chance and dead/sad/etc with 50% chance. (Quantum physics should reproduce common sense in situations where that applies, and killing a cat with radioactive decay or a pseudorandom coin flip doesn't matter to the cat --ordinarily.) However, if we imagine that we keep the cat or friend isolated (where common sense doesn't apply), then it is in a superposition of these instead of a mixture --from my point of view. My friend's state of knowledge is different, of course; from that point of view, the state is completely determined (with or without decoherence). And how is it determined? I don't know, but I'll find out when I open the door and ask.

Comment author: endoself 19 July 2011 11:38:09PM 0 points [-]

I don't understand what you're saying in these paragraphs. You're not describing how the two situations lead to different predictions; you're describing the opposite: how different set-ups might lead to the two states.

I did not explain this very well. My point was that when we don't know the particle's spin, it is still a part of the simplest description that we have of reality. It should not be any more surprising that a belief about a quantum mechanical state does not have any observable consequences than that a belief about other parts of the universe that cannot be seen due to inflation does not have any observable consequences.

Unless you distinguish between the map where the particle is spin-up or -down with equal odds from the map where the particle is definitely in the fullymixed state in the territory? Then you have an even greater plethora of distinctions between maps that pay no rent!

I included this just in case a theory that implies such a thing ever turn out to be simpler than alternatives. I thought this was relevant because I mistakenly thought that you had mentioned this distinction.

And how is it determined? I don't know, but I'll find out when I open the door and ask.

What if your friend and the cat are implemented on a reversible quantum computer? The amplitudes for your friend's two possible states may both affect your observations, so both would need to be computed.

Comment author: TobyBartels 20 July 2011 04:02:36PM *  2 points [-]

My point was that when we don't know the particle's spin, it is still a part of the simplest description that we have of reality.

Sure, the spin of the particle is a feature of the simplest description that we have. Nevertheless, no specific value of the particle's spin is a feature of the simplest description that we have; this is true in both the Bayesian interpretation and in MWI.

To be fair, if reality consists only of a single particle with spin 1/2 and no other properties (or more generally if there is a spin-1/2 particle in reality whose spin is not entangled with anything else), then according to MWI, reality consists (at least in part) of a specific direction in 3-space giving the axis and orientation of the particle's spin. (If the spin is greater than 1/2, then we need something a little more complicated than a single direction, but that's probably not important.) However, if the particle is entangled with something else, or even if its spin is entangled with some another property of the particle (such as its position or momentum), then the best that you can say is that you can divide reality mathematically into various worlds, in each of which the particle has a spin in a specific direction around a specific axis.

(In the Bohmian interpretation, it is true that the particle has a specific value of spin, or rather it has a specific value about any axis. But presumably this is not what you mean.)

As for which is the simplest description of reality, the Bayesian interpretation really is simpler. To fully describe reality as best I can with the knowledge that I have, in other words to write out my map completely, I need to specify less information in the fully Bayesian interpretation (FBI) than in MWI with Bayesian classical probability on top (MWI+BCP). This is because (as in the toy example of the spin-1/2 particle) different MWI+BCP maps correspond to the same FBI map; some additional information must be necessary to distinguish which MWI+BCP map to use.

If you're an objective Bayesian in the sense that you believe that the correct prior to use is determined entirely by what information one has, then I can't even tell how one would ever distinguish between the various MWI+BCP maps that correspond to a given FBI map. (A similar problem occurs if you define probability in terms of propensity to wager, since there is no way to settle the wagers.) Even if I ask my friend who prepared the state, my friend's choice to describe it one way rather than another way only gives me information about other things (the apparatus, my friend's mind, their lab book, etc). It may be possible to always choose a most uniform MWI+BCP map (in the toy example, a uniform probability distribution over the sphere); I'll have to think about this.

For the record, I do believe in the implied invisible, if it really is implied by the simplest description of reality. In this case, it's not.

I mistakenly thought that you had mentioned this distinction.

I certainly didn't mean to; from my point of view, that makes the MWI only more ridiculous, and I don't want to attack a straw man.

What if your friend and the cat are implemented on a reversible quantum computer? The amplitudes for your friend's two possible states may both affect your observations, so both would need to be computed.

So compute both. There are theoretical problems with implementing an observer on a reversible computer (quantum or otherwise), because Bayesian updating is not reversible; but from my perspective, I'll compute my state and believe whatever that comes out to.

Probably I don't understand what your question here really is. Is there a standard description of the problem of Wigner's friend on a quantum computer, preferably together with the WMI resolution of it, that you can link to or write down? (I can't find one online with a simple search.)

Comment author: TobyBartels 23 July 2011 09:22:50AM *  1 point [-]

I wrote:

The classic example is a spin-1/2 particle that you believe to be spin-up with 50% probability and spin-down with 50% probability.

I've begun to think that this is probably not a good example.

It's mathematically simple, so it is good for working out an example explicitly to see how the formalism works. (You may also want to consider a system with two spin-1/2 particles; but that's about as complicated as you need to get.) However, it's not good philosophically, essentially since the universe consists of more than just one particle!

Mathematically, it is a fact that, if a spin-1/2 particle is entangled with anything else in the universe, then the state of the particle is mixed, even if the state of the entire universe is pure. So a mixed state for a single particle suggests nothing philosphically, since we can still believe that the universe is in a pure state, which causes no problems for MWI. Indeed, endoself immediately looks at situations where the particle is so entangled! I should have taken this as a sign that my example was not doing its job.

I still stand by my responses to endoself, as far as they go. One of the minor attractions of the Bayesian interpretation for me is that it treats the entire universe and single particles in the same way; you don't have to constantly remind yourself that the system of interest is entangled with other systems that you'd prefer to ignore, in order to correctly interpret statements about the system. But it doesn't get at the real point.

The real point is that the entire universe is in a mixed state; I need to establish this. In the Bayesian interpretation, this is certainly true (since I don't have maximal information about the universe). According to MWI, the universe is in a pure state, but we don't know which. (I assume that you, the reader, don't know which; if you do, then please tell me!) So let's suppose that |psi> and |phi> are two states that the universe might conceivably be in (and assume that they're orthogonal to keep the math simple). Then if you believe that the real state of the universe is |psi> with 50% chance and |phi> with 50% chance, then this is a very different belief than the belief that it's (|psi> + |phi>)/sqrt(2) with 50% chance and (|psi> - |phi>)/sqrt(2) with 50% chance. Yet these two different beliefs lead to identical predictions, so you're drawing a map with extra irrelevant detail. In contrast, in the fully Bayesian interpretation, these are just two different ways of describing the same map, which is completely specified upon giving the density matrix (|psi><psi| + |phi><phi|)/2.

Edit: I changed uses of ‘world’ to ‘universe’; the former should be reserved for its technical sense in the MWI.

Comment author: nshepperd 23 May 2013 06:22:02AM 0 points [-]

Specifically, if you measure the spin of the particle along any axis, both maps predict that you will measure the spin to be in one direction with 50% probability and in the other direction with 50% probability.

On the other hand, if the particle is spin up, the probability of observing "up" in an up-down measurement is 1, while the probability is 0 if the particle is down. So in the case of an up-down prior, observing "up" changes your probabilities, while in the case of a left-right prior, it does not.

Comment author: TobyBartels 26 May 2013 07:35:20PM 0 points [-]

That's a good point. It seems to me another problem with the MWI (or specifically, with Bayesian classical probability on top of quantum MWI) that making an observation could leave your map entirely unchanged.

However, in practice, followers of MWI have another piece of information: which world we are in. If your prior is 50% left and 50% right, then either way you believe that the universe is a superposition of an up world and a down world. Measuring up tells you that we are in the up world. For purposes of future predictions, you remember this fact, and so effectively you believe in 100% up now, the same as the person with the 50% up and 50% down prior. Those two half-Bayesians disagree about how many worlds there are, but not about what the up world —the world that we're in— is like.

Comment author: nshepperd 27 May 2013 04:53:56AM 0 points [-]

To be precise, if your prior is 50% left and 50% right, then you generally believe that the world you are in is either a left world or a right world, and you don't know which. A left or right world itself factorises into a tensor product of (rest of the world) × (superposition of up particle and down particle). Measuring the particle along the up/down axis causes the rest of the world to be become entangled with the particle along that axis, splitting it into two worlds, of which you observe yourself to be in the 'up' one.

Of course, observing the particle along the up/down axis tells you nothing about whether its original spin was left or right, and leaves you incapable of finding out, since the two new worlds are very far apart, and it's the phase difference between those two worlds that stores that information.