# Which Basis Is More Fundamental?

14 24 April 2008 04:17AM

Followup toThe So-Called Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

For decades, quantum physics was vehemently asserted to be nothing but a convenience of calculation.  The equations were not to be interpreted as describing reality, though they made good predictions for reasons that it was mere philosophy to question.  This being the case, any quantity you could define seemed as fundamentally real as any other quantity, which is to say, not real at all.

Physicists have invented, for convenience of calculation, something called a momentum basis of quantum mechanics.  Instead of having a complex amplitude distribution over the positions of particles, you had a complex amplitude distribution over their momenta.

The "momentum basis" contains all the information that is in the "position basis", and the "position basis" contains all the information that is in the "momentum basis".  Physicists use the word "basis" for both, suggesting that they are on the same footing: that positions are no better than momenta, or vice versa.

But, in my humble opinion, the two representations are not on an equal footing when it comes to being "fundamental".

Physics in the position basis can be computed locally. To determine the instantaneous change of amplitude at a configuration, you only need to look at its infinitesimal neighborhood.

The momentum basis cannot be computed locally.  Quantum evolution depends on potential energy.  Potential energy depends on how far apart things are from each other, like how high an apple is off the ground. To figure out how far apart things are from each other, you have to look at the entire momentum basis to recover the positions.

The "momentum basis" is in some ways like a description of the chessboard in which you have quantities like "the queen's position minus the rook's position" and "the queen's position plus the rook's position".  You can get back a description of the entire chessboard—but the rules of the game are much harder to phrase.  Each rule has to take into account many more facts, and there's no longer an elegant local structure to the board.

Now the above analogy is not really fair, because the momentum basis is not that inelegant.  The momentum basis is the Fourier transform of the position basis, and symmetrically, the position basis is the Fourier transform of the momentum basis.  They're equally easy to extract from each other.  Even so, the momentum basis has no local physics.

So if you think that the nature of reality seems to tend toward local relations, local causality, or local anything, then the position basis is a better candidate for being fundamentally real.

What is this "nature of reality" that I'm talking about?

I sometimes talk about the Tao as being the distribution from which our laws of physics were drawn—the alphabet in which our physics was generated.  This is almost certainly a false concept, but it is a useful one.

It was a very important discovery, in human history, that the Tao wrote its laws in the language of mathematics, rather than heroic mythology.  We had to discover the general proposition that equations were better explanations for natural phenomena than "Thor threw a lightning bolt".  (Even though Thor sounds simpler to humans than Maxwell's Equations.)

Einstein seems to have discovered General Relativity almost entirely on the basis of guessing what language the laws should be written in, what properties they should have, rather than by distilling vast amounts of experimental evidence into an empirical regularity.  This is the strongest evidence I know of for the pragmatic usefulness of the "Tao of Physics" concept.  If you get one law, like Special Relativity, you can look at the language it's written in, and infer what the next law ought to look like.  If the laws are not being generated from the same language, they surely have something in common; and this I refer to as the Tao.

Why "Tao"?  Because no matter how I try to describe the whole business, when I look over the description, I'm pretty sure it's wrong.  Therefore I call it the Tao.

One of the aspects of the Tao of Physics seems to be locality.  (Markov neighborhoods, to be precise.)  Discovering this aspect of the Tao was part of the great transition from Newtonian mechanics to relativity.  Newton thought that gravity and light propagated at infinite speed, action-at-a-distance.  Now that we know that everything obeys a speed limit, we know that what happens at a point in spacetime only depends on an immediate neighborhood of the immediate past.

Ever since Einstein figured out that the Tao prefers its physics local, physicists have successfully used the heuristic of prohibiting all action-at-a-distance in their hypotheses.  We've figured out that the Tao doesn't like it.  You can see how local physics would be easier to compute... though the Tao has no objection to wasting incredible amounts of computing power on things like quarks and quantum mechanics.

The Standard Model includes many fields and laws.  Our physical models require many equations and postulates to write out.  To the best of our current knowledge, the laws still appear, if not complicated, then not perfectly simple.

Why should every known behavior in physics be linear in quantum evolution, local in space and time, Charge-Parity-Time symmetrical, and conservative of probability density?  I don't know, but you'd have to be pretty stupid not to notice the pattern.  A single exception, in any individual behavior of physics, would destroy the generalization.  It seems like too much coincidence.

So, yes, the position basis includes all the information of the momentum basis, and the momentum basis includes all the information of the position basis, and they give identical predictions.

But the momentum basis looks like... well, it looks like humans took the real laws and rewrote them in a mathematically convenient way that destroys the Tao's beloved locality.

That may be a poor way of putting it, but I don't know how else to do so.

In fact, the position basis is also not a good candidate for being fundamentally real, because it doesn't obey the relativistic spirit of the Tao.  Talking about any particular position basis, involves choosing an arbitrary space of simultaneity.  Of course, transforming your description of the universe to a different space of simultaneity, will leave all your experimental predictions exactly the same.  But however the Tao of Physics wrote the real laws, it seems really unlikely that they're written to use Greenwich's space of simultaneity as the arbitrary standard, or whatever.  Even if you can formulate a mathematically equivalent representation that uses Greenwich space, it doesn't seem likely that the Tao actually wrote it that way... if you see what I mean.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there is some known better way of looking at quantum mechanics than the position basis, some view whose mathematical components are relativistically invariant and locally causal.

But, for now, I'm going to stick with the observation that the position basis is local, and the momentum basis is not, regardless of how pretty they look side-by-side.  It's not that I think the position basis is fundamental, but that it seems fundamentaler.

The notion that every possible way of slicing up the amplitude distribution is a "basis", and every "basis" is on an equal footing, is a habit of thought from those dark ancient ages when quantum amplitudes were thought to be states of partial information.

You can slice up your information any way you like.  When you're reorganizing your beliefs, the only question is whether the answers you want are easy to calculate.

But if a model is meant to describe reality, then I would tend to suspect that a locally causal model probably gets closer to fundamentals, compared to a nonlocal model with action-at-a-distance.  Even if the two give identical predictions.

This is admittedly a deep philosophical issue that gets us into questions I can't answer, like "Why does the Tao of Physics like math and CPT symmetry?" and "Why should a locally causal isomorph of a structural essence, be privileged over nonlocal isomorphs when it comes to calling it 'real'?", and "What the hell is the Tao?"

Good questions, I agree.

This talk about the Tao is messed-up reasoning.  And I know that it's messed up.  And I'm not claiming that just because it's a highly useful heuristic, that is an excuse for it being messed up.

But I also think it's okay to have theories that are in progress, that are not even claimed to be in a nice neat finished state, that include messed-up elements clearly labeled as messed-up, which are to be resolved as soon as possible rather than just tolerated indefinitely.

That, I think, is how you make incremental progress on these kinds of problems—by working with incomplete theories that have wrong elements clearly labeled "WRONG!"  Academics, it seems to me, have a bias toward publishing only theories that they claim to be correct—or even worse, complete—or worse yet, coherent.  This, of course, rules out incremental progress on really difficult problems.

When using this methodology, you should, to avoid confusion, choose labels that clearly indicate that the theory is wrong.  For example, the "Tao of Physics".  If I gave that some kind of fancy technical-sounding formal name like "metaphysical distribution", people might think it was a name for a coherent theory, rather than a name for my own confusion.

I accept the possibility that this whole blog post is merely stupid.  After all, the question of whether the position basis or the momentum basis is "more fundamental" should never make any difference as to what we anticipate.  If you ever find that your anticipations come out one way in the position basis, and a different way in the momentum basis, you are surely doing something wrong.

But Einstein (and others!) seem to have comprehended the Tao of Physics to powerfully predictive effect.  The question "What kind of laws does the Tao favor writing?" has paid more than a little rent.

The position basis looks noticeably more... favored.

Added:  When I talk about "locality", I mean locality in the abstract, computational sense: mathematical objects talking only to their immediate neigbors.  In particular, quantum physics is local in the configuration space.

This also happens to translate into physics that is local in what humans think of "space": it is impossible to send signals faster than light.  But this isn't immediately obvious.  It is an additional structure of the neighborhoods in configuration space.  A configuration only neighbors configurations where positions didn't change faster than light.

A view that made both forms of locality explicit, in a relativistically invariant way, would be much more fundamentalish than the position basis.  Unfortunately I don't know what such a view might be.

Part of The Quantum Physics Sequence

Next post: "Where Physics Meets Experience"

Previous post: "The So-Called Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle"

Sort By: Old
Comment author: 24 April 2008 05:17:20AM 1 point [-]

I understand what you're saying about locality, but... well, I'm also having trouble figuring out how to put this...

If configurations of some flavor are the fundamental things, and things like particles, positions, and so on are more like, well, "illusions" arising out of occasional mathematical properties of certain circumstances, well... why would locality be prefered in the first place? ie, notions like distance should be, at least as near as I can make out, in some way secondary to the notion of configurations. ie, it'd have to arise out of their behavior rather than the other way around, right?

But... then why would the rule "just happen" to be one that acts in a way that looks local to us?

Personally, I'd say that if this view of QM is valid, then locality itself shouldn't be fundamental, but instead arise out of more fundamental principles.

My initial gut intuition would be something long the lines of simply that whatever the "ultimate reality", it can be transformed mathematically into _some_ basis such that it "looks local from the inside"... and that locality may be a key thing required for percieving structure... That is, maybe only a "view from the inside" that's local could contain structure sufficient to, well, hold stuff like... us.

Now, while this may be completely and utterly wrong, I am going to say that I suspect that if some flavor of amplitudes over configurations is a fundamental nature of reality, then in some way or other locality can't be. That is, that locality is something that in some way arises out of it rather than being, to borrow your terminology, a fundamental part of the tao.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 05:31:06AM 0 points [-]

The problem with locality and the position basis is that the Schrodinger equation doesn't fully enforce locality. With a single particle, it does, but with a multi-particle configuration, conditions near particle 1 can affect the evolution of a configuration that involves particle 2. Somehow these kinds of correlations and influences happen while still not enabling FTL communication, but I don't know of anything in the formalism that clearly enforces this limitation.

Comment author: 03 August 2014 10:29:14PM 3 points [-]

FTL communication is not ruled out by the Schrodinger equation, but this is irrelevant because the Schrodinger equation is not valid for systems which include fast-moving particles. Instead, you have to use quantum field theory, of which the Schrodinger equation is the limit as the speed of light approaches infinity. In QFT, FTL communication is indeed ruled out by the formalism, as you suggest. Specifically, it's the commutativity or anticommutativity of field operators based at points which are spacelike separated that does it. For further details I would suggest reading the short paper of Eberhard and Ross. (Unfortunately you need an institutional affiliation to view the link, but I can send a PDF to anyone who wants it.)

Comment author: 24 April 2008 05:39:25AM 2 points [-]

As you have explained things so far, Schroedinger's equation is local in configuration space, not necessarily physical space. You seem to be claiming locality in physical space as well.

You can compute the rate of change of amplitude in a configuration from derivatives of amplitude over similar configurations. Are you claiming you can also compute that rate of change from a much lower-dimensional neighborhood of configurations that only have changes in a local patch of space?

Even more, I don't see how to slice the wavefunction locally. You could fix the state of a small patch of state, but that leaves you with a function giving amplitudes to every configuration of the rest of the universe, which doesn't seem very local. How should you locally model an EPR experiment?

Comment author: 24 April 2008 08:45:07AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer:I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there is some known better way of looking at quantum mechanics than the position basis, some view whose mathematical components are relativistically invariant and locally causal. There is. Quantum Field theory takes place on the full spacetime of special relativity, and it is completely lorentz covariant. Quantum Mechanics is a low-speed approximation of QFT and neccessarily chooses a reference frame, destroying covariance.

Hal Finney: The Schrodinger equation (and the relatavistic generalization) dictate local evolution of the wavefunction. Non-locality comes about during the measurement process, which is not well understood.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 09:01:30AM 0 points [-]

anonymous, the rate of change in amplitude at a location depends only on the derivatives at that location (and the derivative of a function at a point depends only on the values near that point).

Eliezer, I am on the whole inclined to agree with Psy-Kosh, but I sometimes suspect (wild unsupported speculation) that perhaps a locality rule is fundamental and spacetime itself is not, but derived from the locality.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 09:28:11AM 4 points [-]

There is a fundamental problem with trying to implement relativity in an interpretation of quantum theory which says that the ultimate reality is an assignment of amplitudes to a set of purely spatial "universe configurations", namely: in such a framework, what is a Lorentz transformation? A Lorentz transformation inherently takes as its input a time series of spacelike hypersurfaces, and produces as its output another time series of spacelike hypersurfaces, produced by chopping up the first series and reassembling the parts.

But where, in the picture offered so far, do we even have a time series of hypersurfaces? Well, we have the histories - trajectories in configuration space - which enter into the Feynman path integral. Since whole histories, and not just configurations, have associated amplitudes, this suggests a way to implement Lorentz invariance: if history H has amplitude A, then history H' produced by a Lorentz transformation of H should also have amplitude A. (Or covariance: history H' produced by Lorentz transformation L should have amplitude L(A), where the amplitude-transforming functions L() should combine according to the Lorentz algebra.)

To really work, this seems to require full-fledged cosmological histories - you can't just talk about finite-time transitions from one hypersurface to another, because under a boost they'll be broken up in an ugly way (that can't be represented as a trajectory in your cosmic configuration space)... Basically, the picture I get from this is that histories, complete cosmic histories, and not configurations, are the entities with which amplitudes should be fundamentally associated. There's no problem in thinking 4-dimensionally about a history. But you'll then face the problem of getting Born's rule back. I have no idea how hard that will be. In the many-worlds formalism called "decoherent" or "consistent" histories, it is taken for granted that you cannot work with completely fine-grained histories, such as those which notionally enter into a path integral, and make that formalism work. But maybe it's different if you work from the start in the full space of histories (dominated as it is by continuous but nondifferentiable trajectories); or maybe quantum gravity requires you to work with some discrete fundamental variables which reduces the space of histories to countable size.

Jess, I think you will find that the sense in which QFT is Lorentz-covariant does not easily carry over to any "realist" interpretation. In a sense, I was just addressing those difficulties. Yes, QFT gives you a 4-dimensional perspective on things: you can view an observed transition as a superposition of space-time histories, and you can change reference frames (recoordinatize the component histories in a synchronized way) without the ultimate probability changing. But when you ask what's real, when you try to turn that into an ontology, this configuration-based approach runs into problems, unless you switch to thinking of histories as fundamental. At least, that's the only answer I can see.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 02:04:09PM 1 point [-]

I think an important thing to consider with this change of basis is that fourier modes are the eigenvectors of translation. As such any linear operation which commutes with translation will also have fourier modes as eigenvectors. As long as the laws of physics are expressed in such a way that they do not work differently in different places, they will treat fourier modes independently.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 03:31:06PM 0 points [-]

Hal: "Somehow these kinds of correlations and influences happen while still not enabling FTL communication, but I don't know of anything in the formalism that clearly enforces this limitation."

The limitation of no FTL communication in quantum mechanics is called the no-signalling theorem. It is easy to prove using density matrices. I believe a good reference for this is the book by Nielsen & Chuang.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 03:38:47PM 0 points [-]

Eli: It seems worthwhile to also keep in mind other quantum mechanical degrees of freedom, such as spin. For a spin degree of freedom it seems totally transparent that there is no reason for choosing one basis over another.

Comment author: 24 April 2008 10:42:36PM 0 points [-]

It seems like the clearest thing to say here is that the position basis seems more local in some ways. It is a good guess that this makes position more fundamental, but I can't see that it is more than just a good guess.

Comment author: 25 April 2008 02:56:19AM 1 point [-]

This post reminds me of an anecdote I read in a biography of Feynman. As a young physics student, he avoided using the principle of least action to solve problems, preferring to solve the differential equations. The nonlocal nature of the variational optimization required by the principle of least action seemed non-physical to him, whereas the local nature of the differential equations seemed more natural. Being a genius, he then went on to resolve the problem when he developed the sum-over-paths approach. It turns out that the path of least action has stationary phase shifts relative to infinitesimally different paths, so only paths near the path of least action combine constructively. Far away from the path of least action, phase shifts vary rapidly with infinitesimal variations in path, so those paths cancel out. VoilĂ , no spooky nonlocality (although there's plenty of wacky QM-ness).

Comment author: 25 April 2008 06:24:08AM 0 points [-]

I think I must recant my comment on spin. I was thinking of a spin-1/2 particle. Its state lives in a 2-dimensional Hilbert space. If you rotate your spatial coordinates, there is a corresponding transformation of the basis of the 2-dimensional Hilbert space. Any change of basis for this Hilbert space can be obtained in this way. However, for a spin-n particle, the Hilbert space is 2n+1 dimensional, and I think there are many bases one cannot transform into by the transformations that are induced by a spatial rotation. As a consequence, for spin-n with n > 1/2 I think there are some bases which are not eigenbases of any angular momentum operator, and so could be considered in some sense "not preferred."

Comment author: 25 April 2008 10:24:51AM 0 points [-]

It seems worthwhile to also keep in mind other quantum mechanical degrees of freedom, such as spin

Only if the spin's basis turns out to be relevant in the final ToEILEL (Theory of Everything Including Laboratory Experimental Results) that gives a mechanical algorithm for what probabilities I anticipate.

In contrast, if someone had a demonstrably-correct theory that could tell you the macroscopic position of everything I see, but doesn't tell you the spin or (directly) the spatial or angular momentum, then the QM Measurement Problem would still be marked "completely solved". In such a position-basis theory, the answer to any question about spin would be "Mu, it only matters if it affects the position of my macroscopic readout."

Comment author: 25 April 2008 07:29:19PM 0 points [-]

Very interesting Eliezer. Thanks.

A piece of unsolicited, probably unnecessary advice: If you are indeed writing a book, I pray, pray, pray that you do NOT call it "The Tao of Physics."

Comment author: 25 April 2008 11:48:31PM 3 points [-]

This post seems to me to be based on a mathematical error, namely the claim that energy is not local on momentum space.

The hamiltonian formalism is symmetric in position and momentum. Electrostatic potential energy is local on momentum space in a similar way to how kinetic or magnetic potential energy is local on position space.

Comment author: 27 April 2008 05:19:29PM 1 point [-]

Why should everything I can see right now be bigger than a nanometer, giving off electromagnetic radiation between 400-790 terahertz, not immediately fatal to humans and within the walls of this room? ...It seems like too much coincidence.

Why should every known behavior in physics be linear in quantum evolution, local in space and time, Charge-Parity-Time symmetrical, and conservative of probability density? ...It seems like too much coincidence.

Observation bias? Couldn't some alternative behaviors be vastly harder to for us conceptualize or detect or exist near, orders of magnitude less likely to be discovered? How can you know which apparently universal laws in physics just describe the low-hanging fruit? A good guide for finding the next discovery, but not true.

Comment author: 11 June 2008 11:32:37PM 2 points [-]

Yes, exactly what Douglas Keith said. The kinetic portion of the Hamiltonian is "non-local" in the position basis in exactly the same way that the potential portion of the Hamiltonian is non-local in the momentum basis: it appears in (powers of) the derivative.

If you want to talk about locality in terms of minimizing interactions between different basis states, then the basis is in eigenstates of the Hamiltonian, which is going to be neither position nor momentum.

Comment author: 12 June 2008 12:00:20AM 1 point [-]

The derivative is still pretty local because it only depends on the immediate neighborhood in the continuous space. Does either the kinetic portion of the Hamiltonian in the position basis, or the potential portion of the Hamiltonian in the momentum basis, require looking at distant portions of configuration space? My understanding is that this is true for the latter but not the former; please correct me if this is not so.

Comment author: 27 March 2010 12:18:46AM *  6 points [-]

This is not so, or it is equally so, depending on how exactly you interpret things.

To get expectation values of either x or p, we need to multiply by x (or p), and integrate over the entire configuration space. In that sense, they are both non-local.

In order to apply the Schroedinger equation:

``````-i h d/dt (psi(x)) = -h^2 (d/dx)^2(psi(x))/2m + V(x)(psi(x))
``````

we can act locally in the position basis: we only need to examine the area around x to update psi(x) in the next timestep.

Or we can look at it in the momentum basis:

``````-i h d/dt (psi(p)) = p^2(psi(p))/2m + V(i h d/dp)(psi(p))
``````

This is exactly as local in the momentum basis as the position basis. We only need to look at the area around p to update psi(p) for the next timestep.

They really are on equal footing.

EDIT: There is one slight complication -- an infinite number of derivatives truly can become non-local: one nice example is exp(- i a p/h) psi(x) = exp(- a d/dx) psi(x) = psi(x-a). This is a reflection of momentum being the generator of displacement.

Comment author: 12 June 2008 02:10:17AM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure what your question means, but I suspect the problem is that there are two equally good configuration spaces.

In the symplectic hamiltonian formulation of classical mechanics, the hamiltonian must be local and differentiable on the joint position-momentum space, and that is the only constraint on the hamiltonian. If you think of the symplectic configuration space as the cotangent bundle of position space, then this amounts to saying that the hamiltonian may depend on position and the first derivative of position. But, symmetrically, it depends on momentum and the first derivative of momentum.

The lesson of the symplectic formalism is that the position and momentum configuration spaces are equally valid, but the joint symplectic configuration space is probably more valid. When you go to QM, the position and momentum configuration spaces are still there, still playing symmetric roles, but the symplectic configuration space is more problematic. (This should lead to some commentary on the "trick" of thinking of position as an operator on the Hilbert space, but I'm not sure what to say.)

Comment author: 13 June 2008 05:10:25AM 0 points [-]

Douglas: Actually, could you (or, well, anyone here) actually type out or point us to the shrodinger (or dirac or whatever) equation in the momentum basis? Might be a bit easier to reduce our confusion here if we could actually see what it looked like in that basis. Thanks.

Comment author: 14 June 2008 08:20:25AM 1 point [-]

Maybe I don't understand why people keep bringing up bases; I would rather talk in terms of functions on configuration space. At least I'm sure I know what "local" means there.

The Schroedinger equation as a differential equation on functions on the momentum configuration space is exactly the same as on functions on position configuration space: you just replace q with p (and maybe signs). Switching p and q will make the Hamiltonian look different. But it's still a Hamiltonian in classical mechanics.

Comment author: 15 June 2008 02:34:10AM 0 points [-]

Douglas: if you mean it will look either way as HY = EY, well, I meant more along the lines of "what does the hamiltonian look like for momentum space?"

How does one actually write out the operator?

Comment author: 21 October 2011 03:54:28PM *  1 point [-]

HY = EY is not the Schrödinger equation - it is the energy eigenstate equation. The Schrödinger equation is i &hbar; &part;t[Y] = H Y.

(EDITED TO NOTE: Markdownr's sandbox renders the above correctly, but here it doesn't come through right.)

As you said, that's independent of basis. The Hamiltonian for a free spinless particle in momentum space is even more straightforward-looking than the hamiltonian in position space: k k / 2m + V(k). It doesn't even contain any explicit derivatives!

Of course, the V(k) contains the Fourier transform of the potential.

All in all, I'm split between agreeing with Eliezer on the primacy of position, and saying 'mu'.

Comment author: 21 October 2011 05:22:04PM *  1 point [-]

HY = EY is not the Schrödinger equation - it is the energy eigenstate equation.

Which is often called the time-independent Schrödinger equation. The one with the d/dt is then called the time-dependent Schrödinger equation.

Comment author: 21 October 2011 05:57:21PM 1 point [-]

Typo: one instance of "dependent" (the first, if I'm reading Wikipedia correctly) needs to be "independent".

Comment author: 22 October 2011 03:26:13AM 0 points [-]

Yep, fixing.

Comment author: 02 November 2011 02:23:00PM 0 points [-]

What's that Lincoln quote about ducks and calling things?

Point is, Schrodinger's Equation contains within it an implication which leads to the energy eigenstate equation. Conflating the two is bad terminology, even if it's common. I would not call the force balance equation from statics "Newton's 2nd Law" - why should I do that in quantum mechanics, calling the Energy Eigenstate Equation "Schrodinger's Equation"? My more recent textbook goes out of its way to separate the two as it was found that conflating them was impeding students' understanding of quantum mechanics (though it does so in part by eliminating the term 'Schrodinger Equation' altogether).

Comment author: 02 November 2011 04:30:13PM 0 points [-]

That's an entirely reasonable argument that it shouldn't be called that.

But it is called that, and you have to be able to communicate with those who use it thus, or have it heard it this way, even while working to change the nomenclature.

Comment author: 21 October 2011 05:25:28PM 0 points [-]

All in all, I'm split between agreeing with Eliezer on the primacy of position, and saying 'mu'.

Probably because the original post is actually a structureless rant. The only part that makes sense is

I accept the possibility that this whole blog post is merely stupid. After all, the question of whether the position basis or the momentum basis is "more fundamental" should never make any difference as to what we anticipate. If you ever find that your anticipations come out one way in the position basis, and a different way in the momentum basis, you are surely doing something wrong.

Comment author: 26 March 2010 11:30:19PM *  2 points [-]

A preference for the position basis appears to be inconsistent with the mangled-worlds approach to deriving the Born probabilities. See page 8 of Hanson 2003. As I read him, Robin wants the projection operators Ps and PL to be time-dependent (otherwise there's no way for the evolution of one world to affect the other). But that implies an evolving change of basis.

Comment author: 03 April 2010 04:49:11AM 3 points [-]

A dramatization of what this means... Suppose there was a process which put me into a superposition of happy, sad, and dead. I suppose that positionists would like to think that this quantum state corresponds to the existence of three worlds, each of them a distinct spatial configuration. Schematically:

But non-position-basis states, when viewed in terms of configurations, are themselves superpositions. Even if they are peaked at a certain region of configuration space, they will contain a residual nonzero amplitude for everything else as well. And so the happy/sad/dead superposition will resolve into something like this:

... where the epsilons indicate the presence of a small but nonzero amplitude for the "wrong" configurations, even though we are now supposedly talking about a "world" or "branch" of the wavefunction which can be identified with the empirical reality of an entity being in one particular state.

The point of the many worlds interpretation is that we can identify components of the wavefunction with the diverse, mutually exclusive outcomes we see empirically. Thus, the cat which is in the superposition "dead plus alive" turns out to be duplicated; in one world it is alive, in the other world it is dead. That's the idea. But when we try to implement the idea in this way, it turns out that the cat in one world is alive plus epsilon dead, and in the other world it is dead plus epsilon alive. This suggests to me that there is a problem.

Comment author: 29 April 2011 03:50:51PM *  0 points [-]

Wouldn't people who support a preferred basis agree that you can write a given state as a linear combination of one of the non-preferred bases? Wouldn't they just say that the linear-algebraic Hilbert-space formalism, which allows this, fails to capture some fundamental physical distinction among the bases?

I think that what I'm missing is how this comment bears on its parent (which I didn't understand, because I haven't read Hanson's paper).

ETA: So, I've looked at Hanson's paper. It looks like his projection operators are state-dependent, so that, as you say, they are time-dependent as the state evolves. And, associated to the evolving projection operator, there is an evolving basis. This evolving basis is important for the mangled-worlds approach, because it keeps track of which worlds are resistant to mangling.

But a supporter of the position basis might still maintain that, nonetheless, and all the while, the position basis retains some fundamental ontological significance. Personally, I don't find the arguments for preferring a basis to be all that convincing. But "positionists" already prefer the position basis over the energy basis, despite the fact that (AFAIK) the cleanest presentation of the Schrödinger equation is in terms of the Hamiltonian. So what's to stop them from disregarding the role of Hanson's evolving projection operator's basis?

Comment author: 30 April 2011 05:11:24AM 0 points [-]

The evolving basis of mangled worlds is meant to explain the Born probabilities, by producing worlds in the correct multiplicities to reproduce observed frequencies. If you ignore this, you're discarding the very rationale of mangled worlds.

Comment author: 02 May 2011 02:59:32PM *  0 points [-]

I didn't express myself clearly when I wrote, "So what's to stop them from disregarding the role of Hanson's evolving projection operator's basis?". I didn't mean that "positionists" would disregard the role that Hanson's bases might have in explaining the Born probabilities. I just meant that positionists would deny that this role confers the "ontological fundamentalness" that they reserve for the position basis.

Comment author: 02 May 2011 11:53:17PM 0 points [-]

Normally, if a basis is regarded as ontologically fundamental, it is because all one's worlds are basis vectors in that basis. "Alive plus epsilon dead" and "dead plus epsilon alive" are definitely not basis vectors from the position basis.

Anyway, the important fact is that for Robin's scheme to work, each individual world must have small amplitudes of other configurations shadowing the dominant configuration. It's a sign that it's a contrivance, that it doesn't work. Do the small-amplitude copies of me in other states that shadow me in this individual world also have experiences? If so, doesn't that screw up the reproduction of the Born probabilities? Because that is all about just counting the dominant configuration.