On the Unpopularity of Pilot Wave Theory

Pilot Wave theory is a theory I should have been told about when I was a child, and it should have been mentioned in science fiction stories at least as often as quantum mechanics or other post-Newtonian theories of physics.

But, like the Austrian School of Economics, like Ludwig von Mises, the conversation within the field was predominated by a prejudice not inclined to judge each school of thought on its merits.

In Economics, Marx and Keynes predominate. In physics, Heisenberg and Bell.

Einstein famously quarreled with Heisenberg over the metaphysical notion of determinism and causation, quipping, “God does not play at dice.” To which Bohr quipped that Einstein should not tell God what to do.

However, no writer I have encountered describing this debate mentions that it is not a debate about physics, but about metaphysics, since it deals with unobserved and unobservable reality, true in all places and times and under all conditions, not even possibly able to be altered by any physical fact: namely, does an event of which we are unaware exist?

Indeed, to my admittedly limited knowledge, no physicist acknowledges the problem to be metaphysical rather than physical.

I have debated the matter with two of them, at great length, both teachers and scholars, one of them famous in his field.

Neither one knew what, if any, limitations applied to empirical knowledge; neither one acknowledged that the scientific method can apply only to empirical knowledge; neither knew where the boundary between physics and metaphysics rested; neither knew the Four Causes of Aristotle, but assumed all causation was efficient causation; neither acknowledged the fallacy of mistaking formal or final cause for efficient cause; neither of them knew that mathematics and geometry were non-empirical; neither knew the first thing about philosophy; one of them, absurdly enough, said philosophy did not exist, but was subsumed into physics, and he claimed to have disproven Aquinas’ proofs of the existence of God by disproving Aquinas’ theory of physics.

I pointed out that his statement “philosophy does not exist outside physics” is a statement of philosophy, not of physics, since it is non-disprovable by empirical observation: therefore it contradicts itself. He said that he had impressive credentials in the field, and that I was irrational. I departed the conversation with polite words, deeply impressed, but not in a good way.

If Heisenberg and Bell were no more well informed about the nature of disciplines outside their narrow field, epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, and logic, then their conclusions are no more worthy of respect or trust.

This metaphysical problem also related the Hidden Variable problem where Einstein quarreled with Bell. I had been taught my whole life that Bell’s experiment disproved Einstein’s contention that a real but unobserved, that is, hidden variable allow the spin value of a particle pair to exist even before being observed.

Then, much later, I was told that Bell’s experiment did not control for all variables, and did not actually identify a different outcome for whether the hidden variable existed when hidden as opposed to being in a non-definite state of probability like a cloud. An experiment in AD 2006 (Bell passed away in 1990) was said to finally control for such variables, and disprove Einstein’s claim. Odd that for all those years I had not heard a peep from any physics teachers nor science popularizers that the question was still open. This makes me wonder if it still is.

Pilot wave theory holds that there is no wave particle duality, no role for probability, and that reality stays the same before and after observation. Particles are guided by pilot waves that act like waves, for example, forming interference patterns in the double-slit experiment. The observable particle behavior is as it is because the particles follow non-observable waves.

Allow me to link to a short video describing the theory.

Here is a visual representation of pilot waves in action, mentioned in the video above.

Many a scholar assures me that Bell and Heisenberg have definitively and utterly disproven Pilot Wave theory to an absolute degree. But I had heard similar windy claims in other fields, such as the Keynesians in economics, where what was alleged to be based on reasoning and cold, hard facts was nothing more than the bias and fashionable opinion among the inner circle of scholars.

It is often said that Bell’s theorem rules hidden variable theories, which would rule out Pilot Wave Theory.

But even if Bell’s theorem is correct (which I doubt) it rules out local hidden variable theories only. Hidden variable theories are all by Bell if they involve interactions at times and distance not involving relativistic motion.

So why has Pilot Wave theory been dismissed and hidden for so long? Unfortunately, I suspect the answer has to do with psychology rather than with physics.

The paradox of using physics to disprove logic, continuity of reality, subject-object distinctions, and all the other stuff and nonsense in which popularizers of quantum mechanics delight (See The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) by Gary Zukav, for example). This grants an intellectual proposing it the elation similar to the mystic or Gnostic. It is the elation of being privy to a counterintuitive truth, a truth that there is no truth, which the common man cannot imagine.

Let me hasten to add that real physicists, at least those few of my acquaintance, dismiss and deride the mysticism springing from popular conceptions of the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

Nonetheless, that mysticism, the freedom from the classical worldview of laws and logic, was and is a large part of the appeal: talk to any modern student of physics, and you may hear a certain note of disdain enter their voice when speaking of Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Ptolemy, Aristotle.

To the contrary, I found this quote from John Bell regarding Pilot Wave theory quite interesting:

“While the founding fathers agonized over the question ‘particle’ or ‘wave’, de Broglie in 1925 proposed the obvious answer ‘particle’ and ‘wave’.

“Is it not clear from the smallness of the scintillation on the screen that we have to do with a particle? And is it not clear, from the diffraction and interference patterns, that the motion of the particle is directed by a wave?

“De Broglie showed in detail how the motion of a particle, passing through just one of two holes in screen, could be influenced by waves propagating through both holes. And so influenced that the particle does not go where the waves cancel out, but is attracted to where they cooperate.

“This idea seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored.”

The proclivity of intellectuals to ignore the clear and simple is not so great a mystery to me.