Quantum Mechanical Reality: Entanglement and Decoherence


We look into the ontology of quantum theory as distinct from that of the classical theory in the sciences. Theories carry with them their own ontology while the metaphysics may remain the same in the background. We follow a broadly Kantian tradition, distinguishing between the noumenal and phenomenal realities where the former is independent of our perception while the latter is assembled from the former by means of fragmentary bits of interpretation. Theories do not tell us how the noumenal world is constituted but are conceptual constructs applying to models generated in the phenomenal world within limited contexts. The ontology of quantum theory principally rests on the view that entities in the world are pervasively correlated with one another not by means of probabilities as in the case of the classical theory, but by means of probability amplitudes involving finely tuned phases characterising the oscillatory behaviour of quantum mechanical states. The amplitude-dependent correlations (quantum entanglement) exist over and above the classical ones expressed in terms of probabilities. While the classical correlations are essentially local in nature, quantum correlations are shared globally in the process of environment-induced decoherence. The decoherence is an effectively random process that removes local correlations in the course of global sharing of entanglement—the removal being especially manifest in the case of systems that appear as classical ones. It is this aspect of the decoherence process that makes the so-called measurement postulate (one relating to wave function collapse) cohere with the rest of the principles of quantum theory where the latter implies a Schrodinger type time evolution of quantum mechanical systems. The mathematical basis of the quantum correlations consists of the description of pure states of a system in terms of vectors in a linear vector space (a mixed state appears as an admixture of pure states with some probability distribution associated with it) and, in addition, the description of (pure) states of composite systems as vectors in the product space arising from the component sub-systems. The crucial aspect of the decoherence process, of significance in the context of the apparent incompatibility of the measurement postulate with the unitary Schrodinger evolution, relates to the fact that it is almost instantaneous in the case of a classical object (one that is nevertheless amenable to a quantum description). Indeed, the decoherence time is, in all likelihood, of the order of the Planck scale, being driven by field fluctuations in the Planck regime. This points to factors of an unknown nature determining the finest details of the decoherence process since Planck scale physics remains an obscure terrain. In other words, quantum theory is, to all intents and purposes, in the need of a radical revision, in keeping with the fact that all theories are defeasible and need revision as our domains of experience expand and get realigned in a complex manner. The context within which quantum theory (and quantum field theory too) is defined is set precisely by the Planck scale, across which a novel theoretical framework is likely to emerge. However, as in the case of theory revisions in general, that emerging theory will stand in an asymmetric relation of incommensurability with the present-day quantum theory, where the concepts of the latter will be comprehensible in terms of those of the former, but the converse will not hold.

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Avijit Lahiri
Calcutta University (Alumnus)


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