An interpretation of quantum mechanics is an attempt to explain how the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics corresponds to reality. Although quantum mechanics has held up to rigorous and extremely precise tests in an extraordinarily broad range of experiments, there exist a number of contending schools of thought over their interpretation. These views differ on such fundamental questions as whether quantum mechanics is deterministic or random, which elements of quantum mechanics can be considered "real", and what is the nature of measurement, among other matters.
Despite nearly a century of debate and experiment, some physicists and philosophers of physics continue to disagree and actively contest the interpretation.
The definition of quantum theorists' terms, such as wave functions and matrix mechanics, progressed through many stages. For instance, Erwin Schrödinger originally viewed the electron's wave function as its charge density smeared across the field, whereas Max Born reinterpreted the absolute square value of the wave function as the electron's probability density distributed across the field.
Although the Copenhagen interpretation was originally most popular, quantum decoherence has gained popularity. Thus the many-worlds interpretation has been gaining acceptance. Moreover, the strictly formalist position, shunning interpretation, has been challenged by proposals for falsifiable experiments that might one day distinguish among interpretations, as by measuring an AI consciousness or via quantum computing.
As a rough guide development of the mainstream view during the 1990s to 2000s, consider the "snapshot" of opinions collected in a poll by Schlosshauer et al. at the 2011 "Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality" conference of July 2011. The authors reference a similarly informal poll carried out by Max Tegmark at the "Fundamental Problems in Quantum Theory" conference in August 1997. The main conclusion of the authors is that "the Copenhagen interpretation still reigns supreme", receiving the most votes in their poll (42%), besides the rise to mainstream notability of the many-worlds interpretations:
It is noteworthy that only Cramer's transactional interpretation, published in 1986, assigns physical basis to Max Born's assertion that the absolute square of the wave function is a probability density.
More or less, all interpretations of quantum mechanics share two qualities:
Two qualities vary among interpretations:
In philosophy of science, the distinction of knowledge versus reality is termed epistemic versus ontic. A general law is a regularity of outcomes (epistemic), whereas a causal mechanism may regulate the outcomes (ontic). A phenomenon can receive interpretation either ontic or epistemic. For instance, indeterminism may be attributed to limitations of human observation and perception (epistemic), or may be explained as a real existing maybe encoded in the universe (ontic). Confusing the epistemic with the ontic, like if one were to presume that a general law actually "governs" outcomes—and that the statement of a regularity has the role of a causal mechanism—is a category mistake.
In a broad sense, scientific theory can be viewed as offering scientific realism—approximately true description or explanation of the natural world—or might be perceived with antirealism. A realist stance seeks the epistemic and the ontic, whereas an antirealist stance seeks epistemic but not the ontic. In the 20th century's first half, antirealism was mainly logical positivism, which sought to exclude unobservable aspects of reality from scientific theory.
Since the 1950s, antirealism is more modest, usually instrumentalism, permitting talk of unobservable aspects, but ultimately discarding the very question of realism and posing scientific theory as a tool to help humans make predictions, not to attain metaphysical understanding of the world. The instrumentalist view is carried by the famous quote of David Mermin, "Shut up and calculate", often misattributed to Richard Feynman.
Other approaches to resolve conceptual problems introduce new mathematical formalism, and so propose alternative theories with their interpretations. An example is Bohmian mechanics, whose empirical equivalence with the three standard formalisms—Schrödinger's wave mechanics, Heisenberg's matrix mechanics, and Feynman's path integral formalism—has been demonstrated.
An interpretation (i.e. a semantic explanation of the formal mathematics of quantum mechanics) can be characterized by its treatment of certain matters addressed by Einstein, such as:
To explain these properties, we need to be more explicit about the kind of picture an interpretation provides. To that end we will regard an interpretation as a correspondence between the elements of the mathematical formalism M and the elements of an interpreting structure I, where:
The crucial aspect of an interpretation is whether the elements of I are regarded as physically real. Hence the bare instrumentalist view of quantum mechanics outlined in the previous section is not an interpretation at all, for it makes no claims about elements of physical reality.
The current usage of realism and completeness originated in the 1935 paper in which Einstein and others proposed the EPR paradox. In that paper the authors proposed the concepts element of reality and the completeness of a physical theory. They characterised element of reality as a quantity whose value can be predicted with certainty before measuring or otherwise disturbing it, and defined a complete physical theory as one in which every element of physical reality is accounted for by the theory. In a semantic view of interpretation, an interpretation is complete if every element of the interpreting structure is present in the mathematics. Realism is also a property of each of the elements of the maths; an element is real if it corresponds to something in the interpreting structure. For example, in some interpretations of quantum mechanics (such as the many-worlds interpretation) the ket vector associated to the system state is said to correspond to an element of physical reality, while in other interpretations it is not.
Determinism is a property characterizing state changes due to the passage of time, namely that the state at a future instant is a function of the state in the present (see time evolution). It may not always be clear whether a particular interpretation is deterministic or not, as there may not be a clear choice of a time parameter. Moreover, a given theory may have two interpretations, one of which is deterministic and the other not.
Local realism has two aspects:
Bell's theorem, combined with experimental testing, restricts the kinds of properties a quantum theory can have, the primary implication being that quantum mechanics cannot satisfy both the principle of locality and counterfactual definiteness.
It should be noted that regardless of Einstein's concerns about interpretation issues, Dirac and other quantum notables embraced the technical advances of the new theory while devoting little or no attention to interpretational aspects.
The Copenhagen interpretation is the "standard" interpretation of quantum mechanics formulated by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg while collaborating in Copenhagen around 1927. Bohr and Heisenberg extended the probabilistic interpretation of the wavefunction proposed originally by Max Born. The Copenhagen interpretation rejects questions like "where was the particle before I measured its position?" as meaningless. The measurement process randomly picks out exactly one of the many possibilities allowed for by the state's wave function in a manner consistent with the well-defined probabilities that are assigned to each possible state. According to the interpretation, the interaction of an observer or apparatus that is external to the quantum system is the cause of wave function collapse, thus according to Paul Davies, "reality is in the observations, not in the electron". In general, after a measurement (click of a Geiger counter or a trajectory in a spark or bubble chamber) it ceases to be relevant unless subsequent experimental observations can be performed.
The many-worlds interpretation is an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a universal wavefunction obeys the same deterministic, reversible laws at all times; in particular there is no (indeterministic and irreversible) wavefunction collapse associated with measurement. The phenomena associated with measurement are claimed to be explained by decoherence, which occurs when states interact with the environment producing entanglement, repeatedly "splitting" the universe into mutually unobservable alternate histories—effectively distinct universes within a greater multiverse.
The consistent histories interpretation generalizes the conventional Copenhagen interpretation and attempts to provide a natural interpretation of quantum cosmology. The theory is based on a consistency criterion that allows the history of a system to be described so that the probabilities for each history obey the additive rules of classical probability. It is claimed to be consistent with the Schrödinger equation.
According to this interpretation, the purpose of a quantum-mechanical theory is to predict the relative probabilities of various alternative histories (for example, of a particle).
The ensemble interpretation, also called the statistical interpretation, can be viewed as a minimalist interpretation. That is, it claims to make the fewest assumptions associated with the standard mathematics. It takes the statistical interpretation of Born to the fullest extent. The interpretation states that the wave function does not apply to an individual system – for example, a single particle – but is an abstract statistical quantity that only applies to an ensemble (a vast multitude) of similarly prepared systems or particles. Probably the most notable supporter of such an interpretation was Einstein:
The attempt to conceive the quantum-theoretical description as the complete description of the individual systems leads to unnatural theoretical interpretations, which become immediately unnecessary if one accepts the interpretation that the description refers to ensembles of systems and not to individual systems.— Einstein in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. P.A. Schilpp (Harper & Row, New York)
The most prominent current advocate of the ensemble interpretation is Leslie E. Ballentine, professor at Simon Fraser University, author of the graduate level text book Quantum Mechanics, A Modern Development. An experiment illustrating the ensemble interpretation is provided in Akira Tonomura's Video clip 1. It is evident from this double-slit experiment with an ensemble of individual electrons that, since the quantum mechanical wave function (absolutely squared) describes the completed interference pattern, it must describe an ensemble. A new version of the ensemble interpretation that relies on a reformulation of probability theory was introduced by Raed Shaiia.
The de Broglie–Bohm theory of quantum mechanics (also known as the pilot wave theory) is a theory by Louis de Broglie and extended later by David Bohm to include measurements. Particles, which always have positions, are guided by the wavefunction. The wavefunction evolves according to the Schrödinger wave equation, and the wavefunction never collapses. The theory takes place in a single space-time, is non-local, and is deterministic. The simultaneous determination of a particle's position and velocity is subject to the usual uncertainty principle constraint. The theory is considered to be a hidden-variable theory, and by embracing non-locality it satisfies Bell's inequality. The measurement problem is resolved, since the particles have definite positions at all times. Collapse is explained as phenomenological.
The essential idea behind relational quantum mechanics, following the precedent of special relativity, is that different observers may give different accounts of the same series of events: for example, to one observer at a given point in time, a system may be in a single, "collapsed" eigenstate, while to another observer at the same time, it may be in a superposition of two or more states. Consequently, if quantum mechanics is to be a complete theory, relational quantum mechanics argues that the notion of "state" describes not the observed system itself, but the relationship, or correlation, between the system and its observer(s). The state vector of conventional quantum mechanics becomes a description of the correlation of some degrees of freedom in the observer, with respect to the observed system. However, it is held by relational quantum mechanics that this applies to all physical objects, whether or not they are conscious or macroscopic. Any "measurement event" is seen simply as an ordinary physical interaction, an establishment of the sort of correlation discussed above. Thus the physical content of the theory has to do not with objects themselves, but the relations between them.
An independent relational approach to quantum mechanics was developed in analogy with David Bohm's elucidation of special relativity, in which a detection event is regarded as establishing a relationship between the quantized field and the detector. The inherent ambiguity associated with applying Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is subsequently avoided.
The transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics (TIQM) by John G. Cramer is an interpretation of quantum mechanics inspired by the Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory. It describes the collapse of the wave function as resulting from a time-symmetric transaction between a possibility wave from the source to the receiver (the wave function) and a possibility wave from the receiver to source (the complex conjugate of the wave function). Since the possibility wave is collapsed by interaction with the receiver, consciousness plays no role in the theory, eliminating Schrödinger's cat paradox. This interpretation of quantum mechanics is unique in that it not only views the wave function as a real entity, but the complex conjugate of the wave function, which appears in the Born rule for calculating the expected value for an observable, as also real.
An entirely classical derivation and interpretation of Schrödinger's wave equation by analogy with Brownian motion was suggested by Princeton University professor Edward Nelson in 1966. Similar considerations had previously been published, for example by R. Fürth (1933), I. Fényes (1952), and Walter Weizel (1953), and are referenced in Nelson's paper. More recent work on the stochastic interpretation has been done by M. Pavon. An alternative stochastic interpretation was developed by Roumen Tsekov.
Objective collapse theories differ from the Copenhagen interpretation by regarding both the wave function and the process of collapse as ontologically objective (meaning these exist and occur independent of the observer). In objective theories, collapse occurs either randomly ("spontaneous localization") or when some physical threshold is reached, with observers having no special role. Thus, objective-collapse theories are realistic, indeterministic, no-hidden-variables theories. Standard quantum mechanics does not specify any mechanism of collapse; QM would need to be extended if objective collapse is correct. The requirement for an extension to QM means that objective collapse is more of a theory than an interpretation. Examples include
In his treatise The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, John von Neumann deeply analyzed the so-called measurement problem. He concluded that the entire physical universe could be made subject to the Schrödinger equation (the universal wave function). He also described how measurement could cause a collapse of the wave function. This point of view was prominently expanded on by Eugene Wigner, who argued that human experimenter consciousness (or maybe even dog consciousness) was critical for the collapse, but he later abandoned this interpretation.
Variations of the consciousness causes collapse interpretation include:
Other physicists have elaborated their own variations of the consciousness causes collapse interpretation; including:
The many-minds interpretation of quantum mechanics extends the many-worlds interpretation by proposing that the distinction between worlds should be made at the level of the mind of an individual observer.
Quantum logic can be regarded as a kind of propositional logic suitable for understanding the apparent anomalies regarding quantum measurement, most notably those concerning composition of measurement operations of complementary variables. This research area and its name originated in the 1936 paper by Garrett Birkhoff and John von Neumann, who attempted to reconcile some of the apparent inconsistencies of classical boolean logic with the facts related to measurement and observation in quantum mechanics.
The state is not an objective property of an individual system but is that information, obtained from a knowledge of how a system was prepared, which can be used for making predictions about future measurements. ...A quantum mechanical state being a summary of the observer's information about an individual physical system changes both by dynamical laws, and whenever the observer acquires new information about the system through the process of measurement. The existence of two laws for the evolution of the state vector...becomes problematical only if it is believed that the state vector is an objective property of the system...The "reduction of the wavepacket" does take place in the consciousness of the observer, not because of any unique physical process which takes place there, but only because the state is a construct of the observer and not an objective property of the physical system
Modal interpretations of quantum mechanics were first conceived of in 1972 by B. van Fraassen, in his paper "A formal approach to the philosophy of science." However, this term now is used to describe a larger set of models that grew out of this approach. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes several versions:
Several theories have been proposed which modify the equations of quantum mechanics to be symmetric with respect to time reversal. (E.g. see Wheeler-Feynman time-symmetric theory). This creates retrocausality: events in the future can affect ones in the past, exactly as events in the past can affect ones in the future. In these theories, a single measurement cannot fully determine the state of a system (making them a type of hidden-variables theory), but given two measurements performed at different times, it is possible to calculate the exact state of the system at all intermediate times. The collapse of the wavefunction is therefore not a physical change to the system, just a change in our knowledge of it due to the second measurement. Similarly, they explain entanglement as not being a true physical state but just an illusion created by ignoring retrocausality. The point where two particles appear to "become entangled" is simply a point where each particle is being influenced by events that occur to the other particle in the future.
Not all advocates of time-symmetric causality favour modifying the unitary dynamics of standard quantum mechanics. Thus a leading exponent of the two-state vector formalism, Lev Vaidman, highlights how well the two-state vector formalism dovetails with Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation.
BST theories resemble the many worlds interpretation; however, "the main difference is that the BST interpretation takes the branching of history to be a feature of the topology of the set of events with their causal relationships... rather than a consequence of the separate evolution of different components of a state vector." In MWI, it is the wave functions that branches, whereas in BST, the space-time topology itself branches. BST has applications to Bell's theorem, quantum computation and quantum gravity. It also has some resemblance to hidden-variable theories and the ensemble interpretation: particles in BST have multiple well defined trajectories at the microscopic level. These can only be treated stochastically at a coarse grained level, in line with the ensemble interpretation.
As well as the mainstream interpretations discussed above, a number of other interpretations have been proposed which have not made a significant scientific impact for whatever reason. These range from proposals by mainstream physicists to the more occult ideas of quantum mysticism.
The most common interpretations are summarized in the table below. The values shown in the cells of the table are not without controversy, for the precise meanings of some of the concepts involved are unclear and, in fact, are themselves at the center of the controversy surrounding the given interpretation. For another table comparing interpretations of quantum theory, see reference.
No experimental evidence exists that distinguishes among these interpretations. To that extent, the physical theory stands, and is consistent with itself and with reality; difficulties arise only when one attempts to "interpret" the theory. Nevertheless, designing experiments which would test the various interpretations is the subject of active research.
Most of these interpretations have variants. For example, it is difficult to get a precise definition of the Copenhagen interpretation as it was developed and argued about by many people.
|Ensemble interpretation||Max Born, 1926||Agnostic||No||Yes||Agnostic||No||No||No||No||No|
|Copenhagen interpretation||Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, 1927||No||No1||Yes||No||Yes2||Causal||No||No||No|
|de Broglie–Bohm theory||Louis de Broglie, 1927, David Bohm, 1952||Yes||Yes3||Yes4||Yes||Phenomenological||No||No15||Yes||Yes|
|Quantum logic||Garrett Birkhoff, 1936||Agnostic||Agnostic||Yes5||No||No||Interpretational6||Agnostic||No||No|
|Time-symmetric theories||Satosi Watanabe, 1955||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Many-worlds interpretation||Hugh Everett, 1957||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No||Yes||Ill-posed||Yes|
|Consciousness causes collapse||Eugene Wigner, 1961||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Causal||No||No||Yes|
|Stochastic interpretation||Edward Nelson, 1966||No||No||Yes||Yes14||No||No||No||Yes14||No|
|Many-minds interpretation||H. Dieter Zeh, 1970||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||Interpretational7||Yes||Ill-posed||Yes|
|Consistent histories||Robert B. Griffiths, 1984||No||No||No||No||No||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Transactional interpretation||John G. Cramer, 1986||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes8||No||No12||Yes||No|
|Objective collapse theories||Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber, 1986,
Penrose interpretation, 1989
|Relational interpretation||Carlo Rovelli, 1994||Agnostic||No||Agnostic9||No||Yes10||Intrinsic11||Yes||No||No|
|QBism||Christopher Fuchs, Ruediger Schack, 2010||No||No16||Agnostic17||No||Yes18||Intrinsic19||Yes||No||No|
Almost all authors below are professional physicists.