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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
Along with the researchers Carlton Caves and Rüdiger Schack, he interpreted the wave function’s probabilities as Bayesian probabilities — that is, as subjective degrees of belief about the system. Bayesian probabilities could be thought of as gambling attitudes for placing bets on measurement outcomes, attitudes that are updated as new data come to light. In other words, Fuchs argued, the wave function does not describe the world — it describes the observer. “Quantum mechanics,” he says, “is a law of thought.”
Quantum Bayesianism, or QBism as Fuchs now calls it, solves many of quantum theory’s deepest mysteries. Take, for instance, the infamous “collapse of the wave function,” wherein the quantum system inexplicably transitions from multiple simultaneous states to a single actuality. According to QBism, the wave function’s “collapse” is simply the observer updating his or her beliefs after making a measurement. Spooky action at a distance, wherein one observer’s measurement of a particle right here collapses the wave function of a particle way over there, turns out not to be so spooky — the measurement here simply provides information that the observer can use to bet on the state of the distant particle, should she come into contact with it. But how, we might ask, does her measurement here affect the outcome of a measurement a second observer will make over there? In fact, it doesn’t. Since the wavefunction doesn’t belong to the system itself, each observer has her own. My wavefunction doesn’t have to align with yours.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it — or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion — we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.
The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions — mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
Suppose in reality there’s a resource, like water, and you can quantify how much of it there is in an objective order — very little water, medium amount of water, a lot of water. Now suppose your fitness function is linear, so a little water gives you a little fitness, medium water gives you medium fitness, and lots of water gives you lots of fitness — in that case, the organism that sees the truth about the water in the world can win, but only because the fitness function happens to align with the true structure in reality. Generically, in the real world, that will never be the case. Something much more natural is a bell curve — say, too little water you die of thirst, but too much water you drown, and only somewhere in between is good for survival. Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction. For example, an organism tuned to fitness might see small and large quantities of some resource as, say, red, to indicate low fitness, whereas they might see intermediate quantities as green, to indicate high fitness. Its perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth. It won’t see any distinction between small and large — it only sees red — even though such a distinction exists in reality.