QBism and Subjective Experience

Text Analysis: “A Private View of Quantum Reality” by Amanda Gefter in Quanta Magazine

Relevance to Schools & Ecosystems: Connects to our prior analysis of schema and the limitations in human perception

In our last post (an analysis of Richard Nisbett’s article, “The Bugs in Our Minds“) we discussed how our perceptions of reality are heavily subjective, based on mental models called schemas, and all too readily misled by stereotypes or heuristics triggered by seemingly inconsequential factors.

There’s an interesting parallel here to a theory of quantum mechanics from Christopher Fuchs called QBism. QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

The Collapse of a Wave Function Lies in the Eye of the Beholder

By BrentHFoster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In terms of quantum theory, QBism interprets a “wave function’s probabilities as Bayesian probabilities — that is, as subjective degrees of belief about the system.” The act of perceiving is thus akin to that of gambling. “The wave function’s “collapse” is simply the observer updating his or her beliefs after making a measurement.”

We assess and predict each event based upon prior events, and thus our understanding of probability, as suggested by Nisbett’s article, can be easily misled by the “representativeness heuristic”: that events are judged as more likely to occur if they are similar to prior types of events: think of the gambler’s “hot hand.”

As we gain more information, we can update our “bets,” or our schemas, to better reflect that information. But we’re still making a grand bet against the wider chaos of the unknown. Fuchs describes the situation as thus:

“Since the wavefunction doesn’t belong to the system itself, each observer has her own. My wavefunction doesn’t have to align with yours. . . .

Quantum mechanics is not about how the world is without us; instead it’s precisely about us in the world. The subject matter of the theory is not the world or us but us-within-the-world, the interface between the two.”

I wonder, then, if we can hedge our bets when we make a greater effort to understand the subjective experiences of others, as well as the us-within-the-world?

Hedging Our Bets by Assuming Responsibility

What I like about the perspective of QBism is that probability is framed “as a description of uncertainty and ignorance,” rather than as objective certainty. This certainly aligns with our lived experience. Our frail, emotional human existence, defined by our feeble daily fumblings to communicate, can more accurately be described as shots in the dark, rather than that of rational actors responding to and acting upon objective information. While that sounds like a belittling of the human experience, in other ways it is empowering: it means that the greatest of power lies within:

“Usually we think of the universe as this rigid thing that can’t be changed. Instead, methodologically we should assume just the opposite: that the universe is before us so that we can shape it, that it can be changed, and that it will push back on us. We’ll understand our limits by noticing how much it pushes back on us. . . . 

Now there’s a spectrum of positions you could take. . . . there’s no reason whatsoever for my probabilities and yours to match, because mine are based on my experience and yours are based on your experience. The best we can do, in that case, if we think of probabilities as gambling attitudes, is try to make all of our personal gambling attitudes internally consistent. I should do that with mine, and you with yours, but that’s the best we can do. . . .

The best you can do is gamble on the consequences of your actions.”

In other words, be true to your subjective experience and understanding of the world, and take ownership of the actions you take—because just as you are shaped by the world, you too are shaping it likewise within each moment that you exist. There’s poetry here:

“. . . the stuff of the world is in the character of what each of us encounters every living moment — stuff that is neither inside nor outside, but prior to the very notion of a cut between the two at all.

If you have it in your heart — and not everyone does — that the real message of quantum mechanics is that the world is loose at the joints, that there really is contingency in the world, that there really can be novelty in the world, then the world is about possibilities all the time, and quantum mechanics ties them together.”

We are the Happenstance Music Makers of our Universe

This touches on a strange dichotomy in our human experience: we are on the one hand mere products of chance and fortune, while on the other hand, we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. We would do well, then, to heed Nisbett’s advice on how to mitigate the errors in our perspectives.

Gefter, A. (2015, June 4). A Private View of Quantum Reality | Quanta Magazine. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from https://www.quantamagazine.org/20150604-quantum-bayesianism-qbism/

Video Games as Models of Complex Systems

By Xardox at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There’s another way to think about games. What if games’ role in representation and identity lies not in offering familiar characters for us to embody, but in helping wrest us from the temptation of personal identification entirely? What if the real fight against monocultural bias and blinkeredness does not involve the accelerated indulgence of identification, but the abdication of our own selfish, individual desires in the interest of participating in systems larger than ourselves? What if the thing games most have to show us is the higher-order domains to which we might belong, including families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, social systems, and even formal structures and patterns? What if replacing militarized male brutes with everyone’s favorite alternative identity just results in Balkanization rather than inclusion?

–“Video Games Are Better Without Characters” by Ian Bogost on The Atlantic

Can Schools Tame the Chaos of the Mind?

By W. Goeree (http://www.iscra.nl/myc2003.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We’ve investigated the concepts of randomness, disorder, and chaos and how they might relate to complex and dynamic systems here before. The obvious connection to a school, in case you’ve never worked in one, is that you can never quite anticipate what’s going to happen on any given day. Schools are complex systems rife with social and emotional and cultural and political and psychological interdependencies and turbulence. Yet it is this very complexity that makes working within them so very compelling.

An interesting article on Nautilus by Kelly Clancy, “Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos,” the concept of chaos is examined in its relation to the brain. Clark lays out some principles worth exploring further. For example, she lays out the following definition of chaos:

Chaos is not the same as disorder. While disordered systems cannot be predicted, chaos is actually deterministic: The present state of the system determines its future. Yet even so, its behavior is only predictable on short time scales: Tiny differences in inputs result in vastly different outcomes. Chaotic systems can also exhibit stable patterns called “attractors” that emerge to the patient observer. Over time, chaotic trajectories will gravitate toward them. Because chaos can be controlled, it strikes a fine balance between reliability and exploration. Yet because it’s unpredictable, it’s a strong candidate for the dynamical substrate of free will [bold added].

This made sense to me based on some other ideas on chaos we’ve examined before. For example, in a quote from Simple Really: From Simplicity to Complexity — And Back Again by John D. Barrow, an essay within a compilation of essays on the Royal Society, Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Societyedited by Bill Bryson, Barrow states the following:

An important feature of chaotic systems is that, although they become unpredictable when you try to determine the future from a particular uncertain starting value, there may be a particular stable statistical spread of outcomes after a long time, regardless of how you started out. The most important thing to appreciate about these stable statistical distributions of events is that they often have very stable and predictable average behaviors. . .[bold added].

So through careful observation and analysis, chaotic systems can be predictable, even if they are quite unpredictable on an immediate basis. I thought Clancy’s explication of chaos as actually deterministic was also enlightening. This idea that it’s present state determines its future also lines up with what we’ve examined in terms of the possibility of an underlying mathematical simplicity of complex systems.

In that post, “A Self-Organizing Criticality, Somewhere Between Boredom and Chaos,” we also examined Per Bak’s concept of a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems spontaneously transition between states of order and disorder, which Clancy echoes in the following quote about the brain:

The critical state can be quite useful for the brain, allowing it to exploit both order and disorder in its computations—employing a redundant network with rich, rapid chaotic dynamics, and an orderly readout function to stably map the network state to outputs. The critical state would be maintained not by temperature, but the balance of neural excitation and inhibition. If the balance is tipped in favor of more inhibition, the brain is “frozen” and nothing happens. If there is too much excitation, it will descend into chaos. The critical point is analogous to an attractor.

This notion that a complex system hovers somewhere in the balance between chaos and order is a fascinating one, especially when you connect it to the idea of a school. It reminds me of a joyous classroom of students engaged in meaningful and challenging work. There’s a warm buzz of controlled but spontaneous activity and creativity. Students can very easily go off the rails, and it’s the teacher’s job to hold them in that “hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos,” as Barrow eloquently phrased it.

Order and disorder enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and a neuron’s firing may wander chaotically until a memory or perception propels it into an attractor. Sensory input would then serve to “stabilize” chaos. Indeed, the presentation of a stimulus reduces variability in neuronal firing across a surprising number of different species and systems, as if a high-dimensional chaotic trajectory fell into an attractor. By “taming” chaos, attractors may represent a strategy for maintaining reliability in a sensitive system. Recent theoretical and experimental studies of large networks of independent oscillators have also shown that order and chaos can co-exist in surprising harmony, in so-called chimera states.

This idea of attractors is also fascinating to me. As I read this passage on the subway on the way to class this morning on my little smartphone screen, I thought back to the idea of perceptual illusions and their relation to powerlessness. I also thought about the effect of isolation on the brain. And I wondered if this concept of “sensory input” stabilizing chaos that Clancy just outlined can be taken almost literally, as in how the loving touch of a mother has been shown to be important in brain development. And how beyond touch, the tone and manner in how adults and students speak to one another, the colors displayed on the wall, and all the other contextual factors of the environment can be so fundamental to “taming” the chaos that lies both in extreme isolation (ever been alone in the wilderness? Your mind goes nuts) or in overcrowded, confined spaces (the ghetto). Schools can provide that stabilizing influence.

Again, we find echoes of this idea of harmony and symbiosis in Barrow:

. . . Chaos and order have been found to coexist in a curious symbiosis. . . . At a microscopic level, the fall of sand is chaotic, yet the result in the presence of a force like gravity is large-scale organisation.  . . Order develops on a large scale through the combination of many independent chaotic small-scale events that hover on the brink of instability. Complex adaptive systems thrive in the hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos. There, they get the best of both worlds: out of chaos springs a wealth of alternatives for natural selection to sift; while the rudder of determinism sets a clear average course towards islands of stability.” (Bold added)

Now that I’ve geeked out on chaos, back to work . . .


The Φ of School Ecosystems

By Christof Koch [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A neuroscientist, Christof Koch, has proposed a fascinating view of consciousness which has some interesting implications for our view of schools as ecosystems. He suggests that a theory developed by Guilio Tononi known as integrated information theory (IIT) can better provide us with a measurable definition of consciousness, which is determined, in a nutshell, by the complexity of a system.

What is interesting about this theory is that, according to Koch, it “does not discriminate between squishy brains inside skulls and silicon circuits encased in titanium.” Consciousness is rather defined by the “degree and extent of causal interactions among all components” of a given system. This suggests that consciousness is on a continuum, with simpler systems possessing some degree of consciousness, which can be mathematically calculated as a measure of Φ (pronounced “fi”). Highly integrated and complex systems such as human brains possess a high measure of Φ, and simpler, less integrated systems possess lower measures.

Building on this idea, Sumit Paul-Choudhury posted a link to an article on Google’s “deep learning computer systems” on Twitter, and Chris Baraniuk responded with the connection to Koch’s argument. In this article, we can see that indeed, computer systems can possibly demonstrate some measurable level of Φ.

This means that for some things, Google researchers can no longer explain exactly how the system has learned to spot certain objects, because the programming appears to think independently from its creators, and its complex cognitive processes are inscrutable. This “thinking” is within an extremely narrow remit, but it is demonstrably effective and independently verifiable.

So if consciousness is on a continuum, determinable by the quality and quantity of interconnections, imagine what this implies about the complex adaptive system of a school. Some schools, due to the greater level of interconnections amongst its diverse constituents, have higher degrees of consciousness, and thus may operate more effectively in response to adaptive challenges.

This also ties back to the idea of “regenerative” schools we’ve discussed here before, with the concept of circulating throughputs, rather than linear inputs and outputs. As Koch puts it:

. . . you can build two systems, each with the same input and output — but one, because of its internal structure, has integrated information. One system would be conscious, and the other not. It’s not the input-output behavior that makes a system conscious, but rather the internal wiring.

This idea of integration and the quality of interconnections within a system is a theme that resonates strongly with the view of a school as an ecosystem. As Kock puts it:

For any one ecosystem, it’s a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to causal interactions between trees. . . it’s a question of the degree and extent of causal interactions among all components making up the system.

Or again, as Koch explains it here:

The more integrated the system is, the more synergy it has, the more conscious it is. If individual brain regions are too isolated from one another or are interconnected at random, Φ will be low.

Schools and school districts (and businesses, and governments), therefore, can potentially hold a greater degree of consciousness as a system, better enabling them to respond to adaptive challenges. This consciousness is determinable by how integrated–and I would suggest, diverse–it’s connections are.


Clark, J. (2013). If this doesn’t terrify you… Google’s computers OUTWIT their humans: ‘Deep learning’ clusters crack coding problems their top engineers can’t. The Register. Retrieved from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/15/google_thinking_machines/

Keim, B. (2013). A neuroscientist’s radical theory of how networks become consciousness. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-11/15/christof-koch-panpsychism-consciousness

Koch, C. (2013). Scientific American: A “Complex” Theory of Consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-theory-of-consciousness