The Unreality of the Quantum World

The theoretical physicist John Wheeler once used the phrase “great smoky dragon” to describe a particle of light going from a source to a photon counter. “The mouth of the dragon is sharp, where it bites the counter. The tail of the dragon is sharp, where the photon starts,” Wheeler wrote. The photon, in other words, has definite reality at the beginning and end. But its state in the middle—the dragon’s body—is nebulous. “What the dragon does or looks like in between we have no right to speak.”

Wheeler was espousing the view that elementary quantum phenomena are not real until observed, a philosophical position called anti-realism. He even designed an experiment to show that if you hold on to realism—in which quantum objects such as photons always have definite, intrinsic properties, a position that encapsulates a more classical view of reality—then one is forced to concede that the future can influence the past. Given the absurdity of backward time-travel, Wheeler’s experiment became an argument for anti-realism at the level of the quantum.

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