Wigner’s Friend

If we define both the observer and the “observed” as both being part of say an even bigger system, would the wave function still collapse in this system?

This conundrum is known as the Wigner’s Friend problem, though it is also often asked with reference to Schrodinger’s cat.

In my opinion its best resolution is in the understanding that the wave function or quantum state is not a property of the system itself but of its relationship to an observer, and I think this view is a better reading of what Hugh Everett was describing in his “Relative State” interpretation of quantum mechanics [which was re-presented later (mostly by others) as a “Many Worlds” interpretation where observations (and other interactions) continually cause the creation of new “branches” (in a way that Everett himself apparently once described as “bullshit” in a marginal note on someone else’s elaboration of the MWI)].

Source: (1001) Alan Cooper’s answer to Is the collapse of the wave function in Quantum Physics based on a system frame of reference? If we define both the observer and the ‘observed’ as both being part of say an even bigger system, would the wave function still collapse in this system? – Quora

Does an observer modify the observed?

What many people misunderstand is that in quantum theories the “state” of a system is not a property of the system itself but rather of how it appears to an observer.

There are actually at least two stages to the observation process. One is when the system of interest interacts with the much more complex system of a measurement apparatus whose precise quantum state is too complex for the observer to keep track of and so has to be expressed as a statistical mixture. This can have the effect of causing the combined system, in which the observed subsystem was initially in a pure “coherent” superposition state (with interference still being possible between different possible observed eigenvalues), to end up very close to a statistical mixture in which each possible measured value of the observed quantity has a well defined value with no interference between them. This “decoherence” process can be caused by interaction with any sufficiently complex system (even, as Viktor Toth notes, just a brick) and it does modify the observed (as does any interaction with anything – even just another simple quantum system). But it still leaves the actual value of the observation unspecified. The “collapse” process, which identifies which particular value has occurred, only happens in the mind of the observer whose conscious experience corresponds to just one of many possible histories of the universe. But this doesn’t modify the observed – at least no more than it modifies everything in the universe that is dependent on that observed value. (For example if we are in a room together and I see a red flash then the you that I see will also see a red flash, but if you see a blue flash then the I that you see will also have seen a blue flash.)

Source: (1001) Alan Cooper’s answer to In the quantum mechanical idea that the observer modifies the observed, can the observer be an insect? – Quora

In QM, how can all people see something and all report the same thing? Wouldn’t 1 person’s observation cause their reality to branch off?

Quantum physics, without any additional “interpretation”, is just a tool for predicting the probabilities of various possible future observations from knowledge of other observations we have made in the past. To do so, it summarizes the observer’s previous observations (up to the point of the observer’s last interaction with the system) in what is called the “state” of the system relative to that observer. Any new observation ends the period of isolation of the system from the observer and so requires that a new relative state be defined taking into account the result of the most recent observation.

(Actually the “observer” of the system here doesn’t have to be a person or any other conscious entity. Any other physical system that it could interact with will do – with observations just corresponding to changes of the state of the observing system relative to any other “external” observer.)

It turns out that all observers who are isolated from the system during an experiment, and who start with the same information about the system, can use the same mathematical object to represent its relative state and for making predictions about the outcome; and this has led to the idea that the state is somehow completely independent of the observer – with various convoluted “interpretations” being added to “explain” what is “really” going on. But none of these adds anything in the way of useful predictions, and they all lead to various kinds of seeming paradox which get seriously multiplied if you mix different “interpretations” (as pointed out in Johann Holzel’s answer ).

Actually, if some friend, or other observers, (or just other physical systems) observe (or just interact with) the system before you do, then the states of the system relative to them “collapse” in the sense that after the observation (or other interaction) the probabilities of future observations are changed (with some becoming no longer possible and others more likely). But the state of the system relative to you does not collapse until you interact with it – either directly (eg by observing it yourself), or indirectly (eg by observing or communicating with your friend).

Usually it is quite hard to keep things isolated, and so just by being in the same room and sharing contact with the same air and ambient radiation you are effectively always interacting with your friend; so even without consciously learning what the friend has observed you have access to that information and so the collapse occurs for you too at the same time as for the friend. But if we were to keep the friend completely isolated in a pure quantum state (which is not possible for a real person, or even a cat, but might be possible for another microscopic system as the “observer”), then the combination of experimental system and “friend” could be in a pure state relative to you which remains uncollapsed until you actually learn the outcome (either by observing the system directly or by checking with your friend).

But as soon as we have been in contact with one another, the you that I see will agree with me about the experiment, and the me that you see will agree with you.

Source: (250) Alan Cooper’s answer to Quantum physics question If reality or superposition is fixed at observation or measurement, how can all people see something and all report the same thing? Would 1 person obseving something different cause their reality to branch off? – Quora

fromQuora: Isn’t a ‘probability wave’ simply a statistical function and not a real wave? Does it no more ‘collapse’ than me turning over a card and saying that the probability ‘wave’ of a particular deal has collapsed?

Well, as other answers have noted, the wave function of quantum mechanics is not a probability wave as its values are complex and it is only the squared amplitude that gives a probability density. But the process of “collapse” involved in a quantum measurement does involve something like your playing card analogy.

There are actually two stages in the measurement and observation process. One is the interaction with an incompletely known measurement apparatus which reduces or eliminates the prospects for future interference and basically turns the previously pure state of the isolated system (considered as a subsystem of the larger world) into a statistical mixture. And the second is the collapse of that statistical mixture by observation – with the result that, from the observer’s point of view, of the many possible alternatives only one is actually true.

And if this makes it seem to you that the “state” of the system actually depends on the observer then you are on the right track. (But it is nothing special about the “consciousness” of the observer that is relevant here. Almost any localized system could play the same role relative to the rest of the universe.)

Any configuration history of any physical system can be considered as “seeing” the rest of the universe in a “relative state” which “collapses” when the configuration history in question passes a point beyond which the configuration includes information about that particular measurement value.

Source: (255) Alan Cooper’s answer to Isn’t a ‘probability wave’ simply a statistical function and not a real wave? Does it no more ‘collapse’ than me turning over a card and saying that the probability ‘wave’ of a particular deal has collapsed? – Quora