History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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Mystic physics

March 15th, 2006 · 1 Comment

The Times has an article on Quantum Mysticism. The abuse of quantum mechanics by New Age, and other, groups is a well-known phenomenon, but is the current understanding by of QM by realists that much better.
Science, in the vein of Darwin, is stuck in the nineteenth century, even as the road to quantum reality opened up a new world of possibilities, one that none can seem to make any use of. The result often resembles the idealism/materialism debate of German Classical philosophers, and there the real resolution showed itself a curious hybrid, ‘transcendental idealism’, which is a perspective ill-served by either the term ‘transcendental’ or ‘idealism’ (it needs a new name). This hybrid can sometimes be helpful in mediating the idealist/materialist broil that claims opposites poles of standard debates.
It is all very well to try and rescue quantum physics from the excesses of interpretation, and yet there can be no doubt that something like a cover up of the significance of Quantum Mechanics is built in to public science. Dispense with the distinction of ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ and consider what it is that Quantum Mechanics has shown to be the case.

See also, Kant and QM

Physicists have been at war for the last century trying to explain how it is that the fog of quantum possibilities prescribed by mathematical theory can condense into one concrete actuality, what physicists call “collapsing the wavefunction.” Half a century ago the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner ventured that consciousness was the key to this mysterious process.

Wigner thereby, and inadvertently, launched a thousand New Age dreams. Books like “The Tao of Physics” and “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” have sought to connect quantum physics to Eastern mysticism. Deepak Chopra, the physician and author, has founded a career on the idea of “quantum healing,” and a school of parapsychology has arisen based on the idea that things like telekinesis and telepathy were a result of probing minds’ manipulation of the formless quantum potential. And now the movie.

All of them promote the idea that, at some level, our minds are in control of reality. We are in charge of the holodeck, as one of the characters in “Down the Rabbit Hole” says. And if it doesn’t work for you, it’s probably because you don’t believe.

So what’s wrong with that? Like everyone else, I am inspired by stories of personal change. The ideas that consciousness creates reality and that anything is possible make for terrific psychology.

We all know that self-confidence breeds its own success. I wish I were a member of that club. But physics has moved on. It has been decades since anybody took Wigner’s idea seriously, said David Albert, a professor of philosophy and physics at Columbia, who has the dubious honor of being one of the talking heads in both “What the Bleep” films and is not pleased with the results.

Many physicists today say the waves that symbolize quantum possibilities are so fragile they collapse with the slightest encounter with their environment. Conscious observers are not needed. As Dr. Albert pointed out, Wigner framed the process in strict mathematical and probabilistic terms. “The desires and intentions of the observer had nothing to do with it,” he said.

In other words, reality is out of our control. It’s all atoms and the void, as Democritus said so long ago. Indeed, some physicists say the most essential and independent characteristic of reality, whatever that is, is randomness. It’s a casino universe.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. There’s a great story to be told about atoms and the void: how atoms evolved out of fire and bent space and grew into Homer, Chartres cathedral and “Blonde on Blonde.” How those same atoms came to learn that the earth, sun, life, intelligence and the whole universe will eventually die.

I can hardly blame the quantum mystics for avoiding this story, and sticking to the 1960’s.

When it comes to physics, people seem to need to kid themselves. There is a presumption, Dr. Albert said, that if you look deeply enough you will find “some reaffirmation of your own centrality to the world, a reaffirmation of your ability to take control of your own destiny.” We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution.

But one of the most valuable aspects of science, he said, is precisely the way it resists that temptation to find the answer we want. That is the test that quantum mysticism flunks, and on some level we all flunk.

I’d like to believe that like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, “without hope or fear,” as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it. Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it’s a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival.

But I wouldn’t call it good physics.

Tags: Evolution

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 James // Apr 11, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    It seems like “mainstream” physicists are starting to come out of their shells on this issue. Have you read Quantum Enigma by Fred Kuttner and Bruce Rosenblum? It’s a good account of the constraints that prevent physicists from determining the meaning of QM. In the vein of Sam Harris and Deborah Blum, the authors seem unwilling to admit that their speculations are in conflict with Darwinism.


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