Ghostbusting the Quantum: The New Age Misuse of Science

Quantum

The so-called “New Age” is an umbrella term having reference to a body of belief which asserts that a separate holistic reality, fundamentally pervaded by a single cosmic consciousness, lies beyond the material world revealed by science. Ironically, believers in this variety of otherworldliness have claimed a connection between their spirituality and the science of quantum mechanics. As I will show in this essay, a scientific examination of the quantum spiritualists’ claims do not hold up against what professional physicists know about quantum mechanics through observation and experiment.

The miracle-friendly and personalized New Age spiritualism, which made a significant impact on various Western countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s, has not come close to dying down in popularity and mass appeal in modern popular culture. One striking indication of this is seen in the reception of two very successful documentary films that appeared in the last decade, following in the tradition of earlier spiritualism-and-science films that have been well-received by the public, such as Bernt Amadeus Capra’s 1990 film Mindwalk. The first of these more recent offerings is 2004’s What the Bleep Do We Know!? This modestly funded independent film grossed $10 million, not counting its several spin-off products. Even more successful was the 2006 documentary film The Secret. The accompanying book by Rhonda Byrne maintained the top spot on the New York Times Best Seller list for nearly 150 consecutive weeks.

Both Bleep and The Secret are careful in avoiding any suggestion that a personal god exists, but are not so careful in remaining scientifically respectable otherwise. Both films suggest that there exists a greater power of some kind, a cosmic consciousness into which we humans are capable of tuning with our minds. The authors of both films look to the science of quantum mechanics to justify their claims. Because there is such a great deal of apparent mysteriousness in quantum mechanics, arising from the spooky phenomenon of the observer and the observed appearing to become strongly intertwined, the argument is made that “we create our own reality” just by thinking.

All three directors of What the Bleep Do We Know!? are students of mystic and channeler J.Z. Knight, who is featured in the film channeling a 35,000 year-old being called Ramtha. This has led some reviewers to criticize the film as a promotional recruitment tool for Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, an institution founded and operated by Knight. The directors deny this charge, insisting that the film is their own independent work. Of course, whether Bleep was intended as a recruitment film or not has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the film’s claims and thesis, which must be evaluated on their own terms. Still, it does stand as an eyebrow-raising bit of information.

In an effort to lend scientific credibility to their claims, the makers of Bleep bring in PhD scientists such as Amit Goswami and Fred Alan Wolf, among others, for on-screen interviews. Goswami, now retired from his professorship at University of Oregon where he taught physics for thirty-two years, received a PhD in theoretical nuclear physics from Calcutta University in 1964. Wolf received a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963. Both Goswami and Wolf are well-educated physicists, so whether they are deliberately misrepresenting the findings of quantum mechanics to promote their personal beliefs (and make a lot of money) or whether they are actually ignorant of some details of quantum mechanics is a matter of debate.

However, Amit Goswami strikes me personally as one who sincerely believes what he says in the film (Fred Alan Wolf just strikes me as a bit insane, a “mad scientist” of sorts, but certainly no genius). Many of Goswami’s ideas come from Indian mysticism, and Hindus tend to believe strongly and sincerely in their religion. But while Goswami believes he has found a connection between Indian mysticism and physics, the arguments he uses to support his conceptual bridge do not withstand the level of scientific scrutiny Goswami must have at least some currency in, given his credentials. In his 1993 book The Self-Aware Universe, Goswami makes many unsupportable statements, of which the following is representative:

As the real experiencer (the nonlocal consciousness) I operate from outside the system – transcending my brain-mind that is localized in space-time – from behind the veil of the tangled hierarchy of my brain-mind’s systems. My separateness – my ego – emerges only as the apparent agency for the free will of this cosmic “I,” obscuring the discontinuity in space-time that the collapse of the quantum brain-mind state represents. [1]

No credentialed physicist who has not first put the cart of personal belief before the horse of scientific scrutiny could with a straight face treat as uncontroversial the prospect of consciousness operating nonlocally. The term nonlocal (also termed superluminal) has a special meaning in physics; it denotes the motion of bodies or transfer of information between two points which are unconnected by any common reference frame at speeds faster than the speed of light. This is forbidden by Einstein’s special theory of relativity and by conservation of energy, both of which have been confirmed by numerous tests to a high degree of accuracy. Quantum mechanics neither requires nor implies the existence of nonlocal or superluminal phenomena. When Goswami later states in his book that “heaven” can refer to this life and that it is “not a place but an experience of living in quantum nonlocality,” [2] he abandons the horse altogether and flies off on a magic carpet outside the realm of scientific coherence.

However, there is at least some small semblance of legitimacy in Goswami’s scientific work, evident by the fact that he acknowledges the indispensability of observational testing in science. He appeals to the experimental method when he fallaciously claims that extrasensory perception (ESP) experiments “have been carried out in many different laboratories, and positive results are claimed with both psychic and nonpsychic subjects.” [3] And in addition to admitting that “telepathy has not yet been recognized as a scientifically plausible discovery,” he even understands in part the skeptical reasoning justifying the wariness of the majority of scientists toward acceptance of psychic phenomena as real: “[ESP] does not seem to involve any local signals to our sense organs and hence is forbidden by material realism.” [4] Thus, rather than necessarily being disingenuous and deliberately misrepresenting quantum mechanics, Goswami’s pseudoscience may be a simple case of compartmentalization, a cognitive dissonance between his beliefs and his scientific work.

For whatever little it’s worth, The Secret is much more pronounced and straightforward in its assertions in comparison to the vague claims of What the Bleep Do We Know!? But to the extent that the assertions of the former are more concrete, they are the more egregious. Like Bleep, the film features interviews by PhD physicists and other scientists who lend their enthusiastic support to ideas pushed by the film and book. These include Fred Alan Wolf (introduced above) and John Hagelin, both of whom also appeared in Bleep. Hagelin, a Harvard-trained physicist and three-time presidential candidate on the Natural Law Party ticket, has distinguished himself as a prominent leader in the New Age movement. This is what Wolf and Hagelin has to say about the Secret:

Dr. Fred Alan Wolf: I’m not talking to you from the point of view of wishful thinking or imaginary craziness. I’m talking to you from a deeper, basic understanding. Quantum physics really begins to point to this discovery [of the Secret]. It says that you can’t have a Universe without mind entering into it, and that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived. [5]

Dr. John Hagelin: Quantum mechanics confirms it [the Secret]. Quantum cosmology confirms it. That the Universe essentially emerges from thought and all of this matter around us is just precipitated thought. Ultimately we are the source of the Universe, and when we understand that power directly by experience, we can start to exercise our authority and begin to achieve more and more. Create anything. Know anything from within the field of our own consciousness, which ultimately is Universal consciousness that runs the Universe. . . . So we are the creators, not only of our own destiny, but ultimately we are the creators of Universal destiny. We are the creators of the Universe. [6]

Like the PhD scientists who appear in Bleep, the PhD-clad mystics in The Secret have nothing in the way of evidence to support their claims, only assertions. And one does not need to be well-read in physics to see this. For example, for all his talk about creating anything we desire and precipitating our thoughts into reality, Hagelin’s three runs for the presidency in the eight years between 1992 and 2000 not only failed, but he amassed a total of only 236,586 votes.

So what is this “Secret” Rhonda Byrne claims to have discovered? It is essentially no different from what the New Age movement has been saying for over thirty years: Through the law of attraction, we humans create our own reality. This theme is repeated over and over again in both the film and the book (in fact, if Byrne had been more studious in avoiding repetition, her book could easily have been written in ten pages or even less). The Secret turns this familiar New Age philosophy into a self-help tool purporting to demonstrate that anybody can be whoever he or she wants to be. The secret to being rich, beautiful and healthy is simple:

If you can think about what you want in your mind, and make that your dominant thought, you will bring it into your life. [7]

In other words, you only have to want wealth, beauty and health. Earnest desire is all that is required on your part; you just have to want whatever it is you are after, and the Secret is guaranteed to work for you. You must think positive thoughts at all times, and whatever you want to happen in your life will come about.

Of course, not everybody is rich, beautiful and healthy. How are we to account for this fact? The explanation offered by The Secret is that people who do not have what they want have not been thinking the right thoughts. They were thinking too negatively. As Byrne explains,

The only reason why people do not have what they want is because they are thinking more about what they don’t want than what they do want. Listen to your thoughts, and listen to the words you are saying. The law is absolute and there are no mistakes. [8]

Byrne is not expressing an original epiphany. The same ideas she claims to be revealing to the general public for the first time have been spread by adherents of New Age belief for the past half century. A more general overview of the pop culture New Age craze will show this to be the case.

The modern New Age movement began making an impact in Western culture in the early 1960s. An Indian yogi who called himself Maharishi Mahesh Yogi contributed much to the popularization of Eastern mysticism in the West with his new meditation technique called transcendental meditation (TM). Maharishi, who was trained as a physicist, devoted much of his career to trying to make connections between ancient Eastern beliefs and modern quantum physics.

Around the same time Maharishi was travelling the United States and Great Britain teaching his synthetic philosophy of ancient mysticism and modern physics, a young Austrian-born American physicist named Fritjof Capra brought this harmonization to an even larger U.S. audience. In his 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics, a book still in print today and available in the science section of most bookstores, Capra claimed to show that “there is an essential harmony between the spirit of Eastern wisdom and Western science . . . that modern physics goes far beyond technology, that the way – or Tao – of physics can be a path with a heart, a way to spiritual knowledge and self-realization.” [9] Fritjof Capra is the brother of the above-mentioned writer and director Bernt Amadeus Capra, whose film Mindwalk was co-written by Fritjof.

Several of the prominent names in quantum spirituality on the contemporary scene have been misusing modern physics to support New Age beliefs for decades, having started their careers close on the heels of Maharishi’s TM movement and Fritjof Capra’s work. Perhaps most prominent of all today is Deepak Chopra. His bestselling books include such titles as Quantum Healing (1989) and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (1993). These and many of his other books rely heavily on the argument that quantum mechanics provides a way for us to create our own reality. In Chopra’s own words, “There is no objective world independent of the observer. . . . [You] use your senses to congeal the [quantum] soup into the solid three-dimensional world.” [10]

Not surprisingly, spiritualistic philosophy that claims a connection to quantum physics has a huge presence on the World Wide Web. To take just one subject, an online search for “quantum healing,” the concept first popularized by Chopra over twenty years ago, will turn up hundreds of thousands of hits on the low end of the scale for web sites and blogs preaching the philosophy that our mind is collectively tuned into a reality separate from the material universe (my own search as of this writing turned up 1,660,000 hits).

The claimed scientific basis for the validity of Eastern mysticism stems from the mysteriousness or “spookiness” supposedly implied by several phenomena observed in quantum mechanics. Since an in-depth discussion of all these phenomena would require a book-length treatment, I will confine myself in this essay to just one, with which the purveyors of quantum spirituality are especially enamored: The so-called “wave/particle duality.”

After elementary particle physicists finish their quantum-level measurements, they find that waves are not the only form in which light appears. The wave phenomenon of light has been well understood since 1800, when Thomas Young’s two-slit interference experiment with light demonstrated that light behaves like waves. Long before Young’s experiment, Isaac Newton proposed that light was made up of particles, or “corpuscles” in the jargon of the day. Throughout the nineteenth century, the corpuscular particle model of light was largely abandoned in favor of the theory that light was fundamentally wavelike.

With the rise of quantum mechanics early in the twentieth century, evidence began to accumulate that light was made up of tiny quanta of energy. The same duality observed in these energy particles, dubbed photons, was observed to be at play in electrons and most other particles: Sometimes they behave like particles and sometimes they behave like waves. The “wave/particle duality” therefore refers to the “spooky” observation that whether a measured body behaves like a wave or a particle depends on what the experimenter is interested in looking for. When a wavelike property of an object is being measured, the object behaves like a wave. But when the position of any individual particle within the same object is measured, wave phenomena disappear and are replaced by particle-like behavior. Fritjof Capra sees special significance in this apparent duality for New Age practitioners, even going so far as to equate it with the difference between the concepts of existence and non-existence:

The reality of the atomic physicist, like the reality of the Eastern mystic, transcends the narrow framework of opposite concepts . . . Like the atomic physicists, the Eastern mystics deal with a reality which lies beyond existence and non-existence, and they frequently emphasize this important fact . . . Faced with a reality which lies beyond opposite concepts, physicists and mystics have to adopt a special way of thinking, where the mind is not fixed in the rigid framework of classical logic, but keeps moving and changing its viewpoint. [11]

The illusion created by this apparent duality is that an observer can decide for herself what form reality will take by the very act of deciding what property to measure in any given object. That object could be light relayed from a distant galaxy 13 billion years away, when the light first left its source. The implication is that our mind affects the reality of objects, not only in the present moment but in all moments in time and space throughout the universe, past and future. Amit Goswami writes, “The paradox of wave-particle duality – that quantum mechanics have both wave and particle aspects – needs a resolution, which means interpretation and philosophy.” [12] He proceeds to cite the wave/particle duality as one of the features of quantum mechanics which points to another kind of reality transcending the material one. This radical interpretation of the wave/particle duality is typical of how New Age believers try to use science to support their claim that our minds pervade the entirety of the universe and are intimately tuned into it.

When a modern-day experimenter performs Young’s light experiment with advanced equipment sensitive enough to detect each individual photon, those particles will always register on the measuring equipment. When the experiment is set up to measure a given wave property, the experimenter will not see the individual particles. This does not imply a duality between particles and waves. Contrary to the quantum spiritualists’ claims, it actually implies the very opposite: There is no wave/particle duality.

Consider an experiment in which we send photons from a point source through two slits in a screen (this is the standard experiment used by physicists for measuring wave effects of particles). On the other side of the screen, an interference pattern of dark and light bands will be seen on the wall where the light strikes after passing through the two slits. If the equipment we are using is sufficiently sensitive, we will see each individual hit on the wall. The first few hits will appear in a highly random and localized pattern. But as the number of hits increases, an interference pattern will form. Eventually the pattern will look just the same as it would if we had simply taken a photograph of light in its familiar double-slit wave form. In short, the wave effect is all in the statistics. [13]

Larger, classical bodies of everyday experience also act in a manner approximating a wave, a behavior unnoticeable to us on large scales but still determined by the average behavior of huge collections of individual particles which, with the aid of positive feedback, constitute familiar matter in aggregate. This behavior of matter is closely connected to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, introduced by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. The “fuzziness” ultimately associated with all material bodies is a consequence of our inability to locate particles while simultaneously measuring their momentum. It is not a consequence of a permeable duality controllable by human minds. Far from being in control of what form reality takes in our observations, physicists often find that their only recourse is to describe objects in terms of a wave rather than localized particles, a pulse rather than a point. Wavelength measurements are what inform us on the extent to which particles can bend around corners, for example. The reason we can hear around corners is because sound is a wave phenomenon (not everything is made up of particles, after all), and waves can only occur in a medium such as air or water as vibrations. The wavelength of sound is long enough to bend around corners, and an easy way to understand this is to picture wavelengths as series of water waves rolling in and bending around a rock near shore. As we all know, water waves can also move around corners in the same way sound does.

Light exhibits the same behavior on large scales, although this is not as obvious. In fact, one of the reasons Newton erringly rejected the wave theory of light, which had been proposed by his contemporary Christiaan Huygens, was that he wrongly believed light could not bend around corners. Although Newton was a great experimentalist, he simply did not look closely enough in this case to see that light does indeed bend. This bending can be seen by holding a card pierced with a small pinhole up to a light (either the sun or an artificial light). If the pinhole is sharp enough, light can be seen diffusing through it. While this phenomenon is often misleadingly referred to as a feature of the “wave property” of light, it is nothing more than the uncertainty principle in action. To send a particle through the pinhole in the card is to localize the particle, and the uncertainty principle states that when an object is localized too much, its momentum becomes uncertain. This uncertainty causes particles (in this case photons) to change direction just slightly as they pass through the pinhole. The fact that we rarely see light bend is simply a consequence of the fact that the individual photons cannot be measured to any appreciably high degree of accuracy. The common-sense rule that “light travels in straight lines” is a crude approximation of large-scale phenomena that does not apply to quantum scales.

When we measure for so-called “wave properties,” what we are seeing is nothing more than the statistical distribution of all the particles being observed. This is how quantum mechanics describes the wave function, which turns out to be just as fictional as the wave/particle duality. The wave function is not a physical property of any particle or group of particles. It is only an abstract mathematical tool that describes the probability for finding a particle at a particular position in space. Retired particle physicist Victor Stenger, a skeptic of mystical and theistic claims who has written extensively on the spiritualists’ misuse of quantum mechanics, explains why treating the wave function as real leads to certain impossible conclusions:

If you insist on interpreting the wave function as a “real” physical entity such as a water wave, then it moves faster than the speed of light, indeed, infinite speed, violating a basic tenet of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. However, if we accept that the wave is just an abstract mathematical entity physicists use to compute the probability for finding a particle at a particular position in space, then there is nothing spooky about it. Abstract things can move as fast as their inventors wish. [14]

Stenger goes on to describe a thought-experiment illustrating the non-reality of wave function collapse. Suppose you are living on a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system four light-years away from Earth. A friend of yours on Earth enters your name in a lottery, and you win the million-dollar prize. Your new wealth is analogous to the wave function. At the moment you win, your probability of winning collapses instantaneously and your wealth increases by one million dollars. However, there you are four light-years away in Alpha Centauri, unaware that you have won the Earth lottery. More importantly for practical matters, your bank in Alpha Centauri is unaware of your wealth, because any news-bearing signal sent to you and to your Alpha Centauri bank from Earth at light-speed will take four long years to arrive. You cannot spend the million dollars until those four years have elapsed. [15] The wave function works the same way. It is simply an abstract mathematical description of probability terms that can collapse as much as it needs to – at every point in the universe and instantaneously – without violating special relativity. Real physical entities cannot do this, but mathematical abstractions can.

The earlier quantum mechanics of Niels Bohr, who introduced the quantum theory of the atom in 1913, was very crude in comparison to Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics, two mathematical theories developed in 1925 and 1926 respectively. In 1930, Paul Dirac unified these two versions of mathematical quantum theory into a formalism he called transformation theory. This unified theory is more mathematically advanced than Schrödinger’s version of quantum mechanics, which is the least sophisticated of all the formalisms as well as the most familiar version, studied by physics students at the undergraduate level and written about most in popular physics books. Dirac’s sophisticated method, first introduced in his classic 1930 textbook Principles of Quantum Mechanics, continues to this day to be the way most professional physicists do quantum mechanics. Thus, it is very telling that the term “wave function” appears only once in Dirac’s book, in a short footnote where it is treated dismissively:

The reason for this name [wave function] is that in the early days of quantum mechanics all the examples of these functions were of the form of waves. The name is not a descriptive one from the point of view of the modern general theory. [16]

In other words, the fact that the mathematics involved in quantum mechanics sometimes resembles that of a wave is nothing more than a residual artifice, a mathematical coincidence. There are no actual waves, only particles. The non-dualistic nature of light was helpfully stressed by Richard Feynman in the first of a series of lectures on quantum electrodynamics given thirty years ago to high school students:

I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles. [17]

Some theoretical physicists invoke quantum field theory as a possible counter-argument to this particle picture of reality, saying that fields are more fundamental than particles. In this view, particles are just manifestations of fields. But this is an ontological view that cannot easily be tested for experimentally. The debate over particles and fields among physicists reduces to an argument over preferences. More to the point, it is a debate about reality that often takes an uncomfortable metaphysical turn. All anyone can know about reality is learned through experiment. Being a non-scientist myself, I prefer the consensus particle model over the field model in the theories physicists are conversant in. For one thing, it is far easier to visualize and simpler to construct, and thus nicely consistent with Occam’s razor.

The current reductionist Standard Model of particle physics and quantum mechanics is a well-established and repeatedly-confirmed model that is unappealing to those who try to make connections between it and New Age spirituality. This is because standard quantum mechanics does not support New Age doctrine and in fact militates quite strongly against it. Instead, people erroneously read holistic philosophies into quantum mechanics in highly misleading popular expositions which take advantage of people’s misunderstandings of science. New Age gurus who distort quantum mechanics in order to make a scientific-sounding case for their preconceived spiritualistic beliefs have not satisfied any criteria of a good theory demanded by the scientific method.


NOTES

[1]  Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1993), pp. 192-193.

[2] Ibid, p. 263.

[3] Ibid, p. 131.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006), pp. 20-21.

[6] Ibid, p. 160.

[7] Ibid, p. 9.

[8] Ibid, p. 12.

[9] Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1975), p. 25.

[10] Deepak Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (New York: Harmony Books, 1993), p. 11.

[11] Capra, The Tao of Physics, pp. 154-155.

[12] Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe, p. 138.

[13] Victor J. Stenger, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), p. 185.

[14] Ibid, pp. 184, 186.

[15] Ibid, pp. 187-88.

[16] Paul Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), p. 80, emphasis mine.

[17]  Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 15.

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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