The Mystical World of Quantum Mechanics

Victor J. Stenger

 Published in the Time Higher Education Supplement January 5, 2001, p. 20.
May differ from edited version that was published.

 Almost any book or article you pick up these days on modern mysticism, paranormal phenomena, or alternative medicine will allude to quantum mechanics as the scientific foundation for their claims. For example, in his 1993 best seller Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old, physician Deepak Chopra contends that illness and aging are an illusion since quantum mechanics has shown that "the physical world is a creation of the observer."

In his 1993 book The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, physicist Amit Goswami claims that the existence of paranormal phenomena such as ESP is supported by quantum mechanics. As he puts it, ". . . psychic phenomena, such as distant viewing and out-of-body experiences, are examples of the nonlocal operation of consciousness . . . Quantum mechanics undergirds such a theory by providing crucial support for the case of nonlocality of consciousness."

The source of such claims can be traced to the so-called wave-particle duality of quantum physics: At the quantum level, physical objects seem to possess both particle-like and wave-like properties that depend on whether a particle property or a wave property of the object is measured. Decide to measure the position of the object, and it acts like a particle. Decide to measure its wavelength, and it acts like a wave.

Despite the wave-particle duality, however, the particle picture is maintained in all quantum mechanical applications. Atoms, nuclei, electrons, and quarks are all regarded as localized objects. Furthermore, what once were thought to be continuous fields have been found to be composed of particles. Indeed, quantum mechanics began, in 1900, when Planck showed that electromagnetic radiation is not continuous but occurs in discrete bits of energy that he called quanta. In 1905, Einstein identified the electromagnetic quantum with a particle now called the photon. In modern quantum field theory, an abstract mathematical field is associated with each particle. However, no waves or fields of any kind exist independent of these particles, which constitute their quanta

 The mathematical theory of quantum mechanics is now 75 years old and continues to describe a huge variety of empirical observations with great precision and without anomaly. No controversies exist about its basic validity. On the other hand, no consensus has developed on how quantum mechanics should be interpreted metaphysically.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, promulgated by Niels Bohr in the 1930s and largely accepted as convention until recent years, says nothing about consciousness. However, it left the door open to misinterpretation with its positivist insistence that only what is measured can have any meaning. As is often heard in physics classrooms, "the electron has no position until that position is measured." Technically, this just means that we cannot include the electron's position in any theoretical equation until that position is measured. However, this unfortunate wording has led some to the logically fallacious inference that the electron does not exist as a real, localized particle until the performance of a conscious act of measurement.

Alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics have been proposed over the last several decades. None leave much space for consciousness, however some open the door for further flights of fancy. I will just mention the two that get the greatest attention because of their bizarre implications.

Einstein always expressed his distaste for the apparent indeterministic nature of quantum mechanics ("God does not play dice"). In 1952, David Bohm proposed a sub quantum theory that provides for particles following definite paths with quantum effects resulting from forces that lie below current levels of observation. However, no evidence has yet been found for sub-quantum forces. Furthermore, experiments have made it almost certain that any such theory must involve instantaneous connections across the universe. While not providing quantum mystics their desired basis for consciousness to control reality, the holistic nature of Bohm's theory has provided them with the tempting notion that everything in the universe is simultaneously connected to everything else and thus not reducible to parts.

The many worlds interpretation of Hugh Everett provides a useful formalism that avoids the conceptual problems of Copenhagen. However, the metaphysics of parallel universes that has been implied strikes many as a rather extreme solution to the puzzles of the quantum world. Still, the idea has also attracted its own circle of enthusiastic proponents, in all universes presumably.

While these proposals, and other more prosaic ones, continue to be debated, keep in mind that none make unique predictions that can be tested against observations. Most likely, the truth will turn out to be simple and obvious, and offer no comfort to those who prefer a world of mystery and enchantment to the one of cold reason that science has always provided.

Thanks to Jonathan Colvin, Ron Ebert, James Higgo, John Mazetier, and Allen Tino for their comments on this essay.
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Victor J. Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado.This article is based on his books, The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books 1995) and Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes (Prometheus Books 2000).