Quantum Metaphysics

Victor J. Stenger
University of Hawaii



 

Paper presented at the Conference on New Spiritualities, Westminster College, Oxford, England, March 1995. Published in Modern Spiritualities, Laurence Brown, Bernard C. Farr, and R, Joseph Hoffmann (eds.) Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 1997. Also published in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 1(1), 26-30, 1997.
 In his talk at this conference, Antony Flew defined spirit as "incorporeal substance." As a physicist, I can relate to that. If such a thing as spirit exists, then I have no problem with it being incorporeal. It does not have to be made of matter as long as it has "substance." I interpret this to mean that although spirit may not be composed of quarks and electrons or other known constituents of matter, it still may be a meaningful concept, amenable to empirical testing or other rational analysis.

One test for whether a concept has "substance" is to use Occam's razor to excise it from all discourse. If the essential content of discourse remains unchanged, then I would say the concept has no substance. Of course, like most scientific tests, this can only be used to falsify the concept, not verify it.

The idea of spirit as a substantial component of the universe is of course an ancient one, fundamental to the traditional dualistic view most humans hold of the universe and themselves as part of that universe. In this view, planets, rock, trees, and the human body are made of matter, but matter is not everything. Beyond matter exists mind, soul, or spirit, an etherial substance that may even be more "real" than matter - the very quintessence of being.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many scientists thought that the marvelous new discoveries of science, and the methods of science, could be applied to the world of the spirit as well as to the world of matter. For example, Sir Oliver Lodge, a physicist who had helped demonstrate the reality of electromagnetic waves, argued that if wireless telegraphy was possible, then so was wireless telepathy. Lodge, like most others of the period, believed that electromagnetic waves, including light, were vibrations of a frictionless medium, the aether, that pervaded the universe. It seemed plausible that this medium might also be responsible for the transmission thoughts, that it was the long-sought substance of mind and spirit.

The electromagnetic field, like the gravitational field proposed centuries before by Newton, exhibited a holistic character that fit in well with spiritual ideas. Matter was particulate, occurring in lumps, and analyzed by the distasteful methods of reductionism in which objects are reduced to the sum of their parts. Fields, on the other hand, were continuous - holistic - occurring everywhere in space, connecting everything to everything else, and analyzable only in the whole. Even today, occultists confuse natural electromagnetic effects with "auras" surrounding living things. A popular con game at psychic fairs is the sale of "aura photographs" that are simply made with infrared-sensitive film. Kirlian photography is another example of a simple electromagnetic phenomenon, corona discharge, that is given imaginary spiritual significance.

Although the atomic theory of matter was well developed by the late nineteenth century, it had not yet been convincingly verified at that time. Many chemists, and a few physicists like Lodge, still held open the possibility that matter might be continuous. The mathematics of fields had been successfully applied to solids and fluids, which appear continuous and wavy on the everyday scale. These scientists suggested that continuity, not atomism, constituted the prime unifying principle for describing the universe of both matter, light, and perhaps spirit.

This comforting notion was shattered as the twentieth century got underway. First, the aether was found not to exist. Second, the atomic theory was confirmed. Third, light was found to be a component of matter, composed of particles we now call photons. And so, discreteness, rather than continuity, became the unifying principle of physics, with the universe composed solely of particulate matter. Quantum mechanics was developed to describe material phenomena in all their various, discrete forms.

However, the situation was not quite so tidy as this short and simplified review may imply. The phenomena that originally led people to postulate its wave nature of light did not go away. Those observations were correct. Furthermore, other forms of matter were shown to also exhibit wave properties. Electrons were found to diffract through small openings in exactly the same way as light.

The fact that particles sometimes behaved as waves and waves as particles was called the wave-particle duality. Although matter was sufficient to encompass all known physical phenomena, the apparent two-fold nature of matter gave die hard dualists some comfort. Some associated waves with mind. But waves and particles were not two separate elementary substances but characteristics of the same substance.

Whether a physical entity was a wave or a particle seemed to depend on what you measured. Measure its position, and you concluded that the entity is a material body. Measure its wavelength, and you concluded that the entity is some type of continuous field. Furthermore, you can imagine deciding which quantity to measure at the last instant, long after the entity had been emitted from its source, which might be a distant galaxy.

Some have inferred from this puzzle that the very nature of the universe is not objective, but depends on the consciousness of the observer. This latest wrinkle on ancient idealism implies that the universe only exists within some cosmic, quantum field of mind, with the human mind part of that field and existing throughout all space and time.

Quantum phenomena seem to be very mysterious, and where mysteries are imagined, the supernatural cannot be far behind. However, despite these misgivings, quantum mechanics developed as a quantitative physical theory that has proven itself capable of making calculations and predictions to a high level of accuracy. After seventy years of exhaustive testing, no observation has been found to be inconsistent with quantum mechanics as a formal, mathematical theory.

Quantum mechanics dealt early with the problem of the wave nature of matter by introducing a mathematical quantity called the wave function. Schrödinger's equation was used to calculate how the wave function evolved with time; the absolute square of the wave function gave the probability that a body would be found at a particular position.

In 1927, Einstein initiated a debate on quantum mechanics with Niels Bohr that continues today, long after their deaths, as others have taken up the arguments one side or the other. Initially Einstein objected to the picture, retained today in most textbooks, in which the wave function instantaneously "collapses" upon measurement. He called this a "spooky action at a distance" because it implied that signals must travel at infinite speeds across the wave front to tell the wave function to go to zero in the places where nothing is detected.

To modern dualists, the holistic quantum wave function, with its instantaneous collapse upon the act of observation, has provided a new model for the notion of spirit. They have been wittingly and unwittingly encouraged by various statements made by physicists, some of considerable distinction.

Eugene Wigner is widely quoted in the new literature of quantum mysticism. He once said: "The laws of quantum mechanics itself cannot be formulated . . . without recourse to the concept of consciousness" (Wigner 1961).

A similar statement by John Archibald Wheeler's is also often used, to his dismay, in justifying a connection between the quantum and consciousness: "No elementary quantum phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is a registered phenomenon. . . . In some strange sense, this is a participatory universe" (Wheeler 1982).

In their book The Conscious Universe, Astrophysicist Menas Kafatos and Philosopher Robert Nadeau interpret the wave function as ultimate reality itself: ". . . Being, in its physical analogue at least, [has] been 'revealed' in the wave function. . . . . any sense we have of profound unity with the cosmos . . . could be presumed to correlate with the action of the deterministic wave function. . ." (Kafatos 1990).

Physicist Amit Goswami sees a "self-aware universe," with quantum mechanics providing support for claims of paranormal phenomena. He says: ". . . 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" (Goswami 1993).

This view was also promoted by the late novelist Arthur Koestler, who said: ". . . the apparent absurdities of quantum physics . . . make the apparent absurdities of parapsychology a little less preposterous and more digestible."

In the United States today, alternative healing is all the rage. Traditional folk healing techniques are touted as holistic, in contrast to the reductionistic methods of modern Western medicine. Again, quantum mechanics provides a source of inspiration. Two recent best sellers by Dr. Deepak Chopra contain the word "quantum" in their titles: Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine (Chopra 1989)and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (Chopra 1993).

Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Patricia Newton explains the mechanism: "(Traditional healers) are able to tap that other realm of negative entropy - that superquantum velocity and frequency of electromagnetic energy and bring them as conduits down to our level. It's not magic. It's not mumbo jumbo. You will see the dawn of the 21st century, the new medical quantum physics really distributing these energies and what they are doing" (Newton 1993).

Despite the claims made in many books, neither psychic phenomena (Stenger 1990) nor the vast array of alternate healing methods (Butler 1992) are supported by controlled, replicable laboratory studies. They cannot be used as evidence for mind over-matter. Nor can quantum mechanics be used to make these claims more credible.

As we will now see, the mysteries and apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics arise only when we try to cast the theory in words instead of equations, applying the language of everyday human experience to a physical realm where that experience may not be relevant.

The words used to describe quantum mechanics in conventional physics textbooks were gleaned from the writings of Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born, the primary authors of what is called the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. In Copenhagen, the wave function is simply a mathematical object used to calculate probabilities. The results of measurements are not pre determined, but occur randomly according to the calculated probabilities. The measuring apparatus must be treated classically and is separate from the quantum system under study. No mechanism is provided for wave function collapse, and in fact collapse is not predicted by the Schrödinger equation.

Louis de Broglie, who first suggested that particles like electrons have wave properties, proposed in 1927 the first of the class of what is now called hidden variables theories of quantum mechanics. He hypothesized that the wave function is a real field associated with a particle. However, Bohr and his supporters talked most of the community, including de Broglie (but not Einstein or Schrödinger), out of hidden variables and they lay dormant until being resurrected by David Bohm in the 1950's.

Bohm, who became the major scientific figure in the quantum mysticism movement, had shown that all the results obtained with the Schrödinger equation can be obtained by familiar classical equations of motion, provided that an additional quantum potential is added to the equations to account for quantum effects (Bohm 1952). However, Bohm's theory, as it was proposed, gave no new empirical predictions; neither he nor his followers have yet produced a mechanism for generating a priori the quantum potential.

The hidden variables approach is based on the notion, which Einstein always believed, that quantum mechanics is fine as far as it goes, as a statistical theory, but that some deterministic sub-quantum theory that lies behind physical events remains to be uncovered. Einstein's famous quotation that "God does not play dice" referred to this notion, although he thought Bohm's version was "too cheap" (Born 1971). It should be noted that hidden variables theories are not properly labelled as "interpretations" of quantum mechanics since they imply the existence of a deeper theory, not yet discovered.

In the 1960s, John Bell proved an important theorem about hidden variables theories. He showed that any deterministic hidden variables theory capable of giving all the statistical results of standard quantum mechanics must allow for superluminal connections, in violation of Einstein's assertion that no signals can move faster than light (Bell 1964). In the jargon of the trade, deterministic hidden variables theories are nonlocal. In popularized language, they are holistic, allowing for simultaneous connections between all points in space. Bell proposed a definitive experimental test that has now been repeated many times with every increasing precision (Aspect 1982). In all cases, the results are fully consistent with quantum mechanics, requiring deterministic hidden variables, if they exist, to be nonlocal.

Instead of giving up on hidden variables because of their apparent conflict with relativity, proponents have taken Bell's theorem to imply hidden variables are even more profound, providing for the holistic universe of the mystic's fondest desires. The problem of nonlocality is dismissed by claiming that no communication of signals faster than light takes place. This conclusion can be proven to be a general property of quantum theory (Eberhard 1989), and will be true for Bohm's theory as long as Bohm's theory is consistent with quantum mechanics. But, as we have seen, Bohm's theory by itself has no unique, testable consequences. We can use Occam's razor to excise it from our discourse, and nothing substantial is changed. The notion of hidden variables has no use unless superluminal connections are observed. This has not yet happened, and so hidden variables remain a non-parsimonious alternative to conventional quantum mechanics.

Another interpretation of quantum mechanics that has caught mystics' inner and outer eyes is the many worlds interpretation of Hugh Everett (1957). Everett was able to develop a formalism that solved some of the problems associated with the conventional Copenhagen view. In particular, he included the measuring apparatus in the system being analyzed, unlike Copenhagen where it must be treated as a separate, classical system. In many worlds, the wave function of the universe does not collapse upon a measurement. Instead, the universe splits into parallel universes in which all possible events occur. In Everett's view, these parallel universes that are deemed to be "equally real."

The idea that the universe is continually splitting into parallel universes whenever a measurement or observation is made strike many people as a rather extreme solution to the interpretation problems of quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, as long as the parallel universes cannot interact with one another, we can never disprove the concept. If we reject it, we must do so on aesthetic or parsimonious grounds.

More recently, a number of theorists have found ways to recast Everett's ideas in a more economical, commonsensical way. This new interpretation, which some say represents only a small extension of Bohr's thinking, is called consistent histories (Omnès 1994).
In the consistent histories view, as in Copenhagen and many worlds, the wave function allows you to calculate the probabilities that the universe will take various paths. Unlike many worlds, these paths are not deemed to be "equally real." Instead, the path taken in our universe is chosen randomly, as the toss of coin. The indeterminism of Copenhagen is retained but, unlike Copenhagen, the wave function "decoheres" rather than collapses upon the act of measurement.

Theoretical work has provided for a logically consistent histories theory that agrees with all known data without the introduction of holistic, nonlocal, or mystical elements. In this theory, the only consistent paths (or histories) are those for which probabilities add as they do classically. The quantum-to-classical transition occurs by the mechanism of decoherence induced by measuring instruments or the environment.

The idea of decoherence is quite simple. Quantum effects are characterized by phenomena, such as interference and diffraction, that are understood to be coherent properties of the wave function. These occur because the universe is granular, with matter existing in lumps separated by empty space. Only where lumps of matter exist, either in the form of a measuring instrument or environmental body, can particle paths be logically defined. At these points, the particles scatter and decohere and classical paths are produced.

Classical mechanics follows as the limit of quantum mechanics in a fine grained universe. In our experience, ordinary light is coherent in air because the probability of a visible photon colliding with an air molecule over the distances involved is small. Gamma ray photons, on the other hand, appear to travel classical paths because they have high probability to scatter, and decohere, over the same distances.

By being non-deterministic, consistent histories avoids the problem of nonlocality associated with hidden variables. Some still argue that the wave function is nonlocal, but if it is not a "real" field but a mathematical convenience, who cares? In any case, no signals move faster than the speed of light.

Still some commentators argue that any non-deterministic quantum mechanics, be it Copenhagen or consistent histories, is still incomplete. What "causes" the universe to take the path it does, they ask? Deterministic, nonlocal hidden variables are one answer. But, we have seen that they are necessarily nonlocal and we have no empirical evidence for any superluminal or sub-quantum processes.

Another even more poorly justified answer is that the path selection is made by consciousness itself. In the quantum mind interpretation of quantum mechanics, the path taken by the universe, whether you care to describe it in terms of wave function collapse or universe-splitting, is actualized by the action of mind (Squires 1990, Stapp 1993, Stapp 1994).

Now here the theories become impossibly vague and untestable, so I can only indicate some of the language. In some sense, the wave function of the universe is an etheric cosmic mind spread throughout the universe that acts to collapse itself in some unknown way. The human mind (spirit, soul) is, of course, holistically linked to the cosmic mind and so exists in all space and time. Once again we have and example of what Paul Kurtz calls the "transcendental temptation."

And so, quantum mind rescues the dualists from the damage caused by the destruction of the electromagnetic aether. But like so many similar proposals, the theory of quantum mind will get nowhere until it makes some prediction that can be tested empirically. In the meantime, its must be rejected as non-parsimonious, especially since we have in our hands a perfectly economical and logically-consistent theory that agrees with all the data and requires no additional component in the universe beyond matter.

The author is grateful for the hospitality provided by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom where this paper was written.
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Victor J. Stenger is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and the author of Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (Prometheus Books, 1988) and Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990). This paper is based on The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology.,( Prometheus Books, 1995).
 

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