|Dolphins and money|
“”If a sentence has the word "quantum" in it, and if it is coming out of a non-physicist's mouth, you can almost be certain that there's a huge quantum of BS being dumped on your head.
|—Physicist Devashish Singh, quoting a colleague|
Quantum woo is the justification of irrational beliefs by an obfuscatory reference to quantum physics. Buzzwords like "energy field", "probability wave", or "wave-particle duality" are used to magically turn thoughts into something tangible in order to directly affect the universe. This results in such foolishness as the Law of Attraction or quantum healing. Some have turned quantum woo into a career, such as Deepak Chopra, who often presents ill-defined concepts of quantum physics as proof for God and other magical thinking.
Quantum woo is an attempt to piggy-back on the success and legitimacy of science by claiming quack ideas are rooted in accepted concepts in physics, combined with utter misunderstanding of these concepts and a sense of wonder at the amazing magic these misunderstandings would imply if true. A quick way to tell if a claim about quantum physics has scientific validity is to ask for the mathematics. If there isn't any, it's rubbish. Brian Cox proposed one should challenge Deepak Chopra to first solve the Schrödinger equation for a spherically symmetrical potential, then talk about quantum healing.
The New Age fascination with quantum mechanics seems to date to the mid-to-late 1970s and the books The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav. Both books were received skeptically by most in the physics community, with the Zukav book somewhat more heavily scorned.
The author of the first of these two, Fritjof Capra, has worked professionally as a physicist, but Zukav has virtually no formal training in the field. Capra's book had the occasional friendly physicist reviewer such as Victor Mansfield, who like Capra is also a proponent of Buddhist philosophy. Many who acknowledged Capra had described quantum physics fairly though his correlations between it and Buddhist mysticism were superficial and silly, and Peter Woit noted the book used quite a bit of out-of-date physics. Physicist John Gribbin described The Tao of Physics as the only purveyor of quantum-based mysticism that had any genuine grasp of quantum physics at all, although the book's physics has been severely criticized by Victor Stenger. In a joint review of both the Capra and Zukav books, physicist Jeremy Bernstein describe both collectively as not serious descriptions of quantum physics.
It should also be noted that Eastern religions do not have a single monolithic underlying philosophy, but that each one is divided into multiple schools of thought in ways not acknowledged by the sweeping generalizations about "Eastern religion" in Capra's book. It may be true that both quantum physics and Eastern religion view the universe as "a dynamic interconnected unity", but that does not mean that the details are the same.
Both books continue to be embraced by those who needed an all-purpose explanation for their woo.
Arguably some purveyors of quantum mysticism are entirely ignorant of quantum physics such as Deepak Chopra and the writers of the film What the Bleep..., while others may understand quantum physics but draw confused philosophical conclusions from it. Although Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose shared with Stephen Hawking the Wolf Prize for Physics in 1988, Hawking has vigorously opposed the attempts of Penrose to develop an explanation for consciousness from quantum physics (as has also noted physicist and atheist Victor Stenger and philosopher Daniel Dennett). However, Penrose does not engage in the massive distortions of modern physics that are found in Chopra and others.
Quantum woo is invoked by alties and woo-pushers in the manner that Nikola Tesla is by crackpot inventors. Popular culture movies such as The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? have also appealed to such concepts. Some of the less credible Neopagan authors, including Silver Ravenwolf, have begun doing the same thing.
Material that skirts the edge
Strong quantum woo might be defined as literature that
pretends maintains that quantum physics has just proved what ancient mystics already knew all along. There is some literature exploring the intersection of quantum physics and religion which falls short of making such grandiose claims.
Quantum physicist John Polkinghorne later became an Anglican priest and author of books trying to synthesize science and the supernatural claims of Christianity. However, Polkinghorne mainly employs the standard apologetic arguments from the anthropic principle and Isaac Newton's claim that the laws of physics require a lawgiver and a creation requires a creator. Polkinghorne makes no strong claims about any metaphysical implications for quantum physics, although that was his field as a scientist.
The Buddhist-themed book The Quantum and the Lotus is by two authors, an astrophysicist (Trinh Xuan Thuan) and a Buddhist monk (Matthieu Ricard). It suggests that the discoveries of quantum physics and various Buddhist perspectives might be mutually supportive of each other, but this work makes far weaker claims than the Capra and Zukav books, and on several points the two authors visibly agree to disagree. The Vietnamese astrophysicist Trinh Thuan often adopts a more characteristically Western scientific outlook and the French Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, often adheres more strictly to the outlook of classical Buddhist philosophy.
Many respectable quantum physicists, including David Bohm, Erwin Schrödinger and Wolfgang Pauli, have noted the similarities between mystical and quantum worldviews.
Erwin Schrödinger wrote in What Is Life? that the world envisioned by quantum mechanics is monistic, as taught in mystico-religious traditions: "The multiplicity is only apparent. This is the doctrine of the Upanishads. And not of the Upanishads only. The mystical experience of the union with God regularly leads to this view."
The reason for quantum woo is the almost mystical status of quantum mechanics in the collective imagination: almost nobody knows what it actually is, but it's definitely extremely hard science about very awesome stuff. Even having a basic understanding of quantum mechanics requires a working knowledge of differential, integral, multivariable, complex, vector and tensor calculus, differential equations, linear and abstract algebra, classic Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism. Such topics are waaaaaaaaaaaay out of the league of anyone who hasn't spent at least three years studying them, and this, combined with the efforts of pop science authors to make science accessible to the masses, inevitably leads to quantum mechanics being widely summarized as all the weird, wonderful properties of matter in the tiny nanometric scale—and all it takes to make something appear to be based on Hard Science™ is spouting a little bit of vague technobabble about quantum stuff.
The logical process runs something like this:
- I want magic to exist.
- I don't understand quantum.
- Therefore, quantum could mean magic exists.
Concepts such as "non-locality" or "quantum probability waves" or "uncertainty principle" have become social memes of a kind where people inherently recognize that something "strange" is going on. Practitioners of fraudulent and silly ideas can tap into this feeling of mystery to push their sham concepts, e.g.:
One bad habit often exhibited by pushers of quantum woo is throwing out the theories of Isaac Newton because his work supposedly has been rendered obsolete by quantum theory. In actuality, Newtonian equations for motion work quite well when it comes to predicting the motion of a football, asteroid, or comet (in fact, the computers used in the Apollo mission were programmed with them).
Quantum woo and Christianity
A few people on the fringe claim that Jesus exhibits properties similar to those of quantum particles.
- The idea of something being a particle and a wave simultaneously is weird and apparently contradictory.
- The idea of Jesus being divine and human simultaneously is weird, and apparently contradictory.
- Therefore perhaps the two are connected.
If you can consider light being both a particle and a wave, then it also becomes reasonable to see how Jesus can be both a human and a God. Think about it. Jesus exhibits "human" properties like having a physical body, eating, drinking, and having emotions. On the other hand, He also has "God" properties like the power to resurrect people, controlling the weather, knowing future events, and healing. Like light, Jesus exhibits properties from His dual natures. You could say He is the true "God Particle."
Anthony J. Fejfar takes this to an even more unusual level, proclaiming Jesus to be "The Quantum Field" (all capitals). In his short tract he explains how Jesus "Quantum" himself in and out of the tomb and Mary's womb. Apparently he can dematerialize through "Quantum."
For the record, no quantum entity is "fully a wave and fully a particle"; rather, they are an entirely different type of thing which happens to exhibit some properties of each, somewhat like how liquids exhibit some properties of both solids and gases (although quantum particles are not "intermediate" to waves and particles). If Jesus is to be understood in this light, the result is a heresy akin to "modalism", whereby the Holy Trinity is understood as being one person with three different "aspects" or "masks", and not as one-person-and-three-simultaneously.
...and quantum creationism
If you want to read a good book on quantum physics, scienceblogger Chad Orzel recently published a very accessible book called How To Teach Physics To Your Dog. Way better than anything Deepak Chopra might write.
For a popular science overview, check this New Scientist article.
- Polymeric falcighol derivation
- Quantum consciousness
- Real quantum physics terms
- Science Woo
- Law of attraction
- Water woo
- The Spirit Science, a big promoter of quantum woo
- Some critics might be tempted to designate it "woo lee".
- The Tao of Physics (Shambhala Publications, 1975, ISBN 1570625190)
- The Dancing Wu Li Masters (William Morrow & Co., 1979, ISBN 0553249142)
- Reviewer Jeremy Bernstein of the New Yorker Magazine, quoted by Martin Gardner in a 1979 review for Newsday, described Zukav's and Capra's physics by saying "A physicist reading these books might feel like someone on a familiar street who finds that all the old houses have suddenly turned mauve."
- in the preface to his own work In Search of Schrödinger's Cat
- For example on the April 2010 episode of the podcast For Good Reason 
- vlad. "A New Quantum Flux Level Over-Unity Device is Discovered." ZPEnergy.com. 2003 February 01.
- "Quantum Stirwands™." Quantum Age.
- "Quantum Therapy." QuantumTherapy.net. 2009 May.
- Ragnarok's profile on Blogger.
- Ragnarok. "Quantum Jesus." The Dark Side of the Universe. 2009 July 24.
- Anthony J. Fejfar. "The Quantum Jesus: A Tract Book Essay." Scribd.com 2007.