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Quantum woo

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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[1]
I think there are two villains here: (1) Physicists, who are (rightly) desperate to explain to the world the extraordinary, fascinating, and profound implications of quantum mechanics. But they are afraid of intimidating an audience that gags at the sight of an equation; they want to convey the excitement without the substance. So they resort to forced similes and grossly misleading metaphors (quantum tunneling means you can walk through walls—somehow it never works when I try it). (2) Non-physicists who are intrigued by words like “uncertainty” and “indeterminacy,” but are too lazy to do the serious work it takes to understand them.
—David J. Griffiths[2]

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.

When an idea seems too crazy to believe, the proponent often makes an appeal to quantum physics as the explanation. This is a New Age version of God of the gaps.

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 equationWikipedia for a spherically symmetrical potential, then talk about quantum healing.

History[edit]

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[3] Masters by Gary Zukav.[4][5] Both books were received skeptically by most in the physics community,[6] with the Zukav book somewhat more heavily scorned.

Fritjof Capra, the author of the former, has worked professionally as a physicist, whereas Zukav on the other hand has virtually zero formal training in the field. Capra's book would receive the occasional friendly physicist reviewer, e.g. Victor Mansfield, who, like Capra, is also a proponent of Buddhist philosophy. Many who acknowledged Capra had largely supported quantum physics, while also recognizing that Capra's correlations between it and Buddhist mysticism woo were superficial and silly. Indeed, Peter Woit noted that the book cited discredited, outdated physics research as its sources. Physicist John Gribbin regarded The Tao of Physics as the only purveyor of quantum-based mysticism that had any real grasp of quantum physics whatsoever,[7] while other physicists like Victor Stenger severely criticized the book's grasp of the matter.[8] In a joint review of both the Capra and Zukav books, another physicist named Jeremy Bernstein criticized them both as less-than-credible descriptions of quantum physics.

Claims about Eastern religion's alleged compatability with science[edit]

As mentioned above, Capra's book attracted much criticism from more credible physicists due to its attempts to conflate mystic woo from "Eastern religion" that isn't even well-defined with proven, evidence-based physics. While yes, it may be true that both quantum physics and Eastern religion view the universe as "a dynamic interconnected unity", this does not necessarily mean that the details are the same or that they are both equally valid. Both books continue to be embraced by those who need an catch-all, sciency-sounding explanation for their woo. It is worth noting that many purveyors of quantum mysticism are entirely ignorant of quantum physics, such as Deepak Chopra and the writers of the film What the Bleep do we Know?. Others might understand quantum physics yet still manage to draw woefully confused philosophical conclusions from it. Although Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose shared with Stephen Hawking the Wolf Prize for Physics in 1988, Hawking had vigorously opposed the attempts of Penrose to develop an explanation for consciousness from quantum physics (as did also noted physicist and atheist writer Victor Stenger and the also atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett). 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[edit]

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."

Pseudoscience[edit]

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:

  1. I want magic to exist.
  2. I don't understand quantum.
  3. 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[edit]

Quantum Jesus...[edit]

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.

Ragnarok, a blogger who professes to be Catholic,[12] has co-opted ideas of wave/particle duality as an analogy to explain the dual nature of Jesus as both man and God:

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."[13]

Anthony J. Fejfar takes this to an even more unusual level, proclaiming Jesus to be "The Quantum Field" (all capitals).[14] 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-Being-and-three persons-simultaneously.

...and quantum creationism[edit]

Desmond Paul Allen is a crank with a different kind of quantum woo, mixing it with creationism into some sort of incoherent word salad.

Real science[edit]

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.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. https://www.quora.com/Who-is-Foster-Gamble-who-presents-the-documentary-Thrive
  2. Greg Bernhardt. Interview with a Physicist: David J. Griffiths. Physics Forum Insights. September 17, 2016.
  3. Some critics might be tempted to designate it "woo lee".
  4. The Tao of Physics (Shambhala Publications, 1975, ISBN 1570625190)
  5. The Dancing Wu Li Masters (William Morrow & Co., 1979, ISBN 0553249142)
  6. 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."
  7. in the preface to his own work In Search of Schrödinger's Cat
  8. For example on the April 2010 episode of the podcast For Good Reason [1]
  9. vlad. "A New Quantum Flux Level Over-Unity Device is Discovered." ZPEnergy.com. 2003 February 01.
  10. "Quantum Stirwands™." Quantum Age.
  11. "Quantum Therapy." QuantumTherapy.net. 2009 May.
  12. Ragnarok's profile on Blogger.
  13. Ragnarok. "Quantum Jesus." The Dark Side of the Universe. 2009 July 24.
  14. Anthony J. Fejfar. "The Quantum Jesus: A Tract Book Essay." Scribd.com 2007.