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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Thinking About Quantum Mysticism

By June 8, 2009

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In the early years of quantum physics, there was a heated debate over the role of consciousness. Many aspects of quantum physics appear, at least with certain forms of analysis, to depend to some degree upon when a conscious observer witnesses an event. The classic of these types of problem is the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment, which points out the curious quantum nature of things and asks at which point the probabilistic, indeterminant nature of quantum physics collapses into a single coherent state. (This controversy is well analyzed in the book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner.)

Even among those who bring up the role of consciousness, however, an even deeper early controversy is often glossed over - these questions were viewed, among many of the most prominent founders of quantum physics, as profoundly mystical questions. This viewpoint is tackled in a paper published in the European Journal of Physics by Harvard historian Juan Miguel Marin ('Mysticism' in quantum mechanics: the forgotten controversy - abstract only).

Lisa Zyga covers the topic quite well in her article, Quantum Mysticism: Gone but Not Forgotten over at PhysOrg.com. Basically, Marin doesn't weigh in on the role of consciousness itself (being a historian rather than a physicist), but instead points out that the very fact that this controversy once existed shows that there are many different ways that science and religion can interact, instead of the "all or nothing" tug of war which seems so prevalent today. Marin suggests that, in part, this is a transition from the early 20th century Germanic worldview (which dominated theoretical physics of the early quantum era) with the Anglo-American viewpoint that has dominated physics since the Manhattan Project.

Apparently, weighing in on the science side of the science/religion split is the recent book by Victor J. Stenger, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness, written with the (seemingly) express purpose of debunking the mis-application of quantum physics to pseudo-religious hokum. I won't question the validity of Stenger's argument, having not yet read his book (it's sitting right here and I promise I'll get to it!), but I do think that Marin makes a valid point that physicists today are too quick to dismiss the entire debate over consciousness without really giving the complexities due intellectual credit.

What is without a doubt important, in an age where new age mysticism seeks to co-opt quantum physics as part of its support structure, is for scholars such as Marin and Stenger to clearly delineate the limits of this discussion. Even in the most extreme formulations, quantum physics interactions with consciousness do not grant anyone the ability to summon vast amounts of wealth just by thinking about it.

Comments

June 15, 2009 at 6:54 pm
(1) PeterT says:

Did the moon and the Sun not exist before the humans, dinosaurs etc. were conscious of them?
The Universe made consciousness, not the other way around.

Pete

June 18, 2009 at 4:03 pm
(2) aTomS says:

God IS the universal consciousness which created the Universe.

The gray-matter between our ears simply serves to localize portions of his universal consciousness into our unique individualities.

Oh… and… It is improper to say that we only use 10% of that gray-matter… The other 90% IS Used to Filter that which we cannot comprehend.

July 27, 2009 at 11:40 pm
(3) Recless says:

It is a myth that we use 10% of our brain. Humans use most of their brain. That myth just never seems to go away.

February 10, 2014 at 8:55 am
(4) Petri says:

Stenger is quite right!!! I read his book and id really interesting.

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