Quantum blues

December 14th, 2010 by Dearbhla Kelly

“It’s safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Richard Feynman (Physicist, Nobel Prize Laureate)

Let me begin by saying that I am absolutely, categorically NOT an authority on quantum physics. In fact, I understand just enough of it to understand how little I understand. Eight years ago, while a Ph.D candidate in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I took a graduate seminar in philosophy of quantum mechanics. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in the academic arena. We spent approximately three-quarters of the semester studying the mathematical foundations of the theory, as our professor, Jon Jarrett, was adamant that mastering the mathematics was an essential precursor to understanding the conceptual implications arising from the theory. Again, let me repeat: I can’t emphasize how mind-bendingly difficult this stuff is. Fortunately, I could get some kind of a handle on the conceptual stuff, given my flair for abstract thinking, but just enough to realize just how deep those waters run.

Difficulties with mastering quantum physics aside, I am way into cultivating viveka (discriminative awareness) and I think that this skill (clarity and the ability to exercise reason) is a really important one to have navigating through life and, for those of us who practice yoga, it is an essential part of the tradition, which is explicitly philosophical. Shankaracharya, the father of advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) in his Vivekachudamani exorted us to cultivate viveka, or the faculty of discrimination, that we might have the wisdom to see our own nature truly and to recognize that this nature is essentially divine.  Viveka helps us to differentiate the real from the unreal, and bring clarity to our judgments. It also enhances all of our relationships, not least with ourselves. So, you might say that cultivating viveka is an essential step in creating a well-considered life well-lived.

A word on Professor Jarrett – he is an authority on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics and holds a Ph.D in the Conceptual Foundations of Science from the University of Chicago. Pretty heavyweight. He also got tenure at UIC based on ONE article that he wrote about the philosophical implications of QM. This is basically unheard of. It typically takes about eight publications before you’re even considered for academic tenure. Lets just say that Jarrett is in a league of his own in this area.

It’s impossible not to notice the trickle-down effect of quantum mechanical theory into the culture. Terms such as ‘quantum leap’ ‘quantum moment’ and ‘quantum healing’ are bandied about in all kinds of contexts, and I must admit, I frequently don’t understand what they refer to. Particularly in the yoga world and the ‘new age’ movement people use quantum physics to justify all kinds of outlandish claims, like ‘you create your world with your thoughts’, ‘there are no absolutes, everything is relative, as Schrodinger’s experiment proves’ . I have no objection to people using quantum mechanical principles to validate their claims, but to do that, it’s necessary to actually understand the theory! Here’s the thing: as previously noted, the conceptual implications of quantum mechanics arise from the mathematics, which are foundational. Mathematics and philosophy are paradigmatically reason-governed activities, which is not to say that intuitive leaps can’t happen. They can and do, but they must then be backed by reason and well-thought out (and tested) theories. So, when people use to quantum physics to back up whatever claim they’re making, they should be prepared to submit their claim to the tribunal of reason which is the lingua franca of both quantum mechanical theory and the mathematics upon which it rests. Pretty straightforward you’d think? Wrong.

Recently, figuring that since so many of my Facebook friends are in the (global) yoga community, this would be a good place to tap into what people are thinking, I posted the following comment: I’m fascinated by how many people in the yoga world (including famous authors like Deepak Chopra), and the new age movement, use quantum mechanics in a metaphorical sense and make inferences from the theory which are not valid. Tell me what you think about this…
The post produced over 130 responses and quite a vigorous debate, unfortunately most of it was completely off topic and failed to address the question I posed. (Now I know that my rigorous philosophical training means that I have pretty high standards, but come on people, is it really so difficult to actually respond to a question?) For example, one of the first responses was “And are we all connected? Or are we just proportionally disconnected?!” What?????????????? How, exactly, does this address the issue raised? Well, the discussion about connection continued and pretty soon someone invoked ahimsa (non-violence), saying that people’s responses made her feel disconnected. I certainly strive to practice ahimsa and would not try to intentionally hurt or humiliate any interloctuor, however, this is an intellectual discussion not a referendum on anyone’s intrinsic worth. Some people did engage in a more robust way with the spirit of the issue posed and pointed out that there is an inherent bias in the yoga community against intellectualism, in fact a few people got really into it and provided some very illuminating discussion of quantum physics and how it has been misappropriated by many within the new age and yoga communities. But, I was saddened to note that for the most part there seems to be a deep reluctance within the yoga community (as instantiated by this debate within the Facebook microcosm) to engage in any kind of robust intellectual debate.

Why is this? Why is that most people in the yoga community are more concerned with cleaving to the belief that we are all connected, than with doing some jnana yoga (philsophical enquiry)? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about connection…I LOVE connecting with people and I think there are many ways to do so, including by way of vigorous debate, and I think that the webs of connection between people are intricate and far-reaching. We are connected by our humanity, by empathy and imagination, and by networks of kinship and community, aswell as by shared beliefs, practices and ways of life. We don’t need to appeal to quantum mechanics to know that we are connected to others, our inter-connectedness needs no external justification.

And yoga is about so much more than ‘being connected’, among other things it is a systematic enquiry into ourselves and the world around us. Enquiries take many forms, you can use your sense of smell to enquire, just as much as your intellect, you can use your hands, there are many possibilities, the salient issue is that the method of enquiry should be appropriate to the subject matter at hand…so, if you are going to use principles from QM to justify some metaphysical claim that you make, doesn’t it compute that you should be open to the methods of enquiry and reasoning that yielded those principles? I mean, would you trust the claims of yoga teacher who didn’t actually practice yoga, or a heart surgeon who didn’t know anything about cardiology?

But back to quantum mechanics, and it’s misappropriation by many in the yoga community. Recently I read the following statement in a very nice article in a yoga magazine: ‘As quantum mechanics proves, everything that manifests externally materializes internally aswell. We are cross-sections of a whole, containing every element of that whole.’ I really tried my best to understand the statement in the light of what I’d learned about QM (I even went back and read the papers I’d written while taking the graduate seminar) but couldn’t, so I contacted Prof Jarrett to ask him if he could shed some light on the situation (in other words was there any truth to the claim). Here’s his response:
“When talking with non-specialists, I find it difficult to convey my still all-too-feeble grasp of the quantum world in ways that do justice to the conceptual structure without lapsing into regrettable  distortions and exaggerations…Regarding what I take to be the primary issue, there is no evidence of which I’m aware suggesting that the holism exhibited most dramatically in connection with experiments on systems in entangled states has any non-negligible impact on our experience with macroscopic bodies.  Otherwise, how could classical physics ever have been devised?  This is not at all to say that QM effects are not relevant to the understanding of the nature of consciousness.  But for now, we just don’t have the language even to attach a proper meaning to a claim such as  “We are cross-sections of a whole, containing every element of that whole”, let alone justify it. Even in the simplest systems exhibiting the behavior in question (two spin-1/2 particles in the singlet state), in whatever sense we allow ourselves to speak of one member of the particle pair, it’s simply a mistake to say that it “contains every element of the whole”.

A few things to note: as you can see Jarrett is an incredibly humble guy, note he talks about his ‘all-too-feeble grasp of the quantum world’ – this from someone who has written a hugely important article in the area! Although what he says is pretty technical, it’s not necessary to go into all the technicalities, just note that he completely rejects the claim and says not only is it mistaken, but we don’t even have the language to make that claim ‘hook on’ to the quantum mechanical world. In other words, the claim is a bust. Let me clear, I’m not trying to be a facist about this stuff and I recognize that there are many ways of making sense of the world we live in and our place in the world and our way of relating to each other. But, if you’re going to invoke quantum physics as a justification for some claim you make, then you better be willing to submit your claim to the same kind of rigorous methodology that gave rise to the insights of quantum physics. Unfortunately, for the most part, people don’t. They’d rather sacrifice coherence for something that sounds good and has the weight of science behind it, but this is just bad practice and it’s certainly not adhering to satya (truth)…the point is that there are some facts of matter that really are facts and reflect how things are in the world, and not just how we want them to be.

So here’s the skinny on quantum mechanics as written by theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss and published in ‘Scientific American’…
“No one intuitively understands quantum mechanics because all of our experience involves a world of classical phenomena where, for example, a baseball thrown from pitcher to catcher seems to take just one path, the one described by Newton’s laws of motion. Yet at a macroscopic level, the universe behaves quite differently. Electrons traveling from one place to another do not take any single path, but instead, as Feynman first demonstrated, take every possible path at the same time.
Moreover, although the underlying laws of quantum mechanics are completely deterministic – I need to repeat this, they are completely deterministic – the results of measurements can only be described probabilistically. This inherent uncertainty, enshrined most in the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle, implies that various combinations of physical quantities can never be measured with absolute accuracy at the same time. Associated with that fact, but in no way equivalent to to it, is the dilemma that when we measure a quantum system, we often change it in the process, so that the observer may not always be separated from that which is observed.” (emphasis mine)

He singles out some abusers of quantum mechanics:
Deepak Chopra: I have read numerous pieces by him on why quantum mechanics provides rationales for everything from the existence of God to the possibility of changing the past. Nothing I have ever read, however, suggests he has enough understanding of quantum mechanics to pass an undergraduate course I might teach on the subject.
The Secret: This best-selling book, which spawned a self-help industry, seems to be built in part on the claim that quantum physics implies a ‘law of attraction’ that suggests good thoughts will make good things happen. It doesn’t.
And, finally:
“For the record: Quantum mechanics does not deny the existence of objective reality. Nor does it imply that mere thoughts can change external events. Effects still require causes, so if you want to change the universe, you need to act on it.”

Yogis listen up. Having a strong physical practice requires showing up on your mat, doing the work and engaging with the dharma of hatha yoga. If you’re in doubt, you consult a teacher, a book like ‘Light on Yoga’ or ‘Hatha Yoga Pradikipa’ or some other authority. Karma yoga requires selfless service and non-attachment to the fruit of your labour. If you need guidance here, most likely you willingly turn to  the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ or look to the life of someone like Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Wavy Gravy. Bhakti yogis embrace the path and practice of chanting and puja worship and the relevant exemplars and authorities in that domain. Those yogis who choose the path of jnana, or knowledge, engage with the substantive body of teachings in the yoga tradition from Patanjali’s sutras, to Tantra. So why not extend this willingness to be guided by authority and those who have more knowledge to areas outside of yoga? Afterall viveka is a skill, a meta-faculty that we can apply to all aspects of our lives, not just to yoga. So, if you want to use science to back up your claims about the world, do so, but be fully prepared so submit those claims to the very methodology that gives science its privileged position in the culture and in the intellectual domain. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on metaphor, poetry, imaginative language, or the irreducibility of mystical experiences, it does mean that you should extend the same willingness to be guided by experts in the field in the area of science as in yoga and it’s ancient teachings and codified practices.

6 Responses to “Quantum blues”

  1. kabir says:

    yessss …as a Bhakta yogi ..i get it ,self effort and grace .

  2. BlackSun says:

    Absolutely fantastic article!! I can’t tell you the kind of trouble I’ve seen caused by these self-serving fuzzy notions about QM. This is a very courageous stance you are taking. (Ken Wilber in particular has some ‘splaining to do. And don’t get me started about Robert Lanza who as a reputable and credible scientist in other areas should know better than to tout his completely pseudoscientific “Biocentrism.”)

    The bad ideas you so correctly debunk here have practically achieved iconic status in the “new-age” supposedly “conscious” community. Therefore in challenging them you have opened yourself up to a great deal of personal animosity. (Ironically from those who hold the conceit that they have gotten rid of the ego and achieved “inner peace!”) As a longtime skeptic and debunker myself, I know exactly what that animosity feels like and it is not any fun. But necessary. Kudos!

  3. Dearbhla, thank you for this generous, elegant and insightful article. Using examples or metaphors from systems in which we are not truly grounded and don’t understand is sloppy and/or opportunistic. The humility of true masters in the field of Quantam Physics should give us pause. We don’t need to bolster our rhetoric with fuzzy science. Working with our own discriminating wisdom and having reasoned enquiries with like-minded travelers can help us illuminate blind spots and give voice to insights. Thank you for creating a space for that.
    With love and aloha, d

  4. Very insightful! And, just as quantum physics requires a deep level of study, so also is true with the Yoga system. Yoga does not proclaim “oneness with the universe” but rather moves a person gently toward a high individualized experience of freedom, a state of blessed solitude known as kaivalyam. In this condition, also referred to as dharma megha samadhi, all the impurities of past action dissolve and one becomes transparent to every experience, reveling and losing oneself in the joy of life, in the embrace of the elements and the senses. Noble and sublime, and at the same time ultimately and intimately personal, with no claims being made about vaunted states of connectivity with all other beings. Dearbhla, your writing calls all of us to attention… both quantum physics and yoga require hard intellectual work!

  5. julian walker says:

    beautiful, succinct, penetrating and well – argued… wonderful to read this conversational style and rigorous clarity, dearbhla!

    the new age use of mangled quantum physics is just the latest variation on something that philosopher’s call the “god of the gaps” argument…

    loosely defined, the god of the gaps argument is the move in which someone looks for a gap in our ……understanding of reality, and then inserts god (or supernatural agency of some other kind, or the magic of manifestation, thought created reality, etc) into the gap….

    the problem with this argument for supernatural causality, is that it is not based on evidence or reason, rather it proceeds from an assumption (there are mysterious or supernatural causal agents) and then concludes that they are the only possible explanation for some gap in our naturalistic understanding of some process or phenomenon.

    when one points out that this is not a proven hypothesis, the answer is usually that nothing else explains it and so god, the devil, ghosts, the power of the mind, past lives etc must be the explanation.

    the pervasive weakness of this argument is that as we understand more and more – for example, colds and flu are caused by viruses not evil spells, your personality is the product of genes and social conditioning, not the position of jupiter or mars when you were born, hearing voices is the product of schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy or manic psychosis, not disembodied demons or deities – the more the argument has to keep morphing into whatever gaps are still left.

    now, when it comes to quantum physics, this is a kind of jackpot god of the gaps opening…. why?

    because this particular move rests on the tension between science (or the progress of natural knowledge about reality) and faith (or the belief that there must be something beyond the natural world) – and so the possibility that not only is there a new gap, but the exciting prospect that quantum physics overturns and invalidates the classical model and “proves” all sorts of magical hypotheses. this feels like a thrilling victory and a validation of an intuitive belief that reality is truly a mysterious and magical place, governed entirely by perspective and intention.

    but this is simply not the case.

    the confusion is understandable given that things like quantum entanglement, the observer effect, and thought experiments like schrodinger’s cat, everett’s multiple universes, and real experiments like the double slit/particle duality SEEM to suggest that physical reality is brought into being by consciousness.

    but this only SEEMS to be the case – and the key distinction i think lies between the quantum level – which is extraordinarily tiny, and the macro level at which we experience reality. at the quantum level, there are indeed mind-boggling phenomena, but at the macro level we still are subject to the classical laws of physics, AND no amount of spiritual practice will ever transform the macro level into being susceptible to quantum effects, NOR are quantum effects REALLY about consciousness. this fact is brought home by the usually overlooked result that the much-touted “observer effect” is created as well by a mindless camera as by a conscious human observer. it might be best to say we don’t yet know exactly how or why electrons do some of the anomalous things they do – but consciousness and ,magical thinking are not THEREFORE proven or even plausible explanations.

    the new age assertion is that quantum physics proves that by meditation, faith, special ritual, shifting our perspective etc we could transcend the laws of classical physics and do all manner of magical things like “manifest” whatever we want into existence, choose to travel back in time and change any event we don’t like, create a new reality by simply believing with enough willpower, and basically go beyond any of the suffering, helplessness, fear, mortality, economic or other limitations of being human beings subject to the laws of biology, neuroscience, classical physics and the slings and arrows of outrageous political, and socioeconomic fortune.

    this is merely another fantasy that is best understood as a way to try and deny the reality of our vulnerable existence – for me buddhist meditation is a wonderful antidote to this defense mechanism and provides tools and resources for handling our human condition in more honest, integrated and compassionate ways.

    science can still be science, spirituality can still be spirituality, and viveka can be practiced from the exciting platform of seeking to understand both subjective and objective methodologies and the both overlapping and non-overlapping relationships between the two.

  6. I am happy that my life has been filled with music and its study,It always stands with its truths that need no explanation.QM is a very necessary part of our world.and it is Karma.(however you interpret).To be Intellectual is in no way any contradiction.It is in itself a gift.Each individual ,no matter what the gift, tries to offer what is brought by them to this life.We are all on our way and QM is just one way many see life, but there is always doubt even in the Ivory Towers. Study and discussion would not continue if there was no belief in something else.So well done.
    I always come back to music which defies so much.
    Schopenhaur once said.”In music we percieve the hearbeat of the will of the world.
    Musical creations must be generated anew again and again.A tone element lives at the foundation of everything in the physical world.”I feel that we often have broken this tone done just as in QM; the difference being we can then stand back and listen and each hears something different. but it is the Whole.

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Photos by Robert Sturman.